Time for KOA to step up in Montana

The deck on KOA’s new headquarters provides an unobstructed view of the smoke-filled skies to the north.

An early heatwave and an unusually dry spring in Alberta and eastern British Columbia have resulted in more than a hundred wildfires in the past week, incinerating more than a million acres amid predictions that firefighting efforts—made more difficult by the province’s extensive peat deposits—will drag on through the summer. Smoke from the conflagrations has been flowing south into the United States, prompting air quality alerts for all of Montana as well as parts of Idaho, Colorado and Arizona. Overwhelmed Canadian authorities already have requested additional manpower and firefighting equipment from the U.S., New Zealand, Mexico and South Africa.

These fires, in other words, are a big deal—but not big enough to deter Montana’s lawmakers from passing one of the most aggressive anti-climate laws in the nation. Even as their northern neighbors were being evacuated by the thousands, the legislative captains of the self-styled Treasure State rushed to protect their mineral wealth by prohibiting state regulators from considering greenhouse gas emissions and climate effects when assessing the environmental impact of large projects, such as coal mines and power plants. But when asked in floor debate if he believes that humans are causing climate change, bill sponsor Rep. Josh Kassmier replied, “I’m not a scientist, so I’m not going to answer that.”

That’s like the captain of the Titanic, asked if he thinks steel is stronger than ice, replying, “I’m not a metallurgist—whadd’ya say we put it to the test?”

Scientists, of course, are in all-but-universal agreement that human-generated pollution, as from coal mines and power plants, is gradually but fatefully increasing the earth’s temperature, contributing not just to the current conflagrations but to ever more extreme weather swings overall. A 2022 poll by Colorado College found that nearly 60% of Montanans agree and want meaningful action taken to address the climate change issue; of more than a thousand comments submitted in response to Kassmier’s bill, a whopping 95% opposed it. Indeed, Montana’s own 2015 climate assessment found that the state’s annual temperature had increased between 2 and 3 degrees Fahrenheit since 1950—with winter and spring temperatures rising upwards of 3.9 degrees.

All that, however, has not deterred Republican lawmakers (sorry, yes, this unfortunately has become a partisan issue) from pushing back against any perceived threat to Montana’s prodigious oil, coal and gas industries. The eastern end of the state is underlain by part of the Bakken formation, a massive oil and gas field; its mountains contain the largest recoverable coal reserves in the nation, and half of the state’s electricity is generated by coal-fired plants. Big Sky Country may have to rebrand itself as the Land of Tiny Particulates, but at least its fossil fuel interests can continue to prosper without undue interference.

That much is understandable, if deplorable. What’s not understandable is the continued silence from the state’s many recreation companies that proudly proclaim their devotion to all things outdoorsy—and they’re a huge chunk of the landscape. Indeed, Montana likes to boast that its outdoor recreation economy is the nation’s second largest, accounting for 5.1% of the state’s gross domestic product. Ten percent of Montana’s jobs are in the outdoor sector, atttacting almost $4 billion a year in spending by out-of-state visitors. Yet even as the natural beauty that pulls in all those hunters, fishing enthusiasts, backpackers, campers and hikers is steadily eroded, the outdoor recreation industry resolutely refuses to connect the dots.

Among the most conspicuous avatars of this head-in-the-sand attitude has been KOA, the company that advertises itself as “the world’s largest system of privately-owned campgrounds” but which generally eschews any of the political muscle-flexing this might enable. Big on market research and on narrowly targeted speechifying before RV industry organizations, KOA takes a markedly lower profile on other stages and clings to an aw-shucks corporate persona that extols its origins as a provider of roadside camping for the traveling masses. A lobbying powerhouse it is not. Nor, apparently, does it maintain much of a presence in the Montana outdoor recreation fraternity, much less seek out a leadership position. This is a go-it-alone company that avoids entangling alliances.

But KOA also has been around for 60 years, and that means something, too. It’s marking the milestone with a new headquarters building on the west end of town; its cantilevered deck should provide an awesome view of the darkening skies to the north. Perhaps more significantly, KOA also has announced creation of the Kampgrounds of America Foundation, an effort to increase its “already robust philanthropic efforts” by “serving as the charitable embodiment of the brand’s mission of connecting people to the outdoors and each other.”

