Over the past two years, Ali Rasmussen and her husband, Eric, have grown Spacious Skies Campgrounds from a dream to become a network of 15 campgrounds in 11 states.
Rasmussen, whose mother immigrated to the U.S. from Cuba, said they founded their Bernardsville, N.J.-based company with a fundamental premise: to provide great places to camp for everyone, regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender or other attributes.
“I really believe that outdoor recreation should be a great equalizer (as should) recreating on and appreciating the planet that we share,” Rasmussen said, adding, “Spacious Skies, the name itself, is from ‘America the Beautiful.’”
\Aiming to be as inclusive as possible, Spacious Skies has been actively developing hiring policies to specifically encourage diversity among its job applicants. Spacious Skies also uses photos of ethnically diverse people in its marketing channels, primarily social media, to encourage people of all backgrounds to camp at its parks.
Despite these initiatives, Rasmussen said diversifying the demographics of Spacious Skies’ workforce and customer base at her expanding network of parks has not happened as quickly as she would like. She noted that when Spacious Skies acquires a campground, the company acquires not only each park’s real estate, staff and customer base but the existing “culture” of the park, which takes time to adjust. But while Rasmussen has seen some improvement in the numbers of campers of different races and ethnicities coming to her campgrounds, her parks’ demographic base has remained largely the same — predominantly white — an observation, she said, that appears to be in conflict with industry reports touting the increasing diversity of America’s campers.
Rasmussen, for her part, is deploying a new strategy this year in her efforts to make Spacious Skies more noticeably welcoming to everyone: She has embraced the diversity training provided through the Unity Blaze Certification program developed by Earl B. Hunter, Jr., founder and president of Brevard, N.C.-based Black Folks Camp Too, and is making the training mandatory for all of her company’s staff members and managers.
Black Folks Camp Too has been providing customer service training for a growing number of RV dealers and manufacturers since 2019 and is now turning its attention to public and private campgrounds across the U.S. and Canada to help them attract both employees and guests that reflect both countries’ increasing diversity. The idea is to help park operators open their minds and their hearts to make their campgrounds and RV parks truly welcoming to everyone, regardless of their race, color, sex, age, religion, national origin or ability, so that they can achieve a unique ROI that Hunter calls “Return on Inclusion.”
“Most campground operators are not aware of the real reasons why many Black folks and people of color haven’t camped at their parks,” Hunter said, “and many of them haven’t taken the time to learn or haven’t explored the resources to help them learn more.”
There are multiple reasons why campground and RV park operators should reconsider their approach, Hunter asserts. For starters, he said, the recent surge in Black campers that took place during the COVID-19 pandemic was a temporary phenomenon that took place largely because there were few other places open for Black folks — or anyone else — to go.
“While it was nice to see the Black community and others camping for the first time,” Hunter said, “we should be more concerned with folks adopting the camping lifestyle for generations to come.”
He added that Black Folks Camp Too’s’ data on post-pandemic attrition is verified by Cairn Consulting Group research that shows that as many as 70% of Black campers stopped camping after the pandemic ended. Hunter believes this is happening because park operators have not addressed some of the fundamental reasons why so many Black folks don’t camp in the first place. Moreover, Hunter warns, unless park operators and other outdoor recreation companies take the time to learn why Black people are not naturally drawn to the Great Outdoors, the problem is likely to get worse, particularly 10 to 15 years down the road, when minorities become the majority of the U.S. population.
Fortunately, Hunter said, the current barriers that prevent Black folks from enjoying camping and other recreational pursuits can be overcome with education. However, to kickstart this process there has to be education “inside” the industry, he said, adding that the businesses and organizations that operate in the outdoors must embrace the idea of increasing “unity in the outdoor community and beyond.”
“If you support unity,” Hunter said, “then you support the future.”
He added that Black Folks Camp Too’s Unity Blaze Certification program is designed to remove fear, add knowledge, and ultimately help park operators learn how to make their parks more inviting and welcoming — not only to Black campers, but to everyone, regardless of their race, color, sex, age, religion, national origin or disabling condition.
The starting point of Black Folks Camp Too’s Unity Blaze Certification course is understanding the Black mindset. The lessons reveal the historic reasons Black folks avoid spending time in the woods, which Hunter said reflects “a generational fear of the woods.” This fear stems from the terrible things that happened to black people in the woods during America’s eras of slavery, lynchings and Jim Crow laws, memories of which Black families have shared with their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren down through the ages, generation after generation.
