About a year ago, when the weather was getting nice and people were starting to think about going camping, the folks at Billings, Mont.-based Kampgrounds of America Inc. (KOA) came up with this crazy idea about parking some “silver bullet” Airstream trailers at their facilities and letting campers rent them like hotel rooms.
KOA chose its recreational vehicle park at Circus Circus on the Strip in Las Vegas, Nev., as one of the first places in the United States to try the experiment, according to the Las Vegas Sun.
With fabulous hotel rooms up and down the Strip, would people really want to camp in an Airstream trailer when in Las Vegas? KOA worked a deal with Airstream, considered the Cadillac of the travel-trailer, to place 10 of its 25-foot Flying Clouds on KOA’s 366-space RV park at Circus Circus.
The concept was rolled out in Las Vegas and Key West, Fla., and gave KOA franchisees the opportunity buy Airstreams at discounted rates and rent them to campers who wanted to try out the $50,000 units.
“Even in Las Vegas, there are some people who just like to camp out,” Shane Ott, then president and chief operating officer of KOA, said at the time.
Ott considered Las Vegas to be a perfect startup location because 4% of KOA’s most loyal customers reside in the greater Los Angeles area and he thought Southern California campers would embrace the Circus Circus Airstreams.
“We look at this as the best of both worlds,” said Ott, who is now a campground liaison for Thor Industries Inc., the parent company of Airstream. “You can enjoy the benefits of camping. You can grill outside, right next to where you’re staying. You can meet up with people who share that lifestyle. There’s a well-stocked convenience store in the campground and, if you want, you can just walk over to the hotel for your entertainment.
“And then, when you’re done for the day, you’ve got very comfortable accommodations.”
And comfortable they are.
Each unit has a different décor, but they all have a galley with a stove, a refrigerator, kitchen pantries, a 48-by-78-inch bed, a flat-screen TV (with cable hookup), a lavatory and shower and a dinette that converts to a 38-by-76-inch sleeping area.
When a Sun reporter went to the Circus Circus RV Park last week, he saw only two Airstreams and surmised that the experiment didn’t go as well as KOA would have liked.
But the reality was that it worked well enough in Las Vegas that the Airstreams were shipped to other locations.
“I wondered when someone down your way would notice that there are a few less ‘silver bullets’ at the Circus Circus KOA,” company spokesman Mike Gast said in an e-mail. “We are moving them around to test the concept in additional locations. We were happy with the Las Vegas experience, even in a down economy. They did OK.”
Actually, they did better than OK, according to Greg Dunagan, general manager of the KOA at Circus Circus.
The Airstreams commanded a nightly rate of $99 on weekdays, $109 on weekends with even higher rates during holidays and special events. Moving the inventory out of Las Vegas will create greater demand for less commodity, assuring that KOA can get top rates on the units.
“It’s kind of a good thing-bad thing for us,” Dunagan said. “It’s nice having a larger inventory, but because we have fewer we can maintain our rate.”
In essence, Circus Circus KOA is taking a silver bullet for Team KOA, as more of the company’s franchises will get to offer the iconic trailers.
Dunagan said the Airstreams offer an unusual opportunity for people who are considering buying one because renting them at a KOA “is the only way you could stay in one short of owning one.”
Gast said the company earlier moved some of the trailers to Santa Cruz, Calif., and they did even better than in Las Vegas.
“That caused us to think we needed to experiment more and faster,” he said.
Today, KOA’s fleet of 25 Airstreams is scattered across the country, from Las Vegas to Bar Harbor, Maine, and from Trinity, Calif., to Sugarloaf Key, near Key West, Fla.
Although Snow Bird campers are fewer, KOA had its best year for summertime reservations in 2009, Gast said. He attributes that to the public refusing to give up its leisure time and going to a lower recreational entry point: camping, instead of expensive resort visits. The Airstreams became a part of KOA’s high-end experience.
“They are such great conversation pieces that we feel we have to maximize that exposure, even if it means we have fewer at any one location — at least in the short term,” Gast said.