And how will that be accomplished? According to KOA, by focusing on three primary categories, the first being “accessibility to the outdoors”—which, indeed, is where virtually all of KOA’s research, marketing and advocacy have been focused to date. The foundation’s second primary category, however, is the “preservation and sustainability of the outdoors,” possibly signaling an overdue glimmer of understanding that there’s not much point in making the outdoors more accessible if the outdoors becomes a wasteland. But it’s the third primary category—“community initiatives where KOA campgrounds are and employees live”—that could be a game changer. Could be. Were KOA to take it to heart.

Helena, the state capitol, is just a four-drive from KOA headquarters in Billings, which in that part of the world makes them neighbors. There are 16 KOA campgrounds in the state, including one each in Billings and Helena. A community initiative to advance the preservation and sustainability of the outdoors could readily include a friendly visit to Rep. Josh Kassmier and his colleagues, there to explain that you don’t have to be a scientist to know when your house is burning down. That there’s more to the Montana economy than mining and drilling, neither of which have a long shelf life at this point. That the future lies in cherishing an irreplaceable natural landscape, not in tearing it down.

And maybe KOA, peering at the darkening skies from its new corporate perch, will finally understand that the next step in its corporate maturation is to advocate on behalf of the outdoors just as ardently—no, more!—as it has been marketing it.

Maybe. Sixty years is a long time, but it’s never too late to grow up.

KOA gives up on explaining itself

Following the public relations debacle KOA created for itself earlier this year, when it finally threw in the towel over its misbegotten idea for a glampground in New York’s Catskills, the campground juggernaut apparently has decided to zip its corporate lip. Whereas it once boldly proclaimed development plans for its Terramor brand of glamping resorts, currently still limited to a single facility in Maine opened in 2020, KOA is now saying nothing at all about two projects still in the hopper, or whether it has plans for additional sites.

Of the two ongoing projects, the more likely to succeed appears to be a $28.5 million Terramor planned for the Adirondacks, in upstate New York. As reported here back in January, the proposed 80-site glampground would avoid much of the controversy KOA generated in the Catskills by repurposing an existing KOA campground in Wilmington instead of developing a brand new location. That campground, the Lake Placid/Whiteface Mountain KOA, was “moved” 2.4 miles up the road last October and reopened this spring, albeit with only 31 RV sites. More, undoubtedly, will follow.

The vacated KOA campground, meanwhile, has the advantage of having already cleared many regulatory hurdles—although not all. As reported last week in the Adirondack Explorer, both the Adirondack Park Agency and the state Department of Environmental Conservation have been soliciting public comment, with the DEC evaluating the project for a wastewater discharge permit. The APA, meanwhile, which oversees public and private development within Adirondack Park, is reviewing the proposal’s “25% expansion of an existing tourist accommodation”—one indication of glamping’s more robust environmental footprint.

Tellingly, KOA declined to respond to inquiries about its plans from the Adirondack Explorer beyond an anodyne assurance that the company “will carry on its mission of connecting people to the outdoors and each other.” The stonewall was blatant enough to elicit a surprised comment from Wilmington Supervisor Roy Holzer, who supports the Terramor venture and thinks KOA “should be keeping the public informed and building excitement for their project,” the Explorer reported. Instead, the Explorer article appears to be the only news report about the project in several months, and even it put in a tardy appearance, publishing on April 20—the deadline for public comments to the DEC. The Adirondack Park Agency, meanwhile, is accepting comments until May 4.

While the communications black-out in New York has succeeded thus far in allowing KOA to fly under the radar, the weather is a bit stormier—literally as well as figuratively—at its other announced Terramor venture, at Midpines in Mariposa County, California. Although it filed a preapplication proposal more than 16 months ago to build two major campgrounds straddling the road that access the south entrance to Yosemite National Park, including a 400-site KOA resort and an 80-90 site Terramor, KOA has yet to follow up with an actual application. Nor has it followed through with promises of additional public meetings after a “coffee and conversation” meeting with local residents last June that left many “uncertain and unhappy,” according to a local newspaper.

