Steve Walken, President of AirWalken, Inc., has perfected two new products that he believes will revolutionize how people will learn to load, unload, and drive a truck camper. If he’s right, every truck camper dealership will soon offer an AirWalken Practice Camper and Loading Buddy.
For three generations, the Walken family has been in the party supply business. Starting with party tent rentals in the 1950s, Walken Supply (as they were known then) quickly grew to become the number one party supply company in Atlanta.
When Steve Walken, son of the founder, took over the business in 1972, he longed for a way to grow the business beyond the Atlanta region. Looking into expansion and franchising, he discovered other family owned party supply businesses had already taken hold in major markets across the United States, just as Walken Supply had. Not eager to challenge another family business like his own, he resolved to look for other opportunities.
In 1976, Steve came across a newspaper ad for something called an inflatable castle. Space Walk, a Louisiana company, had invented a temporary inflatable castle that was rented out for children’s parties and school fairs. Steve immediately contacted Space Walk and arranged to purchase an inflatable castle for Walken Supply.
That first inflatable bounce was so successful that Steve ordered three more, then six more, then a dozen. Before the end of the decade, the inflatable rental business was neck-and-neck with Walken’s party supply business. Seeing the growth opportunity, Steve changed the company name to AirWalken in 1980, and went all-in with inflatable rentals.
Fast forward to 2016.
AirWalken is in five states, manufactures its own inflatables, and has grown to $60M in annual sales. At the age of 69, Steve was finally ready to sell the company to his son, retire, and do something many of us can relate to; buy a truck camper rig and hit the road.
What happened next could very well alter the course of the truck camper industry forever. Get ready for two new products that every truck camper newbie will want access to, the AirWalken Practice Camper and Loading Buddy.
To get the full story behind these new products, we talked to Steve Walken, President of AirWalken Incorporated.
Above: Steve’s initial computer rendering of the AirWalken Loading Buddy
TCM: When you first approached us with this idea, we couldn’t decide if it was the most ridiculous or most brilliant idea we had ever heard. First, tell us about your new product, and why it’s something folks should take seriously.
Steve: I can understand that first impression. The product is probably best explained with the story of where it came from.
When I first brought our truck camper home, I suddenly realized that I hadn’t measured the exact height of our rig. Before driving the truck and camper into our barn, I wanted to make sure the camper would clear not only the 12-foot entry door, but also the beams inside. As I climbed the rear ladder to make the measurements, I had an epiphany.
If the camper was an inflatable, I could just drive it in and see if it hit anywhere. I wouldn’t be worried about damaging the barn or the inflatable camper as neither would likely be damaged upon contact. Of course I was laughing about the idea before I reached the camper’s roof, but the concept kept resurfacing.
About a week later I was talking to my wife about learning to drive our new rig. I’m no spring chicken any more and I don’t want my wife to be stranded if I twist an ankle on a trail.
“I think you should learn how to drive the rig,” I suggested. “After all, I could fall off a cliff on Route 1, or get dragged off by bears in Yellowstone.”
Her immediate answer was, “No way I’m driving that thing!”
It would have been nice if she reacted to the thought of my demise, but that might be a relief after thirty plus years of marriage. Joking aside, she was worried about hitting something with our brand new truck and camper, a concern I could relate to. That’s when I sprung my idea on her.
“What if the truck camper was an inflatable? You could drive around with it and not worry about hurting the camper, or anything else. Would you try that?”
She looked at me with a funny look for a second and said, “Yeah, I would do that. An inflatable practice camper. I’d drive that around.”
That was it. By 6:30am the next morning I was designing an inflatable practice camper on my laptop. I measured our truck camper and duplicated its dimensions. With years of CAD design experience, and decades of inflatable manufacturing, the initial model was completed later that afternoon. Then I called my son at AirWalken.
TCM: What was his reaction?
Steve: We are a custom inflatable shop that’s done all kinds of work, so he just saw it as another custom order. We once built a custom 100-foot inflatable banana for ChiquitaCon. Chiquita ordered it for the event, and later tried to return it as defective. We eventually got paid, but Chiquita never took their banana back. I sometimes inflate it on our lawn for Halloween.
Above: AirWalken exterior leg stitching on the Practice Camper
TCM: That would be impressive. How did things proceed from there?
Steve: With my CAD drawings, the sewing department had the first inflatable Practice Camper done in about a week. It’s a very simple product to build. The only real challenge was reinforcing the tie-down points to accept real turnbuckles.
TCM: You’re using real truck camper turnbuckles with an inflatable camper?
Steve: Of course. That’s another benefit of the Practice Camper. It allows owners to learn and experience installing and using real truck camper turnbuckles. You could also attach the camper with ratchet straps.
Above: The Practice Camper sidewall structure is reinforced to withstand potential impacts from driving and parking practice
TCM: How does the person who is using the Practice Camper know if they’ve hit something? With the product being an inflatable, you might not feel the collision in the truck.
Steve: Good question. I had initially wanted to install a set of wireless sensors on the Practice Camper that would indicate that a collision or near collision had occurred. Unfortunately, the cost of the sensors was prohibitive.
