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After a promising start to 2019, campgrounds across the United States and Canada quickly found themselves not only over their heads in the floodwaters of the COVID-19 outbreak but seemingly struggling to come up for one last breath last spring. As Toby O’Rourke, president and CEO of Kampgrounds of America (KOA), told RVDA Convention/Expo attendees, KOA saw a 185% increase in cancellations from mid-March to mid-May, and advanced reservations had declined 23% by the end of May.

O’Rourke didn’t sugar-coat it for Con/Expo attendees during her presentation that debuted Wednesday (Nov. 11) afternoon but is available on-demand at the show’s virtual platform. More importantly, O’Rourke showed the industry how from the shadow of the worst pandemic in a century, KOA emerged in growth mode once the lockdowns and quarantines were lifted.

Operating from Nov. 9-20 in a virtual format this year due to the pandemic, the Con/Expo is presented by the RVDA, RVDA of Canada, and the Mile Molino RV Learning Center. The Con/Expo features live and on-demand educational seminars and Vendor Training +Plus sessions, along with an active trade show.

O/Rourke’s presentation, which also included data on bookings for the 2021 season and information from first-time campers in 2020 could be a beacon of hope for the RV industry, she said, as it continues to recover from COVID-forced shutdowns during peak selling season that put manufacturers behind in meeting an ever-increasing demand for their products.

“We spent a lot of time advocating for getting campgrounds open and allowing RVs to be on the road for essential business,” O’Rourke said. “Our campgrounds hosted a lot of medical workers and travelling nurses and that kept the light on for a lot of our campgrounds.”

But the public response after the lockdowns was something KOA certainly had hoped for, but nothing that could have been predicted.

Americans went camping like never before. Studies show that 26% of campers in 2020 were new to camping and another 20% restarted the activity after some time away.

Studies showed people wanted to get outside after being cooped up and considered camping the safest way to make that happen. O’Rourke said data indicated 36% of people who are regular campers went camping for their first trip after restrictions were lifted; 21% of typical leisure travelers did, too.

And half of those campers – led by Gen X and Millennial generations – said they were more likely to buy an RV due to their experiences with COVID. Another

Toby O’Rourke

32 percent were interested in renting an RV. One of the biggest reasons people wanted an RV over just tent camping was concern over the cleanliness at public camping facilities.

“We know that once people camp, once they RV and enjoy it, they are likely to keep doing that,” she said. “I think this is a great investment in our future in having all of these new people coming to camping.”

The fall season has continued the growth, with many campgrounds extending their seasons, but uncertainty still surrounds the winter season in the Southern U.S. because of travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada that prevents many snowbirds from coming down to enjoy the warmer weather.

O’Rourke said KOA surveys indicate that 44% of new RVers are likely to continue the lifestyle in 2021. More than half of the responders said they are able to increase their camping activities because they are able to work or handle schooling from home.

“This is obviously underscoring the need for great Wi-Fi, and this is an initiative that KOA is working on,” she said. “We need to make sure campgrounds can deliver really good Wi-Fi with high bandwidth to accommodate people working from the road or schooling from the road.”

With the great comeback camping made, KOA finds itself only down 5% from 2019 numbers.

“2019 was our best year in business out of 58 years,” she said. “Right now the difference between last year and this year is shrinking every day as a result of people who are camping through the fall.”

O’Rourke’s session will be available on-demand on the virtual convention/expo site through Jan. 31, 2021.