But nature abhors a vacuum. While one extreme weather event after another battered the western Sierra foothills—forest fires, record-breaking snowfalls and now widespread flooding, prompting the National Park Service to close Yosemite’s campgrounds starting tomorrow—a similarly extreme human storm has been building among local residents, enhanced in no small degree by KOA’s aloof approach. A grassroots group calling itself Mariposans Against KOA and Terramor has been gifted with the lawn signs used by KOA’s opponents in the Catskills, which it has been erecting locally, and has created a Facebook page where the current hot topic is the amount of water KOA would be sucking out of the ground—five times as much as is used by Midpines residents.

Given the extraordinarily challenging environmental considerations KOA has had to take into account this past year, it’s not inconceivable that it might be having second thoughts about its Mariposa County plans. Then again, this is not a company that backs down gracefully. Three years after opening its Bar Harbor Terramor to mixed reviews, and with earlier projections of having three such glamping resorts up and running by 2025 increasingly in doubt, KOA seems to have decided that the less said the better. Unfortunately, that also means that a lot of people may feel ambushed when the other shoe drops.

Most recent posts

Out of the frying pan, into the fire?

There is great jubilation in New York’s Catskills region this week, on the news that KOA is walking away from a proposed 75-site glamping resort that faced growing local opposition. (See past posts here and here.) News of the unexpected about-face came in a terse three-sentence letter, dated Feb. 8, announcing that the company “has formally withdrawn its special use permit, site plan and subdivision applications.”

Signed by Jenny McCullough, senior director of marketing and operations for Terramor Outdoor Resort, the letter was received by the Saugerties planning board two weeks ahead of a meeting at which KOA was expected to respond to numerous concerns raised by area residents. “After careful evaluation, it was determined that the project did not meet criteria across several benchmarks to warrant moving forward,” McCullough wrote, without further elaboration. In response to subsequent emailed queries, McCullough gave assurances that the company has “no intention to resubmit at a later date,” but also confirmed that KOA still owns the 77-acre site and is “discussing our options internally” on how to proceed.

Planning board chairman Howard Post, meanwhile, responded to local residents by saying the board has “no idea” what KOA will do next. “Nothing to stop them from resubmitting,” he wrote. “They might sell . . . they gave no indication nor do they have to.”

But as it turns out, KOA/Terramor has bigger fish to fry—or bigger headaches with which to contend. Because even as it was plunging into the Catskills morass, it simultaneously was looking to develop a far larger and more ambitious project in the foothills of the High Sierra, just outside Yosemite National Park. Much more ambitious. According to the preapplication proposal it filed in December of 2021 with the Mariposa County Planning Board, KOA wants to build two resorts on a 993-acre property that straddles State Highway 140, a major access route for the park. The broad strokes include:

  • A KOA Resort would be located on 90 acres south of the highway, to include 400 full hook-up RV sites and 25 to 50 tent sites with water connections. A 10,000-square-feet building would house a check-in desk, restaurant, store, laundry, a meeting space and employee office space. Also located on the grounds would be a swimming pool and bathhouse, two playgrounds and “select employee housing.”
  • A Terramor Outdoor Resort would be built on 80 acres on the north side of the highway and would include 80 to 90 “conditioned glamping units,” also described as “tents [that] will incorporate standard amenities of a luxury hotel room including a full bathroom, electrical supply and climate control.” An 8,000-square-foot lodge would include a restaurant, meeting space and indoor pool, while other amenities would include a 2,000-square-foot open-air pavilion and a 1,500-square-foot wellness/spa center. As with its neighboring resort, the Terramor property also would include “select employee housing.”
  • The two resorts would have a combined 100 employees and would expect to have 800 guests a day at the KOA resort and 200 a day at Terramor. The two facilities would have a total of 525 on-site parking spaces and would consume up to 51,000 gallons of water a day.

A preapplication is by definition conceptual and short on details, giving county planners an opportunity to list the specific information they will require in a formal proposal. So perhaps it’s not surprising that when KOA got around to its first public presentation, a “coffee and conversation” meeting in mid-June last summer, the discussion was still vague enough that it “left many members of the community uncertain and unhappy,” according to a report in the Mariposa Gazette. But not to worry: local residents were assured more details would be forthcoming in a meeting later that summer or early fall.

