At this year’s Outdoor Hospitality Conference and Expo (OHCE) held in Kansas City, Missouri, a session called “Outdoor Hospitality and the Future” collected a panel of industry leaders on Tuesday, November 7, to discuss the future of the campground industry.
The session brought together executives from major companies like Kampgrounds of America (KOA) as well as experts in hospitality, development, operations, and finance.
The panel includes OHI President & CEO Paul Bambei, Blue Water CFO Rafael Correa, Harp Development Owner Amir Harpaz, Kampgrounds of America President & CEO Toby O’Rourke, Spacious Skies Campgrounds Co-Founder Ali Rasmussen, and Horwath HTL Managing Director Todd Wynne-Parry.
During the session, the industry leaders expressed highly optimistic views about the continued growth and future of the outdoor hospitality business.
Bambei, taking on the role of session moderator, said that he feels like they are at the “precipice of a great future.” He mentioned strong continued demand growth coming out of the pandemic, with predictions that it will keep going. He did caution that the industry cannot “rest on its laurels” and needs to embrace change and innovation.
O’Rourke said that they “see more tailwinds than headwinds” ahead of them, encapsulating the prevailing mood of the session’s discussion. She also said that her company is on pace for another record year, up 40% over pre-pandemic 2019.
Market Outlook and Trends in the Industry
While some trends like rising interest rates and the economy are often cited as “headwinds,” O’Rourke and other panelists see these more as “tailwinds” that will continue propelling the industry forward. O’Rourke stated that “campers are very optimistic about the economy” and research shows they plan to take more trips and spend more in 2024.
Correa said that, compared to other real estate sectors, campgrounds are the only asset class attached to a hobby or “a passion for people.”
“[B]ecause of that singular fact, I think that we are unique as a real estate asset class, and it gives us incredible legs going forward,” he said.
The panelists acknowledged supply constraints, due to zoning and development challenges, as a hindrance to growth. Harpaz recognized the unfair criticism of outdoor real estate that despite campgrounds being the only type of land asset attached to a “passion,” it is not typically the highest and best use of a piece of land.
The panel shared a unanimous sentiment in regards to the rise of large corporate brands and entertainment brands like Dollywood investing heavily in the space that it is good for the industry.
Rasmussen noted that “you can share the same customer” and “each experience is different.” Meanwhile, O’Rourke said the new investments help “grow the category.”
Wynne-Parry, formerly with major hotel brands, observed that younger generations now desire authenticity and unique experiences versus standardization. He advised campgrounds to “focus on what you do best” and tell their own unique story.
On rates, panelists advised focusing more on good inventory and rate management rather than just raising rates for inflation. Offering a diversity of site types and experiences allows for rate premiums.
The New Generation of Campers & Inclusivity
One of the factors why the panelists share an optimistic view of the industry’s future is the younger generation favoring outdoor experiences. They have started looking for a more inclusive camping experience and technological advancement with the campgrounds, accommodating them.
Younger generations have different expectations, desiring authenticity, good design, connectivity, and unique experiences rather than standardization. Campgrounds should provide opportunities like co-working spaces and local offerings, Wynne-Parry noted.
The integration of technology into the camping experience is no longer a luxury but a necessity. The demand for connectivity in the wilderness has led to a reimagining of what it means to ‘unplug.’
“You can’t just check a box and say you have WiFi. Only 28% of people rate the quality of WiFi they’ve experienced on a campground as excellent,” said O’Rourke, pointing out a critical gap in terms of technology.
This statement reflects a growing expectation among campers for robust digital amenities that enhance their experience without detracting from the essence of camping.
With the rise of technological integration in the campground sector, safety and security have emerged as cornerstones of the modern camping experience, as well.
O’Rourke acknowledged the industry’s responsibility to safeguard its patrons, stating “Campgrounds can provide a lot of safety and security,” particularly as the demographic of campers expands to include more women, solo travelers, and families.
“Especially in the crazy world we’re living in. I think people really appreciate that security and the service point that you made. I think it’s so important we overuse those words, customer service,” said Bambei.
Bambei added that they found in their research that 90% of campers expect the same standards in terms of safety and security to be in place.
Meanwhile, Rasmussen underscored the importance of inclusive camping as camper demographics diversify, stating that Spacious Skies Campgrounds is taking steps to include all types of campers. In March 2023, Spacious Skies campgrounds made history as the first private campground to join Black Folks Camp Too as beta testers for their pioneering Unity Blaze certification program,” she said.
The panel showed that this optimism is not unfounded; it is rooted in the belief that the industry is well-positioned to capitalize on the increased interest in outdoor activities, provided it continues to adapt and innovate.
On the topic of innovation, O’Rourke shared that KOA’s new Terramor brand delivers outdoor hospitality with traditional resort amenities and services to attract non-traditional campers.
Rasmussen explained how Spacious Skies aims to focus on the nighttime experience around the campfire. And Harpaz highlighted his new Cherokee Outdoor Resort developed with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to showcase their heritage.
Despite some headwinds, the overriding sentiment was one of optimism, growth, and continued innovation for the outdoor hospitality industry.
The campground sector is at a crossroads, facing the dual challenge of preserving the traditional allure of camping while meeting the modern camper’s expectations. The industry’s response to this challenge will define its trajectory in the coming years.