Saturday, June 10, 2023


KOA direction is ‘luxury and rustic camping’—Really?

By Andy Zipser 
KOA is marking its 60th anniversary this summer, long enough to become the camping industry’s big dog. Over those six decades it has grown from a string of mom-and-pop campgrounds in the country’s northern tier into a web of 540 RV parks, campgrounds and glamping parks across the United States and Canada, 40 of which are company-owned and the rest owned by franchisees. KOA is big enough and has been around long enough, in other words, that when it speaks about the state of the industry, others lean in to listen.All of which have made Toby O’Rourke, the company’s president and CEO, a much-sought-after speaker within RVing circles. Sometimes she appears at events with a ream of statistics gleaned from KOA’s ongoing market research—statistics compiled in response to the questions KOA feels are important.

Sometimes she simply talks about the industry’s future, telling reporters how she sees the industry evolving and how she envisions KOA responding. Because of her position, and because she’s smart and articulate, O’Rourke’s analysis and pronouncements carry extra heft. And because KOA is such a dominant presence in the industry, when it banks either left or right, the industry overall tends to do likewise.

A KOA digital marketing sway

There is a self-fulfilling quality to all of this, making it doubly important for anyone reading the industry to understand O’Rourke’s inherent biases and assumptions. It helps to know, for example, that O’Rourke’s initial position with KOA was as its digital marketing director—a position promoting the brand via the internet and other forms of digital communication. If the world can be divided into the concrete and the abstract, camping—at least as we have known it until now—can be filed in the “concrete” category; digital marketing falls squarely within the abstract world.

Luxury and rustic all at once? Really?

Toby O’Rourke

Maybe that’s why, in an interview with CEO Magazine this past December, O’Rourke could declare that she’s “very passionate about the intersection between luxury and rustic camping, and where we can go with that as a company.” The statement is dissonant on its face, as if someone were to say they were passionate about the beauty found in squalor. Possible, perhaps, but only in the most abstract sense. If there is an intersection between luxury and rustic camping, it involves completely nullifying the meaning of “rustic.” It means pivoting away from the concrete world to a conceptual one.

Are the figures right?

Is that too abstract? How’s this for a concrete spin on things: A couple of months ago, speaking at an “RV Park Industry Power Breakfast” in Indiana, O’Rourke acknowledged there aren’t enough campsites to meet demand. But she explained that it would be hugely expensive to do so—$17,000 to $18,000 per site to expand an existing campground, $45,000 to $55,000 per site when building a new park.

No one, apparently, questioned those numbers. No one, it seems, wondered why a new RV site was being priced at the same level as a new RV. And no one asked O’Rourke what all that money would be buying, and if there wasn’t a “value menu” or “economy option” as an alternative to the blue-ribbon specials KOA has been funding.

And those dollar amounts, let’s be clear, undoubtedly are what KOA—and Blue Water, and Northgate, and LSI and all the other industry behemoths—are spending, creating O’Rourke’s intersection between luxury and ersatz rustic: paved RV patios and path lighting, water parks and jacuzzis, glamping tents with en suite bathrooms. Under their influence, the whole industry is moving in the same direction.

Smaller voices emerge

Well, almost all. Every now and then a smaller voice emerges amid the cacophony, such as the announcement last week by the Newman family—Tom and Marilyn, as well as son Jayson and daughter-in-law Rachel—that they are building a 49-site RV park in La Prairie, Wisconsin. Scheduled to open next May, each site will have a picnic table, fire ring and 50-amp service, but drinking water will be available only from “scattered hydrants,” while black and gray water will have to be hauled to a dump station (although there will be “dry privies spaced out around the park”). For recreation, there are nature trails and shore fishing, not to mention bird watching and “beautiful views.”

