“Women truly have the superpower to get things done. They can balance high workloads at home, the office, and the campground. Women find solutions and make things happen,” said Toby O’Rourke, the president and CEO of Kampgrounds of America, Inc.
As we celebrate Women’s History Month, Modern Campground continues to recognize the essential role of women in the RV and campground industry.
In an e-mail interview, Toby O’Rourke, the president and CEO of KOA, shared her journey, the changes she has witnessed in the industry, and her advice for women interested in joining the outdoor hospitality sector.
When Toby O’Rourke assumed the role of president and CEO of KOA in 2019, she marked a new era for the campground industry.
As a woman who has risen through the ranks of a traditionally male-dominated field, O’Rourke has shattered glass ceilings and paved the way for other women to follow suit.
O’Rourke’s diverse background—spanning brand management, digital marketing, technology consulting, and software development—provided her with the necessary tools to excel in her role at KOA. She credits her experience as a consultant for her solution-oriented leadership style and her ability to foster cross-functional collaboration.
Since joining KOA, O’Rourke has witnessed a notable shift in the industry’s demographics, with more women and people of color taking on leadership roles. Her own executive team is now nearly half female, and she proudly highlights the growing number of women running campgrounds, both independently and with their partners.
“When I joined KOA, there were no women in senior leadership at KOA. Now I’m proud that almost half of my executive team is female, along with strong female leaders in other senior positions across the company,” O’Rourke told Modern Campground.
O’Rourke also highlighted that while the leadership ranks of camping and other outdoor hospitality organizations have been more heavily weighted towards men, women have always played a pivotal role on the customer-facing side of the business.
Navigating a male-dominated industry has not been without challenges for O’Rourke, who has had to balance her work and personal life as a mother of four.
“Some of my challenges have been navigating and finding a work-life balance. When I was the head of marketing (and later operations), I was a single mother. Balancing the demands of being an effective and engaged leader with being present for my children and home life can still be very difficult,” O’Rourke said.
She credits her success to her ability to set realistic expectations, prioritize her time, and find her passion – digital marketing.
By speaking up and participating in meetings and projects, O’Rourke has asserted her presence and gained respect from her peers.
“Speaking up and showing up is how you get noticed and gain respect. As a woman, it is so important to advocate for yourself. Sometimes you can get talked over, or the idea you just presented is co-opted as someone else’s idea. You need to reframe and control that narrative – something as simple as ‘yes, as I suggested,’ can give you back that ownership.”
She shared that a male boss once told her that one of the greatest assets of her leadership was being a woman.
“Early in my career, when I was the only woman in a room of men, I found I tried to mimic those around me. That comment really helped me realize that you need to lean into your strengths and what makes you a natural leader,” she said.
“Women truly have the superpower to get things done. They can balance high workloads at home, the office, and the campground. Women find solutions and make things happen.”
The future of gender diversity and inclusion in the outdoor hospitality industry
KOA’s first female CEO acknowledges that women bring unique strengths and perspectives to the campground industry, such as empathy, collaboration, communication, and conflict resolution. By embracing these attributes, women can contribute to a more inclusive and diverse industry.
For O’Rourke, by creating more opportunities for mentorship and advocacy within organizations, the industry can better support women in their pursuit of leadership roles and career advancement.
As the industry continues to evolve, O’Rourke envisions a future where gender diversity and inclusion are the norm.
She encourages women to consider outdoor hospitality as a viable career option, emphasizing the variety of paths available to them. By focusing on outreach and support for college and university students, O’Rourke believes the industry can attract more diverse populations, including women, people of color, and younger individuals, to cultivate the next generation of outdoor hospitality leaders.
“I want to see more women making outdoor hospitality a career choice – there are so many paths to pursue in this industry that there truly is space for everyone.”
O’Rourke’s leadership at KOA has ushered in a new era for the campground industry. Her commitment to mentorship, advocacy, and gender diversity sets an example for the industry as a whole.
As more women take on leadership roles and contribute their unique skills and perspectives, the campground industry is poised to become more inclusive, diverse, and innovative.
To encourage more women to enter the campground industry, O’Rourke emphasized the importance of mentorship, advocacy, and continuous learning. She advises women to actively manage their careers, seek out mentors, and immerse themselves in their chosen disciplines.
Aside from O’Rourke, Modern Campground has also shared the inspiring story of Susan Carpenter, the RV Women’s Alliance president.
These women have risen through the ranks, breaking barriers in a traditionally male-dominated industry and paving the way for future generations of female leaders.