Roger Faulkner, president of General Coach Canada, announced today the appointment of Heather Millar to the position of vice president, International Markets.
General Coach, a builder of park models and cabin trailers located in Hensall, Ontario, has undergone some major developments in the last year, inventing patent-pending shipping methods and designing products that meet a variety of international needs, including: resort lodging; actor trailers; disaster-recovery housing; humanitarian housing; and commercial facilities.
Faulkner said that Millar will be charged with developing and growing new marketing opportunities “from around the world.”
General Coach has already shipped large orders to England and China and experienced favorable response to the new line of portable housing from several other countries, including Grenada, Haiti and India.
Millar can be reached at 519-262-2600 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hensall, Ontario, Canada-based General Coach Canada has entered into an agreement with Foshan Lishen Industry Ltd. of Guangzhou, China to produce and ship a new concept in leisure accommodation designed specifically for the Chinese market.
Roger Faulkner, president of General Coach Canada, recently returned from a business trip to China with an initial order for six units, and a clear understanding of market potential and requirements in the world’s fastest growing economy.
“I see enormous potential for our products in the Chinese market,” said Faulkner in a press release. “While it has a large population and increasing wealth, China is just beginning to get involved in leisure and camping activities. This agreement will create the opportunity for us to capitalize on the emerging market’
Faulkner expects General Coach will be making five different portable models for the Chinese market. All will be large enough to include living space, bathroom and kitchen, but small enough to ship in a standard 40-foot marine shipping container.
“We have a model that fits within the dimensions of a shipping container but we will be doing some specific modifications to accommodate assembly requirements in China,” Faulkner explains.
Two units were shipped to China earlier this year, and work is now underway on three prototype units which will be shipped before the end of June. Rowcliffe trucking, also located in Hensall, will transport the units from Hensall to the Port of Vancouver for shipment to Beijing, where they will be assembled and put on display.
General Coach Canada has a reputation for producing high quality recreational accommodation for distribution throughout Canada and the northern United States. Once a large producer of travel trailers, fifth-wheels, motorhomes and truck campers, General Coach is now focused exclusively on park models, which are a form of cottage. Faulkner believes his company’s well-established reputation for quality is what attracted the attention of Foshan Lishen Industry Ltd.
“They are looking to create and grow a new market that will place an emphasis on the high level of quality we offer,” says Faulkner. “Other Canadian manufacturers serving other markets can also take advantage of that need for quality. We shouldn’t be selling ourselves short on the world stage.”
Despite the nation’s challenging economic environment, business for most of Kampground of America Inc.’s 460-plus parks is relatively good right now. In fact, it’s real good in some cases. That much was evident at KOA’s Annual International Convention at which some 500 people – representing 220 parks – gathered Nov. 7-10 at the Westin Savannah Harbor Golf Resort & Spa in Savannah, Ga.
How so many entrepreneurial franchisees like Steve Jewell, of Spartanburg NE/Gaffney, S.C. KOA, managed to so gracefully avoid the more dire effects of the Great Recession is hard to figure.
So far, however, that appears to be the case.
“Our business has been strong this year and last year right through the rather low period that other people experienced,” said Jewell, a convention attendee who does “huge” repeat business. “We’ve experienced continual growth over 29 of the last 30 months with increases over 10% — and as much as 18% to 19% — from the previous year.”
By the same token, Al Johnson’s 10 KOAs are all posting revenue gains. “We had a banner year for our company, which was chasing a really good year last year,” says Johnson, whose South Dakota-based Recreational Adventures Co. has benefited from both good weather and economy-seeking campers.
Neither Jewell nor Johnson was doing paid testimonials for KOA, but they well could have because their remarks are consistent with the company’s own impressive report: KOA’s core business saw strong growth during the company’s summer camping season, with same store revenue up 6% and camper nights up 4.5% over 2009, according to an “annual report” distributed by the company at its upbeat convention.
KOA President Pat Hittmeier says the company experienced year-over-year gains in each of the first 10 months of 2010, while destination locations near major attractions and “along-the-way parks” that feed those major markets did particularly well.