To accomplish a similar function, I installed a series of rubber flaps around the Practice Camper’s exterior that essentially act like whoopee cushions. If the Practice Camper comes into contact with an object, it literally toots as some of the air escapes through the flaps.
When I pulled into my barn with the Practice Camper, I was too far to the driver’s side and heard a real pants flapper when I hit a barn beam. My wife, sitting in the passenger’s seat, didn’t yet know about the whoopee system and nearly ran out of the truck thinking I was about to blow. I laughed so hard I cried. She’s still mad at me for that.
TCM: That’s a very clever low-tech solution, but can you hear the wind break from inside the truck?
Steve: Unless you have the stereo turned way up, or have a 12-valve Cummins diesel, I can’t imagine you wouldn’t hear this. Remember, the flaps on the Practice Camper are containing a lot more air and air pressure than a whoopee cushion. We’re talking the difference between a blow whistle and a semi horn. When you hit something with the Practice Camper, folks two blocks away will blame the dog.
I’ve actually had a lot of fun with this feature. Since my truck has a sunroof, I rigged a rope that drops into the truck’s cab from the Practice Camper. With a quick tug, I can cut a little cheese at a stoplight and send anyone nearby into stitches. With a grab and pull, I could probably evacuate a small town.
TCM: That could be useful. How did you come up with the idea for the Loading Buddy?
Steve: That’s another story. After picking up the Practice Camper at the shop, I drove it home. My wife took one look at what I had done, smiled, and climbed in the driver’s seat. She drove that truck and inflatable camper around for over an hour.
“This is no big deal,” she said. I cautioned her that the real truck camper would add a lot of weight and change the vehicle driving dynamics, but she was already in the zone.
“I can handle this. I was mostly worried about driving something so big,” she explained.
Mission accomplished, I revealed my next idea.
“Honey, I think you need to learn to load and unload the camper.”
“No way!” she exclaimed. “Loading this thing is your responsibility. Not a chance.”
We drove in silence for a few minutes before she pulled over, pushed the truck into park, and turned to me with that familiar, “What are you up to this time?” look.
Above: An AirWalken 2.0 HP Jack Blower
TCM: I get that, too! Maybe it’s a guy thing.
Steve: Probably. Anyway, I told her about my Loading Buddy idea and, once again, she loved it. Two weeks later, we were back at the plant to see the first iteration of what would become the Loading Buddy product.
The Loading Buddy shared the same design as the Practice Camper, but had two additional side supports that simulated the form and function of camper jacks. The two side supports have their own blowers and can be raised and lowered independently using a standard camper jack remote.
Above: Steve’s conceptual rendering of the Loading Buddy profile. Note the adjustable jack bladder to simulate the form and function of camper jacks
TCM: That’s really cool. How did you key the two leg blowers to be triggered using the standard camper jack remote?
Steve: We worked with a camper jack manufacturer and they released their wireless codes to us. When you hit the remote, you either increase inflation pressure to go up, or release air pressure to go down. That took some engineering, but it works beautifully.
When my wife saw the Loading Buddy, she jumped right into the truck and started backing up towards the inflatable. Within seconds she hit the Loading Buddy at an angle. As the product was designed, the Loading Buddy out gassed, but nothing was damaged, and she simply pulled forward and tried again.
Seeing the determined look on her face, I went into the plant for coffee. By the time I came back out, she had successfully backed the camper under the Loading Buddy. About ten minutes later, she had pulled forward, driven around the lot, returned, and started towards the Loading Buddy again. She hit the Loading Buddy a couple more times, and then nailed it. This went on for the better part of the morning.
TCM: How is she now at loading and unloading?
Steve: Better than me. It’s honestly annoying. With the Loading Buddy she learned where to look during the loading process and gained confidence to load and unload our real truck camper. Now all I do is stand back and she loads the camper. She won’t let me do it anymore. It’s her thing now.
TCM: I bet a lot of truck camping newbies would be excited to try the Loading Buddy before attempting to load a real truck camper.
Steve: I agree. The problem is that most dealers have forgotten how anxious newbies can be about loading and unloading. They load and unload campers everyday, so it becomes second nature.
Having recently gone through the loading learning experience as a newbie myself, I believe people would drive many hours to try the Loading Buddy at a dealership. I would have.
TCM: 12 years ago, when we were total newbies, we would have been very interested, too. What a great product to have at every truck camper dealership. Are you moving forward with both the Practice Camper and the Loading Buddy?
Steve: Well, yes and no. Both products are designed and ready for production, but we’re waiting for truck camper dealers to place orders before building a run. All AirWalken inflatable products are built to order, and the Practice Camper and Loading Buddy will be no different.
Furthermore, the inflatable industry is really hopping right now and we are backlogged with orders for moon bounces and castles. As such, we’re only going to do one run of the Practice Camper and Loading Buddy. Unless demand is strong, this will be an extremely limited opportunity.
TCM: And what will the Practice Camper and Loading Buddy cost?
Steve: The Practice Camper will be $795. With two additional blowers and inflatable sections, the Loading Buddy will be $1,495.
TCM: What’s the deadline for the limited run?
Steve: April 1st, 2017. April Fools Day!