‘Resortainment’ infects camping, too

To the extent that the RV park industry increasingly draws inspiration from its hotel-and-resort big brothers and sisters–which is to say, a great deal–looking at the latter can give campers and RVers a sense of what lies ahead for them. Judging by recent developments, alas, that means more glitz, higher prices and less of anything that resembles “nature.”

One signpost to the future is provided by an article this past week in The Wall Street Journal, headlined “Hotel Owners Embrace ‘Resortainment’ to Boost Business,” detailing the latest efforts to “persuade guests to stay longer and spend more.” That means, among other things, hotels adding the kinds of distractions that some campgrounds already have installed–ziplines, waterslides, minigolf, playgrounds–and some that may be next in the campground pipeline, from 4D-theaters with moving seats to virtual-reality games. More amenities mean higher rates, of course, but as explained by Bjorn Hanson, an adjunct NYU professor, “What was learned during Covid was that most of these leisure travelers are not as price-sensitive as assumed.”

All this comes in the wake of private campgrounds transforming themselves from having an emphasis on reconnecting with nature to having an emphasis on being a family “activity,” an evolution decades in the making. While inoffensive and even commendable in its purpose (who’s going to argue that families spending time together is a bad thing?), the shift opened the door to marketing and packaging of “experiences” that reached its apotheosis with the Jellystone campgrounds, which explicitly sell themselves as kid-centric amusement parks. Camping at a Jellystone is incidental to photo ops with Yogi Bear and buying Yogi-themed souvenirs, and building a campground is a helluva lot cheaper than building a Wolf Lodge, its closest hotel analogue.

Nor is Jellystone an outlier. The hotel-and-resort-ification of the campground industry can be traced directly to the influence of its most recognizable name, KOA, which fell under the sway of a former hotel and casino operator when Jim Rogers became its chief executive in 2000. As Rogers later told Forbes magazine, “the casino industry is so cutting edge and the camping industry is so ‘back of the woods’ ” that his work was cut out for him, starting with a big push to add full-service cabins to every campground in the system. More hotel practices quickly followed, few having anything to do with camping other than to make it less, well, natural.

In the years since, KOA, Jellystone and ARVC, the industry’s trade group, have all heavily promoted hotel and resort industry practices, from computerized reservation systems to dynamic site pricing to the latest holy grail, “yield management.” By unbundling various products and services and pricing them separately, then “dynamically” adjusting each price in response to supply and demand, a business can squeeze out every last possible bit of revenue. Old timers may scorn that as “nickel-and-diming,” but as the Wall Street Journal reported, leisure travelers just aren’t all that price conscious.

In that respect, there’s yet another Wall Street Journal article–published today–that speaks directly to what’s happening. The headline pretty much sums it up, reporting on a company that the campground industry’s movers and shakers consistently cite as the paragon of hospitality: “Disney’s New Pricing Magic: More Profit From Fewer Park Visitors.” As the subhead further explains, Disney theme park attendance remains below pre-pandemic levels, but not to worry: the Magic Kingdom simply raised some prices and eliminated or started charging for services and features that used to be “free,” i.e. part of the overall package. And guess what? Record revenues and record operating income followed.

That kind of magic is sure to bedazzle the swarm of deep-pocketed investors circling the industry, and as they sweep up more and more of its larger campgrounds and RV parks, expect similar pricing dynamics. The time is rapidly coming when most middle-class families will figure out they’ll be better off, and less impoverished, by forsaking the razzle-dazzle and heading for the woods–where they can actually carve out some undistracted quality time together.

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‘Luxury and rustic camping’–really?

KOA is marking its 60th anniversary this summer, long enough to become the camping industry’s big dog. Over those six decades it has grown from a string of mom-and-pop campgrounds in the country’s northern tier into a web of 540 RV parks, campgrounds and glamping parks across the United States and Canada, 40 of which are company-owned and the rest owned by franchisees. KOA is big enough and has been around long enough, in other words, that when it speaks about the state of the industry, others lean in to listen.

All of which has made Toby O’Rourke, the company’s president and CEO, a much sought-after speaker within RVing circles. Sometimes she appears at events with a ream of statistics gleaned from KOA’s ongoing market research–statistics compiled in response to the questions KOA feels are important. Sometimes she simply talks about the industry’s future, telling reporters how she sees the industry evolving and how she envisions KOA responding. Because of her position, and because she’s smart and articulate, O’Rourke’s analysis and pronouncements carry extra heft. And because KOA is such a dominant presence in the industry, when it banks either left or right, the industry overall tends to do likewise.

There is a self-fulfilling quality to all of this, making it doubly important for anyone reading the industry to understand O’Rourke’s inherent biases and assumptions. It helps to know, for example, that O’Rourke’s initial position with KOA was as its digital marketing director–a position promoting the brand via the internet and other forms of digital communication. If the world can be divided into the concrete and the abstract, camping–at least as we have known it until now– can be filed in the “concrete” category; digital marketing falls squarely within the abstract world.

Maybe that’s why, in an interview with CEO Magazine this past December, O”Rourke could declare that she’s “very passionate about the intersection between luxury and rustic camping, and where we can go with that as a company.” The statement is dissonant on its face, as if someone were to say they were passionate about the beauty found in squalor–possible, perhaps, but only in the most abstract sense. If there is an intersection between luxury and rustic camping, it involves completely nullifying the meaning of “rustic.” It means pivoting away from the concrete world to a conceptual one.

