Camping in America: The KOA mission and vision carries on

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KOA provided AKontheGO with several nights of accommodations during our recent Iowa to Alaska road trip. Below is a synopsis of the company, its history, and mission to inspire more families to spend time outside. 

Nestled deep in the fabric of American culture, the concept of camping outdoors is as much about United States history as it is hot dogs, marshmallows, and campfire songs. Practical, affordable, and delightfully disconnected from day-to-day stressors of work, school, and technology, camping is one of the last vestiges of a time long gone when families packed up station wagons or campers and drove into a wilderness for a “back to nature” experience. How many of us remember nights in front of a canvas tent, directing a sharpened stick (upon which rested a puffy marshmallow) toward a flickering flame, awaiting the moment when we could cram the sticky mess into our mouths — most of us, perhaps?

Camping is enjoying a resurgance in popularity, according to Kampgrounds of America, or KOA, the most prolific company in the United States dedicated to the activity, be it via tent, trailer, RV, cottage or cabin. A 2016 Topline Report sponsored by KOA found that camping as a family activity reaches 6 in 10 American households, with 44% of families camping at least occasionally. In addition, camping overnight provides families with a form of “escapism” during which time stress levels are lowered, and time with family and friends is raised. Having just returned from three weeks of camping that flew by so fast it felt like three days, I can validate this statement.

But why KOA, a company that seeks to strike a workable balance between rustic tent camping to something closer to the concept known as “glamping?” Certainly there are those purists who believe the only quality camping trip is one spent in a tent, utilizing pit toilets and arranging tarps to catch rainfall; I’m happy to camp in this way. But I also appreciate the system of KOA, its organization, convenience, and confidence in a new place, especially with kids in tow.

 

The Hinton/Jasper KOA office and store are housed in a historic building. Erin Kirkland/AKontheGO

The Hinton/Jasper KOA office and store are housed in a historic building. Erin Kirkland/AKontheGO

History

Kampgrounds of America started in Billings, Montana in 1962 when Seattle, Washington hosted the Worlds Fair. Knowing many people would drive to the festivities in Puget Sound, entrepreneur Dave Drum gethered a few investors and formed KOA, trademarked with a “K” after finding it difficult to establish the brand with a “C”.  Developing franchise opportunities around the United States, Drum’s concept of owner-controlled campgrounds took off quickly, especially since each property had the same standards for operations. When Drum died in 1980, businessman Oscar Tang (whose family continues to own and operate the company today) purchased Kampgrounds of America and carried further the high quality, consistent business model of campgrounds, in fact raising those standards in the mid-1980’s, thus culling about 200 found to be below company expectations.

The KOA brand by now was synonymous with family-friendly camping opportunities, particularly for those road-tripping the United States needing safe, clean, and kid-friendly accommodations, and even began to expand internationally to Canada, Japan, and Mexico. Today’s KOA is definitely an attractive option for international travelers, and we noticed, particularly in Canada, an assortment of languages as we set up camp.

 

Playgrounds for kids are a major factor in KOA's business franchise plan. Erin Kirkland/AKontheGO

Playgrounds for kids are a major factor in KOA’s business franchise plan. Erin Kirkland/AKontheGO

Attractions

Kampgrounds of America today are less about a simple overnight option and more about family experiences, encouraging campers to spend more than one night enjoying amenities famous in the KOA brand. Swimming pools, bicycle rentals, nightly campfires or concerts, or even barbeque events make the KOA concept seem like a “home away from home” and is an attractive way for kids and adults to find their own niches among fellow travelers.

Each franchise has license to model the property according to their KOA parameters and creative endeavors, however, and that is a benefit of camping within the company’s boundaries. We knew what to expect as far as cleanliness and accessibility, but there was also an element of surprise as we approached the big yellow sign each night. Playgrounds, bikes, fire pits and patios, even hiking trails upon which to explore; every new campground was different.

 

St. Mary/Glacier National Park KOA. Erin Kirkland/AKontheGO

St. Mary/Glacier National Park KOA. Erin Kirkland/AKontheGO

What travelers should know 

The KOA commitment to consistency, friendliness, and location is not for every traveler. Some balk at the lack of wilderness. If you go, it behooves you to know these things:

  • KOA is about community (or, kommunity, if you will). People want to talk; where you are headed, where you’ve been, why you’re there. It’s fun, it’s educational, and it’s something we’re missing in today’s enclosed society. Take time to contribute to the conversation, attend the barbeque, and swim in the pool.
  • KOA campgrounds are not, generally, located in pristine wilderness areas where many trees shield campers from neighboring sites. Close quarters, particularly for those in RVs, is common.
  • Arriving late? KOA usually has staff on site until very late, or, at the least, posted instructions for after-hours arrivals or early-morning departures.
  • Use the knowledge at hand. Franchise owners are almost always local residents. The best KOAs will provide maps, brochures, and general “need-to-know” stuff upon your arrival. Don’t be afraid to ask.
  • Download the KOA app on your mobile device for easy driving directions, a list of amenities, and reservation information. It was a brilliant godsend to us while traveling, and is for either iPhones or Androids.
  • Reserve early; many campgrounds near popular national parks sell out fast, and cabins/cottages even faster. The KOA website has a very handy tool that enables one to map his or her entire trip.

 

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