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  • Campsites add amenities to attract families

    KOA adds cabins, pools, ziplines, upscale tepees, flat-screen TVs — and they still call it camping
  • LOS ANGELES — At a wooded campsite in Santa Paula, north of Los Angeles, vacationers, stray deer and even peacocks must share the tree-shaded property with tractors, backhoes and stacks of lumber.
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  • LOS ANGELES — At a wooded campsite in Santa Paula, north of Los Angeles, vacationers, stray deer and even peacocks must share the tree-shaded property with tractors, backhoes and stacks of lumber.
    Work is in full swing to transform the 76-acre Ventura Ranch Kampgrounds of America site into one of a fast-growing breed of affordable outdoor destinations or resort campgrounds.
    Workers already have added new lodges and upscale tepees and installed two 800-foot-long ziplines. Construction has begun on a pool and water slides to open by this summer. A backhoe is moving dirt for a new playground area, and the park owner has plans for four treehouses near the banks of the Santa Paula Creek.
    "It's kind of a new version of camping," Kampgrounds of America campsite guest Desiree Dennis said as her four children took turns strapping on harnesses, hooking themselves to pulleys and flying downhill along zip-line cables stretched between two elevated platforms. "It brings families together."
    Ziplines, swimming pools and other campground extras typify changes under way across the nation at Kampgrounds of America, or KOA, the nation's largest private network of campgrounds, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Instead of offering rest stops on the way to vacation destinations, KOA wants to add enough activities to convert its modest overnight campgrounds into final destinations for traveling families.
    "Campgrounds are indeed a resort destination," said KOA's chief executive, James Rogers.
    KOA's 488 independently owned campgrounds in the U.S. and Canada are increasingly offering such amenities as wireless Internet access, cable television hookups and prefabricated cabins, most equipped with refrigerators, microwave ovens and flat-screen televisions. Many also have swimming pools, bicycle rental stations, arcades and miniature golf courses.
    "The world wants to get outdoors," Rogers said. "At the end of the day, they also want a hot shower and a clean bed and a cold beer."
    These upgrades are most prominent in California, a state with 36 KOA campgrounds, the most in the nation.
    It makes good business sense. Although KOA's overall guest bookings dropped 2 percent to 14.4 million in 2011 compared with the previous year, KOA officials say reservations for the campgrounds' furnished cabins jumped nearly 20 percent in the same period.
    KOA is a private company and would not disclose its annual revenue, but a Dunn & Bradstreet report estimated that the company, based in Billings, Mont., generated nearly $40 million in sales in 2011.
    The move to install more cabins, tepees and treehouses, said Rogers, helps KOA serve those guests who don't want to sleep in a cold tent but can't afford a $50,000 recreational vehicle. RV sales dropped dramatically nationwide during the recession but began to rebound in 2010 and 2011, according to industry reports.
    KOA is not the only campground franchise to pursue this market. KOA's top competitor, Leisure Systems Inc. of Milford, Ohio, the franchiser of Yogi Bear's Jellystone Parks, has been installing furnished cabins at a rapid pace at its 78 franchise campgrounds.
    "The lodges are very popular," said Michele Wisher, a spokeswoman for Leisure Systems. "That is what books up."
    A nationwide survey co-sponsored by KOA last year found that 42.3 million people older than age 6, or 15 percent of Americans, regularly go camping, either in tents or recreational vehicles.
    "That's a big universe of people who are not going camping," said Jeff Crider, a spokesman for the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds. "That is why KOA and Jellystone are investing in cabins, yurts and tepees. It's to get them into their campsites."
    KOA was launched in 1962 when its founder, David Drum, noticed a caravan of cars driving past his cottonwood-shaded property in Billings headed for the Seattle World's Fair. He quickly converted his property into a campground with showers, restrooms and a small store and charged guests $1.75 a night.
    In the company's early years, KOA opened campgrounds along busy highways, giving travelers a convenient place to rest on the way to popular tourist attractions such as theme parks or national monuments. But now KOA has shifted its focus to make campgrounds an inexpensive vacation destination for families.
    Scott Cory, the owner of the Ventura Ranch KOA camp in Santa Paula, shares that vision.
    He has already invested nearly $1.4 million in the 76-acre RV campground he bought two years ago on the shores of Santa Paula Creek and plans to invest an additional $500,000 this year.
    Besides offering 90 RV parking sites, Cory has added eight "comfort cabins" that can sleep up to six people, eight furnished tepees and two glamour tents, equipped with microwaves, mini-fridges, queen beds and sofa futons. Near the dual ziplines, he also installed a rock wall for climbing and a 30-foot-by-60-foot inflatable jumping pillow, similar to a trampoline.
    Tent sites rent for about $36 per night, but furnished tepees that can sleep up to six go for $79 per night. Small cabins that sleep up to four people rent for $149 per night. But more luxurious lodges that sleep up to six people and are equipped with refrigerators, microwaves, stoves and flat-screen televisions cost $179 a night.
    Cory hopes to build four treehouses on stilts near the banks of the creek this year, with 10 more treehouses to follow.
    "I think the people want the comforts of home," he said.
    Each year, the amenities offered at KOA campsites become more contemporary.
    Cavco Industries, a Phoenix manufacturer of factory-built homes that builds and installs cabins for KOA camps and other campgrounds, has been adding amenities such as showers and cooktops to the cabins. This year, Cavco plans to add USB ports in the cabins to let guests recharge smartphones and other portable devices.
    "The USB ports are a big item," said Tim Gage, a vice president at Cavco.
    Julie McClurge, a KOA campsite regular from Del Mar, Calif., appreciates such extras.
    McClurge grew up camping in tents, but now that she's a grandmother she said she prefers the comforts of a KOA cabin.
    During the New Year's weekend, McClurge stayed with her husband, five children and two grandchildren at adjoining cabins at the Santa Paula KOA.
    "We love those lodges," she said. "It still feels like you're camping but you have all the amenities of home."
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