The State of Camping at KOA
By Linda Stalvey
“Camping” means different things to different people. To those trekking the Appalachian Trail, it means backpacks and periodic town stops to pick up supplies and mail. To others, it means putting the tent and family in the car and heading for a weekend destination. To children’s camps, it means coupling tradition, education and faith with traditional outdoor experiences. Then there are those who head to the garage or barn, insert the key and drive off in their recreational vehicle--some for the weekend, others for a week or two, and some for the rest of their lives.
This last group is growing rapidly. Recreational vehicle (RV) ownership hit 7.9 million U.S. households in 2005, an increase of three million over the 2001 figures. These numbers are expected to rise despite gasoline prices. The highest RV ownership rates are among those ages 55-64 … and tucked into that age span are the Baby Boomers who are starting, in 2007, to turn 60. It doesn’t take much imagination to see that serving the needs of RV owners (and Baby Boomers) is critical to the survival of the public and commercial campgrounds--and may offer opportunities for the booming family camp phenomenon we’re seeing in the children’s camp world.
As the Boomers retire, many plan to spend time, or more time, camping. As Willie Nelson sings, you will find Boomers “on the road again,” sans the trappings of business attire and attaché cases. Many of them will be towing along grandkids and/or pets of various species--especially dogs.
Great People, Great Service
As an industry leader, Kampgrounds of America (KOA) CEO Jim Rogers thinks his organization has a good handle on what is needed to successfully serve this rapidly growing demographic. One clue to the heart of his belief is on the nametag he wore at a recent meeting in the company’s Billings, Mont., headquarters—“Jim Rogers, CEO, Rver” (more about this later).
The second clue is his belief that KOA has to “invest a lot in people.”
Rogers defines this as good training programs, solid research and statistics and state-of-the-art technology for those people to use. Then he listens to his customers and adjusts the mix accordingly. The results: campgrounds that offer consistency, value for the buck, increased camper satisfaction and a 3-percent increase in same-campground nights in 2006.
“We’re not satisfied with good, we’re looking for GREAT,” he states emphatically.
Each KOA Kampground features hot showers, laundry facilities, RV and tent sites, clean restrooms, convenience stores and friendly service. Most campgrounds offer much more, such as Kamping Kabins, Kamping Lodges, Kamping Kottages, Internet access and Wi-Fi, swimming pools, pull-through RV sites with 50-amp service and deluxe RV patio sites.
Training, Training, Training
Of the nearly 450 KOA Kampgrounds, only 25 are company-owned, which begs the question, How does KOA achieve consistently friendly and courteous service?
The simple answer is training, training, training.
KOA offers new owners/managers KOA University, seven to eight days of training in technology, merchandising and marketing at the company headquarters. To ensure they’re following industry “Best Practices,” several segments of the KOA-U have been reviewed and approved by The National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC) for Certified Park Operator credits. Rogers is currently working with ARVC to achieve certification in other training opportunities, such as convention workshops.
The company also created The Twenty Group concept, which gathers 15 to 20 campgrounds in a defined region to exchange ideas, experiences and expertise, all in the name of improved customer service. Twice a year these groups meet specifically to discuss profitability ideas, management practices and cost-saving suggestions.
Additional programs are also available to help owner/managers train staff in guest services.
Research And Statistics
The latest KOA survey, the 2006 Spirit of Camping Survey, was conducted on-line on KOA.com during a two-week period in November 2006. The information garnered from this tool provides vast insight to the type of camper, social activities pursued while camping, use of campfires and favorite fireside activities, what campers eat and drink, and what type of purchases are made in the campground store, among other considerations.
Here are some of the interesting things they learned:
• 43 percent of campers use a motor home; 38 percent use a fifth-wheel/trailer
• 44 percent of campers enjoy meeting other campers
• 79 percent play card games
• 71 percent enjoy walking but only 2 percent play croquet
• 85 percent usually have a campfire; 60 percent make s’mores at that fire
• 80 percent of campers eat hamburgers on camping trips
• 79 percent drink bottled water or coffee
• 54 percent of campers take their pets with them on trips
KOA also published Kamping Trends 2006, a compilation of information from the 2005 KOA Kamper Satisfaction Survey, 2005 University of Michigan Study and the National 2005 ARVC Study, “The American Camper: Profiles & Perspectives.”
“We have spent millions over the last few years in monitoring and developing resource information,” says Rogers. “Additionally, every one of our campgrounds receives a yearly nine-page progress report.”
Armed with this type of information, management decisions are a bit easier.
Perhaps the crown jewel in KOA is technology advances in the real-time reservation system, which is similar to hotel reservations. The reservation is reserved down to the RV pad or Lodge room number. This proprietary system was developed by in-house staff and is unique to the business.
“We’re it,” says Rogers. “If we don’t make it ourselves it’s not available elsewhere. It took us 12 years to develop this system!”
For 2008/2009 he has a strategic initiative to segment the campgrounds into defined categories. For instance, if a camper is looking for a campground with pull-through RV pads and a dog park, he or she need merely query the system and those campgrounds will appear.
Great camping certainly requires great facilities and activities. To ensure the success of programs for franchisees, KOA uses the “Greenhouse Program,” in which projects, merchandise and management programs are pre-tested in the 25 company-owned campgrounds prior to release.
Some recent graduates of the Greenhouse Program include such new ideas as jumping pillows and outdoor cinema. If you’ve not seen a jumping pillow, think of a very large moon bounce without walls. The Big Timber (Montana) KOA offers a 68- by 34-foot jumping pillow for the whole family--not just the kids. Inflatable screens make wonderful outdoor movie theaters in other KOA campgrounds.
For the 54 percent of campers who travel with their dogs, several KOAs offer dog parks, and some not just the generic fenced-off area. Belvidere East (South Dakota) KOA includes an agility course with tunnels and tire jumps in its 40- by 60-foot enclosed dog park.
The trend toward spraygrounds and water playgrounds has not escaped the campground. A wide variety of themed water features are sprinkled throughout the KOA system.
Kampertainment, tested in 2006, will be rolled out to the entire KOA system in 2007. Campgrounds will be able to offer various types of traveling entertainment to campers.
In 2008, KOA will be the first and only company in the industry to offer a camper rewards program. Prior to implementation, however, the technology infrastructure needs to be developed, the Value Kard will be redesigned, and, most importantly, an education program will be implemented so owners/managers will understand how the program works, and be able to explain and sell it to campers. Training programs, research and technology--the recipe for success!
To make it all work, Jim Rogers, CEO Rver, will be donning his signature KOA yellow shirt and hitting the road in his own RV this spring to visit KOA campgrounds across the country, talk with campers, and consult with RV manufacturers.
“We are the cutting edge of campground management,” says the CEO RVer.
And he intends to stay there.
Linda Stalvey is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Parks & Rec Business, who gave up Washington, D.C., public relations to indulge her passion for parks, the environment and outdoor activities in Medina, Ohio. You can reach her via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.