Editor’s Note: The following is an article by the Los Angeles Times examining the trend among KOA campgrounds to be a resort destination as opposed to a stop along the way. To view the entire article and accompanying photo click here.
At a wooded campsite in Santa Paula, north of Los Angeles, vacationers, stray deer and even peacocks must share the tree-shaded property with tractors, backhoes and stacks of lumber.
Work is in full swing to transform the 76-acre Ventura Ranch Kampgrounds of America (KOA) site into one of a fast-growing breed of affordable outdoor destinations or resort campgrounds.
Workers have already added new lodges and upscale tepees and installed two 800-foot-long zip lines. Construction has begun on a pool and water slides to open by this summer. A backhoe is moving dirt for a new playground area, and the park owner has plans for four treehouses near the banks of the Santa Paula Creek.
“It’s kind of a new version of camping,” KOA campsite guest Desiree Dennis said as her four children took turns strapping on harnesses, hooking themselves to pulleys and flying downhill along zip-line cables stretched between two elevated platforms. “It brings families together.”
Zip lines, swimming pools and other campground extras typify changes underway across the nation at KOA, the nation’s largest private network of campgrounds, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Instead of offering rest stops on the way to vacation destinations, KOA wants to add enough activities to convert its modest overnight campgrounds into final destinations for traveling families.
“Campgrounds are indeed a resort destination,” said KOA’s chief executive, James Rogers.
KOA’s 488 independently owned campgrounds in the U.S. and Canada are increasingly offering such amenities as wireless Internet access, cable television hookups and prefabricated cabins, most equipped with refrigerators, microwave ovens and flat-screen televisions. Many also have swimming pools, bicycle rental stations, arcades and miniature golf courses.
“The world wants to get outdoors,” Rogers said. “At the end of the day, they also want a hot shower and a clean bed and a cold beer.”
These upgrades are most prominent in California, a state with 36 KOA campgrounds, the most in the nation.
It makes good business sense. Although KOA’s overall guest bookings dropped 2% to 14.4 million in 2011 compared with the previous year, KOA officials say reservations for the campgrounds’ furnished cabins jumped nearly 20% in the same period.
KOA is a private company and would not disclose its annual revenue, but a Dunn & Bradstreet report estimated that the company, based in Billings, Mont., generated nearly $40 million in sales in 2011.
The move to install more cabins, tepees and treehouses, said Rogers, helps KOA serve those guests who don’t want to sleep in a cold tent but can’t afford a $50,000 recreational vehicle. RV sales dropped dramatically nationwide during the recession but began to rebound in 2010 and 2011, according to industry reports.
KOA is not the only campground franchise to pursue this market. KOA’s top competitor, Leisure Systems Inc. of Milford, Ohio, the franchiser of Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Parks, has been installing furnished cabins at a rapid pace at its 78 franchise campgrounds.
“The lodges are very popular,” said Michele Wisher, a spokeswoman for Leisure Systems. “That is what books up.”
A nationwide survey co-sponsored by KOA last year found that 42.3 million people over age 6, or 15% of Americans, regularly go camping, either in tents or recreational vehicles.
“That’s a big universe of people who are not going camping,” said Jeff Crider, a spokesman for the National Assn. of RV Parks and Campgrounds. “That is why KOA and Jellystone are investing in cabins, yurts and tepees. It’s to get them into their campsites.”
KOA was launched in 1962 when its founder, David Drum, noticed a caravan of cars driving past his cottonwood-shaded property in Billings headed for the Seattle World’s Fair. He quickly converted his property into a campground with showers, restrooms and a small store and charged guests $1.75 a night.
In the company’s early years, KOA opened campgrounds along busy highways, giving travelers a convenient place to rest on the way to popular tourist attractions such as theme parks or national monuments. But now KOA has shifted its focus to make campgrounds an inexpensive vacation destination for families.