While at RVX: The RV Experience, Aboutcamp BtoB had the opportunity to interview the new President and CEO of Kampgrounds of America, Inc. (KOA), Toby O’Rourke, who leads the world’s largest system of private campgrounds with 518 franchised and company-owned locations across North America and Canada
Words Antonio Mazzucchelli and John Rawlings
Toby O’Rourke joined KOA in 2011 and moved through a range of management positions before being promoted to the position of President in 2018, and President and CEO of KOA in March 2019. She is a mother of two young children and is passionate about engaging families in the outdoors. She and her family enjoy hiking, fishing, visiting national parks — and of course camping.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Can you tell us about KOA?
Toby O’Rourke: KOA is Kampgrounds of America, and we’ve been around since 1962. We are actually the world’s largest network of campgrounds. We have 518 parks between the US and Canada, and we are always growing. We added 16 new conversion campgrounds last year and another big change that is happening with us right now is building of new campgrounds, which hasn’t been a trend for quite a while. We have 13 new contracts in place for new campgrounds to be built and that’s happening across the board with private campgrounds. A lot of money is coming in to camping right now, either reinvestment in current parks and improvements or additional, new campgrounds.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Does KOA own all these campgrounds?
Toby O’Rourke: We are a franchise system, so of the 518, we own 31 parks corporately, and then the rest of them are franchised, so those are privately owned and operated and partnered with KOA.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Why would a campground choose to join your franchise?
Toby O’Rourke: I think people join a brand franchise system for various reasons, one of which has to be marketing. As our brand has been around now for 57 years, it has a lot of brand awareness and people have grown up seeing KOA signs all over the country, so we inherently have that built-in. We invest a lot of money in marketing. We are very focused on digital marketing driving people back to our website (koa.com), so for a lot of people wanting to join the franchise it is because they know when they join KOA they have a built-in system of people who are looking for them and finding them online. The minute they come on to koa.com their phones start ringing off the hook and they start getting online reservations, so that’s one reason. Two: we have technology; this is a factor for us. We have a proprietary campground management system that every park uses and that gives them access to all our customer data across our system, so because we have all of our parks using the same software system we are able to know a lot of information about what’s happening and help owners. We know how each campground’s priced, regardless to other ones, or next to other ones in the region, and we can help them understand travelling trends of campers, and we can understand all sorts of stuff because of the power of our data. Lastly, it is services and support. As a franchise system, we have a lot of services in place, like training programmes that train managers and owners, we have an online training programme for people to train their staff, we’ve got help with them finding ‘work campers’ we call them, so help on the park. We’ve also got people who can help them design campgrounds to help if they are doing remodelling or additional sites, so it’s just a whole range of support and services for them to help them in their jobs.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Can all campgrounds join KOA, or do you have some standard requirements?
Toby O’Rourke: We do have requirements, and certain things every KOA has to have. Sometimes we will like a park and like the location but we didn’t mutually agree to do business together because they have certain things they need to add to the park to become a KOA. Every campground is also guaranteed a territory, so an exclusive area where we can’t put another KOA in, so as long as the park that wants to become a campground isn’t within that territory then we are able to make that happen.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Is KOA only in North America?
Toby O’Rourke: KOA is in North America and Canada. We used to be in Japan a long time ago, and we used to have campgrounds in Mexico, but we are just in the US and Canada right now. We haven’t really focussed on international expansion at this time.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Do you also have mobile homes on your campgrounds?
Toby O’Rourke: Yes, we do; 85 percent of our camper nights are RVs, so the majority are RV sites, but every KOA has tent sites. Tenting is a big deal: 60 percent of all campers are tenters in the United States, and also park models, or deluxe cabins as we call them to the consumers, and we also have camping. Some flex cabins are nice because they have bathrooms and kitchens – all the nice amenities of home. We also have a product called ‘camping cabins’ which are no bathrooms, a little more bare bones, but they have been in the system for a long time and people really like them.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Have you embraced the glamping trend?
Toby O’Rourke: Yes, we have. Glamping is definitely hitting America and it’s been becoming a bigger deal. We have 84 campgrounds in the system that have put in some sort of unique accommodation, so they’ve got tipis, canvas tents, yurts, or treehouses, and that’s definitely increasing in popularity and, like I said, about a quarter of our campgrounds have some sort of unique accommodation.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Can you tell us more about your ‘campground of the future’ project?
Toby O’Rourke: This was a project we started a few months ago to really start to look at what we do now and then how that might advance. We picked the year 2030, so not that far in advance. We’re looking at current, modern campsite design but taking in to account how technology will change and how consumer expectations will change. We looked at things like environmental impact, health and wellness trends, and then we just made this virtual reality model, so you could go to https://campthefuture.com, and you can view it on a computer or you can view it on a headset or Google cardboard and look at in VR, and we have mountain, urban, desert, ocean and forest environments. Within this you will see a variety of concepts; for example, I was talking about environmental earlier, so you’ll see a lot of solar integration around the park, and we’ve also played with how technology might compliment the experience in the future, so we have interactive kiosks that could connect you to the camp post, delivery bots or drones for things like firewood, and we’ve got a concept of something called a ‘powerpad’ which doesn’t exist anywhere that I know, but you can drive your RV right on to the pad and it will charge the RV instead of having to plug-in. We played with connecting people to nature as best as possible, so we’ve got underwater cabins in the ocean, and main buildings and cabins that have a lot of glass with a concept that this is opaque so you can be connected right in to nature and the outdoors experience, but you can darken them when you want more privacy or at night. We had some fun and put some RV sites on the sides of mountains, again I think that would be pretty hard to do but in the future that might be very possible in a way it could be very integrated in to the landscape as much as possible.