By Greg Gerber
FORT WORTH, Texas — Unseasonably cold temperatures in Texas did little to reduce the enthusiasm of Kampgrounds of America campground owners and company officials who gathered here for KOA’s annual convention.
Working off the theme “Ride for the Brand,” the infamous KOA yellow shirts took to the stage today to celebrate a successful camping season. Hundreds of campground owners from nearly every state and Canadian providence were on hand for a series of meetings and presentations that started yesterday and continues through dinner Thursday.
KOA Chairman and CEO Pat Hittmeier was the first executive to address the group this morning. He recalled arriving at KOA in 1981 when IBM Selectrics were the most prominent office tool of the day, and the company’s one Apple Macintosh computer was big enough to hold one spreadsheet at a time.
He credited the hard work, patience and vision of the franchise owners for creating the momentum that propelled KOA to the top of brand recognition in the outdoor hospitality market.
Back in 2003, when KOA started tracking what it calls the net promoter scores of campgrounds — the number of guests who would recommend staying at a KOA — Hittmeier noted that half of KOAs could not even achieve a score of 40 percent from their customers. Today, 97 percent of guests give KOA a score of 40 or more.
Part of that success is due to franchise owners embracing the company’s new brand positions that require each property to become either a KOA Resort, KOA Holiday or KOA Journey campground. Only a few dozen campgrounds within the system have yet to decide which brand to pursue, and he estimated that 100 percent of the campgrounds will be fully branded by the end of 2019.
As a result of that effort, brand awareness by families who camp has risen 26 percent in the past few years, and 50 percent of campers selecting new places to visit rank KOA as their first choice. In fact, campground check-ins at KOA facilities have climbed 46 percent in five years.
With a marketing budget projected to exceed $15 million in 2019, Hittmeier said the potential for further advancement has never been higher for the company and the outdoor hospitality industry as a whole.
“Must keep our brand relevant, modern and connected to the next generation,” he told the audience. “Our leadership team is young and excited. We are committed to having technology accelerate our momentum.”
It’s working. The company logged 1.1 million online reservations through its website at www.koa.com, which accounted for 2.3 million campernights and $153 million in revenue this year from online reservations. That is up 183 percent in five years.
New pricing strategies
Guest speaker Blake Madril, with IDeaS Revenue Solutions, told the campground owners they can easily increase revenue by simply adding new price points to their inventory.
As an example, he used shopping for toaster ovens. When Toaster A sells for $50, it garners 90 percent of sales compared to the $100 Toaster B. However, when Toaster C is introduced at $75, it claims 80 percent of sales.
He encouraged campground owners to shift their mix of business by adjusting price points to allow more comparison pricing.
Adding a patio and increasing the price allows the campground to improve revenue while giving campers more options to meet their needs. When campgrounds typically sell out of certain sites early, Madril said it is often due to more demand for those sites than the campground has capacity. Therefore, it is not the best way to optimally capture revenue.
A picture is worth a thousand nights
Vice President of Marketing Whitney Scott demonstrated the power of visual images in promoting a campground in general, and specific sites in particular. She said 90 percent of what a person’s brain consumes is visual, and 80 percent of what it remembers is visual as well.
“As long as your eyes are open, you are judging what you see,” she explained.
She noted that the average person saw 500 advertisements per day fifty years ago. Today, the average person is bombarded with 10,000 advertisements per day. Images are overcrowding the ability for people to think. Therefore, professionally-produced images stand a greater chance of breaking through the clutter to not only be noticed, but to be remembered as well.
That’s why travel sites are getting rid of content to focus on images because they tell a better story that is more memorable, she explained. Scott said that Trip Advisor discovered that facilities with 20 or more photos increased engagement by 150 percent and resulted in a 22 percent increase in converting shoppers into making reservations.
She cited one hotel brand that discovered guests were 50 percent more likely to make a reservation — and were willing to pay $40 more per night — simply based on the types and quality of images it depicted on its website.
She showed several examples of current KOA photographs of the same scenes taken by campground staff compared to professional photographers using special lighting and better equipment. People who saw the photos believed they were taken decades apart.
One KOA made $4,300 more this year by using professional photographs to sell their campsites, she explained.
Development of pocket parks
Terry Shade, vice president of corporate owned properties, introduced a new design development called “pocket parks.” The mini parks are often seen in corporate or urban areas to provide open, inviting spaces on a small scale.
KOA is introducing them at its parks by creating special areas where parents can relax as children play nearby on various equipment. For example, rather than erecting a store-bought ladderball game, the campground created a cement patio, cement area for players to stand and metal, permanently mounted games.
The same with corn hole games. Rather than two wood boards laid out in a grassy area that is easily trampled, the pocket park features a professionally designed game area that is permanently installed. Rather than a metal slide in a dirt area, children wanting to slide would climb up carefully-placed rocks on a landscaped hill to access the slide.
The purpose is to provide opportunities for social interaction, but it also works to melt rate resistance by justifying higher prices for higher-quality experiences.
“You can’t plan too much to create these type of pocket parks,” he explained. “You start with inspiration and visualization. Then you involve others of different ages and genders to gain different perspectives. Once completed, you incorporate the new park areas into all marketing.”
Not your grandfather’s tent
People have been using tents to camp for many years, but KOA is seeing an opportunity to deliver even more quality camping experiences by improving the sites where people can camp.
Darin Uselman, vice president of franchise services, sees tenting as a way to create an anchor for families to begin enjoying a KOA experience. With a low cost and little barrier to entry, 44 million Americans are tent campers.
Even millennials are looking to do more tent camping, either with or without their children. Many of them come to campgrounds as small groups for the weekend.
KOA is seeking to enhance that experience by upgrading tenting sites to allow improved socialization and more amenities, such as closer restrooms and showers, fire pits, picnic tables, electricity and water at each site. The tent sites are also landscaped to provide an even better outdoor experience.
One KOA on the east coast upgrading tenting sites this year. Prior to the upgrade, the campground earned $30.62 on average per night and enjoyed a 60 percent net promoter score.
After the upgrade, income rose to $52.25 on average with a net promoter score of 70 percent. The $1,568 investment in upgrading the site resulted in increased revenue of $4,076 in the first year.
“Conseqeuently, they are working to convert all primative tenting sites to premium sites,” said Uselman.
“Tenting is a gateway to camping. If you build sites with the amenities tenters want to have, you will attract a higher quality camper.”