The Herkimer Diamond KOA in upstate New York has all of the hallmarks of the iconic American roadside campground. Located just outside Herkimer, a rustic hamlet four hours from Manhattan perched on the Erie Canal, the campground is a picture postcard of tent sites, RV pads, a burbling creek and a children's playground. You can almost hear June and Ward Cleaver calling for the “Beav” so they can start the marshmallow roast.
But look again, and it’s obvious this isn’t an episode of “Leave It To Beaver” -- in fact, there’s been a significant change to the signature American family campsite, especially those operating under the banner of Kampgrounds of America Inc. (KOA) -- as well as to KOA's much smaller rivals. That’s because along with the tents and RVs -- the roughing it (or relatively so) part of camping -- there are cabins filled with amenities, powered, in some cases, by solar cells. And more “decked out” shelters are on the way, not just at Herkimer but also at many of KOA’s facilities.
In other words, while KOA has grown in the American psyche since its founding some fifty years ago to represent family camping -- not quite wilderness living but a wholesome outdoors experience distinct from the kitsch, comfort and materialism of a Marriott or a golf spa and resort -- it’s retooling a bit to respond to the changing vacation preferences of families. Whereas once dad, mom and the kids would take lengthy road trips from one end of the nation to the other with relatively short stays at campsites, now they are taking shorter trips and remaining at a single destination longer.
"People are staying closer to home; they're not taking the weeklong vacation; their boss hasn't taken a vacation in years,” KOA CEO Jim Rogers said.
Much of this trend is a by-product of the unstable economy and the uncertain picture for jobs and wages. Compelled to save for possible economic trouble ahead -- a lost job, a downturn in their industry -- as they edge closer to paying for college tuition or retirement, fewer Americans are willing to run up a big balance on their credit cards by taking expensive vacations in exotic or expensive places. Quite to the opposite, many are dead set on cutting back credit card debt. KOA, by far the largest campground company in the U.S. with more than 450 franchisees, including concessions at many national parks, sees that as an opportunity.
“Camping is more affordable," said Rogers, who added that as many as 57 percent of visitors to KOA campsites spent the previous night at home. "The idea of this group of people going from New York to Mount Rushmore, that doesn't really exist anymore."
But to attract these new potential campers, many of whom would have booked lodging at a hotel a year or so ago, KOA has had to offer more amenities and downplay a bit the whole outdoors living under the stars routine. That’s where KOA’s "Deluxe Kottages" and "Solar Lodges," come into play.
At the Herkimer Diamond KOA, Deluxe Kottages run between $130 and $155 per night, while the slightly larger, solar powered lodges run around $160, at prices that are more or less comparable to what many people might spend on a nice hotel room. They come with air conditioning, heating, running water, full bathrooms, kitchenettes, a master bed and bunk beds as well as a pullout couch. Some have surround sound audio systems and flat-screen TVs.
With the success of these cabins -- KOA says that they are the company’s fastest revenue growth category, with Labor Day weekend reservations for these facilities at Herkimer up 17 percent compared to the year before -- other campground providers have followed suit. For example, Memphis-based RVC Outdoor Destinations owns and operates seven campgrounds, predominantly in the southeast United States, and it also offers a variety of cabin and cottage options, in a similar price range.
It’s a way to make an outdoor vacation "more civilized," said Alex Embry, RVC’s marketing chief. "We want you to rethink camping."
Renee Scialdo Shevat, who owns Herkimer Diamond KOA, particularly wants mothers, who do the majority of trip and vacation planning for families, to give camping another try -- and she says that cabin camping is far more palatable to moms because the inconvenience of buying and packing camping gear like tents and sleeping bags are eliminated.
In large part because of the four-wall camping strategy, KOA has had a banner year. Check-ins at KOA campsites rose 7 percent year-over-year for Memorial Day Weekend. Reservations for the summer overall climbed roughly 5.5 percent, an impressive performance in a difficult period for much of the lodging industry.
Still, this new-look camping approach is a significant departure from what the company’s founder, Montana cattleman Dave Drum, had in mind for KOA, when he launched the outfit in 1962 to give the growing number of Americans traveling the nation's brand new interstate highways a spot to sleep, have cookouts, and get a drink of water and a warm shower. The first KOA campground was situated on the Yellowstone River and was a huge hit with travelers on the road to the 1962 World's Fair in Seattle. Within two decades, KOA grew to more than 800 campgrounds. By the mid-1990s, as tent camping started to decline, KOA pivoted to take advantage of increasing numbers of baby boomers who were now traveling by RV.
As KOA sites offer what traditionally has been the domain of motels and hotels, the question naturally arises, why not just book a motel room? KOA’s answer is relatively straightforward: You can’t have the outdoor experience at a hotel. At a hotel, there are no marshmallow roasts and burning logs, no sounds of crickets at dusk or the occasional sighting of a doe and fawn. And most of the time, there won’t be a stream for fishing or tubing.
"We need to get Americans outdoors," KOA’s CEO Rogers said, and cottages and lodges give people comfortable amenities while still forcing them to interact with nature and each other. "We as a society have locked ourselves up with technology, [but in a campground] in five minutes you'll be socializing with the person next to you. We're kind of the last small town in America."
Ah, yes, it’s about the Cleavers after all.