Kampgrounds of America: Change is Hard

The Challenge

 “A body at rest will remain at rest, and a body in motion will remain in motion, unless it is acted on by an external force.”

Things will not start, stop, or alter direction by themselves. In other words, nothing changes unless it is forced to. Pushing a marble down an incline doesn’t take much effort. Moving a boulder uphill requires a lot. But in either case, effort is required.

Why are we talking about physics? That’s simple. There is no better way of describing the difficulty of instituting any change initiative. This is especially true when you want to make diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) an integral part of your corporate DNA.

And that is exactly the situation Kampgrounds of America (KOA), the world’s largest open-to-the-public campgrounds, faces going forward.

President and CEO Toby O’Rourke wants DEI to be central to the mission of the almost 60-year-old company. There are three reasons for that. First, as she explains, it is simply the right thing to do.

“It is societally important,” she says. “Every company should be taking a look at what they are doing in this space.”

The second reason is to support a growing number of KOA customers who might otherwise feel uncomfortable and decide to go elsewhere.

“We do a lot of research, and we’re seeing that increasingly there are more people of color, and under-represented communities, coming into camping,” says O’Rourke. “Specifically, we’ve seen that 32 percent of campers now are from non-white or people of color communities, and that is a significant increase, an over 17-point increase, over the past five years. During my time here, I’ve seen that number just continue to grow and grow and grow.

“And when we look at new campers who are just now coming into this lifestyle or activity, half are from those groups. So that’s a very sizeable change in our industry, which has traditionally been Caucasian and older. We’re seeing younger and more diverse campers.”

That change is not quite as surprising as it first might appear.

“As more and more Millennials are coming in, we’re seeing more and more diversity coming in,” O’Rourke says. “As we broke down the research by age group, there were less differences among the Millennials no matter their race or ethnicity. The reasons they want to camp are similar. That wasn’t the case among older generations.”

The second reason ties to the first. The need for DEI is something most Millennials believe in and endorse. We saw Millennials cited kindness and honesty as the two most important values required in dealing with the increase in racial tensions following the death of George Floyd and the rise of COVID-19. Of all the groups we surveyed, it was Millennials—by far—who said civil discourse is hard to come by today. Wholesale adoption of DEI efforts within all aspects of society, including business and organizations, can only help.

And that brings us to the third reason behind KOA’s desire to make DEI a part of its corporate culture.

In 2018 “we had an incident, that was fueled by race, on a campground in Mississippi,” O’Rourke explains. “A white employee of one of our franchisees—not an employee of KOA Incorporated and not the franchisee themselves—pulled a gun on an African-American couple who were picnicking by a lake on the property. They weren’t registered guests, and she took that as they were trespassing. She said she pulled the gun because she was scared of the couple’s dog. That was her angle. But no matter how you looked at it, it reflected poorly on the brand.”

The Mississippi incident was an impetus to change. It jump-started KOA’s work to cement DEI throughout the organization. Says O’Rourke: “That’s when we started to be a lot more intentional about our work in this space.”

Situational Analysis

Before the incident in Mississippi, “I wouldn’t say we’re doing much to get a message out about our DEI efforts,” O’Rourke says. “We’ve made a conscious effort to try to include more diversity in our marketing approach throughout my time here, showing all the kinds of people who camp with us, for example, but we weren’t doing anything necessarily proactive about it, saying this is what KOA does when it comes to DEI.

“I guess the messaging was fine, but our DEI efforts are not about having a message. I really want to make a change in our organization. I mean, I’m not just doing something to tell people about it. I want to make meaningful change in the outdoor industry and in our organization.

“Here’s one example of what that would look like for me. I would like to see more diversity in our franchisees. We want to make a focused effort to bring more diverse people into our network that run campgrounds. I think that’s important. And I also think that that’s meaningful and actionable. It’s not just to push a message out about how great KOA is.

“We definitely have representation across ethnic groups, also across LGBTQ,” she adds. “And we’re happy about that, but we have not done the work to say exactly what the percentages are. So that’s part of what we’re doing. We are going to gather the numbers and then set goals around that.