This “generational fear” can be overcome with education, Hunter asserts. But park operators and other outdoor-oriented business operators also need to learn how to “invite and welcome” people of color to enjoy camping and other recreational pursuits, he said. Hunter has found through his own research that many Black folks often embrace camping once they have more knowledge about the opportunity and are encouraged to do so. They just need a sincere invitation and a welcoming environment.
Hunter added that his Unity Blaze Certification program will not only help park operators learn how to become more welcoming to Black campers, but to prospective campers and employees of any ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation. Black Folks Camp Too’s Unity Blaze Certification program is offered online and takes about one hour to complete. Hunter also offers in-person training sessions that last about three hours. Once certified, Unity Blaze Partners receive certificates, decorative lapel pins, Unity Blaze Flags, door decals, signage and other items with the Unity Blaze — a black, white and red campfire logo that signifies that “everyone is invited and welcomed.”
Hunter’s hope is that the Unity Blaze logo eventually becomes as universally recognized as the peace sign, representing each partner organization’s commitment to increasing Unity in the Outdoor Community and Beyond.
Meanwhile, as campgrounds and RV parks become Unity Blaze Certified, Black Folks Camp Too will promote their success through its website and through its own media outreach efforts, which can spread the word about these parks to diverse audiences that such parks may not otherwise reach on their own. In addition, all certified Unity Blaze Partners will receive continuing education on a quarterly basis that provides insights on more ways to “invite and welcome everyone” from all walks of life to get out and camp.
Hunter added that his training can also help the outdoor hospitality industry with another challenge: staffing and hiring. Hunter said that in the past year his company has received hundreds of requests from campgrounds, retailers and manufacturers to help fill workforce vacancies. Unity Blaze Certified partners can access guidance and resources from Black Folks Camp Too that can help them recruit and hire a more diverse staff.
Hunter acknowledges that this work is hard. “But it’s worth it,” he said, “if the campground industry wants to improve the current narrative while increasing revenue.” He believes “the work” involved in hiring a more diverse staff and attracting more diverse guests will get easier as private park operators begin taking action to become better educated on these topics. Hunter also recognizes that the absence of Black campers in campgrounds is just the tip of the iceberg that the outdoor recreation industry needs to address. The same problems exist in outdoor retailers, at the nation’s RV shows, and in state and national parks where Black attendance is universally underrepresented, he said.
While Hunter initially developed his unique “Return on Inclusion” training for RV dealers and manufacturers, Hunter is now expanding across the campground sector, with Spacious Skies being his first private campground operator customer in the United States.
Rasmussen said the training is valuable and has actually prompted her to add more detail to some of her park rules. For example, she prohibits guests from displaying symbols or decor that may incite discomfort or make some guests feel unwelcome, such as confederate or political flags. But while the Black Folks Camp Too training is valuable, Rasmussen also realizes that big changes may not happen overnight and that the ideas, concepts and principles that emerge from Unity Blaze Certification sessions need to be repeatedly discussed and reinforced at staff meetings.
“This is a long game,” she said, noting that Spacious Skies will continue the Unity Blaze program through Black Folks Camp Too as her company acquires other campgrounds across the country.
“One manager admitted she wasn’t expecting much enlightenment (from the training),” Rasmussen added. “However, she was surprised and grateful to gain a whole new perspective. Her son-in-law is Black and they are all full-time RVers and general outdoor enthusiasts. She was able to appreciate her family member, his trials and what he has had to overcome, externally and internally, in a whole new light.”
But while she is doing as much as she can to promote diversity at Spacious Skies, Rasmussen also recognizes that even more effort is needed to persuade the rest of the campground industry to do more to make their parks truly welcoming to campers and employees of every ethnicity, religion, gender and sexual orientation.
While Black Folks Camp Too has been providing Unity Blaze Certification for RV dealers and manufacturers since 2019, campground operators have not been exposed to the program until this year.
With Spacious Skies on board as the first Unity Blaze Partner campground in the United States, other park operators are joining the Unity Blaze Certification movement. Willow Lake Campground and RV Park in Woodstock, Ontario recently came on board as Black Folks Camp Too’s first private campground industry client in Canada.
