Editor’s Note: Scott Bahr has an extensive background in analysis, research and planning, with a focus on providing meaningful analysis of results across a variety of industries and has been providing strategic direction to the outdoor hospitality sector for the past 14 years, and in particular has been the research partner with Kampgrounds of America Inc. (KOA) for their North American Camping Report over the past five years. Additionally, he has worked with organizations in the outdoor and outdoor recreation sectors in their marketing and branding efforts, strategic planning, customer experience, corporate social responsibility, services/amenities and employee development.
Since we first started measuring the camper experience, there are some notable trends that have been taking place in camping that directly impact how campgrounds are being managed and have contributed to the increased popularity of camping that has been observed over the past few years.
Trends in camping have, in many ways, mirrored changes in the hospitality industry, where providers are increasingly tuned in to the customer experience and designing the services and amenities around consumer feedback.
In hospitality, we focus on measuring and evaluating the customer experience based on the key touchpoints between customers and the organization, which allows us to determine where there are gaps in guests’ (perceptions of) experiences. This feedback loop has resulted in consumers now having the ability to choose the type of hospitality experience they are seeking based on their personal needs and requirements.
As camping has increased in popularity and campgrounds are seeking to provide campers with the array of services and amenities they desire, evaluation of the camper experience has become an important consideration for the industry. Several years ago, Kampgrounds of America Inc. (KOA) recognized the need to stay abreast of changes in the marketplace and provide the industry with a set of metrics that can be utilized by the industry to continue to enhance the enjoyment of the outdoors by a greater number of participants.
What have been the trends over the years?
Access to Information
In the not so distant past, if someone wanted information on camping, they might have to find a book on camping, find someone who camps, or simply “wing it.” The result in many cases was that the new campers did not have the right gear for their trip, received dubious information from friends or relatives, or were unable to find the campground and/or campsite that best suited their situation. For many, their trips ended in misery from not being adequately prepared or geared up, they were bored, or did not get the back-to-nature experience they wanted. In recent years, access to information and resources helps to prevent these scenarios before they happen (or can be dealt with on the spot using technology).
Access to information allows campers to create and customize the type of experience they are seeking or find areas they would like to explore. Whether it’s a backcountry or wilderness experience, rustic camping, staying at a campground with a full suite of services and amenities, or glamping, all of the resources and information is at their fingertips, providing access to the camping experience that fits their personal situation.
Erosion of Barriers
What is also important about access to the vast (and immediate) amount of information is that it is contributing to the erosion of the barriers to camping. Indeed, when considering what the primary barriers are to camping (or camping more often) — lack of knowledge/not knowing where to start, safety/security, knowing others who camp, lack of gear/resources for camping, bugs, and comfort — information resources (including social media) directly addresses nearly all of these barriers or how to overcome these barriers as they arise.
Novice campers can access information online about how to get started with camping, they can find campgrounds with cabins (safety/security, comfort, and bugs), finding others who like to camp (or want to start), what gear is needed to get started (again, cabins are a great option for newbies), and where/how to camp in comfort. By leveraging information sources, the industry has provided campers with all of the tools they need to get started, which is a critical contributor to the influx of new campers over the past several years.
The results of our research suggest that access to information has dramatically reduced the impact of these barriers and have contributed to higher levels of participation among younger campers, yet there is also rapid growth in the utilization of these resources among the older set of campers. Baby Boomers (and older campers) are utilizing technology to enhance their experiences by providing them with access to information on the types of experiences they are seeking (and they are seeking a variety of experiences), given changes in their personal situation (e.g., retirement, physical limitations, family status), but also allow them to stay in close contact with their families via social media as they venture out.
The Role of Campgrounds
Campground owners are also a critical player in making camping more accessible and reducing barriers. Many campground owners have placed a premium on the camper experience by responding to consumer demand within the space to provide the services, amenities, atmosphere, and accommodations that enhance camper experiences.
Campground owners that pay close attention to how they place different camper types on their campgrounds, having cabins (or other unique accommodations), access to both on- and off-site recreation, accommodating novice campers, and importantly, being a resource for information about camping, activities or even how to park an RV are helping to grow the popularity of camping. This responsive and service-based approach is ensuring that campers will continue to participate and bring a greater number of campers into the fold.
With increased access to information, campers are becoming more savvy in terms of how they are selecting campgrounds and places to camp. Online access to information (including social media) ensures that campers have access to resources that were not available in the past (or at least so readily available). A camper seeking a family experience where they would like to have access to a variety of activities and more modern amenities can look at camper reviews of campgrounds, access campground websites that list what is available on-site, view up-to-date pictures of the campground and campsites, then cross-check that information by using social media platforms to reach out to other families who stayed at these types of campgrounds.
Campers are now more likely to have a set of expectations of what they will experience when choosing a campground or location for camping, allowing the campground to better manage the campers’ experiences on-site and focus on the service they are providing to campers. By focusing on service and staff responsiveness, campers are more likely to return to the campground, post favorable reviews, and share their experiences on social media, which as mentioned previously, creates a positive feedback loop and delivers on the hospitality promise.