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KOA CEO says: ‘We’re expecting biggest July 4th ever!’

EDITOR’S NOTE: When you want to know how things are going, sometimes it’s best to go right to the source. Toby O’Rourke, President and CEO of Kampgrounds of America Inc., recently penned an essay addressing her predictions for the Fourth of July holiday weekend and how camper attitudes will likely impact the rest of the summer camping season. In the spirit of full disclosure, I will tell you that I did work with and for Toby during my time as vice president of Communications for KOA. But since KOA has now been around for 60 years and continues to have great influence on the camping lifestyle, O’Rourke’s take on the future of camping is worth a read. —Mike Gast / RVtravel.com

There’s reason to be optimistic for the rest of the summer season

By TOBY O’ROURKE / President & CEO, Kampgrounds of America Inc.

The 4th of July/Canada Day holiday is traditionally one of the busiest camping weekends of the year, and this year is no exception. An estimated 21.5 million households plan to camp this weekend, an 8.6% increase over 2021. Despite rising gas prices and high inflation, it looks to be the busiest July holiday weekend on record for KOA. Heading into the weekend, we are trending ahead of last year’s holiday by 4% in occupancy.

Despite soaring gas prices, KOA camping remains healthy. We continue to hold our own against our record-breaking 2021 year. We are seeing solid reservations with advanced deposits up 2% over where they were at this point last year. There is still pent-up demand for travel coming off the previous two years of the pandemic, and outdoor vacations are resonating strongly with North Americans.

I am very optimistic about the remainder of the summer season but want to keep watching things closely. Our industry is seeing some impacts from economic conditions. For those not camping this holiday weekend, 30% attribute it to financial reasons, including 24% citing the rise in gas prices. Research we conducted at the beginning of June indicates that 80% of campers have made some type of adjustment to their camping plans.

The primary change to camping behavior in response to gas prices is to camp closer to home. One-third of campers said they were planning to camp closer to home and/or travel shorter distances due to gas price fluctuations. Typically, more than half of campers travel within 100 miles of residence, and this percentage will likely increase this year with gas prices at historic levels. Related to this, we have seen higher cancellations related to fuel prices in some destination locations that typically attract guests from further away. However, these campgrounds are re-filling these cancellations with reservations from local and regional campers that want to stay closer to home.

Another response to increased costs is campers taking fewer camping trips. One-third of campers indicate they plan to take fewer camping trips this year if gas prices continue to rise. In 2021, 43% of campers took three or more trips, which could decrease this year. Some may choose to take one or two trips, while 20% will shift to staying at a single destination longer. There is also a segment of campers who are delaying their trips until late summer or fall, taking a “wait and see” approach to see if gas prices level out.



One way campers are also adjusting behavior is through their booking patterns. Our June research showed that approximately one-third are booking less than a month in advance. At KOA, we had a 5% increase in campers booking within a one-week period compared to June of last year. This could be related to campers wanting certainty that they can travel when they make reservations to reduce cancellation fees or loss of deposits if they have less discretionary income.

We have historically seen camping as a viable vacation option during times of economic uncertainty because of its flexibility and affordability. This year, 42% of campers have canceled other leisure trips and replaced those with camping. With airline prices increased by at least 30% compared to last year, camping is an affordable option within the leisure travel space. There’s also a sizable amount of campers who already own RVs — 11 million. It stands to reason that a significant portion of these owners will choose to use the RV they’ve already invested in for some of their leisure travel this year.

Overall, camping enthusiasm is strong. The healthy reservations for the 4th of July/Canada Day weekend support that outdoor travel continues to appeal to North American travelers. In the past two years, over 19 million new households have tried camping for the first time, and now, in the wake of economic uncertainty, many are again attracted to camping as a vacation option. Cancellations due to gas prices remain low for KOA at only 6% of all cancellations. I anticipate campers will continue to take a resourceful approach throughout the rest of the season but keep engaged in what’s increasingly become a beloved activity.

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