‘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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