The following story, authored by Steve Bibler, appears in the latest issue of Woodall’s Campground Management profiling Kampgrounds of America Inc. as the company marks its 50th anniversary. Other articles will appear on the WCM website throughout the week.

The 50th year of operation for industry leader Kampgrounds of America Inc. (KOA), headquartered in Billings, Mont., reaches a crescendo during the company’s golden anniversary convention, scheduled for Nov. 15-18 at the Gaylord Palms Resort and Convention center in Orlando, Fla.

“I look forward to the largest gathering of ‘KOA Nation’ in history,” President Pat Hittmeier told Woodall’s Campground Management. “Our (advance registration) numbers look like that could happen, which I think is exciting for a 50-year-old company to get that much interest by its participating members to gather.”

The 488-member family, the world’s largest chain of campgrounds, has completed another successful summer season with same-campground revenues through August up 4.5 percent over a year ago, Hittmeier reported. Numbers were up for KOA’s Care Camp Weekend in May, Father’s Day in June, July Fourth holiday weekends and Labor Day weekend.

“I suppose you can say we’re hitting on all cylinders. It’s all working well together this year, it’s hitting its stride,” Hittmeier continued. “It’s been a great summer in every aspect.”

KOA again sponsored a major RV promotion with Keystone RV Co. this year, with a $40,000 Vantage RV going to the grand prize winner, as well as daily and weekly free camping promotions all year long via its social media outlets.

Pat Hittmeier

Meanwhile, KOA announced that the more than 350,000 members of KOA’s Value Kard Rewards program earned the opportunity to camp for free Sept. 15at participating KOAs throughout North America. KOA Value Kard Rewards members who stayed as paying guests at a participating campground Sept. 14 received a free night of camping the following night.

And the positive developments are far from over, with a major announcement expected during the convention.

“We have some exciting news to present to them that will get a lot of attention. I am looking forward to that reaction. It will get a lot of attention,” Hittmeier said, without tipping his hand.

KOA’s overall performance underscores what Hittmeier calls the willingness of the American camping public to patronize the best known brand in the RV park and campground industry.

The desire to associate with KOA is apparent as the company continues to work with prospective new franchisees. Several new prospects were in the pipeline as the final quarter of 2012 approached. “It’s touch and go whether we’ll hit 500 by the end of this year,” Hittmeier said. “It would be nice to do that on our 50th anniversary but I don’t know. We’ll see.”

Cabin Business Flying High

Nowhere within the system is business flying higher than in roofed accommodations.

“Campers continue to show their love for our Deluxe Camping Cabins,” where revenues were up 17 percent, Hittmeier said. “Our campground owners continue to add Deluxe Cabins and other amenities to their inventories, and that is exactly what our campers are looking for.”

Much of KOA’s success in basic Cabins and Deluxe Cabins can be traced to its one-of-a-kind accommodations financing arrangement with Independence Bank of Havre, Mont. The bank’s innovative “Go With The Flow” financing for KOA owners allows qualified borrowers to acquire loans for cabins, and make payments only during the seasons when the accommodations are being rented.

“It minimizes the risk for our owners,” said Hittmeier. “Our Cabins and Deluxe Cabins are a great long-term strategy, and Independence Bank allows our owners an effective way to grow their short-term cash flow.”

Even the camping or “bare bones” cabins, whose popularity slipped in recent years, showed a slight (1 percent) increase this summer, he noted, thanks to a concerted upgrading effort which included improved lighting and the addition of TVs, a small refrigerator, outdoor patio with seating and a propane grill.

Adapting to Remain No. 1

Interior of a typical KOA lodge

KOA has grown into the nation’s largest franchise camping business because it has survived by adapting and catering to cultural trends.

“What’s true of human nature, from my perspective, is the more you give people, the more they want,” said Hittmeier.

