Homer Staves Discusses Starting The Journey




Outgoing President Of KOA Owners Association Discusses Initial Spark Point Of Franchises & His Love Of The Outdoors

Homer Staves On Location Making His Rounds. [Courtesy: Homer Staves]

Few people have had a perception of a brand from its inception. Homer Staves, outgoing president [at the time of this interview] of the KOA Owners Association, has seen KOA from its inception. From his beginnings in the Chamber business and as an electrician in Montana throughout the years as he has grown with the company, he has seen it all eventually consulting across the world on campground creation, big and small. Homer sat down with The Buzz at the KOA Expo in Chattanooga, Tennessee to discuss life, the beginning of the franchise model and his love for the outdoors.

The Buzz: Love of the outdoors seems ingrained in you through and through…Montana even more so. Could you talk about that?

Homer Staves: In fact, maybe some of the background might be interesting. How I got into KOA was...when I graduated from high school in Montana, I went back to Minnesota to college at Carlton College, a small liberal arts school. I was on a three-two program where I was going to be at Carlton for three years, get a degree there and go to MIT for two years for an engineering degree. My father had started an electrical construction shop early, and he was very successful… retired when I was in the 4th grade. Dad ran away from home when he was 14 and retired when he was 42, but kept the business…and his brother was running the business. I was going be an electrical engineer and stay in that field. But I decided to go back to Missoula and graduated from the university there with a degree in business rather than engineering. I was a journeyman electrician working in our family construction business after college. At first it was really exciting as you learned the electrical trade. But then it got pretty boring and I said, "I really don't want to spend my life twisting wires." I was also very active in the Chamber of Commerce and Jaycees at that time. I loved that part of the work. But I had grown up with my father retiring young. My father loved to hunt and fish. He was my Scoutmaster. I'm an Eagle Scout and we went camping all summer in the mountains in Montana. As an electrician, I actually wired one of the first campgrounds KOAs ever built. It was in western Montana…and I was the electrician that did the electrical work on it. I then decided that I wanted to leave the electrical business…and the manager of the Chamber of Commerce in Missoula suggested if I would like to be a Chamber of Commerce manager. So I applied and got the job in Billings, Montana as the assistant manager at the Chamber of Commerce.

The Buzz: In Billings?

HS: 'Cause everybody told me that the manager at Billings was the best Chamber executive in the Northwest and [that] I'd learn everything from him. But he was hard to work for. He'd fired everybody he had ever hired. I said, "I can put up with anybody. Dad raised me to put up with [anything]. I can put up with anybody for a year or two... "Well [as] it turned out, we just kind of hit perfect. I'm a morning person. He was a night person. I took all the morning meetings. He took the night meetings. It just dovetailed very nicely.

Homer Staves With His Son & Grandson. [Courtesy: Homer Staves]

The Buzz: Seems like a great introduction into hospitality…

HS: Well, KOA really started as a committee in the Chamber of Commerce at Billings. It started because the Tourism Committee wanted a campground for people on their way to the World's Fair in Seattle. The Chairman went to the Mayor and convinced the Mayor, who was a very tourist-oriented mayor at the time, that the city needed to build a campground. So the Mayor started through the Town of Billings and said, "Okay…we're going put a campground in this city park. We'll do it in this city park." Everybody was screaming [about that].

The Buzz: Wow.

HS: So finally the Chairman of the Tourism Committee went to the Mayor and said, "Look, I've got some land that's outside of the city, but if you'll give me city water and sewer, I'll build a campground out there." Well, that guy was Dave Drum and that was the founder of KOA.

The Buzz: So from simple beginnings…

HS: He built this campground to accommodate people on the way to the World's Fair. And Dave was a very astute businessman that recognized the potential of franchising. Dave wasn't necessarily enamored with camping per se. He used to always say, "I camped enough as a Marine…I don't need to camp anymore." But he recognized the growing demand at that time. But Dave also always said, "If I can take credit for anything, it's having a great idea, but enough sense not to try to run it myself." …because he was not an operations person at all. He was an idea man. He bubbled ideas. So he hired the manager at the Chamber of Commerce to be the first president of KOA. A year later when he had it going…I'd gone to South Dakota as the manager of the Chamber [there], and he called up and said "How soon can you come back to Billings? KOA is going to succeed and I need your help." I said "Two weeks". (chuckle)

The Buzz: Two weeks? And you were where? Rapid City?

HS: I was in a little town of Huron, South Dakota…because in the Chamber field, that's what you do. You start in a little town and move on to a bigger town. And the first thing he did… my first week when we hadn't even finished moving...all of our stuff was in a moving van coming to South Dakota...he said, "Well, you've got to see what we're doing." So my wife and I with…our oldest son at that point was one year old I think…and our pet dog and a pet raccoon…we took a tent and traveled all the way to Disneyland [in California], staying at the new KOAs. And really, I'd been hired because of my background in construction and also the outdoors. I'd grown up backpacking in the mountains and stuff at the time. It was a lot of fun in those early days. And early on as a business plan, KOA was always under the gun where it would probably be... "What'll happen? Will we go public? Will we sell out to somebody?" Whatever. So we stayed very thin, people-wise. It was like four of us on the staff, and the board members would help us at the conventions and stuff as needed. But we had a tremendous sales force of salesmen out selling franchises.

Homer Staves Helping Open The Zoo At Whitefish KOA in Montana. [Courtesy: Homer Staves]

The Buzz: What was the demo at that point?

HS: The early market was... Dad was a factory worker, Mom was a stay-at-home housewife. She'd get the RV ready during the week. They'd go out camping over the weekend. They'd come back Sunday night, Monday morning. Mom would spend the week cleaning the RV up again, getting it ready to go again, and Mom had pre-cooked casseroles and stuff for meals and stuff. And the franchisees were the same people. So in the early days, in the early campgrounds, there were no designated sites. It was an open field with a few electrical plugs out there…water spigots here and there…and an A-frame building. That was kind of our trademark. Because in the early days, KOA's whole profit was in that building. When you bought the franchise it included the prefab building, the picnic tables, the fireplace was all a package. So we were selling that package. But these people were “do-it-your-selfers”, so they were building their own campgrounds. But the first franchise agreement that KOA ever entered into was basically a Holiday Inn franchise agreement that they scratched out 'motel' and put in 'campground'.

The Buzz: Interesting…

HS: But because of that we inherited... the contract has always said that the KOA franchisees have the right to create their own owners' association, so there's been a KOA owners' association from day one.

The Buzz: From day one?

HS: From day one. And the first conventions were all put on by the owners. As the conventions grew and expenses got higher, corporate has taken the convention over, but we still have the owners' association board meetings and annual meeting and everything here.

To Be Continued...

Tim Wassberg

A graduate of New York University's Tisch School Of The Arts with degrees in Film/TV Production & Film Criticism, Tim has written for magazines such as Moviemaker, Moving Pictures, Conde Nast Traveler UK and Casino Player. He enjoys traveling and distinct craft beers among other things.

White Fish KOA

Make Sure To Stay At:

Whitefish KOA, Homer's franchise park, sprawling across 33 acres of a secluded, forested valley, a mere 24 miles from Glacier National Park This KOA is renowned for its huge playground as well as an  adults-only hot tub, free mini golf, free fun-bikes, a petting zoo, walking trails and free paddleboats.

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