From editor Chuck Woodbury
Andy Zipser is the owner of the KOA franchise in Staunton, Virginia (but not for long). I recently stayed with him for a few days. Andy was very eager to answer every question I asked him about operating an RV park, part of my ongoing education about the challenges of running a successful campground.
I learned a lot. And as someone who has stayed at at least 150 KOAs through the years (I had free passes for a decade), I am familiar with the system. I have been critical of it lately, after coming upon too many KOAs that I found run down, overpriced and crowded — or all of the above.
Andy’s park, on the other hand is meticulously cared for. It’s large by KOA standards (44 acres) with only about 150 campsites. Andy could double the number of campsites if he wished. But instead, he has left a lot of open space between most campsites and throughout the park’s grounds.
But now, for reasons Andy outlines below, he is dropping his affiliation with KOA. I believe you will find his reasoning interesting.
By Andy Zipser
So we pulled the plug. Five years after buying the Staunton/Walnut Hills KOA, we’ve decided to not renew our franchise and will become, as of Feb. 1, the Walnut Hills Campground and RV Park. It’s a nerve-wracking proposition. Many RVers will shrug and say, “So? What’s the big deal?” But for us, this is a decision fraught with uncertainty.
When we bought our RV park five years ago, our only campground experience was as campers — which qualified us to run a campground as much as digging into a steak qualifies someone to be a rancher. The thought of having KOA’s deep backstop of talent to draw on as we bumbled our way into the business was hugely reassuring, and so was the idea of all that brand recognition to pull in customers. Small wonder, then, that we’d no more than filed our closing papers before my daughter and I were flying off to KOA headquarters in Billings, Montana in chilly February for a week at KOA-U, hoping to glean all kinds of campground operating wisdom.
Alas, that was not to be. Perhaps half of of our KOA-U time was devoted to teaching us the quirks of Kampsight, KOA’s creaky DOS-based reservation system that only now is getting upgraded to contemporary standards. The balance of our time was spent being introduced to KOA’s corporate culture, history and personnel. Time devoted to running a campground? Not so much.
As we learned over the years that followed, however, such a practical education would have strained the company’s resources. Few KOA staffers have boots-on-the-ground experience in the business, and only a handful actually get into the field for a behind-the-scenes look at one of the 370 or so franchisees in the system. Just about everything we learned in the months and years that followed came from the school of hard knocks and from other campground owners, who as a rule are enormously willing to share information, advice and cautions. The folks in KOA corporate, meanwhile, focused their energies on spinning abstract visions of what camping should be all about, from patio sites to deluxe cabins to the “branding” fiasco (of designating parks as Journey, Holiday or Resort).
Or to put it another way: while we were struggling with a 45-year-old infrastructure (think wheezing pumps, a decaying waterworks, uninsulated buildings and shared electric pedestals), the deep talent pool from which we had expected to draw was brainstorming a series of standards and “improvements” that invariably were either a) incredibly obsessive, or b) incredibly expensive.
The first category—the number of hooks in each shower stall, how many square feet per patio, whether a dog-park gate should have a latch even when on self-closing hinges, what color pants our staff should wear — sucked at our energy. The second drained our checking account. And all along we were paying more than 10 percent of all site revenues for the privilege of claiming the KOA name.
To be fair, this was not entirely as one-sided as the above recitation suggests. The KOA company is a marketing juggernaut. KOA has done more than anyone else to promote the RV lifestyle to the American public, has surveyed and chronicled the industry’s shifting demographics, and has positioned itself as a trusted and consistent provider of safe, clean and even attractive camping facilities.
Our French-Canadian campers en route to Florida (and back again) are fiercely brand-loyal, referring fondly to their “koas,” pronounced as one word rather than an acronym. Many new RV owners flock to KOAs as a safe harbor in an otherwise uncertain wilderness of sometimes sketchy facilities. We’ve heard many times from campers who say, “I always stay at KOAs” or “I wouldn’t stay anywhere other than a KOA.”
But it was instructive, also, to hear from the many campers who swear they’ll never stay at a KOA — that the campgrounds are too expensive and layer on too many additional fees, meriting the “Keep On Adding” label — that the parks are too crowded and cramped, with too many sites shoe-horned into too small an area. Or that they’re inadequately maintained or the employees too surly or that they’re too close to a highway/railroad tracks/airport runways to allow for a peaceful night’s rest—enough for one wag to contend that the KOA acronym actually stands for Keep Out Always.
Many of the criticisms are bogus, in that they apply to a specific facility and are not systemic: any campground, KOA or otherwise, may have surly employees. Any campground, depending on how it’s managed, may have dirty bathrooms. But…
Last week we had a Texas camper who said we were the third KOA at which he’d stayed on his way north, and that he’d been happily surprised that our sites aren’t as jammed together as they are at those other campgrounds. But he’d read our entrance sign, which announces we’ll soon be giving up the KOA brand and will become a Good Sam affiliate instead, which cost us $1,,000 to join with no further digging into our pockets. He was wondering why we were making the change.
Simple, I replied: being a KOA is incredibly expensive. For everyone.
For us, there’s the 10 percent of site revenues for franchise and advertising fees, which in our case came to more than $60,000 in 2017. That’s on top of the 10 percent discount KOAs offer to Value Kard Rewards holders, which we’ll be replacing with a 10 percent Good Sam discount in February.
Then there are all the costs incurred by KOA’s branding criteria. Take, for example, the requirement that a KOA Holiday-branded campground must have at least two deluxe cabins—a minimum initial expense of $80,000, followed by ongoing housekeeping, maintenance and linen costs. We already have the cabins, but some campgrounds don’t and so have to figure out how to absorb their costs. Other expenses that come with being a KOA, such as additional credit card fees created by its proprietary reservation system, also aren’t seen by the public — but somehow they must be paid.
SO KOAs WILL RAISE THEIR RATES. Or they’ll squeeze in more sites to “maximize revenues.” Either way, they’ll do whatever it takes to meet the escalating demands placed on them by the parent company, but guess who ultimately foots the bill?
For some campers—and campground owners—that’s not a problem. Indeed, some RV owners are perfectly willing to pay a little extra in exchange for a perceived guarantee that certain standards will be met. And many campground owners, who would scream bloody murder if their taxes were raised 10 percent are more than willing to pay an equivalent franchise fee for KOA brand recognition and a loyal customer base. We came to realize, however, that we’re simply not in that group, and that we can continue to meet and exceed KOA’s standards without its burdensome payout—indeed, that the money we’ll save on franchise fees can be better used to further upgrade our facilities.
Which brings me back to my opening statement about this being a nerve-wracking proposition. Although we’re confident that most campers who stayed with us in the past will be back, with or without a KOA discount, we don’t know how many Value Card holders will never give us a look because we’ve left the system—and the KOA system is all they know. We like to think that’s their loss, but have to hope we’re not just whistling past the graveyard and that there are enough “Keep Out Always” campers who now will give us a shot, so that in the end it won’t make any difference.
But just like five years ago, we don’t really know what we‘re getting ourselves into. And yes, that’s nerve-wracking.