Using O’Rourke’s figures, this would be a $2.45 million facility. With more emphasis on the “rustic” and less on the “luxury” end of the scale, I’m betting the Two Rivers RV Park and Campground will come in considerably under less than half that amount—perhaps as little as a fourth—but it will be an outlier. Dave Drum, KOA’s founder, would have found himself entirely at home in such a modest setting, but six decades later his company has moved the needle past anything he would have recognized.

It’s all part of what O’Rourke told CEO Magazine reflects her efforts at “bringing a lot of camping into the modern age.”


The Captivating Story of KOA Campgrounds


Low-income people turning to RVs, while RV parks change with the times

By Andy Zipser
Two unrelated developments this past week affecting two RV parks … illustrate two trends on a collision course. The first trend is that of low-income people increasingly turning to RVs for permanent housing. The second is that RV parks are now tracing the same inflationary curve as the trailer courts that preceded them. Some are shutting down, for a variety of reasons, and many more are either restricting or phasing out long-term residents altogether; almost all are increasing rents, in the most extreme cases doubling their previous rates. Read more.

Andy Zipser is the author of Renting Dirt, the story of his family’s experiences owning and operating a Virginia RV park for eight years, five of which was as a KOA franchise, and of Turning Dirt, a step-by-step guide for finding, buying and operating an RV park and campground. Both books are available through bookstores or at



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Tony Barthel
10 months ago

I really, really like Andy’s take on things, especially as a former KOA campground owner.

While some in the RV industry might be listening to Toby speak, many decision makers are on the fast path to making their RVs more boondocking-friendly. I wonder who provides more overnight stays – KOA or Boondockers Welcome/Harvest Hosts? I don’t know, obviously.

I know I prefer the Boondockers Welcome and Harvest Hosts experience hands down. And that’s the direction many newer RVs are headed, to support the total off-grid experience.

I don’t like seeing the cabins at a place that is there to support we RVers. I also don’t really care for high-end amenities other than a clean laundry room and working hook-ups.

I don’t bemoan anyone for their preferences but before we give Toby that big a voice, perhaps we might want to speak with Joel Holland of Harvest Hosts. I betcha he is more in line with what people want.

10 months ago

For the last year or so we have stayed at koa. In the cabins. We havent towed in a long while now due to the rv surge from 2020, and staying in the cabins we are set apart from most of the campers line. This is how it is now.

We are getting out of rving all together.

We are putting the finishing touches on our beloved rig and putting it up for sale . We figure it will be turn key in about 5 months or so(waiting on parts like replacment fan blades, ect).

The thing is, the transformation of the parks, is a symtpom of a bigger issue. The driving force behind most of this is envy of the highlife resorts. The unrealistic expectation that the 1.5 millon rv owners nationwide will all pay marriot prices to park on some concrete. The income, in the country, for the average person, does not and will not support every rv park marketing themselves as a Marriot (and hoping for the best). This is not stopping this change, however short sighted.

Jim D
10 months ago

The big draw for me for KOAs is online availability/booking. I usually only use the laundry in terms of ‘amenities’. I strongly prefer mom and pop type places when I want to be on the grid for a little bit, but it is SUCH a huge time-suck to call them, leave a message, get a call back 4 hours later, then they dick about as try try to figure out if/when they have a spot. Then they don’t, but by now it’s 5 o’clock and you’ve got to wait till tomorrow to call the next place… and repeat the process. It wasn’t so bad a few years ago when they usually _could_ find you a spot, but now it’s just maddening.

Bob Palin
10 months ago
Reply to  Jim D

Agree 100%. If I can’t book online I rarely stay at a commercial campground.

