By Michelle St. Onge
They are unmistakable icons of a favorite American pastime. One glimpse of the shiny silver shell of an Airstream trailer traveling down the highways in summer time almost immediately conjures up memories of family camping and American nostalgia.
Airstream trailers have been in production since 1931, according to Steven Clement, president of GSM by Nomad in Plattsburgh. “Today Airstream is part of Thor Industries, which is the largest trailer company in the world,” explained Clement. While new Airstream trailers are still coming off the line, many enthusiasts covet the older models with an eye to restoring them to their original condition. Company co-owner and CEO Guillaume Langevin described the increase in popularity of these older Airstream trailers in recent years. “There is a retro-vibe going on right now. Things from the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s have become more mainstream.”
Clement and Langevin became business partners after meeting in Montreal where they both lived and worked. Clement had a lifelong passion for Airstream trailers and dreamed of someday owning one. He came up with a business idea to buy the trailers, convert them to lounges and rent them out for corporate events in the Montreal area. While he considered the idea, he happened upon Langevin at a social gathering. The two men hit it off and began to explore the business idea seriously. Langevin recalled, “I was an account executive at the time and I was chained to the phone in my office. I knew I needed to get out and do something different. After we talked a bit, I told him (Clement) I was all in.”
Clement and Langevin started their first Montreal-based company called Nomad Mobile Space in 2009. Their list of high profile rental clients has included big players like the Mayor of Montreal’s foundation, the Barefoot Wine Company, the rock band Supertramp, and a near-connection foiled only by logistics with celebrity Elton John.
Their first order of business was to find, purchase and renovate a small fleet of the Airstream trailers. It turned out that there were only five companies in North America who offer restoration and renovation of the trailers. “The company was called GSM Vehicles, right here in Plattsburgh,” recalled Clement.
At the time GSM was owned by businessman Morley Smith. Throughout several months of using the quality services provided by GSM, Clement began to see a possible business opportunity that would take his passion for restoring Airstream trailers even further.
In March of 2011, Smith accepted Clement and Langevin’s offer to purchase the company and GSM by Nomad became the two entrepreneurs’ second business. “At the time our plan was to live in Montreal and run this business from there, but it took off so fast that we had to change that plan,” explained Clement. He credits the company’s initial success to offering personalized customer service and treating their customers like family. “We really get to know our customers. Almost all of them become our friends,” he added.
Not Your Average Trailer
When Clement and Langevin began the renovation of their first Airstream trailer, they were surprised at how quickly the costs added up. “We started with $100,000 and thought we could get four Airstreams going,” said Clement with a laugh. “We’ve put $103,000 into the first one already and it is functional but not complete.”
The reason for the high costs is twofold. First, the unique rounded shape of the trailer shell requires customization of almost every piece of furniture, appliance and hardware that goes into it. Second, is a new trend known as “glamping,” which refers to adding modern style and glamour to the traditional interior of the trailers. Extras such as stainless steel appliances, flat screen T.V.’s, and full bathrooms complete with showers and porcelain toilets are all part of this new revival of Airstream campers.
Behind the walls and under the floors of the Airstreams lie typical home systems for plumbing, electricity, heating, and air conditioning. Each of these systems must also be customized in order to fit the aerodynamic shape of the trailer. A staff designer works to draw up a concept for each trailer, including the floor plan, furniture, and appliances. For commercial customers, this also includes incorporating corporate colors, finishes and overall feel of the space.
A total of 12 full time employees currently work at GSM by Nomad to make each customer’s vision for their Airstream a reality. In addition to the designer, there are sheet metal workers, cabinetry experts, plumbers, electricians, and paint and finishing specialists. “The final touch is cleaning and detailing, which is critically important,” explained Clement. GSM by Nomad plans to hire a sales and marketing team in the near future.
