KOA owner laments company’s branding, missed opportunities

KOA owner laments company’s branding, missed opportunities

By Andy Zipser
Owner of Staunton/Walnut Hills, Virginia KOA

It comes as no surprise that KOA has decided each of us will have to opt for one of its three “brands” by 2020, “Journey, Holiday or Resort.” Forcing those of us who have resisted this needless market segmentation was inevitable. What is surprising, however, is the amount of effort and expense the company keeps pumping into its campaign to convince everyone that this exercise makes sense, culminating most recently in yet another slick report, “The Guest View on Brand Positioning.”

KOA promotional photo. How it wants to be portrayed.

Released at the recent KOA convention, the report is long on conclusions and short on underlying data. So, for example, while the report finds “a solid increase in awareness of KOA’s brand positions,” at no point does the report define “awareness” or how it is meaningful. Elsewhere, the report concludes that four of every five non-KOA campers “have a favorable opinion of KOA quality because of our brand positioning program,” without a shred of justification for using the word “because.” Might that favorable opinion be the result of KOA’s increased media presence and ad buys, regardless of the actual media content? Could it be ever-improving word-of-mouth, as suggested by the system’s overall increase in net promoter scores?  

There are so many gaps in the report’s logic that the only thing we can accept with certainty is that KOA is a well-regarded name, and more so every year. But that only underscores that KOA is the brand, not its “Journey,” “Holiday” or “Resort” permutations, and the strength of that brand rests on the aggregate quality of all our campground facilities and the customer service we provide. The KOA trinity merely tweaks the details, so that a Holiday will have cabins but a Journey won’t—or maybe it will. A Resort will provide food service while a Journey or Holiday won’t—or maybe they will, too, depending on their owners and how they want to serve their campers.

Montana KOA in the summer. Sites packed close together

Mostly what the branding criteria does is assure more of the same as one transitions from Journey to Holiday to Resort: more RV spaces of a minimum width and length, more physical amenities, more recreational opportunities—more, more, more. So the only thing this segmentation does is create the perception of “good, better, best” about which some campground owners have already complained, but without a whole lot of differentiation among the core products being offered. 

With 20-20 hindsight—how ironic, given the target date for everyone to fall in line—the whole branding exercise must be seen instead as a missed opportunity to create something truly meaningful. Instead of creating distinctions without a difference, how much more exciting and useful might it have been if the branding effort had identified—and encouraged the creation of—real differences in the camping experience.

Let’s face it: the KOA brand these days signifies an increasingly antiseptic, “safe” and mediated experience, in the same way that the Disney empire creates faux environments in its various theme parks. But it wasn’t always thus. As described by landscape architect Martin Hogue, the modern concept of camping—of people escaping their comfortable homes for an extended encounter with “nature,” hiking to and clearing a site, hunting for game, collecting water and firewood—dates back to an aristocracy that would take to the Adirondacks with a supporting cast of porters, cooks and other servants to do the actual work. But for all that logistical help, the experience still had a basically raw quality: no running water (except in a stream), no electricity, pit toilets and a certain vulnerability to cold and wet weather. In Hogue’s words, “Stripped of any but the most vital conveniences, the camp is literally and figuratively open to the stimuli of its natural surroundings.”

Long-term campers at KOA in Jackson, Minnesota

What was once a rich man’s indulgence, however, increasingly became available to the masses, thanks first to the automobile and then to the accelerating development of camping technology, which eliminated the need for all that human labor. But that same technology also insulated campers from the stimuli of their natural surroundings. What followed, as recently observed by Hogue in his fascinating essay, A Short History of the Campsite, “was the idealization of nature as peaceful and non-threatening.” Nature, he added “is expected to remain comfortable, visually and emotionally inspiring; but its atmospheric effects should be negligible.” Any KOA campground owner who has fielded complaints about bugs, snakes, skunks, rain, cold fronts, humidity or local farmers spreading manure on nearby fields can empathize.

KOA “cabin.” All the comforts of home, maybe more.

Unfortunately, everything we do as KOA campground owners only accelerates that divorce from nature, even as KOA’s marketing efforts are bent ever more toward assuring campers of the opposite. We add “cabins” that are indistinguishable from small houses, replete with hotel amenities like linens and soap bars. We upgrade our WiFi systems so our campers can access the same level of service that they enjoy at home. We add outdoor lighting, walkways and handrails at every turn, build flowerbeds and create patios with lawn furniture and gas grills. In short, the more we “upgrade” our campgrounds the more indistinguishable they become from our campers’ backyards—and at some point the campers may begin to notice.

Or as Hogue wonders: “The ability to watch a nationally televised baseball game from the concrete pad outside a late-model RV using campground-provided cable, or to send emails wirelessly from the campsite picnic table—standard amenities at most KOAs—bespeaks the near total elimination of boundaries between home and away. Is this the point at which the labor of camping—or, rather, the absence of it—ceases to hold any of its old, once almost mythical power?” 

