Mark Lemoine

Editor’s note: This column was written by Mark Lemoine, the owner of the Coloma/St. Joseph KOA Holiday in Benton Harbor, Mich. 

It’s unbelievable, but we find ourselves today living in the midst of numerous state executive orders across the country where 1 in 4 Americans are currently required to stay home except for necessities – grocery shopping, medical visits, and getting fresh air. While we all have a responsibility to regard the recommendations of federal, state and local authorities, this present-day environment has revealed a chasm of understanding which is as big as the great outdoors itself — the essential services provided at RV parks and campgrounds.

In recent days as these orders have taken effect, state and local officials have at times interpreted the orders as requiring RV parks and campgrounds to close as they were not expressly deemed “essential.” The governors of Pennsylvania, Indiana and Montana, to name a few, quickly made clarifications that have allowed RV parks and campgrounds to remain open.

Unfortunately, it appears that RV parks and campgrounds are commonly thought of purely as a recreational outlet. However, for those of you who do not consider yourself much of an outdoorsman or outdoorswoman, allow me to enlighten you with a greater understanding of the fundamental value RV parks and campgrounds offer in the hospitality industry.

According to the 2019 North American Camping Report, 78.8 million North Americans have enjoyed a camping experience at least once annually, arguably making camping the quintessential outdoor activity. Thinking of RV parks and campgrounds more like hotels in an outdoor package, we most often offer guests short-term, temporary accommodations, usually on sprawling parcels of land with acreage to stretch out and have plenty of elbow room between one another. Additionally, RV parks and campgrounds in many cases offer resort-style amenities such as pools, playgrounds, club houses, nature trails and potentially other high-end products such as fully furnished patio sites complete with gas grills, pet corrals, or private hot-tubs. Entertainment or all-inclusive services at RV parks and campgrounds can also exist beyond traditional hayrides, crafts and ice cream treats to include water slides, zip lines, rock walls, mini-golf courses, go-kart tracks, and even on-site, full-service restaurants.

While tenting is still the primary form of camping for most people, the data reveals that 24% (or 1.8 million individuals) camp in an RV. For RVers in particular, they come into these outdoor settings bringing their own living quarters with them, which are fully self-contained units that house everything they need to sustain life, including their living rooms, kitchen, bedrooms and their own bathroom, and hopefully in present days…their own toilet paper.

Furthermore, according to a 2018 Washington Post article, it is estimated that there are one million Americans whose primary residence is their RV. Some live year-round in an RV in pursuit of a minimalist existence or perhaps due to socio-economic challenges. Others enjoy a more luxurious, nomadic lifestyle traveling across North America in rigs worth well over a $1 million chasing warm weather or exploring new and exciting parts of the country. In the industry, they’re called residents, seasonals or full-timers. Across this spectrum are thousands of RV parks and campgrounds that also run the gambit of quality services and amenities so RVers of all walks of life can embody the saying, “Home is where you park it!” In short, RVers enjoy all the conveniences of a traditional home but do so with a little more freedom to roam.

Therefore, in this time of public health crisis, thinking or RV parks and campgrounds simply as leisure, vacation spots — i.e. non-essential destinations — is not only disruptive to the one million individuals who rely on our being available to accommodate them, it’s short-sighted.

Rather, RV parks and campgrounds should more accurately be thought of like small communities. To accommodate the RVers, sites can include the basic utilities of water, electric and sewer (a.k.a. “full hook-up”). RV parks and campgrounds also have general stores selling grocery items, take-out foods and propane, items that have all been identified by the federal government as essential services at the start of the national emergency.

However good-intentioned they may be, policymakers and public health authorities should pause before arbitrarily closing RV parks and campgrounds. Such knee-jerk decisions only show their lack of understanding of our industry and result in the eviction of RVers or the elimination of the location at which these individuals most often choose to park their homes either for a single night during their travels, a short-term stay, or living at for an extended period of time.

With over 525 campgrounds in their system, Kampgrounds of America Inc. (KOA) is North America’s leader in outdoor hospitality. The overwhelming majority of people affiliated with the company are franchisees that have fully embraced the entrepreneurial spirit of running their own businesses. As a recovering white-collar worker myself, I’ve come to respect that these franchisees consist of talented men and women with experience in a skilled trade that gets put to use each day. They are also individuals who, like me, may have undergone a career transformation. Owning or operating an RV park or campground allows us to use a skill-set or expand the portfolio of our strengths in customer service, marketing or business administration we’ve acquired or developed while running other successful small businesses or during our time in corporate careers we have since left behind.

When viewed collectively, this group of talented franchisees are people who are constantly smiling because we have an opportunity to invest in the lives of others, creating exceptional experiences for people to enjoy with their friends and families, and best of all, we’ve traded suits and ties for more comfortable daily attire that includes the trademarked KOA yellow shirts.

Our formal mission is, “To connect people with the outdoors and each other.” To achieve this as industry leaders, we are eager to take appropriate steps and share the commitment to address the current public health threat. Such response is no different than the responsible actions taken in recent weeks by the owners, executives or employees of grocery stores, banks, restaurants, hardware stores, home improvement centers and hotels and motels that continue to serve the general public.

To that end, owners and managers of RV parks and campgrounds are fully capable of adapting our businesses to the current conditions and to adhere to the guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In fact, most operations have already enacted procedures and measures to limit staff-to-staff, staff-to-guest, and guest-to-guest interaction. These include things such as:

  • Closing all common areas including restrooms, playground, and clubhouse, etc.;
  • Closing all tent sites;
  • Closing all cabins and other rental accommodations with no bathrooms;
  • Require online reservations with full payments to eliminate the need to come into the office to register;
  • Provide curbside check-in to avoid congested registration areas;
  • Reduce hours, limit access or close general store and cafe (or other food services), and providing no-contact deliveries to site;
  • Limited access to laundry room facilities;
  • Enhanced cleaning of equipment and facilities, and increased access to sanitizing stations to increase convenience and enhance guest personal responsibility for improved handwashing/hygiene;
  • Prohibit outside visitors from coming on the property;
  • Post signs or send communications urging guests to practice social distancing while on property.

In the end, federal and state policy leaders and local officials, need to view RV parks and campgrounds not as threats, but as partners with oversight of a microcosm of the larger area. We are also led by business leaders equally committed to the health and well-being of everyone that comes into our smaller communities.

And yes, when the current public health threat is hopefully behind us soon, RV parks and campgrounds will also eagerly welcome all leisure guests who will be yearning to improve their own mental health by satisfying their instinctive need to get outside and enjoy a camping experience. Most importantly, with plenty of room for social distancing.