KOA Kampgrounds of America
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How KOA Became America's Favorite Campground

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KOA Kampgrounds of America
RiverNorthPhotography/istockphoto

KOA is A-OK

Even if you've never stayed at a KOA, you're more than likely aware of this network of commercial campgrounds, especially as they've been dotting America's highways and adorning its travel destinations for a few decades now. There is more to this company, however, than its cheerful yellow signage and respite for weary travelers. From the early days of KOA to its ambitious vision for the campground of the future, here is everything you likely don't know about Kampgrounds of America. 


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Dave Drum, KOA's founder
Kampgrounds of America, Inc.

Its Origins Go Back Nearly 60 Years

When "squatters" in Billings, Montana, started getting kicked out of city parks, they were sent to a piece of property owned by Dave Drum, KOA's founder. There they paid $1.75 per night to pitch their tent on a site equipped with a picnic table and fire ring. At the time, the property, which had a store, laundry facilities, and a hot shower, was known as the Billings Campground. 


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The First KOA Franchise Opened in 1964
Kampgrounds of America, Inc.

The First KOA Franchise Opened in 1964

Company lore notes that the first KOA franchise opened in Cody, Wyoming, in the mid-1960s. That same campground is still in operation today and includes modern upgrades such as a heated pool, jumping pillow, giant chess/checkers, and more. 


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Sign for a KOA Holiday campground on a summer day
Melissa Kopka/istockphoto

The Iconic Logo Was Designed By a Montana Local

Billings-based commercial artist Karlo Fujiwara designed the KOA logo that endures to this day. It was also Fujiwara's idea to use a "K" in the spelling of campground, "because it added distinction and enhanced the look of the logo," according to the company. 


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KOA Kampgrounds of America
RiverNorthPhotography/istockphoto

KOA Locations Quickly Grew

Because of its franchising growth model, the company and its "kampgrounds" grew at a rapid pace. Five years after the Cody location opened, there were more than 260 KOAs across the U.S. By 1972, there were around 600. The company reached its peak by 1982 when there were nearly 900 KOAs in North America. 

Sign for the worlds highest elevation KOA at over 10,000 feet at the campground
Melissa Kopka/istockphoto

There Are Still a Lot of Them

Today there are more than 520 KOAs across North America, including in all U.S. states but three: Hawaii, Delaware, and Rhode Island. There are also KOAs in all but the Saskatchewan Canadian province.


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KOA
Kampgrounds of America, Inc.

Starting a KOA Wasn't Cheap ...

As The New York Times noted in an article from 1977, owning a KOA wasn't cheap: "Although factors such as land costs and number of sites vary, most can expect to pay at least $200,000 for a campground that carries the banner of a franchise company."

KOA Kampgrounds of America
RiverNorthPhotography/istockphoto

... And It Still Isn't

Today, anyone who wants to franchise a KOA had better have some cash on hand. According to the company's franchising website, "Own a KOA," there is an initial franchise fee of $30,000. Additionally, prospective new-construction franchisees must have a net worth of $1 million, $500,000 in liquid assets, and at least 10 acres of land. 


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Okeechobee KOA Resort
©TripAdvisor

The Largest KOA Is In Florida

The Okeechobee KOA Resort in the city of the same name sports 750 sites over 117 acres and includes amenities like a nine-hole golf course, a pool, hot tubs, tennis courts, mini-golf, playground, snack bar, and more. 


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The Estes Park KOA (Kampgrounds of America) campground store
Melissa Kopka/istockphoto

In the 1980s, Campground Numbers Fell

While many predicted that the burgeoning energy crisis would negatively affect many KOAs, it was actually the KOA's higher-ups who decided to cut ties with a couple of hundred franchises "that had sunk below KOA's standards," according to company profile information

Camping with Mount Fuji View
Sergio Yoneda/istockphoto

There Were Once KOAs in Japan and Mexico

In the 1990s, the company focused some of its efforts on international expansion, opening campgrounds in Japan and Mexico in 1993 and 1996, respectively. While it's unclear if these campgrounds are still in existence, it seems that, if they are, they're no longer associated with the company. 

KOA
©TripAdvisor

Every KOA Has These Four Features

While the company classifies its campgrounds into one of three categories — KOA Journeys, KOA Holidays, and KOA Resorts — you won't ever visit a KOA location, regardless of location or classification, that doesn't have a Kamp K9 pet park, laundry facilities, a playground, and a KOA convenience store. 


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KOA
Kampgrounds of America, Inc.

They're Not Just for RVs and Tents

In addition to offering cabins, some KOAs in North America offer other unique ways to camp, including vintage Airstreams and trailers, caboose accommodations, treehouses, covered wagons, yurts, teepees, and more. 