“I also want to spend time on our training. We’re working right now on how we can better inform our campgrounds about customer service, with DEI layered in. Customer service is very important at KOA, but I don’t think we’ve done a good job about layering DEI into our customer service efforts, so we’re working through that. We are making efforts, and need to continue to do so, to show that we understand the importance of this work. It’s not lip service. Lots of things are talked about. It’s really action that means something.”

How would that layering in of DEI work? O’Rourke provides a couple of examples.

“Language is very important,” she says. “It can be as simple as taking out references in the descriptions of our properties to words like ‘plantation’ and ‘antebellum architecture.’ There’s a lot of terminology, different vernacular, even different ways you may phrase something that could be taken offensively or viewed negatively.

“Here’s an example, we had an incident where someone used the phrase ‘you all’ and it was taken to mean ‘you and people like you.’ The person it was said to, took ‘you all’ to mean the person talking was referring to all people of their race. That wasn’t the intent, but that was what was heard. We’re getting just a lot more conscious about how we use language. I don’t think anyone’s going out there and saying the really blatant, racist words. We are working on the language that could be taken poorly. We’ve learned a lot, and we’re still learning and trying to learn about the differences and the nuances of the words we use.

“So that would be one way we are working DEI into customer service,” O’Rourke adds. “And it is important in de-escalating conflict. A conversation could begin as a standard customer service situation, but as the conflict escalates, whether that’s through a poor use of language or an assumption made on either side, suddenly it turns into a racial discussion. We’ll hear things like, ‘Well, you’re just saying that because I’m biracial,’ or, ‘You don’t want my kid to do that,’ even if there might be a rule being broken on the campground, ‘because my daughter is Black.’

“In situations like this, everyone gets triggered, and people get very defensive, and then it just escalates from there,” O’Rourke explains. “Since we have spent a lot of time thinking about our unconscious bias, we’re now more attuned to that and what could happen. But I would guarantee most of our franchisees haven’t thought about unconscious bias. So, we want to talk about that and also talk about what they are bringing to that situation that could cause it to escalate. Ultimately the question we want to ask is, ‘how could you handle something like this differently?’

“This is something we work on at corporate as well.”

The fact that O’Rourke has been working to improve herself in this area makes an important point. The best way to get a message to resonate throughout the organization is for the leader to model the behavior she wants.

In O’Rourke’s case, that meant saying, “we need to change. I am going to change.”

And as you deliver the message, you need to be authentic. What observers noticed after O’Rourke made her pledge to stepping up KOA’s commitment to DEI is that it opened up the discussion within the company about all their issues. Initially, there was a degree of fear among some people because they didn’t want to say the wrong thing, or do something that might jeopardize their role, or make them look bad in any way. But O’Rourke helped them get over those concerns by basically saying, “you don’t have to know everything, especially not going in, but you do need to participate in this. We’re going to change.”

And that eliminated people feeling like they were going to be left behind or saying the wrong thing. It took away the fear.

“I think the reason there was fear stemmed from the customer service calls,” O’Rourke says. “We were the ones getting backlash on social media if there’s a poor experience. It was shocking to me we were getting so violently attacked by certain influencer groups who are very vocal in the space because I do think that we were making a conscious effort to handle every incident well. But since we are the biggest brand in camping, I get that we are going to take the brunt of a lot of it. It’s par for the course of social media these days. There are always loud, very vocal groups and people who use an online platform to call brands on the carpet. That’s okay because that’s probably what needs to happen for change to happen. I take those charges very seriously.

“In 2020, we made the decision to ban the Confederate flag on our campgrounds after repeated pushback from many people,” she adds by way of example. “It was starting to bubble up online.

Without that push, I’d like to say we would have gotten there on our own, but, in this case, I think someone calling you out and saying, ‘How can KOA be better?’ can help you move faster. It forced us to stop and have a conversation about it. Real change comes through sometimes very difficult conversations.

