Founded in 1962, Kampgrounds of America has earned a reputation as a network of campgrounds that consistently offer clean, safe, family-friendly campgrounds.
By Peggy Jordan, Associate Editor
Just as FMCA is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2013, Kampgrounds of America (KOA) has been commemorating that golden number in 2012. The largest campground network in the world began in 1962 on a plot of ground near the Yellowstone River in Billings, Montana.
Local entrepreneur Dave Drum got the idea to start a campground that would give travelers to the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle, Washington, a place to rest for the night. He and other investors put together a comfy spot for tent travelers that included a picnic table and fire ring at each site. A store and laundry facilities were provided, and hot showers were part of the package — all for $1.75 per night.
The campground was much appreciated by travelers, whom Mr. Drum asked to leave their mailing addresses. The list turned out to be quite useful. John Wallace, a salesman who supplied the Billings campground with propane and eventually became a KOA business partner, sent all the campers a questionnaire. Respondents were overwhelmingly positive about the idea of having a multitude of reliable campgrounds available to them as they traveled the country.
Recognizing this big opportunity, the Montana company founders decided to set up a large network of campgrounds by franchise. Campground owners would pay a franchise fee and a percentage of sales in exchange for KOA’s support in marketing and other services.
The first franchised KOA campground opened in Cody, Wyoming, in 1964, complete with the yellow KOA logo and signature A-frame-shaped office. And it was the beginning of a trend that spread across North America like word of a hot fishing spot. Imitation being the sincerest form of capitalism, KOA quickly faced many competitors; everyone was trying to create a campground chain. Even Holiday Inn created a group, which eventually was sold to KOA. Today KOA is not the only campground network in existence, but it is the largest.
The yellow KOA logo with the teepee shape became a well-known symbol throughout the 1960s, “katching” attention like no other. Why the K in KOA? It depends on which story you read. One is that the logo designer suggested it because it looked better in the design. It’s even more widely told that the company could not copyright the word “campgrounds” for its name, so it used “kampgrounds” instead.
Those early days also were pivotal for what stood behind that yellow sign: clean sanitary facilities and hot showers. The sheer volume of campgrounds coming into the system did not stop KOA from making sure that good service, cleanliness, and those ever-important hot showers were available at each location.
Time would prove this to be a deciding factor in KOA’s success. Fast forward to 2012, and the consistency of KOAs brings FMCA members back to them time after time. Ron and Brenda Boyd, F401453, of Denver, Colorado, regularly stay at KOA campgrounds. “We know what to expect, facility-wise: clean, modern rest rooms/showers, level spaces, clean electricity, etc.,” Ron noted. “We have never been disappointed in this.”
Another FMCA family member, Chris Guenther, F3508S, of Westminster, Colorado, wrote, “I have found them to be consistently friendly and clean.” Mike Laeder, F426900, echoed that thought. “It is quite often the most convenient campground when we are looking for a place to stop for the night, and we pretty much know what we are going to get,” he said.
There was no franchise requirement regarding playground equipment, but early on, KOA campgrounds became family-oriented, too. It’s another trend that continues and is appreciated by FMCA members. Chris Guenther noted, “My kids and I like their pools, and we can rent small trikes that the kids really like to drive around in.”
KOA made its first public stock offering in 1969, and more than 300,000 shares were on the market over the next three years. But then the 1970s oil embargoes arrived. By the end of the ’70s, approximately 200 of KOA’s 900 franchisees had closed. By 1980 it was evident that private ownership was vital for the company’s survival in that economic wilderness. In mid-1981, financier Oscar Tang became owner of KOA Holdings, corporate parent of KOA.
The economy rebounded in the 1980s, and so did KOA. It added existing campgrounds as franchises and also continued to acquire company-owned campgrounds. KOA once again tried an idea that had flopped in the 1970s: offering primitive cabins. It turned out that 1980s travelers liked this convenience, and by the end of the decade, Kamping Kabins could be found in many campgrounds. Today, even fancier Kamping Kottages fill up quickly.
The American camper was truly changing. Baby boomers who grew up seeing the yellow KOA sign now were bringing their RVs, kids, and grandkids to the campgrounds. By 1998, 60 percent of the people in the KOAs arrived in RVs, not tents.
The 1990s saw even more expansion — this time, to other countries. Five KOAs were built in Japan and facilities opened in Mexico as well. Unfortunately, these locations failed to thrive, and today KOA remains focused on North America, with 452 campgrounds in the United States and 35 in Canada. Most are franchises, with 25 company-owned facilities in the United States and one in Canada.
As Internet technology, including social media, has exploded in recent years, the KOA Web site, KOA.com, has grown along with it. The site is said to attract twice the amount of traffic “of all the others in our business combined,” according to current KOA CEO Jim Rogers.
So, what’s next? Mr. Rogers said the company’s focus is “guest-driven.” Evaluations from KOA campers are now provided by the guests who visit the KOA Web site. But just like those written down and mailed back in 1962, they can help KOA keep “konsistent” in the future.
Did You Know . . .
- A KOA subsidiary opened a travel trailer manufacturing company in Bristol, Indiana, named Amerigo RV, in 1970. Although KOA sold it in 1974, Amerigo RVs continued to be made until the early 1990s.
- A Harris Poll has found that 25 percent of Americans have stayed at a KOA.
- KOA offers special rates and free facilities to help youngsters in scouting organizations to experience the outdoors.
- KOA Care Camps for children with cancer is a network of 35 specialized summer camps for kids who are being treated for this disease.
- KOA franchisees attend KOA University, where they learn all there is to know about camping. Their graduation certificate is a yellow shirt.
- New FMCA members receive a free one-year KOA Value Kard Rewards membership for joining the association, along with thousands of free camping points good for $10 off their next KOA stay.