RV park drops KOA affiliation: Owner explains why

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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.

Many, if not most of the campsites at Andy’s RV park have lots of space between them.

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.

Andy

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…

Andy and his family welcome each arriving guest on this sign near the check in area, a nice touch!

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.

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frater secessus

I don’t stay in campgrounds much, but I’d prefer one like Andy’s.

Dee

I’d be happy to stay at Andy’s campground, it looks lovely. I prefer not to stay at KOA. They’re over priced, overly cramped, and there are too many kids running around. I like the peaceful tranquility of being away from my “neighbors” sounds of living.

Nanci

When we first began camping we went to a number of KOAs, particularly for our kids. Now as full timers I find I want more space, less neighbors and better sites than generally provided by the current KOA’s. This is the first year we are not renewing our value card (don’t use enough) because of the general decline in quality and the crammed together sites. Good Sam. Campendium and RV park reviews for us!

Mike & Louise Bacque

In this age of social media and dedicated apps for peer reviews of campgrounds (RVParkReviews, Campendium), Andy stands a very good chance of exceeding his vacancy rates as long as he maintains his service standards.

Jillie

All I can say is wow. Sorry to hear he got jacked. We have never felt cramped. We have felt like outsiders and we never felt like KOA was out to get them or us. Except Montreal South. Avoid that one like the plague. At any rate always a great experience no hassles. Yeah a bit more expensive but worth not going for the unknown. Although we have done unknown and love it. There are two new KOAs opening up and I am rather intrigued. One is the Smokeys and the other Alaska. I wish this guy luck. But for the buck? If I am stuck? KOA all the way.

MBrooking

We’ve stayed at this park and enjoyed it very much. We actually are both Good Sam Members and KOA members. Either way we would return to this park as it was well taken care of and very nice. Good luck to them in the future and hope to see you agin soon.

CB Roberts

We use websites such as RV Park Reviews to decide where we will stay. Reviewers tell us what they think and we can find out pricing etc. We can even use Google Earth to take a look at the place. We rarely stay at KOA because they can be one of the highest priced places to stay. We do not need more than full hook ups – the rest is for someone else and we do not want to pay for what we do not use.

Bob Taylor

Not much to add. First camping experience after purchasing a travel trailer in 1988 was at a KOA and was disappointed. Not the campground as much as all the add on prices. $2 Extra for anything and everything. Example. It was too cold to use AC but because I had an air conditioner on the roof I had to pay. Never stayed at KOA until a couple years ago when I visited one in Sevierville, TN. OK experience but KOA is just another choice as I travel.

Laura C

As former full time rvers and now part timers, we don’t see how anyone can afford the rates at KOA parks. As retired folks we don’t use the playgrounds, water slides, bike rentals, etc and don’t appreciate all the kids…we like kids ok but don’t appreciate all the kerfuffle at the end of a driving day. We’ve become dedicated and serious dry campers and are happier out of RV parks but with all the folks on the road now it’s getting harder and harder.

Keith

We’ve been RVing since the 70s and full timing for the last twelve years. Years ago we’d stay at KOAs because like a good hotel chain, you could rely on a standard of quality. But no more. We’ve stayed at an occasional KOA when a better rated park wasn’t available (thank you, rvparkreviews.com) and been disappointed in both the price and quality. Simply put, there is no longer a “standard” to KOA quality – some are great, some horrible – but all overpriced. While some are attractive and suited for family vacationers, they simply don’t fit our lifestyle. I applaud this owner – now….will we see a decrease in rates?

Danny Smith

I have stayed at Andy’s campground multiple times over the years. The staff have been very friendly and helpful. The campground and amenities are well maintained. My family and I enjoy camping there and will continue hopefully for many more years to come. This is our favorite campground. Thank you Andy for not destroying the campground by putting in too many cramped sites and taking the family atmosphere out of it.

Rusty

We are not Walmart or truck stop over nighters. We use KOAs as are stops between here and there. Biggest complaint is cost per night stay.

Sherry

Tonight we are parked in a $60/night parking lot listening to the expressway. Note it is the middle of winter and we will not be using the pool or any other “resort” amenities. RVing is getting to be a racket and KOA and Good Sams the perpetuater. Last spring I decided to give both companies a second chance. I was impressed with the good Sams trip planner feature, sad but you cant use it on the app which is when you really need it. KOAs and Good Sams are undependable as far as cleanliness and amenities. I wish to thank Andy for his insight into park ownership and recommend that he just rely on his good reviews on sights like rv park reviews which do not seem to be biased. .

Tom Becher

The last KOA I visited was in Florida near The Villages if I remember. It was the worst Campsite I have ever been in. A lot of old trailers that had become permenant residences, A swimming pool that was half full of very green algee infested water where my grandchildern were looking forward to play in. Just downright unacepptable. Thankfully I was only there for one night, but for the condition of the place I should have paid 1/2 price or less. KOA is on my list of places I do not look at to stay. Hope you do well by not being a KOA. I for one would look to stay with you not being a KOA

Marvin Thomasson

Why do folks like to diss KOA so much? They evidently forget the campgrounds that are substandard and sprew about KOA. The worst KOA I ever stayed in was much better than campgrounds I spent the night in. What makes a campground great is the owner/manager and crew, not a name. And some people choke on smoke if someone half a mile away lights a fire. I’ve worked as a workamper from WI to ME to TX to FL in KOA’s and in privately owned campgrounds, the quality is not in the name, but in the owner and how he maintains and operates.

Mary Warner

We have stayed at Andy’s campground numerous times in the past on our annual cross-country trip to visit family on the east coast. The first time we stopped is because it was convenient for visiting another relative. We continue to visit each year because it is a nice place to stay. The “overnight” area at the front is away from the holiday/vacation campers and all the available activities. The staff has always been friendly and helpful and the restroom / shower facilities are always clean. We will continue to stop even if they are no longer a KOA. My suggestion to Andy in this digital everywhere age is to spend some $$ on putting up a really good website and paying somebody to do the search engine optimization. I suspect you will get many more customers that way than you ever would have by being a KOA.

Lorane

KOAs were always our last choice. We have had one negative experience with Good Sam campground. It really depends on the owner/manager not the name.

Terry Wilson

It sounds like you overpaid for the property and did not assess the condition of the Business Andy in reality it takes money to make money

Onwego

Say what you will about KOA, but most of them run at 90%+ occupancy rates no matter what they charge. Methinks the cool kids miss the point of this organization. Its customers pay for the comfort of consistency and predictability, which KOA mostly delivers. Some guy named Ray Kroc applied that concept to food awhile back. While “everyone” sniggered at what his restaurants offered, and still do, he died a billionaire. Pass the ketchup, please.

peggy coffey

We love KOA campgrounds. We have never found an old one, or a dirty one, or one with bad customer service. Maybe we’ve been lucky but I do know that we have stayed in some Good Sam parks that would be comfortable in a third world country. Yes they are expensive but no more than some of the horrible places we have stayed in. We know they’re clean and nice. And no , I don’t work for KOA, we’re retired and fulltime, but we like KOA.