Is that too abstract? How’s this for a concrete spin on things: a couple of months ago, speaking at an “RV Park Industry Power Breakfast” in Indiana, O’Rourke acknowledged there aren’t enough campsites to meet demand, but explained that it would be hugely expensive to do so–$17,000 to $18,000 per site to expand an existing campground, $45,000 to $55,000 per site when building a new park.

No one, apparently, questioned those numbers. No one, it seems, wondered why a new RV site was being priced at the same level as a new RV. No one asked O’Rourke what all that money would be buying, and if there wasn’t a “value menu” or “economy option” as an alternative to the blue-ribbon specials KOA has been funding. And those dollar amounts, let’s be clear, undoubtedly are what KOA–and Blue Water, and Northgate, and LSI and all the other industry behemoths–are spending, creating O’Rourke’s intersection between luxury and ersatz rustic: paved RV patios and path lighting, water parks and jacuzzis, glamping tents with en suite bathrooms. Under their influence, the whole industry is moving in the same direction.

Well, almost all. Every now and then a smaller voice emerges amid the cacophony, such as the announcement last week by the Newman family–Tom and Marilyn, as well as son Jayson and daughter-in-law Rachel–that they are building a 49-site RV park in La Prairie, Wisconsin. Scheduled to open next May, each site will have a picnic table, fire ring and 50-amp service, but drinking water will be available only from “scattered hydrants,” while black and grey water will have to be hauled to a dump station (although there will be “dry privies spaced out around the park”). For recreation, there are nature trails and shore fishing, not to mention bird watching and “beautiful views.”

Using O’Rourke’s figures, this would be a $2.45 million facility. With more emphasis on the “rustic” and less on the “luxury” end of the scale, I’m betting the Two Rivers RV Park and Campground will come in considerably under less than half that amount–perhaps as little as a fourth–but it will be an outlier. Dave Drum, KOA’s founder, would have found himself entirely at home in such a modest setting (check out this photo for an early KOA, with campers saddled up in front of a pickup camper; that’s rustic), but six decades later his company has moved the needle past anything he would have recognized.

It’s all part of what O’Rourke told CEO Magazine reflects her efforts at “bringing a lot of camping into the modern age.”

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KOA’s lesson about eggs and baskets

Did you try to make an online reservation by logging into koa.com between Wednesday morning and earlier today? If so, this is what you saw: “Sorry we missed you. We’re busy setting up camp. Figuring out those tent poles, stocking up the Deluxe Cabin fridge, or backing up an RV takes time even for us! We apologize for interrupting your travel planning. To make a reservation, please call the campground and they’ll have you on your way to happy camping in no time!”

All of which is to say that KOA’s website was down for more than 48 hours, with no public explanation and not much guidance as to when it would be back up. Home office teams were “diligently working behind the scenes” to fix whatever the problem might be, according to Diane Eichler, KOA’s vice president of marketing. Did that mean they were holding up tent poles in various configurations in hopes of getting a better signal? No clue.

Well, stuff happens. And eventually all those diligent worker bees figured things out and apparently got the system back on line. But if there’s one take-away from all this, it’s that every KOA franchisee that already has its own independent website should make sure it hangs on to it. While that may seem like an unnecessary duplication or expense, it’s an insurance policy that pays off–not only at times like these, but against the day when a franchisee decides that maybe being a KOA is no longer in its interest.

It’s far easier to have an established website than to create one from scratch on short notice. And as KOA has demonstrated in the past, it’s not above a vindictive response to apostate franchisees that leave its system, having claimed in responses to Google searches for such campgrounds that they are “permanently closed.” For a business that doesn’t have an alternative website of its own, that can amount to a near-death experience.

Meanwhile, KOA was looking out for its ducklings by posting their phone numbers on its landing page for the benefit of would-be reservation makers. No telling how that worked out, given that many campgrounds are struggling with abbreviated office hours and insufficient numbers of desk clerks because of the overall labor crunch, which has been felt especially acutely throughout the hospitality industry. But if you’ve been trying to make a reservation at a KOA and all you’ve been getting is a busy signal or taped response, good news! You can go back online, the way God intended camping reservations be made.

Lazy, hazy, crazy days indeed

Remember when Nat King Cole would croon about the “lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer”–almost 60 years ago? That refrain was a hymn to a particular experience that no longer exists, and perhaps never will again. These days the “crazy” would refer to an endless procession of hurricanes and tropical storms, while the “hazy” can only mean a sky filled with smoke from millions of acres of burning forest .

You might think such an apocalyptic scenario would be provoking a spirited discussion within an industry whose success is most closely tied to the environment. You’d be wrong. Even as campgrounds and RV parks are bursting at the seams with Covid refugees eager to get out into the world, those organizations most critically positioned to address the issues confronting them are completely silent about climate change, extreme weather and how the campground industry should be responding.

The National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds, for example, is the only nationwide representative of campground owners, yet the top post on a website largely devoid of anything topical is focused on the hot topic du jour, online reservation systems. Woodall’s Campground Magazine, probably the leading industry publication, dedicates issue after issue to one product line after another: park models in September, wi-fi systems in August, liability insurance in July, pet products in June. Kampgrounds of America, the largest campground franchise system in North America, is so beside itself over the record numbers of campers swarming its campgrounds that it can’t talk about anything else.

Take your pick: maybe that head-in-the-sand outlook is crazy, or maybe it’s just lazy. Either way, it’s ultimately suicidal.

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