By Junior Skepple – Reporter, Jacksonville Business Journal
Since the first Airstream travel trailer was handmade in the mid-20th century, the iconic silver aluminum trailer has been marketed to American families as a fun and sophisticated way to travel.
For a group of Jacksonville fathers, their Airstream travel trailer is the way they created lifelong bonds while enjoying music festivals and sporting events all across the country.
Dozens of trips later, the memories made with the Airstream trailer in tow are the inspiration behind one of Jacksonville's youngest sports and entertainment companies – Airstream Ventures.
Alan Verlander, the former Bolles School two-sport star and Jacksonville University athletic director, left his post at the Jaxsports Council last year to fulfill one of his lifelong goals, opening his own sports marketing, event management and sales company.
"From my days at Jacksonville University to now being able to do high level and highly exposed events, it has allowed me to have a nice career in the city that I grew up in and love, and it gives me a chance to give back," Verlander said.
Before helping build the Jaxsports Council or founding Airstream Ventures, a chance meeting with a group of three local businessmen and a technology professional changed Verlander's life and career.
“We all met through our oldest children; they were all going to elementary school together, and they said our dads need to meet because they are all sports and music fans, and we struck a friendship from day one,” Verlander said.
The group has been intact for almost a decade, and the 1970 Airstream trailer, which the group purchased six years ago, has become an indispensable part of the crew. “When we take the Airstream to events people always try to buy it from us,” Verlander said. “If we sold it we would make a lot of money, but no one wants to sell it.”
The only member of the group involved with Airstream Ventures is Verlander, but he says the legacy the friends will leave to their families with the Airstream is what he wants his company to embody.
“I wanted to create a company that creates a legacy for Jacksonville and does more than check the box of bringing events to town,” he said. “I want to make real change in the community.”
Airstream Ventures specializes in running the revenue-generating aspects of sports and entertainment events.
“There’s no better time than the present, and when I met with Rick [Catlett], I laid out my plan, and I think Airstream Ventures can help compliment what the sports council is doing,” Verlander said. “We are a bigger city now and in order to do these other events, you’ve got to be available.”
Although Verlander and his former employer will operate in the same industry, the two groups think both organizations complement each other. "Airstream will do more of the for-profit events and trying to maximize profits,” president and CEO of Gator Bowl Sports Rick Catlett said. “We are a nonprofit, so our job is to bring sporting events here and then partner with the City of Jacksonville to figure out how to pay for those events.”
Since 2014, Verlander has been a major part of building the Jaxsports Council, but he felt that leaving the sports council will ultimately help raise the sports profile of the Bold City.
“It was a perfect segue as we grow as a sports city, to help with the collegiate sports side of things,” Verlander said. “I want to go out and really help the city build and create, and he [Catlett] was supportive of that.”
There is no formal agreement between Airstream Ventures and the Jaxsports Council, but both entities are dedicated to making Jacksonville a hub for all types of sports and entertainment events.
There are hundreds of companies across the country in the sports and entertainment industry, but Airstream hopes to move the field a step forward.
“Our event planning, high school programs and partnership with a 501(c)3 like Walk Off Charities, puts us in a different category,” Verlander said. “We have something to offer both corporations and individuals, and I believe there is no one like us in Jacksonville.”
In just six months in operation, Airstream Ventures' client list includes Duval County Public Schools, Jax Beach Festivals, Party Shack and Spartan, a high-intensity obstacle course competition for adults that will attract an estimated 10,000 competitors to Jacksonville next month.
The Spartan team says Airstream Ventures' ability to dedicate time and resources in the community played a vital role in getting the race back to the First Coast.
“He's [Verlander] so passionate and involved with the community that when he made the move over to start Airstream Ventures it seemed like a perfect fit for us to continue to work on the relationship that we had to help bring Spartan to the next level in the Jacksonville community,” Spartan Senior Director of Business Development Cherie Bortnick said. “With us being an outside organization operating in a different location, we wouldn’t be able to integrate ourselves in the community without Airstream Ventures, to be honest.”
Airstream Ventures works with traditional sporting events, too.
Visitors to TIAA Bank Field this season may have noticed Party Shack Village in Lot P. Party Shack and Airstream Ventures work together on game days to active eight Party Shack units — portable event suites that can host up to 50 people. This season, with the help of Airstream Ventures, Party Shack says the party village averaged about 300 people per game and the company may expand to other NFL markets.
“We are finding out through Airstream Ventures that there are sponsors in the marketplace that have come to them and liked the concept of Party Shack Village, and sponsors are stepping up and asking if they can get involved with future hospitality opportunities,” Party Shack Managing Partner Joe Bowers said. “Airstream Ventures, on our mutual behalves, negotiates sponsorships and they deal directly with the food and beverage providers and market and sale tickets for the events.”
Music festival fans aren't left out of Airstream Ventures' push to positively impact Jacksonville's sports and entertainment scene. Jax Beach Festivals will welcome thousands of music lovers from all over the country to Jacksonville Beach starting this February. It is in the beginnings of a two-year agreement that will have Airstream Ventures act as the festival's exclusive representative in seeking and acquiring marketing partners.
“It’s taken a great load off of me because with running two insurance agencies and being a family man, I am pulled in a lot of directions,” Jax Beach Festivals Director of Sponsorship Marketing Sam Veal said. “This is beginning of a long and beautiful partnership; what began with hope and promise has grown into a beautiful fully developed relationship that has a strong foundation and has created multiple marketing partners for Jax Beach Festivals.”
Airstream Ventures makes money by increasing the bottom line of the events the company markets and operates, while collecting a portion of the profits. “With the events we help run and the business we are in, there is minimal risk,” Verlander said. “The overhead in our business, is our employees.”
With the early success of Airstream Ventures, Verlander says the company has no plans to operate outside of northeast Florida for now.
“We are in the position now here that we are turning down business because we want to make sure we can handle our cornerstone businesses,” Verlander said. “This is my home and this is where we are going to make this work; until we really get a foothold in Jacksonville, we are not going outside of the market.”
With the help of Airstream Ventures, Party Shack plans to grow their business, and Verlander's team is a big part of their plans. “We're in the process of signing a contract with them [Airstream Ventures] on five local concerts,” Bowers said. “We’re going to expand, and Alan Verlander is our first option when we expand to other teams; we are going to offer other teams the same package we offered the Jaguars.”
Verlander is being cautious to not stress his young company too early and is well aware of the economical dangers as his company looks to complete its first year in operation on a strong note.
“We are dependent a lot on corporate sponsorships and partnerships, and the threat out there is the economy tanks and companies squeeze on their expenditures,” Verlander said. “I think we grow the company by expanding the portfolio of events that we run or create and continue to grow the revenue in those events while minimizing risk.”
One client for Airstream Ventures thinks the company has a bright future in Florida.
"I think you are going to see a lot of great things from them in the years to come as they continue to develop what they are doing," Spartan's Bortnick said. "There’s a lot of passion behind what they do ... those are typically the organizations that really seem to excel in making their mark on a community."
With his eyes on improving the future of the First Coast, Verlander feels his company can give back to the city that he says has given him everything. “People have given me great chances in this life; a great education, sports and job opportunities,” he said. “It's wrong if I don’t give that back: people gave it back to me, and therefore it’s a duty that was instilled through my family and my faith.”