Nature had other ideas. Mere weeks after the kaffeeklatsch, the Oak Fire sprang up literally next door to the Terramor/KOA site and consumed more than 19,000 acres before being wrestled into submission in mid August. (The Oak Fire, it should be noted, occurred less than a mile west of where the even more substantial Ferguson Fire ravaged 97,000 acres in 2018.) Somehow, the fall public presentations never occurred; what did occur was a request from the Mariposa County fire department at a board of supervisors meeting for the county to bite the bullet and start supplementing the virtually all-volunteer fire fighting force with paid staff. Four of the county’s 13 fire stations are unstaffed because of declining volunteer levels, while the only paid fire fighters have been the chief and his deputy.

More recently, nature let loose with a second volley, this time with the torrential rains that battered California for much of January. The resulting floods and erosion were even more pronounced in areas with recent burn scars, such as those left by the Oak Fire, with roads washed away and local residents left stranded for days on end. As icing on the cake, it turns out that Mariposa is the only county in California that does not participate in FEMA’s federal flood insurance program.

KOA has made no public pronouncements about any of these developments, or how they may affect its plans. Nonetheless, it has yet to file a formal proposal with Mariposa County, casting further doubt on its announced plans to have three Terramor resorts up and running by 2025; the only existing Terramor is in Bar Harbor, Maine. Meanwhile, Mariposa residents opposed to KOA’s plans have turned to their Catskills counterparts for organizing pointers—and apparently may expect a shipment of no-longer-needed anti-Terramor lawn signs and posters that are being collected in Saugerties and Woodstock on their behalf.

There is one other ironic footnote to all this: as previously noted, KOA already had a campground in the Saugerties/Woodstock area that it could have repurposed as a Terramor with much less hassle, but which was sold to its glamping rival, Autocamp. KOA also had a franchised campground in Mariposa County, just a mile up the road from its proposed new development—but that too was sold, also to Autocamp. The 98-site Yosemite Airstream glampground had its ribbon-cutting in 2019.

Most recent posts

KOA amps up the camping con game

One of the KOA-Terramor glamping “tents” in Bar Harbor, Maine. Behind the wooden wall at the head of the bed is a shower with dual shower heads and a ceramic floor.

It’s mid-winter in New York, but the temperature was unseasonably hot when the Saugerties town planning board held a public hearing last week on a KOA-proposed 75-site glamping resort. Approximately 200 local residents turned out Jan. 17 and hooted their approval as a score of speakers—and one mischievous singer—detailed the many reasons why this is a deplorable idea. But while not a single business owner, politician or civic booster rose in defense of the project, KOA showed no sign of backing down, either, demonstrating yet again how far it’s departed from its folksy origins and how oblivious it has become to public opinion.

The Saugerties venture is KOA’s second attempt to diversify into the high-dollar end of the campground business, following an initial foray in Bar Harbor, Maine. That first effort converted a conventional KOA into a glampground under the Terramor nameplate, but while repurposing an existing campground avoided some troublesome issues, it created others. So, on its second go-round, KOA decided to find an undeveloped piece of land on which it could start with a clean slate. It settled on a 77-acre site between Woodstock and Saugerties. And then its problems began.

While initially slow to take notice and build support, the anti-Terramor movement in recent months has gained both momentum and sophistication. Fund-raising to hire scientific and legal talent by now has generated nearly $40,000. The group’s online presence is rich with documentation and resource materials. And its arguments are becoming more refined, homing in on what may be the project’s greatest weakness: an unyielding terrain.

“I think the real surprise for Terramor was not the neighbors. I think the surprise was that the blank canvas they purchased was on bedrock that made septic impossible, contained wetlands that made wastewater difficult to release and included an endangered species that needed a protected habitat,” said Susan Paynter, a leader of the local opposition. “The neighbors are the least of their problems.”

While all that is daunting enough, another argument still shaping up in Saugerties has more widespread implications: that all this talk about “glamping” is ultimately deceitful. That to describe a project as having “campsites” occupied by “temporary structures,” as KOA has done in its presentations, is at best disingenuous when those “temporary structures” have 600-square-foot footprints and are erected on wooden platforms with plumbing and electricity. The Terramor “tents,” while superficially qualifying for that label because the outer shell is canvas, have wooden interior walls, ceramic-floored showers with twin shower heads and, in some cases, a second bedroom in which to stick the kids.