“I wanted our campground to be reflective of our community and the community around us,” said Mark Jaycock, who co-owns and operates the park with his wife, Melanie. He added that the diversity training and Unity Blaze Certification provided by Black Folks Camp Too should not only help his park attract more black campers, but campers of other ethnicities as well, particularly Ontario’s large and growing population of people of Asian, Indian and other descents.
“From a business perspective,” Jaycock asked, “why wouldn’t I want to connect with everybody?”
Hunter, incidentally, will be a keynote speaker at the Ontario Private Campground Association’s fall convention, which is scheduled for Nov. 19-22 in Kingston, Ont.
Meanwhile, Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Vista Recreation, the largest campground concession operator in public parks across the United States, has hired Black Folks Camp Too to begin training everyone from its managers to its camp hosts.
“I am seeing more diversity, but there is certainly a lot more that we should do,” said Jeff Brown, director of marketing for Vista Recreation, which manages over 600 campgrounds for federal, state and local agencies, including water districts. “There’s just no reason that Black folks’ numbers shouldn’t be a bigger chunk of our business.”
Roughly 80% of national park visitors are white, but only 20% are people of different ethnicities, Brown said, citing National Park Service statistics. “National parks are national resources that should be shared by everyone,” he said.
But Brown has high hopes for Black Folks Camp Too’s Unity Blaze Certification Course and their approach to bringing people together.
“The campfire is a place where everybody gathers around. Earl really has made that campfire and that blaze part of his brand. It’s ‘Black Folks Camp Too.’ It’s (meaning is:) ‘Everybody’s welcome here.’” That’s a philosophy that resonates well with us. That’s why we hired him on to help us move this project forward.”
Vista Recreation will initially use the deep industry experience of the Black Folks Camp Too team and specifically the Unity Blaze program to certify the company’s largest campground concession operations, which are located in California and Tennessee. “We’re training our managers to become trainers,” Brown said, adding that eventually over 200 people, from managers to camp hosts, will become certified in Tennessee and California over the next couple of years.
“Then we will move to other parts of the country and broaden the scope of training,” Brown said, adding that some of the training will be in person while other sessions will take place via the Black Folks Camp Too online learning Academy.
“As the training sessions are completed for employees assigned to each park and they pass their tests, the Unity Blaze flag will go up and we will work with Earl (and Black Folks Camp Too) to do outreach to those communities to ensure that everyone’s experience is good. We want to give that great first impression,” he said.
Brown believes the Black Folks Camp Too training will not only help with diversifying the customer base of campers at public parks, but with staffing as well. He said Vista has several “superstar employees” who are Black, “but we don’t have the number representation that we need.”
Rasmussen, for her part, has deepened her commitment to breaking down the diversity challenges facing the campground industry and is working towards forming relationships with other groups that highlight similar gaps within the Latinx and LGBT+ communities, donating to their causes on Spacious Skies Campgrounds’ behalf.
“We need to put more effort in terms of who we are as hosts and how we make people feel when they come to the campground,” Rasmussen said, adding, “We want them to feel they are part of something bigger, something intangible. It’s a harder concept to wrap your mind around than something that is physical.”
Rasmussen admits she didn’t realize the magnitude of work that needed to be done on the diversity front when she got into the campground business two years ago. But she remains committed to doing everything she can to move her parks and the industry forward, noting that the diversity training and Unity Blaze Certification that Hunter provides through Black Folks Camp Too are a key component of that effort.
“Living in this country, you know how divided it is,” she said. “But you cannot argue with the love of this land. That is something that does not have to be divisive. That is why we picked something that is patriotic (for the name of our company), Spacious Skies. It’s something everyone can get behind. For this industry to be as behind as we all know it is, it is the duty of everyone to make this part of the discussion.”
Rasmussen added that park operators’ efforts to promote unity and acceptance of literally everyone could potentially have a profoundly positive effect not only in the campground business but across America itself. “It could be a foundational shift in the culture of the country,” she said.
Hunter, for his part, agrees that, in the final analysis, his Unity Blaze Certification helps people of different backgrounds to physically come together around a campfire, the world’s oldest form of light and warmth, and simply have conversations with one another.
“It’s around the campfire where we find out that we have more ‘sames’ than differences with one another,” he said.