“I’m hoping these efforts that we’re taking, and will take some time, will start to be recognized by people and that they will stay at KOA. We’re making an effort, and I think it will make it more appealing to customers. We do have a great customer base, and a lot of times that’s not recognized. I’ve seen a lot of it in my own experience here, and that is absolutely the case.”


“We have plans across our human resources, our system development, our franchise services, and our marketing to tackle diversity, equity, and inclusion,” O’Rourke says. “For example, I talked about increasing the number of non-white franchisees. And if we want to increase our franchise base, we need to then make sure that we have good representation on the franchise advisory board that meets with corporate and helps direct policies and how we operate. We need to make sure we have inclusion on that board. We are a minority-owned company. We’re owned by Chinese Americans. The majority of the board is minority, but in our leadership ranks, we don’t have that, and that’s something we need to try to solve as well. We’re also trying to work to make sure we have more women represented. We’ve got work to do to make sure we’re inclusive and not making it just a face in the picture. People need to have a real seat at the table.

“And I want the same kind of diversity, equity, and inclusion to exist in our partnerships, our creative, and our associations. For example, we are partners with Outbound Collective, an organization which describes itself this way: ‘We’re on a mission to get everyone outside.’

“As a minority-owned and -operated business, we have a strong appreciation for the importance of building a community that reflects our society’s diversity,” O’Rourke says. “We believe that differences (of all kinds) make us stronger and more interesting. We are proud signatories of the Outdoor CEO Diversity Pledge, and we are committed to fostering an inclusive community that supports, elevates, and amplifies traditionally marginalized groups.

“We’re doing a lot of work here, and we’re trying to sign on to be partners, not just in name, so that we can say we are, but to really get involved and try to bring more inclusivity to camping with people of color.

“Our team really has a lot of passion for this work,” O’Rourke says. “And when I say team, I’m talking about our leadership team, and teams within the home office. And sometimes, it’s hard because, to make sure we’re building the right plans and doing the right things, we sometimes have run into conflict with our franchise organization.

“When you talk about bringing people together towards change, our franchise organization is like a snapshot of America. I realized that when we did the Confederate flag ban.

“I had some campground owners applauding us and excited about it. It makes their job easier on a campground to say, ‘Hey, this is a corporate policy. You can’t have a confederate flag up on your campsite.’ Others felt that we were in violation of the constitution, and KOA was stepping on a political landmine. And we had some people who wanted to cancel their franchise agreement with us. So, uniting people is very difficult. In any issue we tackle, because we are so large, you are never going to have a hundred percent buy-in. And I have found that this DEI effort has been triggering for some people even going back to the incident in Mississippi.

“Because there was a gun involved, I had a lot of franchisees upset with me when we said that we didn’t condone the use of guns at KOA. Some felt this violated their constitutional rights to bear arms.

“So, it’s hard for us to bring our whole franchise system together for unity and to affect change. But if we ultimately believe it’s the right thing to do, we will just keep moving forward, and that’s what we’re doing. It has not been easy. It’s been probably the hardest thing I’ve done in my job, and I know it’s just going to get even harder as we do more. We’ve got training scheduled for our convention this year, and I anticipate pushback from some people that we’re bringing this topic up for discussion.

“I spoke at a camping conference last year, and had one slide in an 80-page slide deck that had a lot of logos of different groups, Black people camping and Hispanic, Latino, et cetera. And there was an LGBTQ group, and I had their logo up there, and it was triggering for someone who got very upset that I was advocating for LGBTQ people to be on our campgrounds.

“I think it’s important that we try to be united, but the reality is we won’t all be united, and I’m very grateful that I’ve got a team that believes in this and we’re moving forward, even though it’s very difficult,” O’Rourke adds.

“It gets tiring. Sometimes I think the easy route would be to avoid this issue. But as CEO, you have to set an example. I try to apply morality to our decision-making here because, at the end of the day, it’s not about just money. So, if we keep that lens on, I think that we can do the right thing.”