KOA’s total revenues are up about 8 1/2 percent in this, the second consecutive year of strong gains compared to the “poor” results posted in the recessionary summer of 2008. “We are still just a fraction below where we were in 2007,” Hittmeier told RVBusiness. “So we are very close to that benchmark, which was an excellent year.”
In fact, Hittmeier says KOA had surpassed 2009’s total year-end camper nights by early November.
“As consumer confidence and the jobs market come back, we are looking for a record-breaking year in 2011 for the summer,” adds Hittmeier. “The part that is a little disconcerting is the winter business, that which takes place between Nov. 1 and April 30. It has been down multiple years in a row. There are two parts of that — the short-term traveler and the extended stay snowbird.
“The snowbird business has stayed pretty stable — down a little bit, up a little bit,” he continued. “But the traveling market in the wintertime period has taken a big hit. That group has gone down repeatedly since the 2006-07 winter. Last year, we thought it would stabilize. It didn’t. It’s about 25% of what it was in 2007. We are hoping this year that it will turn around and that that particular retiree market will come back.”
KOA, in turn, expects to finish 2010 with a total count of about 470 parks, 26 of them company owned, the rest operated by independent franchisees. Hittmeier says KOA usually adds through conversions of new parks as many as 20 to 25 parks a year and loses through attrition anywhere between five and 15 parks in a average year.
Cultivating a Lucrative New “Lodging” Business
Looking ahead, the so-called “lodging” market remains a big target of KOA’s as the company continues to spearhead a trend toward rustic looking, wood-clad cottages built by three preferred providers: Cavco Park Homes & Cabins, Goodyear, Ariz.; Thor’s Breckenridge division, Nappanee, Ind.; and General Coach of Hensall, Ontario, Canada, all three of which had units on hand at the Georgia convention.
In fact, Hittmeier says there’s now a total of about 5,000 “roofed accommodations” in the KOA system – the goal being to add another 1,700 by 2015.
“We added about 400 roofed accommodations last year — most of those being park model types with full-service kitchens and bathrooms,” said Hittmeier. “Our lodge nights were up 35% in October, so we are starting to see some shoulder season business from these lodges, which is something we didn’t experience from our camping cabins (small dwellings lacking kitchen and bathroom facilities).”
These fully equipped recreational park trailers are called “Kamping Lodges.”
The next phase in KOA’s ongoing push into the lodging arena – a rather bold step that represents a definite departure – is a move toward the traditional hotel/motel field. As a matter of fact, the company-owned properties department has developed an operational manual specifically for lodging. “We are going to go more deeply into the linen market and hit the hotel/motel market head on,” says Hittmeier. “It’s a big jump because there’s a lot of work behind it relative to commercial laundries and taking on some systems.
“Anytime we have more than 10 lodges on a property, we are going to go to that model.”
The biggest challenge related to all that, he agrees, is to get the word out to the North American public that all of these lodges exist and that a young traveling family – or a family visiting an area for a soccer tournament — can opt to stay in a pretty little pine-sided cottage at the KOA instead of the Marriott Courtyard.
“The people who are staying in our lodges rate the experiences at the highest level,” said Hittmeier, now in his second year as KOA’s president. “They rate us higher than people who stay in RV sites, and of course, they pay the most amount of money. We know we’ve got a good product. The people who stay in them are first-time visitors to KOA as well, so they are not RVers. It is a new market, a primarily family market.
“When we get critical mass of enough units out there, I think we’ll start to see an even stronger draw and awareness,” said Hittmeier, adding that about 200 KOAs currently operate lodging accommodations.
“The hotel industry is coming toward us,” adds KOA CEO Jim Rogers. “They’re not changing your sheets anymore. They’re trying to put in a breakfast in the morning, trying to get you to socialize, but you still worry about going next door, knocking on the door and getting shot. That’s not what’s going to happen in this (campground) environment. These little buildings give you a sense of ownership — it’s a cottage, it’s a chalet, it’s a cabin, it’s yours, it’s reasonably priced. And you get something that you won’t get from a hotel.
