I’ll admit it: when I started as Campspot’s CEO, I assumed that campgrounds were just another category of lodging, no different from the hotels and vacation rentals I’d been working in and around for the previous 15 years. As such, I was eager to “copy and paste” the best practices for revenue management, e-commerce, and marketing that had served me and my hotel partners so well during my stints at branded and independent hotels, and my decade-plus in leadership roles at online travel giant Expedia. Oh, how wrong I was.

Fortunately, I joined a team at Campspot that understood what I didn’t—that campgrounds are a distinct and profoundly unique segment of hospitality, and that they have characteristics that render many hotel-centric practices ineffective, or worse. Nearly three years later, I now consider myself a “camping industry guy”—and I’m increasingly finding myself on the other side of the table from owners, developers, managers, and consultants migrating as I did from the hotel industry. 

What I’m hearing from them is often alarming.

Things like:

“You should be able to plug into any hotel software—campground metrics may be called something different, but the data structure is basically the same” (It’s not)

“Campgrounds need to be overbooking by at least 10%” (Only if they enjoy sending guests somewhere over two hours away because their site isn’t available)

“You need to be able to handle guests coming to the front desk and charging items to their site after midnight” (I’m sure there are some campgrounds with 24/7 front desks, but I haven’t met them!)

At first, these conversations—and the overly confident hotel industry experts prompting them—were amusing to me. But lately they’ve struck me as concerning. Too many people seem to be trying to convince campground operators to do things that may end up harming their businesses. And campground operators, who may be less familiar with how these tactics play out in the hotel industry, risk trusting that these “experts” sufficiently understand the nuances of our industry to take their recommendations seriously.

Yes, the camping industry is changing. The generational shift among operators and guests, the proliferation of technology solutions, and the strain of rapid growth are all impetuses for camping to evolve. I believe we can learn from other industries, but that the best way to foster such innovation is to ensure we understand the foundational differences between those industries so that we can incorporate the differences into our solutions.

Differences like:

  • Customer segments: Hotels rely heavily on group and corporate business, while campgrounds’ customers are primarily transient. How does this impact marketing and distribution strategy?
  • Site location as an optimization dimension: Hotel guests can’t (and generally don’t care to) choose their specific room location, while camping guests find it crucial; how does this affect inventory optimization and the online booking experience?
  • Distribution channels: Hotels must be present anywhere their guests are, which includes more than a dozen leading online travel agents (OTAs). Campgrounds have few OTAs and fewer that have sufficient demand to be valuable. Does “present everywhere” really pay off?

Last year, I was fortunate to hire a kindred spirit in Megan Winfield, Campspot’s Chief Technology Officer. She joined us from a senior tech leadership role at Hilton, and she quickly embarked on the same steep learning curve that I had, coming to the quick realization that campgrounds are very, very different from hotels. Together, we thought it would be valuable to package the learnings, surprises, and takeaways from our respective transitions to camping and share them with the broader outdoor hospitality industry. 

The result is a white paper, “Navigating the Camping-Hotel Crossover: Lessons for Success in Outdoor Hospitality“, which is available to download for free from Campspot. As our audience includes campground operators, hotel industry professionals, and other participants in the broader travel and hospitality industry, we hope that this paper will:

  1. Empower campground operators to recognize and protect what is special about their industry
  2. Guide hotel industry professionals through a smoother and less painful onboarding to outdoor hospitality
  3. Spark a dialogue between the two based on mutual understanding and respect

I love the camping industry and want to see it thrive. I also am grateful for my time in the hotel industry and the experiences it afforded me. This topic is therefore one I’m passionate about, and I hope you’ll agree it’s worth discussing. Please do give the paper a read, let me know what you disagree with, and help elevate the conversation.

DOWNLOAD WHITE PAPER: Navigating the Camping-Hotel Crossover

Michael Scheinman is the Chief Executive Officer of Campspot. He came to Campspot and outdoor hospitality after nearly 15 years in the hotel industry, including roles in operations and revenue management at chain and independent hotels, and over a decade at Expedia Group leading brands such as Orbitz, Hotwire, and CheapTickets. You can hear him speak on this topic at the 2023 Outdoor Hospitality Conference and Expo in Kansas, City, MO.