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SylvanSport's Mobile Adventure Gear


The startup's new creation is the Go. But don't call it a camper or trailer. It's sort of a Swiss Army knife of vehicles

Tom Dempsey, the 44-year-old founder of SylvanSport, a startup in Cedar Mountain, N.C., describes its flagship product, the Go, as "mobile adventure gear." The Go—winner of a Gold IDEA this year—certainly includes a lot of functions. The lightweight vehicle/camper/trailer has the silhouette of a turtle's shell or an igloo. It can serve as a wheeled tent that sleeps two, or it can be converted to haul nearly its own weight in equipment, such as mountain bikes and kayaks. It has numerous other functions and configurations, and it folds neatly for storage, like a Swiss Army knife.

An industrial designer who kayaks and bikes himself, Dempsey wanted a more comfortable, versatile alternative to all the equipment customary for a sojourn outdoors: a tent, roof racks for bikes, trailers for kayaks. And with eco-chic on the rise, Dempsey wanted something more fuel efficient than a clunky SUV to carry all his camping apparatus. He dreamed of one piece of "gear" that could serve all of these purposes, without looking like an outdated trailer or camper.

So Dempsey, who previously ran his own kayak company, founded SylvanSport in 2004, primarily to develop the Go. He conducted focus groups in U.S. regions known for outdoorsy cultures, to see if sporty types shared his desire for a multifunction trailer. He also interviewed RV dealers and outdoor specialty retailers to see if they thought such a product might sell. The results backed his hunch that a market existed. So Dempsey and his design team—fellow industrial designer Kyle Mundt and engineer Tom Reeder—then modeled the Go.

Talking in Gear

Aesthetics were ultimately as important as the engineering. The aluminum tubes that Go owners insert in slim, seamed pockets when assembling the skeleton of the tent were designed to resemble bike wheel spokes. The Go's fenders are made from the polyethylene plastics often used in kayaks. "We wanted everything to speak the language of gear, to really get the product semantics," says Dempsey.

The Go, which made its debut last spring, is now available through 20 independent dealers in the U.S. At $7,995, the price tag isn't cheap. But it falls close to the midrange of traditional pop-up campers—the boxy kind designed basically just for sleeping—which currently cost $4,000 to $13,000, according to the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association. Still, the RVIA says the overall American market for RVs is declining, due to less consumer spending in the shadow of an ever-impending recession. Total RV shipments declined 9.5% in 2007, and in the first quarter of 2008, shipments were down 11.8% from a year earlier. Dempsey's hope is that consumers will see the Go as a multi-use product that might allow them to avoid buying an RV.

Dempsey's vision appealed to the judges of this year's IDEA. "The designers thought through many uses and tuned this trailer to adapt elegantly to seemingly endless outdoor needs," commented Alistair Hamilton, the creative director of Microsoft's mobile business division and the chairman of this year's awards. Never mind that Hamilton calls it a "trailer."

It's too soon to gauge the target market's verdict. But with gas prices high, SylvanSport could have a timely product for people looking to ditch their SUVs and RVs or forgo expensive hotels and airfares in search of affordable family vacations.

Return to The Best Product Design of 2008 Table of Contents

Jana is the Innovation Dept. editor for BusinessWeek.

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