“Now you’re (the park operator) in hospitality. We are moving toward them and they’re moving towards us. But we win because we’ve got 22 acres to go play on.
The problem is that nobody knows we’ve got them. We put it in our directory last year, but that was talking to our own campers. The people who are noticing our lodges are paying the most and have the highest satisfaction, return and value.
“And they are demographically diverse. We are seeing the African-American, Asians and Latinos use these products and loving them. That takes you beyond even the hotel component. It reaches you into a whole new strata of incremental business.”
Unprecedented Focus on The Company’s KOA.com
Another significant focal point for KOA right now is its revamped www.koacom website. This is no ordinary website, not for the $900,000 that the company recently invested in it — in addition to the $1 million KOA typically injects into its web operations on an annual basis.
One of the revamped website’s new features is geo-coding, which allows the site to know where an online user is located, and display campgrounds and special offers in that area.
“The old version of koa.com was already the most visited camping website in the world, with more than 1.1 million visitors each month,” said Lorne Armer, vice president of marketing for KOA. “But it was time for an upgrade, and the new koa.com offers our guests an enhanced online experience as they plan their camping trips, discover what there is to do near our campgrounds and make their reservations.”
The new site allows park operators to manage their own content and also features Google Mapping, a familiar online technology that allows users to quickly navigate state and provincial maps, zeroing in on just the right locations.
“The new KOA.com, which was produced by our partners at Genex in Los Angeles, will allow campers to spend time discovering some of the wonderful locations we have at KOA, so they do all of their trip research efficiently in one easy-to-navigate location,” said Armer. “They will have real-time access to more than 60,000 of North America’s best recreational vehicle sites, tent sites and accommodations such as our new Kamping Lodges.”
Hittmeier says KOA had planned to launch the revamped website in May, realizing its growth potential, especially among first timers. But building 10,000 pages and integrating the company’s Kampsite reservations operating system was quite a test.
“It was a little more complicated than we thought,” explained Hittmeier. “Instead of a nine-month period, it turned into more like a year-and-a -half launch period. And once we got into the middle of summer, we thought there was no way we could launch this when we are doing about $40 million in reservations through koa.com. Our campground owners would kill us if we launched a brand new website in the middle of their season. So, we waited until just a couple of weeks ago to launch it.”
Keynote Speaker Preaches The Power of Instant Feedback
Keynote speaker Fred Reichheld, a customer service guru who authored the groundbreaking book “The Ultimate Question – Driving Good Profits and True Growth,” told the assembled attendees that he had studied several companies that had experienced exceptional growth like Chick-Fil-A, Southwest Airlines and Enterprise Rent-a-Car.
What he found was a singular dedication to treating customers well and an ability to quickly measure their success and “make good things happen with what they learned.”
And that’s the kind of responsive approach KOA is trying to emulate.
Reichheld’s measurement tool, the Net Promoter Score, simply asks customers to rate their stay immediately after departure, and guests are asked if they’d likely recommend the business to a friend. The low scores, or “detractors” are subtracted from the top scores, or “promoters” to arrive at a “net promoter score.”
Reichheld’s new scoring system, providing KOA owners with immediate customer feedback on a daily basis — allowing them to quickly check progress and correct service problems as they occur — was adopted by the KOA system this summer as a means of helping operators improve service to campers.
He said sharing immediate customer feedback with employees is a great way to insure everyone – the owner, customer and employee – can win.
As part of its new “Rate Your Stay” feedback loop, KOA guests get an automatic e-mail from KOA thanking them for their business and asking them to rate their experience and add verbatim responses if they so choose. Consequently, KOA owners received over 120,000 immediate, catalogued responses from guests so far, allowing them to take quick action on operational issues.
“This response in addition to the verbatim feedback, comes back to our KOA owners immediately,” says Hittmeier. “Each morning they can open up their responses and we provide an organized list of where their score are at, verbatim, ranking them by site types, and so forth. So, they can manage their business on a daily basis. They use this to reinforce good service practices with their staff. It’s a real good tool that will help us move those service scores up.”
