Founded 60 years ago, Kampgrounds of America (KOA) has grown to become the world’s largest system of privately held campgrounds. Originally joining KOA as Digital Marketing Director, Toby O’Rourke has moved up to lead the company as President and CEO. Using her background and expertise in marketing, she identified an opportunity to overhaul its entire approach to marketing and built a digital marketing department from the ground up.
“We were doing traditional marketing at the time, nothing in terms of digital advertising, digital strategy or social media,” she shares. “Now we have a very robust website with 36 million sessions to our website. We’re actually tracking way ahead of that this year.”
As KOA celebrates its 60th birthday, Toby is focused on nurturing the brand and continuing digitalization, technology and growth initiatives. While many may view camping as a traditional or old-fashioned activity, KOA is firmly set on creating a future-focused vision with its new brands of glamping, luxury and rustic, helping segment the brand.
“Now we have a very robust website with 36 million sessions to our website.”
“I put a lot of my effort into the modernization of camping,” Toby shares. “We have a mobile app now that is a part of us bringing a lot of camping into the modern age.”
With 525 parks across the US and Canada, there is a demand to establish different brand segments that cater to a range of customer needs. “As the world’s largest network of campgrounds, we felt we needed to say that we’re serious about the experience for our guests.”
The new glamping-oriented brand called Terramor Outdoor Resort, with its flagship property in Bar Harbor, Maine, is one of the most exciting projects Toby is working on as KOA is establishing a whole new segment of its business.
“I’m very passionate about the intersection between luxury and rustic camping, and where we can go with that as a company,” she says. “We just opened last year and we’re continuing to expand this concept to more locations. Right now, we’re in the midst of a big growth phase, and I think that’s the biggest thing I tapped into shortly after becoming CEO.”
Driving forward growth is a core part of the plan Toby has for KOA. This ambitious growth strategy aims to triple the bottom line of KOA by 2030, with an aggressive goal of expanding both the number of parks it owns as well as adding even more franchises, contributing to this target.
“Of the 525 parks, we own about 40 of those,” she explains. “A lot of our growth is to do with driving growth of our own portfolio. We’ve completely accelerated our acquisition strategy over the past year.”
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic forced KOA to take a hiatus from its expansion as it navigates through this new normal. Toby and her team at KOA have learned from the early lockdowns and COVID-related restrictions to become better prepared for whatever comes next. “We became very disciplined about updating our forecasts every two weeks, and that financial discipline allowed us to make decisions and respond quickly,” she points out.
“I’m very passionate about the intersection between luxury and rustic camping.”
Through divesting from properties that don’t make sense in its portfolio and being selective in the new parks it is adding to the network, KOA is moving forward. “We’re putting a lot of emphasis on maintaining our franchise network,” she says. “This is extremely important to us and we put a lot of work into the services and training we provide to the small business owners.”
In the early stages of the pandemic, Toby made the decision to provide financial support to KOA’s campgrounds by reimbursing lost deposits and cancellation fees. In total, these reimbursements cost the company about US$4 million.
“We did that to help our campgrounds provide a consistent experience to campers that were canceling and having to change their travel plans, but also to provide some financial assistance to campgrounds before government assistance was available,” she explains.
Maintaining solid relationships with suppliers is at the heart of KOA’s operations. Strategic supplier partnerships have played an important role in scaling up the deluxe cabin product and getting them onto sites quickly.
“We have established great relationships with various suppliers of these products, as there are different manufacturers across the country for deluxe cabins,” Toby says. “We have partners that work the best for us.”
“For me, transparent, open communication is vital.”
Close supplier relationships have enabled KOA to create a ready-to-use model. “When it gets to the campground, it has all of our specs already and there’s less rework that needs to be done,” she adds. “We also have good partnerships with a variety of merchandisers that allow people in our system to shop their stores, which make the process more accessible and affordable for individual business owners.”
When Toby took over as CEO, she wanted to convey her leadership philosophy to all employees in an accessible and easy-to-understand way. One of her first actions was to create a kaleidoscope image that is incorporated into the KOA brand logo.
“The kaleidoscope is very multifaceted; there are lots of little pieces working together,” she says. “I’m a really big believer in cross-functional collaboration, which can help connect dots between teams, gather input and find solutions.”
She believes that by working cross-functionally, staff will not only feel empowered but can also break out of silos and work more effectively. Collaborating across teams and across levels of the organization is essential in order to get a better product, according to Toby. “The other thing with the kaleidoscope is it’s bright and colorful, and the light shines through to create transparency. For me, transparent, open communication is vital.”
Fostering a culture of open collaboration and transparent communication is hard at any organization, but it is especially complex to achieve in a franchise organization. “It’s difficult but we’re constantly working on communication here to make sure we’re doing it transparently, openly and honestly,” Toby says. “I’m a very big stickler on that, even if the message is tough to deliver, we have to be open and transparent with each other.
“When you turn the kaleidoscope, the picture changes into something new and beautiful. We’re not stagnant, we are constantly looking to improve.”
Digitization OverhaulKeeping up-to-date with new technological trends and innovations is an important aspect of operations for Toby. A project called Campground of the Future was launched a few years ago to spark innovation by looking at how technology changes around the world could be implemented into campgrounds.
From examples in retail like cashier-less checkouts to takeaway food delivered by robots, many ideas from the Campground of the Future have been considered. “We’re also looking at how to better integrate solar into our campgrounds, as well as other environmental and sustainability-driven projects,” Toby shares. “Right now, we’re working on electric vehicle charging station projects, so in the future we hope there will be EV chargers at all of our campgrounds.”