David W
10 months ago

I can’t believe some of the comments I just read. I’m older (60s) and have been camping/RVing since I was 6. Apparently people are so focused on what they/I want they can’t see past the end of their own noses. There are a handful of campers that love roughing it however the good majority of our kids (40yo and younger) want all of the luxury. We drive through campgrounds and all you see are people glued to their phones and TVs. Not to mention the baby boomers that have to have it all because of their better than everyone attitude. KOA is providing what the consumer wants and is obviously doing a good job of it. So if you don’t like the big campground’s with all the amenities don’t go but don’t put down the people that like it. There are plenty of rustic/overland camping areas available also. Lastly if improved campgrounds are full that should tell you something. Why can’t we all just get along and stop criticizing others because they don’t align with what we think or want. Happy Campin

Tom A B
10 months ago

Also, I don’t see buying and upscaling existing parks as a working solution. Put in a few amenties, double the price, but the RVs are still packed in like sardines. Doesn’t seem like a winning strategy.

Tom A B
10 months ago

There are already lots of upscale RV resorts and parks. These are not the campsites that are booked up far in advance. Maybe one day upscale will be what people want but we’re not there. It seems like wishful thinking on the part of people that want to increase their fees and profits.

Also, RV sales do not point in this direction. RV sales are skewed towards lower-priced units. I’m not sure that someone who buys a $25K trailer is looking for an $80/night resort experience.

D Row
10 months ago
Reply to  Tom A B

I have been closely watching The trends in the RV space for years, and I find almost the exact opposite of everything you said to be true.

Ron Yanuszewski
10 months ago
Reply to  D Row

You’re exactly right, For years now the high end units have been impossible to walk in and buy, where the lower end units collected dust. And the $100 a night places around me are booked for the rest of this year, after last year having no chance ae a decent price. 4 months out was considered last minute.

10 months ago

Customers will expect at the very least water at every site. They expect sewer on private parks. We’ve been a multi park franchisee for 6 years in SD and Wisconsin. So certainly I can cut costs and not install sewer and water on every site. That’s not an ideal situation. Let state parks be state parks, KOAs will continue to give the top of the line amenities services etc.

Larry Lee
10 months ago

KOA seems to be providing what their customers want. They have even catagorized them to indicate if any given park is oriented more toward one night stops along the way, full amenities for a family to enjoy their week’s vacation ala an all inclusive resort, and some in between locations to stay and see the local sites for a few days before moving on. That all seems teasonable to me. The problem only comes up if everyone else starts following KOA to the loss of our rustic places. Keeping in mind that even folks with a 40 foot diesel pusher like rustic in appearance, but anyone planning on a two week stay needs water/sewer/elec at the site (except perhaps single young men who like fishing, tolerate dry privies, and don’t bath very often). In other words, I am hopeful we can maintain our current “something for everyone” attitude which I still see expressed even within some campgrounds with tents only sections, Big Rigs sections, no generators, etc.

Camping out since age 7.

10 months ago

Count us out of O’Rourke’s visions! A bunch of amenities that we never use only jacks up the price at these “campgrounds”. I’d rather go to a simple state park with a quiet atmosphere and a good view!

10 months ago

I don’t want to Camp… I want to RV to interesting places where everything I need or want is where I park. I am happy to stay and pay for what I want…level sites, modern and clean bathrooms, reliable power, high bandwith and available wifi, cable TV, clean & open pool. I don’t need the pavers or the patio and I bring my own grill… but guess which Kampground franchise can largely be counted on to provide almost all of the above?
I recognize that many want to get away from their stuff and many want to find someplace better suited to their personal budgets. Given that KOA is implementing “opportunity pricing” (which I hate!) in many places based on DEMAND… I’d say that they know who their opportunity is pretty well…and it ain’t the guy willing to use a dry privy.

Ardo C Holt
10 months ago

Members of our Motorhome Club recently stayed at Newbern KOA located in Newbern, NC, it is one of the most well run and beautifully kept KOA RV campgrounds we have stayed at, and we have been from NC to Calif. The staff were excellent and very accommodating, anything you needed they were willing to help you. There are lots of things for kids to do, and a fishing pier right on the Neuse River. We will be coming back to this campground again.