In that respect, glamping “tents” are another aspect of the industry’s efforts, similar to its embrace of park model RVs, to push the limits on what kinds of dwellings it can erect with minimal tax and regulatory liabilities. “Temporary” structures—one because it has a canvas shell, the other because it still has wheels attached to its chassis—in most jurisdictions aren’t subject to real estate taxes. They don’t have to conform to zoning restrictions that would apply to fixed structures, and they don’t have to meet HUD or other housing regulations. And while glamping tents are less durable than park models, they can be larger (park models are limited to 14-foot widths and 400 square feet), are substantially cheaper and can be more readily tarted up as glamorous camping accommodations.

And for now, at least, they can charge novelty prices of $300 and up per night.

That lure is so great that the glamping silliness has exploded. Even as it battles the Saugerties crowd, KOA is simultaneously developing a third Terramor resort, also in New York, and this time it’s reverting to its original approach of converting a former KOA campground. The Lake Placid/White Face Mountain KOA in Wilmington, closed for the season in October, is now being “moved up the road” 2.4 miles, according to KOA, and will reopen in the spring—albeit with fewer than half as many sites. Meanwhile the former site, on Fox Farm Road, is being repurposed as a Terramor Outdoor Resort, with 80 glamping sites, a main lodge with a restaurant, a pool, pavilion, wellness cabin and staff housing.

The Wilmington plans, it should be noted, call for glamping sites that “will consist of both insulated tents and ‘hard-sided’ units,” which the design narrative explains are “to resemble a tent, but with walls and a roof” so they can be used in winter. In other words, ersatz tents of up to 900 square feet—hard-sided “tents” imitating “glamping tents” imitating the kind of tents that you can buy at REI, in a regressive progression whose next step can be nothing less than a motel shaded by a large piece of canvas strung from a series of telephone poles.

Meanwhile, underscoring that this is not just KOA running amok, its Bar Harbor Terramor Resort may be about to get some competition across the bay, in nearby Lamoine. Clear Sky Resorts, a glamping outfit based in Arizona, wants planning board approval for a 90-site “dome glamping camp” with an onsite restaurant, pool, spa, wedding venue and employee housing, but town officials kicked back its application earlier this month, saying it provided incomplete information about water and sewer use. Clear Sky supposedly will be back Feb. 6 with a second effort.

As with KOA’s “tents,” the camping domes Clear Sky wants to erect are huge—660 square feet—and an additional 13 domes intended for staff lodging, wedding venues, a restaurant and other uses presumably will be even larger.

Back in Saugerties, local residents are pushing the planning board to request a State Environmental Quality Review Act assessment from the New York Department of Environmental Conservation—an outcome that could result in KOA having to prepare a draft environmental impact statement. KOA has until Feb. 21 to respond to the volley of concerns it received last week at the planning board hearing, with board members saying it will take months to reach some kind of decision—so stay tuned. There’s more needless drama to come.

A Clear Skies “glamping dome,” which because of its shape (a 28-foot diameter) has an even bigger footprint than one of KOA’s glamping tents.

Most recent posts

More electrifying news for RVers

A pair of webinars this past week, one hosted by the RV Industry Association and one by the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds, underscored how seriously the campground world views the oncoming onslaught of electric vehicles. While campground and RV owners remain mostly skeptical, questioning the costs, range, recharging availability and environmental impact of a lithium-based technology, industry leaders are unwavering in their belief that the EV-RV revolution is already here and that the problems others see are either overblown or will be resolved in timely fashion.

“We are really at an inflection point which is amazing,” Ashis Bhattacharya, senior vice president for development and advanced technology at Winnebago Industries, told his RVIA audience. A “wave of electric adoption” is already washing over rental car agencies, delivery services such as Prime, UPS and FedEx, as well as school buses and other municipal vehicle fleets, all of which is normalizing the technology. The paradigmatic shift already underway, Bhattacharya added, is as significant as any ever experienced in the transportation sector.

Meanwhile, said Jay Landers, RVIA’s vice president of government affairs, state initiatives to outlaw internal combustion engines are giving the entire EV sector a kick in the pants. Five states, including California, already have voted to ban sales of new internal combustion vehicles by 2035, and others are looking to possibly follow suit. The state of Washington, which had the country’s sixth highest rate of RV shipments this year, is even more aggressive, adopting a 2030 cutoff deadline. Furthermore, expansion of the EV charging network nationwide is being super-charged by $5 billion in federal funding approved earlier this year.

