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.