10 months ago

I no longer have an RV. When we started RVing in the 1970’s KOA was a reasonable option. Often very rustic. By the 1990’s KOA would be our last choice as we found them too pricey even then. We sold our RV in 2015 and had not use a KOA in years.

Scott R. Ellis
10 months ago

Ironically, the vast majority of articles here–about how to get along with only 30 amps running three AC’s while every wall is slid out away from your king-sized bed from which you watch four televisions unless you get up and walk to the recliner(s) next to the electric “fireplace”–are also antithetical to “rustic.” I mean, sometimes there’s some value in the pot calling the kettle black, but really.

Last edited 10 months ago by Scott R. Ellis
10 months ago
Reply to  Scott R. Ellis

What you have described is the difference between camping and RVing.

Gordy B
10 months ago
Reply to  Dale

I would say the difference is between Glamping and RVing. Camping is more primitive than RVing, more like tents and such. Happy Trails

11 months ago

Personally for us, staying at KOA’s is the exact opposite of what we look for. If that were our only choice in camping, we would sell our rig and move on to something else.
Fortunately, there are still plenty of state, nps, and city/county parks to choose from.
KOA’s may be someone else’s idea of camping but it certainly is not ours.

10 months ago
Reply to  Billinois

Same for us.

That said, even KOA doesn’t seem to have a strict set of standards for every park in their system matching O’Rourke’s vision. There is a KOA we stay at occasionally that is still pretty much a basic campground with reasonable rates.

Most of the time, however, we seek out Regional/County parks. They tend to provide what we want without all the extras we don’t. Quiet with rules enforced as well.

Jeffrey Baker
10 months ago
Reply to  Billinois

They don’t answer the phone anymore. They’re quick to tell you to go online. Leave a message and we will call you back, making you hang on to your phone for the rest of the day to get no reply. They’re the last on my list.

Rick K
11 months ago

Any good CEO would give the people what they want. Infrastructure for full hook ups is expensive. You may not like what they’re selling, so go somewhere else. You’re bias against KOA is showing.

10 months ago
Reply to  Rick K

You’re 100 percent correct, this article fails to understand what KOAs market is. Toby knows the market, and KOA isn’t trying to be a state park. Building a park at this point to the proper way is expensive. Not putting sewer in will certainly let that park keep costs down but they won’t make near the revenue if they did it properly in the first place.

Jesse Crouse
11 months ago

We only need a place to sleep, walk the dogs and dump the tanks if needed with potable water available. KOAQ would only be a last ditch option for us.

Bob p
11 months ago

We stayed in the KOA in Wichita,KS 5 years ago to visit DWs grandson and family who was stationed at the nearby Air Force base. We knew ahead of time it was more expensive than other campgrounds but it was the nearest to the base with ease of transportation. We did not expect to pay $10 each for the great grandchildren to swim in the pool. We didn’t use the pool so if the pool was for registered guests the girls actually used our place in the pool. This and the price for a gravel site that wasn’t level and gravel roads that became a dust storm every time a vehicle drove on them soured us on KOA.

11 months ago

We stay at KOAs regularly and have been very pleased. Different strokes for different folks…there is a big difference between full time and vacation time on an RV….

11 months ago

We enjoy KOAs when traveling. After a long day on the road, amenities are welcome. There’s plenty of room in the campground industry for all types of campgrounds. I do not see KOA’s strategic plan as an issue. If someone has a better idea, go for it.

Chris O’ Molly
10 months ago
Reply to  Dave

Been camping all
My life. Child, teen , adult w children now just husband & I. Tried KOA c 1 yr. Hated every single one. KOA’s, are like as n amusement park. Not camping. Kids screaming people on golf carts? Restaurants? Arrogant people w huge rigs taking up the whole space. I have not gone back again. Give me Maine, private small campgrounds, and state Federal. Done w KOA. It is not camping.

Judy G
11 months ago

Not caring to pay for all the ‘lovely’ amenities, I only stopped two times at a KOA in 12 years of full-timing.

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