Herkimer Diamond Mines KOA
©TripAdvisor

Some Are More Progressive Than Others

A few KOAs have embraced alternative energies in a big way. The Herkimer Diamond Mines KOA in New York, for example, offers specialty accommodations that include a lodge powered by the wind, three cabins powered by solar, and two cabins that encourage guests to explore space via connected observatories. 


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Tucson Lazydays KOA Resort
©TripAdvisor

You Can Buy An RV at One KOA

If you visit the Tucson Lazydays KOA Resort, head next door to one of the largest RV dealerships and service centers in the world. Not in the market for a new rig? That's OK, at this location you can still enjoy amenities like a nine-hole putting green, gym, resort-style pool, and fenced dog park. 


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Oscar Tang and his wife Agnes Hsu-Tang in 2013
Oscar Tang and his wife Agnes Hsu-Tang in 2013 by Koahappycamper (CC BY-SA)

KOA Is Owned by a Hong Kong Businessman

Since 1980, the KOA brand has been helmed by Oscar L. Tang, a Chinese-American financier who is perhaps better known for his philanthropy and support of the arts than his campground network. Tang took the company private in 1988.

Yellow sport whistle isolated on white background
valio84sl/istockphoto

The Company Strives to Be Socially Progressive

Just recently, KOA owner Tang and his wife, Agnes Hsu-Tang, founded a new initiative titled "The Yellow Whistle" to bring awareness to and help eliminate violence toward Asian Americans. It was also quick to denounce an incident of racism in 2019 that affected some guests at its Starkville, Mississippi, location. Finally, its 2021 Fact Sheet notes that "KOA is also actively engaging in advocacy efforts with groups supporting diversity in the outdoors to better advance inclusion across the broader outdoor recreation industry."

KOA Care Camps
Kampgrounds of America, Inc.

It Runs Care Camps for Kids With Cancer

Founded by the KOA Campground Owners Association, the company's Care Camps Trust provides financial support to more than 100 special nonprofit camps located throughout the United States and Canada. These camps' mission is to "help children who have cancer enjoy care-free time focusing on fun, friends, and activities at sleep-away camp instead of on their illness." 

KOA
©TripAdvisor

The Company Keeps Its Standards High

KOA annually inspects each of its properties using "a rigorous 600-point inspection system to ensure the highest standards across the brand," according to one of its inspection teams. The meticulous inspections look at things like road conditions, the quality of picnic tables and fire pits, facility upkeep, and more.  


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KOA
KOA by Virginia State Parks (CC BY)

It Gives Out Campground Awards Each Year

Looking for the best KOA near you? Look no further than the company's annual President's and Founder's award winners, which reward campgrounds that receive excellent feedback from guest surveys and impress campground inspectors. The 2021 award winners can be found here

Mount Rushmore Resort & Lodge at Palmer Gulch
Kampgrounds of America, Inc.
KOA
Kampgrounds of America, Inc.

It's Growing Again

According to a recent company press release, KOA is seeing an "unprecedented number of new-construction campgrounds" in its lineup. "In the past four years, the interest in new-build campgrounds has increased dramatically," it notes. "KOA franchisees have opened eight new-construction campgrounds since 2017 and KOA currently has 12 parks either in the planning or construction stages." The company says that this growth is "the most since the early days of KOA in the 1960s and 1970s when hundreds of campgrounds rose practically overnight across North America."

Okeechobee KOA Resort
©TripAdvisor

It Knows Its Business

One of the keys to the company's success appears to be that it does its research and relies heavily on data to make decisions. Each year, for example, KOA produces a "North American Camping Report" that it makes available to the public. Insights from the 2021 report include that "the proportion of first-time campers exploded in 2020" with 10.1 million new campers; "interest in RVs and the RV lifestyle is at an all-time high"; and that "campers are more diverse than ever." The company also announced that for the first time in 2021 it would be publishing monthly market research reports. 

Port Huron KOA
©TripAdvisor

One Michigan KOA Has an Opera House

Yes, the Port Huron KOA in Kimball, Michigan, has an opera house on-site, though it's not used for arias and obbligatos. Instead, the campground shows nightly summer movies free of charge. This location is also one of those KOAs that's more amusement park than campground, with train rides and hayrides, five playgrounds, bike rentals, two pools, an ice cream parlor, and a western store. 

KOA
©TripAdvisor

It Has Vision

A lot of people think of KOA as an old-fashioned and nostalgic company, but in 2019, it proved it has a progressive vision for its future when it unveiled the "Campground of the Future" at the “RVX / The RV Experience” show in Salt Lake City. That ambitious vision involves self-driving RVs, solar-powered pads and floating panels, virtual reality tours of specific sites, geofencing, delivery robots, voice-command technology, and much more. There were also innovative ideas such as underwater trails and camping experiences, mountain-cantilevered RV sites, and gear-transporting tent rails.