Kampgrounds of America Inc. (KOA) drew a record crowd of park operators and exhibiting expo vendors Nov. 15-18 for its 50th Annual KOA International Convention at the Gaylord Palms Resort & Convention Center in Orlando, Fla. – a significant “Golden Anniversary” moment for the Billings, Mont.-based park franchisor that came on the heels of a strong business year despite plenty of natural and political headwinds.

Among them were some of the hottest temperatures on record accompanied by insufferable drought conditions over half the country and wildfires in Colorado and other western states that curtailed to an extent the regular summer season for the 486-park system of which 26 facilities are company-owned.

“The KOA system proved to be strong enough to increase camper nights and revenue and grow our footprint, all in a year when the economy and consumer confidence were sluggish, heat records were set across the country and gas prices fluctuated, but remained high,” KOA stated in its annual report released at the convention at which the company’s senior management introduced a bold new “brand positioning” initiative.

As of late October, in fact, the nearly 500-park system rated among the “Top 50 Franchisors” for the fourth year in a row in Franchise Business Review’s annual survey, was reporting:

  • Systemwide camper nights up 2.2% over 2011 with registration revenue 4.7% ahead of 2011’s.
  • Growth in every North American region except the Mid-Atlantic, with Western Canada leading the pack on a 14.9% increase in camper nights and an 11.6% uptick in registration revenue.
  • Increases in long-term RV camper nights for the summer season, May through October, of 12.8% with registrations up 14.3% for the same period.
  • Value Kard Rewards loyalty card sales and renewals up 7.3% on revenue growth of 5.1%.
  • KOA.com visitation hiked 27%.
  • Deluxe cabin rentals, a key point of emphasis right now for KOA, up more than 20% with registration revenues growing 19.5%.

In addition, KOA reports, every one of its 2012 holiday and promotional weekends posted increases in camper nights and reservation revenue with the exception of the 4th of July holiday, which fell in the middle of the week amid a spate of wicked wildfires. And advance registrations for the open-all-year company properties at press time indicated the likelihood of more good commercial news to come.

Not a bad picture for privately held company that traces its roots back to the early 1960s and a small group of Billings entrepreneurs who sensed a business opportunity in the thousands of people traveling along U.S. 10 through the Pacific Northwest to and from the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. Many of them, they reasoned, would likely be tenting or driving some type of recreational vehicle.

Since the Billings area had no campgrounds, the group bought land and — with city cooperation on utility lines – developed an overnight park next to the scenic Yellowstone River featuring showers, a basic store, toilets and a laundry. While that doesn’t sound like rocket science today, the park was a success to the extent that they next chose to franchise a nationwide venture under the “Campgrounds of America” name.

However, a young graphic designer researching native American symbols ultimately suggested the change to a “K,” and founders Dave Drum, John Wallace and Bob Boorman readily agreed.

Fast forward to November of 2012 and a convention that wound up drawing 145 vendors and representatives of nearly 300 campgrounds, most of whom – more than 800 peoople – were on hand for the opening session at nearby Universal Studios Florida’s “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.”

KOA President Pat Hittmeier speaking at the convention.

“Sure, this has been a great year for us and sort of finalizing with our convention here in Orlando,” KOA President Pat Hittmeier told Woodall’s Campground Management. “As a number of people have said, for a 50-year-old company to have its largest convention and gathering ever for its system on its Golden Anniversary sort of says something about the quality and the vitality of the KOA system as it exists today. But the year in general was good overall. It was up in almost every category – in travel and tourism and, you know, the quality of the campgrounds was up from prior years.

“It’s been on an upward trend for six or seven years now and this year we were up a couple points on over 200,000 guest responses,” he added. “And, so, everybody’s got a smile on their face.”