In days mostly past, a camper would walk into the wilderness, pitch a canvas pup tent and catch a string of trout for dinner. In today’s era, some families pull into campgrounds in 40-foot custom RVs costing $1 million or more, pulling a trailer packed with four-wheelers.
According to a report in the Billings (Mont.) Gazette, they go camping expecting all the comforts of home: a store, a pool, bike rentals, outdoor movies on giant inflatable screens, pancake breakfasts and especially wireless Internet access so they can communicate with their Facebook friends via smartphones, play stations and laptops.
These two camping experiences share, well, mostly a campfire.
Kampgrounds of America Inc. (KOA), a company born in Billings 50 years ago, has grown into the nation’s largest franchise camping business. It has survived by adapting and catering to cultural trends.
“What’s true of human nature, from my perspective, is the more you give people, the more they want,” said KOA President Pat Hittmeier.
KOA is celebrating its 50th anniversary this summer, marking the growth from a handful of campsites south of the Yellowstone River to 458 franchises, plus 26 company-owned campgrounds. Sporting 1,000 employees, with 73 based in Billings, in some years KOA flies more people out of Billings Logan International Airport than any other local company.
When Jim Rogers proposed that the company move to Reno, Nev., after he was appointed chairman and CEO a decade ago, key executives declined to leave Billings, meaning their circle of contacts might leave with them.
“The franchise business is all about relationships,” Hittmeier said. “I think that became evident and that’s probably the biggest reason why it stayed here.”
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