“We’ve continued to refine and focus our quality process where now, we wake up in the morning and see what our customers said about us yesterday and we respond to it,” Rogers explained. “We are able to make a phone call if they are disappointed. We are dealing with one guest at a time to make sure their stay at KOA was satisfactory to them.
Rogers Addresses Financially Strapped Public Park Sector
In what amounts to a real turnaround for the RV park and campground arena, Rogers is appealing to the private park sector to take heed of the sorry current state of public parks faced with critical budget cuts.
“The public sector is in a world of hurt,” he maintained. “I don’t care if you are at the federal or state level. They represent 8,000 campgrounds. We have 8,000 commercial campgrounds. They have 8,000 very distinguished specific locations that Americans enjoy, as do our visitors. So, you have to begin to ask the question: Are there any things that we’re doing on the commercial side that can be of assistance to the private side. That’s where the doorbell is being rung.”
Although KOA isn’t interested in any concessionaire relationships, he adds, they’d like to figure how KOA franchisees near public facilities can be of assistance or can “create an opportunity to take park rangers and teach them the free enterprise system.
“They are at a clear dead end,” said Rogers. “What we are hearing from the Forest Service is that they can’t find anybody (entry-level personnel) in the channel. They are retiring all these people and there’s nobody to replace them.”
So maybe, he argues, the private sector can help.
“We’re here in the state of Georgia,” added Rogers. “Their park budget was cut 30% and they lost a referendum in California for an $18 million license fee that would have collected $500 million. They are threatening to close 126 parks. If this feeder system gets sicker and then closes, the commercial campground business is in trouble.
“So much of what you get is that entry point (for first-time campers) in the state parks. You’re going to lose that beginning point. If you take all the KOA campers and aggregate their camper nights, 20% of those are spent in public facilities. They’re on their way to a location. They stay with us on the way, but they are going to Yellowstone. If a state park is closed or doesn’t provide the service they want, we’re going to lose the traffic in between.”
While the private park sector is opposed to using public funds to build new parks to compete with them, Rogers observed, everyone needs to be careful not to forfeit in the current budget crises tens of thousands of camper nights. “We need to be more robust by putting our heads together to see if there’s a new paradigm that we can operate under,” he noted. “If we do, I think we’re going to find those state and national parks are going to upgrade their services and increase their rates and better service the camping public. We’ll all benefit from that.”
KOA Honors Franchisees At Savannah Convention
KOA honored a number of franchisees with awards. The top honorees were Michael and Kristi Kuper, owners of the KOA in Thunder Bay, Ontario, recipients of the Franchisee of the Year Award for 2011.
The Kupers, who first met as teenagers and worked together on the campground with Kristi’s parents, won the award during the convention’s first day.
The Kupers purchased Thunder Bay KOA in 1998 from Kristi’s parents, and have worked tirelessly for the past 12 years to added new features and improvements for their camping guests. Their efforts have led to a KOA President’s Awards every year, as well as three KOA Founder’s Awards.
The award was presented by Hittmeier and Rogers as well as last year’s winners, Sam and Renee Scialdo Shevat from the Herkimer Diamond, N.Y., KOA.
Along with a large bronze statue by Billings artist Mike Capser titled “Always Welcome,” the Kupers will be the one-year guardians of the “Dave’s Hammer” traveling trophy. The trophy includes a well-used hammer once owned by Kampgrounds of America founder Dave Drum, who founded KOA in 1962.
Other award recipients were:
- David and Helena Johnson were honored as KOA Rising Stars for 2011. The Johnsons are the owners of the Willits, Calif., KOA. The award goes to a KOA franchisee who has been part of the KOA system for five years or less who demonstrates extraordinary dedication to guest service and support for the KOA system.
- Rob Althoff and Marianne Bartels won the KOA Work Kampers of the Year for 2010. The couple was nominated for the award by Kathy and Stuart Marshall, the owners of the Montpelier Creek, Idaho, KOA.
