Kampgrounds of America Inc. (KOA) drew a record crowd of park operators and exhibiting expo vendors Nov. 15-18 for its 50th Annual KOA International Convention at the Gaylord Palms Resort & Convention Center in Orlando, Fla. – a significant “Golden Anniversary” moment for the Billings, Mont.-based park franchisor that came on the heels of a strong business year despite plenty of natural and political headwinds.
Among them were some of the hottest temperatures on record accompanied by insufferable drought conditions over half the country and wildfires in Colorado and other western states that curtailed to an extent the regular summer season for the 486-park system of which 26 facilities are company-owned.
“The KOA system proved to be strong enough to increase camper nights and revenue and grow our footprint, all in a year when the economy and consumer confidence were sluggish, heat records were set across the country and gas prices fluctuated, but remained high,” KOA stated in its annual report released at the convention at which the company’s senior management introduced a bold new “brand positioning” initiative.
As of late October, in fact, the nearly 500-park system rated among the “Top 50 Franchisors” for the fourth year in a row in Franchise Business Review’s annual survey, was reporting:
- Systemwide camper nights up 2.2% over 2011 with registration revenue 4.7% ahead of 2011’s.
- Growth in every North American region except the Mid-Atlantic, with Western Canada leading the pack on a 14.9% increase in camper nights and an 11.6% uptick in registration revenue.
- Increases in long-term RV camper nights for the summer season, May through October, of 12.8% with registrations up 14.3% for the same period.
- Value Kard Rewards loyalty card sales and renewals up 7.3% on revenue growth of 5.1%.
- KOA.com visitation hiked 27%.
- Deluxe cabin rentals, a key point of emphasis right now for KOA, up more than 20% with registration revenues growing 19.5%.
New Branding Unveiled
In a rather bold attempt to step away from the common perception of KOA over the past half century as a basic “roadside” lodging option for those navigating the Interstate highway system, KOA took the opportunity at its Florida convention to introduce a rather bold new “brand positioning” program through which KOA parks are to be promoted in three separate categories based on their amenities and general use by the traveling public.
The idea, says KOA CEO Jim Rogers, is to step away from a “one-size-fits-all” perception of KOA parks in the public’s eye and, in the process, to generate new business among consumers who will have a better ability to match their expectations with the park at which they choose to spend the night, the weekend or an entire vacation.
“Yes, along with this celebration, ” noted Rogers, “we’ve also introduced a major initiative to take us forward for the next 50 years, and Pat and his team have put it out to the system over the last three or four months in terms of the documentation on what we refer to as ‘brand positioning.’ We’re in such good shape in terms of the satisfaction of the system, the energy in the system and the leadership that’s been demonstrated to take advantage of what I’ve been talking about for years in growing the outdoor hospitality world and capitalizing on all those opportunities.”
The end result of this innovative new approach, a concept borrowed in part from the hotel business that’s often referred to in the industry as “segmentation,” is that parks are to be categorized and promoted to the public in the future as “KOA Journey,” “KOA Holiday” and “KOA Resort” facilities instead of simply “the next KOA down the road,” so to speak.
“We have to appreciate that this is where we have come from and that our research tells us that there are still millions upon millions of campers in this country that think of us as an Interstate system,” said Rogers, who is set to appear next year in CBS’s popular, 3-year-old “Undercover Boss” reality show. “This is what we are here to talk about – how we begin to break through that perception.”
“We use the term brand positioning,” said President Pat Hittmeier, “and what we’ve done is we’ve provided what might be called descriptors for three different groups of business based on how our guests use us today. So, there’s a ‘Journey KOA’ for the guest spending one night with us and moving on to another place. Then, there’s the destination park, which would be a place where you would go have an experience either at the park or, because of where it’s located, sort of as a base camp experience where you might be able to visit things around the area and spend multiple days at this park. We’re referring to those as the ‘Holiday KOA.’
“And then a sub-set of the Holiday KOA, which would be a place that has an abundance of services and facilities, would be the ‘Resort KOA.’”
All things considered, Hittmeier maintained, this new way of looking at KOA’s franchised and corporate-owned parks is not a “good, better, best” type of formula, but one that should instead appeal to an Internet-minded world in which a demanding and time-starved public has increasingly exhibited a “need-to-know” or a “know-before-you-go” sort of attitude. And KOA’s management believes these new brand positionings will not only help set those expectations, but, according to the plan, ultimately drive new business to KOA campgrounds.
“Now, in combination with that, we’ve sort of rolled in with this some new quality assurance requirements for our campgrounds,” said Hittmeier. “So, it’s not just a name. We’ve done a lot of deep research over the past ten years and worked with some focus groups and some qualitative studies to determine how and why people use us, and those requirements are part of getting into this brand positioning. So, campgrounds are not going to be able to just hang the sign up tomorrow without having to make sure that they meet these qualifications that we can then market to that particular defined camper to help drive that business.
What does Hittmeier anticipate with regard to the franchisees’ reception to this new approach, which is to be dialed in over the next couple of years and will be reflected in signage, the directory and website? “You know, based on the kind of reaction we’re getting here with this record crowd, I’d say that we were on the right track,” Hittmeier told RVBusiness. ”We laid things out on the first day and have been talking about this new program in the hallways and we’ve got a lot of momentum going with this right now, and I think it’s going to be very big.”