“I have believed that for a long time, long before I came to KOA,” said Hittmeier who joined the company in 1981. “It’s true on the franchise side as well as the camper side. As a franchise, what we provide our franchisees we need to do a lot more today than just a short while ago. The nicer you make it, the more they want. You don’t reach an end and say this is good enough, you always have to think what you can bring to the party.”

He recalled that it wasn’t too many years ago that KOA provided merely some paper forms and an accounting spreadsheet to help with their financial record keeping.

Big weekend in May for Come Camp and Care With Us.

Since then, KOA has created KampSight, a sophisticated operating system that accommodates 100 percent of the campground’s accounting needs.

“It was a lot easier to provide paper forms than it is to do the other. But if you are going to compete and bring value, you have to stay at least at par if not better,” he stressed.

But doing this with campgrounds is far more difficult.

Many of the nation’s campgrounds were built in the 1960s and 1970s, before big rigs and power-gorging appliances and devices were so common.

Today’s campgrounds need bigger spaces for these rigs and even the smaller Class Cs and towables, he said.

“If 25 feet between parking pads was fine (for an earlier generation), 35 feet is what people want today. Trying to remodel these campgrounds to meet the value standards of today’s guests, who are willing to pay the price, is probably one of our biggest obstacles of the future.”

He continued, “We need to focus on the outdoor experience of the camper better, with better site amenities and better rec programs. We have to focus on the camper because a campsite with a picnic table sitting on the grass is not good enough. We need to provide an outdoor patio experience, which is another way of saying people want more.”

Technology, through social media, is another big factor.

“It provides the tools to reach the guests, and they want to be talked to,” he said.

That conversation with guests has led KOA to invest millions of dollars in online social platform development, and also in KOA.com – already the world’s most visited camping website.

“Social media allows us to have a near one-to-one conversation with our guests, and that is where consumer communications is heading,” said Toby Hedges, senior director of marketing for KOA. “We’ve created a rapidly growing community of campers on sites like Facebook who will settle for nothing less than ongoing, constant communication with our brand.”

Changes to KOA.com, paired with advances in KOA’s proprietary KampSight campground operating and reservation system, have streamlined the campers’ campground search and reservation experience.

“KOA.com is the best place for campers to go to seamlessly find and book their next camping stay, and the KampSight system ties everything together so that online reservations can be completed by the camper easily and efficiently,” Hedges said. “It keeps phone calls away from the front desk so that the campground staff can concentrate on taking care of their current guests.”

In fact, KOA is now taking KampSight global, partnering with BIG4 Holiday Parks of Australia to develop the cutting edge next generation in campground management software.

“BIG4 has been a great partner, and it’s exciting to know that we are truly going to have the world’s best system, no matter what side of the world you are on,” said Jef Sutherland, KOA’s vice president of franchisee services.

“We’re trying to execute the right message. I find technology to be extremely humbling, trying to develop it. There is no limit to what is possible today but it’s very expensive and very time-consuming. It always takes longer to accomplish technological goals but it’s critical.”

Top Service Another Key

Service training at KOA starts nearly the moment a franchise agreement is signed, said Sutherland.

“We bring new owners to Billings for a session of KOA University, so that they have a deep understanding of all of the programs and processes we have fine tuned over the past 50 years,” he said. “No one else in the camping industry can guide them, from the day they buy a campground to the day they sell it, like we can.”

KOA also offers innovative online “continuing education” for owners and their staffs to make it easy to keep up with program changes and keep customer service “top of mind.”

All of that help for franchisees has resulted in KOA converting nearly 120 independent campgrounds to the KOA system since 2007.

“We survey all our guests and compile what is known in the industry as ‘net promoter scores,’” Hittmeier continued. “It’s a way to gauge customer feedback. When you compare our scores to other industries, ours are the same as Marriot, which I find interesting.”

Ironically, surveying customers played a crucial role in getting KOA off the ground 50 years ago. Read more about that in subsequent postings on www.woodallscm.com.