Publisher’s Note: KOA Chairman and CEO Jim Rogers is arguably the industry’s most relentless marketeer. A former Harrah’s Entertainment Inc. executive, he has etched KOA’s yellow brand into the American psyche and now looks to change the face of KOA’s 463 parks — and American campgrounds in general — with the infusion of more and more sedentary camping “cabins” and “lodges.” Here are the highlights of an interview conducted during KOA’s Nov. 17-20 convention at The Woodlands Waterway Marriott in the Houston suburbs.
RVB: The general atmosphere of your convention was pretty positive, given all of the headwinds that the American economy has faced recently.
Rogers: KOA has just come out of its strongest summer in 47 years. If you take camper nights and registrations for the period of June, July, August and September, we’ve just exceeded anything we’ve done in the past. Where we hurt in 2009 and anticipate hurting this winter and probably early 2010 is in the Snowbird markets that are more dependent on a fixed-income lifestyle. What we did not see last year in America is the transient Snow Bird.
So, we had the resident Snow Bird that headed into Texas and Arizona and committed to three or four months, but the people who were going down and spending a month here and there did not show up. And that’s what we don’t have any certainty about.
Having said that, the cruise lines are indicating very strong advance reservations, which to me is the same market that we look at for this transient Snowbird. But it’s hard to predict that. Again, we anticipate the 2010 summer will be as strong as 2009’s was, if not a little better.
RVB: Looking back at September of 2008 and the economic meltdown that occurred then, could you have imagined that you’d be sitting here now coming off a near-record 2009, with gains anticipated in both camper nights and revenues?
Rogers: No. We went into our plan for 2009 very concerned. The surprise was that we quickly became the affordable (lodging) option. America traded down. They traded down everything they’ve done, and we exceeded expectations. They’ve gone to Costco more aggressively than they did previously, as they did with the camping alternative. If people were going to take a vacation, instead of staying at a Marriott or going to Europe, they decided to go camping again.
There were record tent sales last year in the United States. People found a different way to get outdoors. And, again, we continue to see people staying closer to home – even though Yellowstone Park, a distant destination, posted a record year.
And when they went to a KOA campground, they didn’t find their grandfather’s campground. They found the latte machine, they found (park model) lodges that had a bathroom and kitchen in them for $125 and a swimming pool and they were surprised. They were hooked. We continue to see 14-15% of our campers are first-time-ever campers. And among the first-timers, 50% are families. That’s great news for us that we are bringing in new people to experience KOA and the campgrounds that we’ve got. That’s going to play well long-term.
RVB: So, what do you really think these newbies are looking for in terms of camping accommodations?
Rogers: Anyone who has an investment in an RV brought their gear out of the garage this year. They might not have used it for a while. But our greatest growth will be a double-digit increase in camper nights in the lodge business — the 400-square-foot park model that offers a kitchen and a bathroom and a deck out front. That’s where our greatest growth is, and that’s why we’ve developed the new models with three suppliers, General Coach, Cavco Industries Inc. and Thor’s Breckenridge division.
RVB: What, in your opinion, is behind this evolution to more sedentary – or “destination” — styles of lodging?
Rogers: A lot of things are. Initially, it was this trend toward staying closer to home. People didn’t want to spend the gas or didn’t have the RV and they wondered what to do. In the process, people began to realize that these accommodations were there.
If you talk to our franchisees, they’re going to tell you they had 20 requests (for park model “lodges”) that exceeded what they could fulfill.
At the same time, the lodge customer gives us the highest satisfaction rating by 10 points. If you ask our lodge customer what they think of the experience, they are way above the average. They have the highest intent to return and they tell us they get the best price value. And they are paying the most for the experience. It’s all there. What a future!
RVB: What’s the demographic profile of a “cabin” or “lodge” customer?
Rogers: They skew more to families and first-timers and people who drive up in a car. It’s basically a customer who is right now using a motel or hotel. That’s where we’re going. We are learning from our Australian friends (Big 4 Holiday Parks, with whom KOA has a marketing partnership), who have 32% of their inventory in cabins and lodges.
You are going to see KOA on Travelocity, Orbitz, hotels.com. You talk about a new market and what we’ve got to offer; we’ve got to get the inventory out there.