None of this is to say that KOA is on the wrong path—only to observe that there may be more than one path through the woods ahead. We at the Staunton/Walnut Hills KOA are as complicit as any in providing patio sites and cabins, tending our flower beds and spending big bucks on a WiFi upgrade. But it is a caution against the sort of mindless progression that culminates in the current rage for “glamping,” for which there undoubtedly is a market but which has the same relationship to “camping” that Space Mountain has to the asteroid belt.

Andy’s Staunton/Walnut Hills KOA. One of the best in the system.

Which brings us back to KOA’s “brand positioning” and the missed opportunity it represents. How much more useful it would have been if this impulse had led to an examination of truly different camping experiences, and how those different experiences could be communicated and delivered to the camping public. Instead of “Journey,” “Holiday” and “Resort,” what if the KOA brand included “Backwoods” or “Rustic”—and, yes, “Overnighter” or “Resort,” since those labels actually convey information less nebulous than “Journey” or “Holiday.” Or how many other camping concepts could be envisioned, each presented with a certain baseline of KOA quality but each with its clearly differentiated amenities and expectations?

We’ll never know—that ship has sailed. But meanwhile, let’s not kid ourselves that the brand positioning exercise is in any way meaningful. It remains, alas, a solution in search of a problem.

NOTE FROM EDITOR: Andy Zipser’s family-run Staunton/Walnut Hills (Virginia) KOA is one of the nicest where we’ve stayed, which includes more than 100 KOAs across the country.

##RVT822

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20 thoughts on “KOA owner laments company’s branding, missed opportunities

  1. Eric Meslin

    I won’t stay at a KOA because they are just too pricey. The reviews I’ve seen where I’ve traveled aren’t any better, and many time worse, than other campgrounds in the immediate area.

  2. Dan H.

    Andy’s comments are duly noted and well stated. I stay at KOA campgrounds a lot and I think the new branding will be helpful to us. If I am traveling through the area and need a place to stay, I can go to one of the Walmarts that allow it, go to a family-owned campground and “take my chances” or stay at a KOA. I know the price will be higher than some (certainly higher than Walmart), but I like consistency. I hope the KOA corporation does more to enforce that consistency. If I choose to stay at a Holiday or Resort, I will expect more than a Journey and will let them know if they fail to deliver. Before this change, KOA could have been all over the board quality-wise. I hope it is a change in the right direction.

  3. KCPiton

    A KOA is a KOA, no matter how it is branded, and we avoid KOA campgrounds like the plague. We gave them a chance, but 1, 2, 3 strikes – YOU’RE OUT! I’m sure there might be a KOA or two out there that are great campgrounds, but we have not stayed at any of them. The ones we stayed at across the country were noisy with highway traffic, airport noise, and train horns which blared every hour throughout the night. The prices are outrageous and the sites are so close together that you can pass coffee to your neighbor through your RV windows. You can call it whatever you want, but we will not voluntarily stay at any KOA, be it Journey, Holiday, OR Resort!

  4. Bob Godfrey

    We avoid KOAs at all costs since the only one we’ve stayed at charged an outrageous price for nothing more than an average site. I doubt we will change our habits even if they provide their new “experience” levels. We’ve managed to visit 48 states so far and don’t need them nor their “experience”.

  5. Mike

    KOA now stands for “Keep Out Always”!

    This once iconic brand in it’s market segment has followed the path of one the sewer dumps at what they now call a “Resort”. KOA campgrounds are like Forrest Gump so wittingly said ” They are like a box of chocolates. You never know what you are going to get”!

    I find it interesting that the owner of the campground referenced above who wrote the article critical of KOA and it’s branding/marketing plans continues to be KOA affiliated campground.

    WHY?

    Given all the fantastic reviews of his campground it sounds to me that KOA needs him a Hell of lot more than he needs KOA!

    Until independent camground owners decide to embrace campers and travelers who want a campground spot that does not include more and more space dedicated to hotel rental cabins and “Full Timer’s KOA and others will continue their decline. Their only saving grace will be the “Trump Economy” as referenced earlier and the:”Law of Large Numbers” that the RV industry is currently providing to them with over 500,000 new RV’S this year alone.

    When the next CRASH happens in the RV and Camping industry and it will once again occur this CRASH will be mighty!

    1. Andy Zipser

      Mike,
      Just to respond to your direct question: KOA franchises run five years. We’re still a KOA because our five years aren’t up, but once they are, we’ll be looking at all the pros (and despite my critical outlook, there are some!) and cons of renewing.
      Meanwhile, thanks for your comments.
      –Andy

  6. Clayobx

    We travel mainly up and down the eastern US. In summary KOA’s are no different than any other campground with a similar price point. We use several review systems and google earth to base our stays. Yes, it’s a pain but in today’s overcrowded demands it pays to plan ahead and reserve a site is a “must do”. FWIW we have spent three nights in Mr. Zipser’s KOA, Staunton VA. Beautiful grounds! We had a super large site with grill, full propane tank, great views and lovely swing set for two. We’ll be back the price was fair for value received.

