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Chad Carlson, owner of Woodland Travel Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan attempts to be a one stop shop for customers with only selling that of quality.

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Grand Rapids RV Dealer Plans To Delve Into Millennial Market & Online Video

Woodland Travel Center Specializes In Selling Airstream Travel Trailers Verging On A Likely Trend 

Woodland employee pauses for a photo while working on trailer [Photo All Rights Reserved: Woodland Travel Center]

Good business comes from a lot of forward thinking and a little bit of luck. Woodland Travel Center opened in 1966 in Grand Rapids, Michigan and continues to be a premier Airstream, Midwest Automotive Designs, and SylvanSport dealer founded on the goal of “never trying to the biggest but to be the best.” The little bit of luck came when Dave Carlson, founder of Woodland Travel Center, recognized the aluminum travel trailer trend. “My Dad saw the trend and contacted Avion about selling the trailers at the dealership,” recalls Chad Carlson, son of the founder. Avion told Dave that the dealership was too small. It turned out to be a good twist of fate. “Our family was involved with Airstream long before we started selling them,” Carlson says, “my grandfather helped invent the Atwood water heater, which is used in Airstreams.”

The interesting thing about being an Airstream dealership is that it is essentially a specialty product. “If other manufacturers are making 26,000 trailers a year, Airstream is making more like 2,600 for sale,” Carlson explains, “They are more of a handmade product.” He explains that Airstream’s factory in Jackson Center, Ohio, their transition into modern manufacturing is a slow process and, as such, the dealers need to know the ins and outs of the trailer. “The dealer structure is to make sure the hands that built it did it right and, if there is something not right, the dealer fixes it,” explains Carlson.

As a company that sells high-end travel trailer products for so long, they have a pretty good idea on how to approach customers. “We spend time with customers, listen to what they want to accomplish, and then help them see the right trailer for their needs,” Carlson explains, “In our minds, we want them to be satisfied as they are the best salesman.” A lot of customers that come in nowadays are baby boomers and Carlson has some interesting observations about the process. “57% of baby boomers have never camped, so they come in and they look at what is the best on the market,” he explains. The boomers have a desire to go out and explore but don’t know what that looks like.

SlyvanSport trailer hooked to van at Woodland [Photo All Rights Reserved: Woodland Travel Center]
Shiny Airstream travel trailer for display at the dealership [Photo All Rights Reserved: Woodland Travel Center]

Woodland Travel Center sees this pattern and they try to be a one stop shop for their customer. “All the products we carry are expensive because they are highly recognized for quality,” Carlson says, “And we hope to cater to our customers down to what shoe they have on.” The trend with Airstreams in particular is that the trailers are being used well outside the campground. “Our customers have found that as soon as you enter a campground in an Airstream you are instantly the popular kid in the park,” he says. So people are using them a lot outside the campground - like a guest room, or backdrop, or at weddings, or anything. Carlson says the number one seller at Woodland is the 25’ Airstream. “I think people are getting more minimalistic,” Chad claims. The 25’ complements short term and long term travel in this way.

Airstream has changed the market some with their new Basecamp trailer - a light, rugged, camper that is built for adventure. It attracts a new customer, one that is interested in the more adventure aspect of camping. It is Carlson’s job to help educate and give the customer information to make a decision. “People get a little education online and they come in and often recognize that is better to have someone that has experience with the product talk about it,” Carlson says. Sometimes they have people come in ready to spend $40,000 on a Basecamp and end up spending $10,000 on a Sylvansport instead because it fits their needs better. Carlson says this is part of the experience of being in a successful dealership for so long. “For example, when I’m going to buy a car, I research the dealers,” he says, “I want to know the dealership is going to take care of me and help me make a decision.”

Workers buff the aluminum exterior of the famous Airstream trailer [Photo All Rights Reserved: Woodland Travel Center]
Founder of Woodland Travel Center, Dave Carlson (second from right) [Photo All Rights Reserved: Woodland Travel Center]
Midwest Automotive Designs transforms these Mercedes-Benz sprinter vans into an entirely new level of craftsmanship [Photo All Rights Reserved: Woodland Travel Center]

Carlson says he wants to expand into the millennial market. He notes that from his observation they are very savvy and have trust issues, saying: “But I think they will bring the handshake back in business.” He notices that a lot of millennials help their baby boomer parents make decisions about what to buy and how to understand the modern world. “A lot of baby boomers used technology purely for their jobs and it is neat to see their kids teach them how to really utilize the technology with social media, video tutorials, and things like that,” Carlson says. He thinks there is reciprocity in this relationship - the baby boomers inspire millennials to do more than they did. “There is a new light in RVing,” Carlson observes, “Before it was a retreat from the rat race of life and, now, there is a movement to bring life and work together where people work via satellite and things like that.”

The concrete ways they are attracting new business is to beef up their online presence. “We try to make our online parts store accessible with high quality pictures that show everything,” Carlson says. They hope to start making video tutorials on how to install parts. Millennials are more independent thinkers than baby boomers so they want to do more hands on work.  “If we give them tools via technology, we think they’ll feel very solid to do it themselves,” Carlson describes.

As a family business, Woodland Travel Center hopes to support families and give their customers tools to accomplish that. “I think as we move into the millennial generation, the big superstores, with 50 different manufacturers, are going to fade out and specialty shops will succeed,” Carlson says. Woodland is dialing back the buying process by figuring out where you are going, who you are going with and for how long, so they can guide you to a product that can be used for a lifetime.


Andrew Malo

A graduate of Northeastern Illinois University in Education, Andrew has taught for the past decade in Chicago, New Mexico, and Japan.  He  enjoys tinkering with trucks and motorcycles, woodworking, reading and computer programming.  

Allendale / West Grand Rapids KOA

Make Sure To Stay At: 

Allendale/West Grand Rapids KOA,  conveniently located between Grand Rapids and Grand Haven nestled deep in the countryside of Western Michigan. RV sites are large enough to handle most big rigs and offer serenity and a peaceful place to vacation.

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