The recreational vehicle industry was riding high in 2006, with the number of motor homes and towable trailers shipped to dealers reaching a 30-year high of 390,500, according to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association. Then came the blow of the economic downturn and rising gas prices, with units plummeting 58 percent over the next three years, to 165,700 in 2009.
The industry has been bouncing back, however, with steady year-over-year growth in the last four years, and it shipped 321,127 units in 2013, with shipments climbing 11 percent more in the first four months of 2014 compared with the same period a year ago.
Now Kampgrounds of America, the network of campgrounds known as KOA, is hoping to book some of the growing ranks of RV enthusiasts, with what the company says is a first in its 52-year history: a national television commercial.
The spot introduces the slogan, “What’s Behind the Yellow Sign?” According to market research by the company, as many as 95 percent of respondents recall seeing its red and yellow logo – a tepee with the letters KOA – on signs alongside highways, but many do not know what the letters stand for.
The commercial opens with an RV driving down a tree-lined road on a summer day. Inside a mother plays a game at a table with her daughter, and a boy sits cross-legged on a sofa beside a golden retriever.
“You’ve driven past it a thousand times, that bright yellow KOA sign,” says a voice-over, as the RV passes the campground and the father, who is driving, looks in the rearview mirror. “But what if you’d stopped, what unforgettable moments were waiting, where everything is taken care of, freeing you to connect with the people you love in places where distractions just melt away?”
At the campground, they fish, use a climbing wall, swim in the pool and then gather by a campfire. The spot promotes a new microsite, BehindTheYellowSign.com. The company declined to disclose expenditures for the campaign, which also includes online advertising.
Eric Kiker, chief strategy officer of LRXD, an agency in Denver that produced the campaign, said that while the commercial makes the campground appealing, its primary objective was to evoke memorable moments.
“We tried to get above the functional, which is that we’ve got a pool, or we’ve got a rock-climbing wall,” Kiker said. “Some campgrounds in certain areas will out-amenity KOA, and KOA admits that freely, so you can’t really hang your hat on just the functional.”
KOA began in Billings, Mont., in 1962, when Dave Drum and business partners set up a campground on Drum’s property to draw travelers streaming through Billings on the way to the Seattle World’s Fair. Per-night cost of pitching a tent on a campsite: $1.75.
Today there are 485 locations in North America, with franchisees owning all but 28, which are company-owned. Oscar L. Tang, a New York philanthropist and financier, owns KOA.
Last year, the company began the process of designating its properties as either Journey, campgrounds that are convenient stops for one-night stays for campers on their way somewhere; Holiday, which are more destinations themselves with more picturesque settings and amenities; and Resort, which have upscale features like saunas and hot tubs, restaurants and group meeting spaces for gatherings like family reunions.
Toby Hedges, vice president for marketing at KOA, said that so far the designations had been assigned to 107 properties, with Holiday the most common, with about 73, followed by Journey, with 30, and Resort, with 4.
While the new television commercial focuses on RV owners, who account for 73 percent of company revenue, new online videos promote what the company calls deluxe cabins, which have their own bathrooms and amenities like flat-screen televisions, that are being built on many of the campgrounds for guests lacking motor homes and tents.
About 70 percent of the campgrounds have deluxe cabins and 84 percent have basic cabins, which do not have bathrooms. Deluxe cabins, which vary in size and how many they sleep, generally cost $94 to $115 nightly, and have been growing briskly in recent years, with a 16 percent increase in bookings in 2013 compared with 2012, and a 19 percent increase in bookings so far in 2014.
While digital advertising will appear broadly on websites including FamilyCircle.com and Walmart.com, the television campaign is directed specifically at country music fans, and will appear on the Great American Country Network in the United States and on Country Music Television in Canada.
KOA campers are 27 percent more likely to listen to country music than the general population, according to company research. Country Music Television viewers, however, are 60 percent more likely to own an RV, and Great American Country Network viewers are 51 percent more likely, according to data from the networks.
A 2011 article in the Chicago Tribune called KOA the “McDonald’s of camping,” and said that “it isn’t a steak, but it’s a reliable hamburger.”
Hedges considers it a compliment.
“We never took that as sort of knock on the vacation experience or it being a cheap vacation, because it’s more talking about consistency, and McDonald’s is a franchise that really delivers consistency,” Hedges said. “People know to expect the quality, clean bathrooms, amenities, activities and high level of service and quality that’s associated with KOA.”