Questionnaire: Toby O’Rourke ’00

As demographics change in the great outdoors, the CEO of KOA works to meet all needs under a big tent.

Author: Emma Ackerley ’23

Toby Orourke Featured Photo provided

Since 2019, Toby O’Rourke ’00 has been the CEO of Kampgrounds of America (KOA), the largest network of privately owned campgrounds in North America. She has focused on adapting KOA to meet the evolving needs of outdoor enthusiasts with a mobile app for campers and sustainability initiatives. She lives in Billings, Montana, with her husband and four children.


How is KOA integrating technology into the camping experience?

The first thing was really overhauling our approach to marketing. We were very much a traditional marketing staff when I first came in [as director of digital marketing in 2011], but now we don’t do much in the way of traditional media anymore — it’s all transitioned to digital. 

I spearheaded a project five years ago called Campground of the Future, where we ideated on how camping was going to look in 2030. . . . But it’s also taken into account, what are people going to be used to in these other aspects of their lives? For example, I see robots delivering food on campus. In our modeling, we said, ‘Well, will there one day be drone or robotic delivery of firewood?’ So, it’s just starting to see what’s happening around us — whether that’s air travel, on college campuses, at hotels, in people’s shops — and then integrating some of those things into the camping environment. But it’s a really delicate balance, because people come to the outdoors to, you know, connect to the outdoors. And that’s the most timeless activity there is — man has been sleeping outdoors for as long as man’s been here. So we don’t want to erode that. But we want to see if there’s ways that we can enhance that experience through smart technology.


What are the industry trends, and how is KOA adapting?

I think the biggest change since I started 12 years ago, has been in the demographics of who camps. That’s what’s driving our response to everything. When I started, it was predominantly white and older — a lot of baby boomers, empty nesters. I remember when I started, the CEO at the time would talk about the fact that our business was future-proof because 10,000 people retired every day. And that was our core, because that was our core business. 

That has shifted dramatically. We’ve seen a huge shift to younger demographics — 71 percent of all campers last year were millennials or Gen Z. A lot of that was driven by the pandemic. Forty-four percent of people that camp now started camping just within the past four years. And if you look at the new camper — the person that camped for the first time last year — 55 percent of that group was nonwhite. This is really great. There’s new people discovering the outdoors, but we have to understand what the needs are of these different groups in this younger demographic, and that’s what’s driving a lot of our innovation.


How has KOA catered to the growing demand for “glamping”?

So, on a KOA campground, the majority of people who camp are in RVs, and we also have tent sites and cabins. A lot of KOAs are putting in glamping [luxury camping] units — so, canvas tents, treehouses, yurts, et cetera. We also launched a new brand called Terramor Outdoor Resort, and that is our new glamping venture. We have one property right now and we’re working on expanding it, near Acadia National Park in Bar Harbor, Maine. That property has 60 canvas tents, high-end luxury accommodations. We’re trying to target that guest that typically stays at a resort. We purposely called it an Outdoor Resort, because that’s really what we’re going after here, something you might expect in a higher-end resort but in an outdoor setting. Glamping in general has brought a whole new group of people to the outdoors that wouldn’t have considered it before because it’s a more comfortable way for them. 


What’s your favorite camping memory? 

This was two years ago. We had to drive about four hours . . .  and we get to the campground and our cat was in the RV. Our cat had jumped in at some point when we were packing. Trying to contain the cat on that camping trip was . . . we didn’t have a leash for the cat. So,we tried to keep him in the RV, because we didn’t plan to take him camping. But it was really fun. I remember he would get out, and we would be climbing under other people’s RVs trying to catch him.

Emma Ackerley was this magazine’s spring semester intern.