Plus, KOA is going to produce a million directories in 2010. We intend to mail 400,000 to our Value Kard holders, and in the middle of the directory is a five-page, full color lodge brochure. You are going to begin to realize there is indeed a different offering in that experience. The fact is, with a motel, you get a room. What we are going to tell people is that this is a social activity.
RVB: To what extent do you anticipate expanding your lodge business?
Rogers: We’ve got 4,000-plus cabins (smaller units without water), but we only have about 1,000 lodges (generally park models with full facilities) among our 56,000 sites. That’s about 10% that are currently this type of accommodation. We’ve got to increase that inventory to go out to the market and grow this segment of our business – tremendously.
In the next three to five years, we hope that gets closer to 15-20% of our total inventory. It won’t happen that fast. That’s an aggressive goal. We are going to lead the charge at our 25 company-owned properties.
RVB: Needless to say, this would be a huge shift in the basic character of a so-called RV park or campground if it actually occurred to the extent that you’re describing it.
Rogers: There’s no question that the mix is dramatic. We have RV inventory with full hookups that is going unused that is getting $40 to $45 a night, and we put in a unit and we get $150 a night using the same real estate using the same hookups and the demand is right there behind it.
RVB: Do all of your lodges exude that “rustic” look that we’ve seen so much of lately?
Rogers: KOA has a team that has gone to the manufacturers, CAVCO and Breckenridge and General in Canada, and designed eight different models that run from a studio model that is probably 199 square feet to the big baby, which is 400 square feet. They all have bathrooms and kitchens and they all have concrete siding that looks like wood. They look like something from New England. Most of the inventory will be a log-side perceived look. That reinforces the cabin look that we’ve created. This is where we have an incredible growth opportunity.
By no means are we going to say adios to the RV industry. But we see the ability to be more diverse to whom we appeal to and we’ve got to reorient how we meet the demand for the supply that is out there.
RVB: So, do you also see growth in the entry-level type campers who, in some cases, prefer tents?
Rogers: We’ve definitely seen an increase in our tenter business. But the problem we’ve had is that over the last few years, we’ve reduced the inventory of tent sites. It’s a matter of figuring out what we have, and, ultimately, we see the tenter converting to a lodge or cabin.
RVB: With regard to private parks, many states are under extreme economic financial pressure. Your thoughts on all that?
Rogers: We all have to realize that public parks are as diverse as commercial parks. And we need to make sure that national parks still draw people for vacations and do a good job of taking care of them.
The more localized experience, the state parks that are indeed in dire shape, I think they will continue to be in difficult shape, and, hopefully, American campers will consider the commercial option more so than they have in the past.
The states need to find a new economic engine.
The other thing is that campers are coming to expect a certain level of services and the states aren’t going to be able to provide that.
So, some people who are partial to public parks have now begun to try the commercial side, and they’re pretty happy. They are more entertained and they are staying closer to home. They are staying longer and they expect a little more. Fishing for four days isn’t going to keep them entertained. They need something else going on. So, while I want public parks to continue to operate, I know that some of the business is going to swing over to us.
Thor Industries Inc., Jackson Center, Ohio, announced today (Oct. 15) that it is consolidating production at its General Coach Canada company from two manufacturing locations to one, according to a news release.
In the process, Thor is shuttering its Oliver, British Columbia, production facility and moving all General Coach RV and park model production to its other facility in Hensall, Ontario.
“While we regret the closure of our Oliver, British Columbia plant, our General Coach Canada dealer partners and consumers can be better served through a single point of manufacture in Ontario,” said Thor CEO Dicky Riegel.
Thor expects the wind-down of production in Oliver to be completed by the end of the calendar year. General Coach will work closely with all of its dealers to ensure that delivery of product and parts, service and warranty support are uninterrupted.
“This move will improve product design, quality and pricing for all General Coach dealers,” said Roger Faulkner, pesident of General Coach Canada. “We will be in contact with all of our dealer and campground partners in the coming days to discuss how this change will benefit their locations.”