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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.