Editor’s note: This story was written by Shannon Brooks for the Santa Barbara Independent.
One of the most interesting independent brands to emerge in the domestic hospitality industry over the last decade started right here in Santa Barbara, Calif., as a “happy accident.” AutoCamp’s founder and CEO Neil Dipaola said that when they purchased a small urban RV park on De la Vina Street back in 2012, they were hoping to “create a new paradigm for affordable housing.”
While the experiment did not achieve that specific goal, it was a smashing success in other ways and started the company on an exciting, unexpected path. Today, AutoCamp has grown into a thriving boutique chain of outdoor lodging properties with a growing national footprint.
When I spoke to Dipaola recently to learn more about what is on the horizon for the company, the conversation started with its local origin story. It was just around the time that the tiny-home trend was taking off. Dipaola and his partners thought that, if done well, renovated mobile homes could appeal to young professionals and provide a solution to the community’s affordable housing shortage. After purchasing the De la Vina property, they hired a local architect, Matthew Hofmann, to renovate Airstream trailers that would occupy the vacant spots. While intended to be for long-term renters, locals walking by got curious and asked to book stays for their visiting relatives and friends.
“Being the entrepreneurs we were, we said ‘sure,’” Dipaola recalled. “We had other folks walk by who wanted to staycation because they’d always wanted to see what the inside of an Airstream looked like.”
Buzz grew quickly and organically. It was the early days of Airbnb and many Americans were discovering the joys of vacation rentals for the first time.
“Our six Airstreams on De la Vina got really popular, and we set up a website,” Dipaola said. “Before we knew it, we were taking interviews with the L.A. Times and Sunset Magazine, and got all this press about our little miniature airstream hotel on De la Vina.”
One day he got a call from the CEO of Airstream, who was keen to work with them, saying they had not gotten that much press in 50 years.
“Fast-forward a few years, and Airstream is a partner and investor in the company,” Dipaola said.
AutoCamp is Airstream’s exclusive lodging and hotel partner and they have worked very closely together to refine the AutoCamp guest experience.
“We’ve really created the ultimate hotel module Airstream,” Dipaola said of their custom manufacturing arrangement. “We call it the Airstream Signature Suite. It’s really anything and everything you could want in a hotel room — it looks more like a room in the St. Regis hotel than it does any type of RV you’ve probably seen.”
In late spring, I experienced the luxury of a Premium Airstream Suite firsthand at AutoCamp Yosemite. From the comfortable queen bed, earthy Ursa Major bath products, and spacious rain shower with treetop views to the well-stocked kitchenette and private patio with a fire pit, it was glamping at its finest.