A new “Bambi” model Airstream trailer (at 16 feet it is the smallest model available) costs between $48K – $56K. On the high end, a 31 foot trailer averages about $85K. Clement also described a high-end luxury 22 ft. RV-style Airstream powered by a Mercedes-Benz engine with a $135K price tag. While Airstream trailers are more expensive than traditional travel trailers, customer satisfaction surveys show that they are superior. According to Langevin, only 1,500 of the trailers are built each year and over 70% of all Airstreams ever made are still on the road today.
Business Is Booming
Within a few months of assuming ownership of GSM, the partners had more business than they could handle at their original site on Florida Avenue in Plattsburgh. “The first week we opened up, we got a contract to do a food truck for a company in New York City. After one month we were overwhelmed with work and we knew we needed a bigger facility,” said Clement.
GSM by Nomad moved to its current location in June of last year. Their new 80,000 square foot warehouse is located on Willow Drive, just off I-87 exit 36. Although they had no time for marketing or advertising, the new company did more business during its first quarter than the former GSM did the entire previous year.
No Two Airstreams Are Alike
“Most major Airstream projects take between three to five months to complete, depending on the scope of the project,” explained Clement. On average, a complete commercial renovation costs a minimum of $100,000. “Each project is unique and we work very closely with our customers,” he added.
A walk through the shop at GSM by Nomad reveals Airstream trailers in all stages of renovation. Some are stripped down to their shells, revealing what more resembles the rivets and aluminum of an aircraft than a camping vehicle. Not surprisingly, many of the company’s manufacturing staff have previous experience in the aviation industry. According to Langevin, the techniques and materials used in constructing the silver shell of an Airstream trailer are strikingly similar to those used in building today’s aircraft bodies.
A Cult of Airstream Enthusiasts
Airstream enthusiasts have a culture of their own, complete with decades old owner clubs, special camp grounds, caravan camping trips across the country, and even a blue beret uniform.
Repairing and restoring trailers for individual owners is just the tip of the iceberg for GSM by Nomad. Approximately 80% of the company’s business is in commercial renovations. Mobile food vendors looking to differentiate themselves from everyone else at the fair or on the street are purchasing customized Airstream vehicles. GSM by Nomad has also completed mobile retail stores for companies like Vanity Fair, and a variety of complete diners for corporate customers.
America’s rich and famous have taken notice of Airstream trailers lately, making them the new “must-have” accessory to showcase their celebrity status. In 2009 the former GSM Vehicles completed a trailer project for actor Matthew McConaughey. Based on that project McConaughey referred his friends in the celebrity circuit to the company, bringing in more big business.
Clement and Langevin’s shop is currently working on a two vehicle project for Quick Silver and Roxy, two San Diego surfing companies. “One is an Airstream bus with a sky deck. The other is a shop on wheels in an Airstream trailer.
Future Plans for Growth
Today GSM by Nomad’s Plattsburgh location is more than half empty, but that will soon change. “We have signed on to become an Airstream dealer,” said Clement, who added that progress on this goal is dependent on current business slowing down enough to give the co-owners breathing room and time to develop a new side of their business. “We will be the first Airstream dealer in the U.S. who can offer restoration, repairs, and customization as well as new and used trailers,” he emphasized.
With only a handful of competitors in North America, it is no surprise that GSM by Nomad has attracted customers from all over the U.S. as well as international customers from as far away as Moscow and Singapore.
Clearly the company—soon to be renamed Nomad Airstream Center—is on to something. The owners were recently contacted by well-known reality television show producers inquiring about their interest in being the subject of a new show about their Airstream restoration and renovation business. “We’ve signed a contract to start work on a show that will be called ‘Silver Dreams’ based on our Airstreams,” relayed an excited Clement. While filming for the pilot show has already started, further details are confidential while the producers seek to sell their show to a network. (It’s this author’s guess that the show will be an Airstream version of an existing reality show called “American Choppers” which profiles the fabrication and assembly of high-end custom motorcycles from start to finish.) Exciting work being done right here in the North Country.