  7. Matthew Colie

    Not that long ago (I could dig out the log books) we were traveling and came on a “Campground” that was little more than a manicured parking lot with FHU-50. It was 20$/night. As we are travelers and not campers, this is exactly what I had in mind. When forced, we have even paid 17$ for a 0HU with access to shows only a 500yd walk away.
    We like Cabela’s better than Walmart, but the one in Hammond has been shut off by the city, so now we avoid Hammond.

  8. CaptnJohn

    40 years ago they were top of the list. Campers were smaller. Now they have flowers and the same tiny sites. Few pull through sites in sardine city.

  9. Rob

    To me it makes no difference what they call themselves. KOA = expensive and I always avoid them, that’s all I need to know. I have checked out a couple in areas that I frequent and their quality is much lower than parks that are much cheaper.

  10. Eric Eltinge

    I have owned 3 franchised retail stores and have been associated with franchised restaurants. Almost always, company owned units offer better quality, service, value, and cleanliness. KOA should raise funds (like Camping World) in this bullish Trump stock market. And then muscle/buy out the lousy franchisees as does McDonalds. The quality and value of the remaining franchises would increase dramatically. We certainly need far more Good Sam 10/10/10 level campgrounds for those of us who own $100K-$500K motorhomes.

  11. Cam

    I like the new direction for KOA. There were far too many parks in their system that had not kept up their facilities to at least meet a common standard. I like to GLAMP …I don’t want uneven sites, potholes in the road, dirty bathrooms, no TV reception and no cable, Wifi that is advertised but is neither Wi or Fi or swimming pools with scum lines.
    I’m willing to pay for well kept facilities and respect those that choose to camp differently. KOA’s are often the only campgrounds in a given area that provide the level of ameneties I want…so I think the marketing dept. is on the right track… filling an underserved but growing niche. Of course…you have to deliver on the promise of differentiation but if I pull into a Journey…I don’t expect a place suitable for a long term stay…but one which delivers on quality for the transient traveller. That’s the other side of the branding…expectations. If I don’t expect every KOA to be the same…then I’m not disappointed in some and happy with others. I want a way to know what to expect.

  12. Mike Roberts

    I feel that a very successful and enjoyable trip is one where I have not stayed at a KOA. I will stay anywhere for a night to avoid a KOA. KOA management must think they are the Whole Foods (Whole Paycheck) of the campground industry.

  13. Will Swarts

    I quit going to KOA because the cost has gotten way out of line. A hotel room is not much more expensive than some KOA parks.

    1. Claud Addicott

      Will Swarts, there are places where nice hotel rooms can be had for less than the local KOA – St. Augustine, for example.

  14. John Mauldin

    For over four decades, I worked as a business consultant. My goal was to get in, assess the growth potential, identify the problems and pose solutions which can be implemented quickly and then embark on the growth plan. Idiots at the top, bent on pushing their solution to massage their egos drive more companies into bankruptcy than can be imagined. This is an example of that.

  15. PeteD

    KOA is my stop of last resort. The sites are crowded with sewer connections and power pedestals right outside door. I have no interest in mobile home living. I want an outdoor experience. That’s why I try to stay at as many state parks as possible. Most offer power, water and a dumpstation with a large treed campsite, often out of sight of others. I would gladly pay KOA prices for this experience over what you most often find at KOA or other commercial campgrounds.

  16. Bill

    Interesting article. The biggest problem I have is that this rebranding has done nothing to “improve” the camping experience. KOA was, at one time, synonymous with familiarity. You could always count on any KOA to offer the same services anywhere you went. But with rebranding, all I see is the same old – same old, only it costing me more. I thought $50.00 an night was bad enough, but to book the same spot with the same amenities, now for the “holiday” rate of $75.00 a night, forget it. I will overnight at Wal-Mart thanks. Campground owners, including KOA, are always complaining about people overnighting in parking lots. There is real money to be had if someone would start a chain of overnight parking with a dump station. But that’s a topic for another day.

  17. Brian Jensen

    One gripe I have with KOA is that I bought their value card for a 10% discount and found out I can get the same discount for being an AARP member. What a rip-off!

    1. Jeff

      I have the KOA Value Card as well. I have accumulated over 25000 points over the past year.

      On my last KOA experience around Franklin, KY, the KOA had already charged my credit card for the nights stay and never gave me an opportunity to use my points for a discount. The desk clerk said they could not reverse the charges, what a bunch of BS. What if I had decided not to stay that night. It would have cost me $10 fee, but they would have had to refund the balance. It just boils down to KOA employees be to Lazy or just Stupid! So, this KOA around Franklin, KY will be off my future list.

      I also complained to the management, but as usual never heard back from them. Bad, BAD BAD!

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