None of which, all speakers agreed, is to minimize the problems confronting EV in general, and EV-RVs in particular. “The (EV) technology is still more expensive than what it’s replacing,” conceded MacKay Featherstone, Thor Industries’ senior vice president of global innovation. Moreover, he added, “the charging experience is utterly critical” and still inadequate for RVers in particular, both because most RVs need pull-through charging stations to be practical and because they have larger power needs than EV cars.

To their credit, RV manufacturers, frequently criticized for shoveling out hundreds of thousands of RVs without giving a thought to where their buyers might use them, are at least trying to get out in front of this development. And there is little reason to doubt that a society-wide change is coming, and coming hard. EV-RV costs inevitably will come down as sales take off, as they do with any emerging technology. Alternatives to lithium batteries, using less exotic minerals, are being developed, and advances in recycling technologies will further ease environmental concerns. Similarly, ongoing improvements in battery density will continue to expand vehicle range, relieving one of the biggest consumer anxieties about EVs.

The weak link, however, appears to be the RV park and campground end of the product chain. The RVIA webinar inadvertently made that point when its campground representative on the panel—Toby O’Rourke, president and CEO of KOA—was so unintelligible that she had to be dropped from the screen, apparently because she was trying to link in from an airport. (And why O’Rourke, again? Is there no other campground industry representative who can speak to the industry’s issues? Maybe someone from the Yogi franchise, or ARVC, or one of the other large state RV park associations, like Texas or California?)

Subbing in for O’Rourke was Brandi Simpson, her chief of staff, whose faltering contribution was to assert that campground owners are dealing with “a ton of misinformation” about EVs and need a lot of education and guidance. Which, presumably, KOA is scrambling to provide. . .

. . . as is ARVC, which lustily beat the drum on behalf of EV-RVs at its national conference in early November, and again at an hour-long webinar a couple of days after RVIA’s face-to-face. Pitched as “a recap of the best” of the conference for those who might have been unable to attend, the session inexplicably ignored the most contentious convention issue—a proposal to adopt industry-wide “standards”—while devoting the majority of its time to further promoting the idea that campgrounds need to get on the EV bandwagon, starting with the installation of EV chargers.

All of which is undeniably true, but far more nuanced and with many more questions than have been answered to date. For example: both webinars referenced possible tax breaks and federal grants to defray campground costs for installing chargers, while glossing over the reality that such inducements will require making the chargers accessible to the general public, and not just campground guests. Getting equally short shrift were any explanations of the occasionally mentioned “partnerships” that campgrounds might have to accept, whether with public utilities or third-party providers, to deal with licensing and infrastructure issues, since electric sales are typically a utility monopoly and EV chargers require robust additional power supplies.

(On a related note: one of the biggest frustrations for many KOA franchisees has been the parent company’s insistence on taking a 10% cut of all site fees—including any electric charges, even though campgrounds are legally prohibited from making a profit from reselling electricity. To the extent that EVs will increase electricity consumption at RV sites, that means even more unearned money transferred from franchisees to corporate headquarters.)

By ARVC’s calculations, electric metering of RV sites can reduce energy consumption by a third.

Indeed, the whole issue of who is going to pay for the extra electricity consumed by EV-RVs, and how, is still being sidestepped at the national level, quite possibly because there is no one answer. That, by itself, may become the biggest impediment to mom-and-pop campgrounds rushing into this brave new world. It’s notable, for example, that while ARVC now has an online “EV Toolkit” to help its members understand how to accommodate the new technology, the only guidance it provides for covering their costs is the vague advice to “consider billing for shorter stays, especially [campers] with unique equipment (large class As, EVs, electric golf carts, etc.), automatically billing those campers for the electricity they use. “

Presumably these and other issues will get resolved, sooner or later—once the industry stops talking around them. The RVing public, meanwhile, should brace itself for still higher costs, as a new electric sensibility starts percolating through the camping universe. Just as computerized reservation systems have introduced demand pricing and all kinds of add-on fees, the electrification push ultimately will result in all RV sites getting electric meters. Or as ARVC’s EV Toolkit asks, in a prominently displayed screen, “You don’t give away ice, candy bars or firewood, why give away electric?”

Most recent posts

‘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.

Most recent posts

‘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.”

Most recent posts

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.

%d bloggers like this: