Hipcamp - Applying the Airbnb model to Camping

Hipcamp represents a best practice of a purpose-driven business that is able to scale up operations and revenue by adopting a sustainable model.

A simple yet revolutionary idea

Founded in 2013 in San Francisco, Hipcamp is the United States' leading online community and marketplace for camping, connecting landowners and campers across the country. The platform, initially active only in California, covers now over 50 states with more than 400.000 campsites across the US, both on public parks to private land, and it is rapidly expanding on overseas markets.

A simple yet revolutionary idea

Founded in 2013 in San Francisco, Hipcamp is the United States' leading online community and marketplace for camping, connecting landowners and campers across the country. The platform, initially active only in California, covers now over 50 states with more than 400.000 campsites across the US, both on public parks to private land, and it is rapidly expanding on overseas markets.

A simple yet revolutionary idea

Founded in 2013 in San Francisco, Hipcamp is the United States' leading online community and marketplace for camping, connecting landowners and campers across the country. The platform, initially active only in California, covers now over 50 states with more than 400.000 campsites across the US, both on public parks to private land, and it is rapidly expanding on overseas markets.

The idea behind Hipcamp is simple but at the same time revolutionary: what if camping could become a way to preserve the natural land and ensure the economic sustainability of rural communities? Hipcamp found the answer to this question by creating an online marketplace where campers can easily find the perfect camping spot and landowners can supplement their income and preserve their land by offering environmentally-friendly camping sites.

Hipcamp represents a best practice of a purpose-driven business who is able to scale up operations and revenue by adopting a business model that is sustainable and considers stakeholders return. Focused on the principles of the sharing economy, Hipcamp's strategy leverages on online technologies, innovations and collaboration as the main tools for business growth.

Photo from hipcamp.com

An idea born of a need

On the new year's eve of 2012, the Hipcamp founder and CEO Alyssa Ravasio, was in California and wanted to find a spot where to place her tent and watch the sunrise on the new years' day of 2013. What she thought could be an easy process turned to be quite of a hassle, as she spent hours trying to find campsites online.

The campsite offer was extremely dispersed across different websites, and most of the camping sites were listed on national park portals, displaying very little to none information. That's when Alyssa realised the huge online gap for camping opportunities. By conducting a bit more in-depth research she also found out how camping opportunities were mostly restricted to public campsites, and how these campsites were facing overcrowding issues during the summer season.

She also found out that about 30% of the California State Parks were threatened by closure due to lack of revenue: they had lots of campers but distributed in very few spots and during a very short time. That's when she realised there was the need to connect more campers with these places to preserve their future.

Reflecting on these issues, Alyssa had a disruptive idea: what if we could increase the offer of campsites by enabling landowners to rent their land to campers? The idea of Hipcamp was finally born and just a few months later was translated into the online platform we know today.

Photo by Patrick Boucher on Unsplash

Adapting the sharing economy business model to campsites

Hipcamp is often referred to be 'the Airbnb of camping'. Albeit not 100% accurate, this definition gives an idea about the business model adopted by the company: similarly to its more popular counterpart, Hipcamp allows private individuals (in this case landowners) to supplement their income by renting out accommodations to guests (in this case campers).

Based on the principles of the sharing economy, a nowadays well-known economic model defined as a"peer-to-peer (P2P) based activity of acquiring, providing or sharing access to goods and services facilitated by a community-based online platform" (investopedia.com), Hipcamp allows campers to find and book camping spots, RV parks, cabins and even treehouses, and glamorous camping site in the most beautiful spots around the country. On the other side, landowners are free to list their properties and can supplement their income by hosting campers.

How the model works

Landowners can start listing their land completely free on the platform. Taking only a few minutes to publish their offer, landowners can freely decide when to host campers, as the system allows them to block dates and create a personalised hosting schedule. At the same hosts receive payments from booking on a weekly base.

On the other side, Hipcamp applies a 10% commission fee on each transaction. 3.5% of the commission is used to process payments through an external provider, whilst the remaining 6.5% is used by the company for email and social media marketing activities, to ensure 7-day/week customer support and to provide a complimentary insurance policy for hosts. Hipcamps also provides a hands-on 'host success specialist' to help hosts optimise their offer and reach their targets.

Source: hipcamp.com

This model proved to be successful at different levels. For the host, the low commission fee allows keeping 90% of the revenue ensuring significant profitability. At the same time, every host gets great visibility on the platform and support through the customer service. Also, the insurance policy provided by the company takes away any risk from the host, covering up to $1 million for general liability claims.

The very low implementation costs for creating a camping spot and the flexibility of the location, with camping spots that can be virtually placed on any piece of land, are key factors that entice many landowners to start.

A scalable business model

For Hipcamp the success of the business model lies not only on the innovative idea of connecting campers and landowners, or on the great customer service and easy use of the platform, but most importantly, on the scalability of the business model. With around 60% of the land in the United States being privately owned and the fact that a significant part of this land can be used for camping, Hipcamp has leveraged on an incredibly huge untapped potential.

With more than 40 million Americans camping every year and counting, Hipcamp managed to develop an offer that was responding to the needs of the market whilst giving new unimaginable business opportunities to landowners. The thousands of hosts joining the platform every year and the community of 5.5 million registered users demonstrate the success of the initiative.

Photo by Ridwan Kosasih on Unsplash

A business with a clear mission and values

As it is often the case for any thriving business, Hipcamp's success is deeply rooted in a clear mission and values. Hipcamp's mission can be summarised as follows: connecting landowners who want to keep their land undeveloped with the community of responsible, nature-loving campers, with the aim of getting more people outside and preserving the natural environment.

Evaluating impacts

Looking at the mission statement, it is easy to understand how the one developed by Hipcamp is much more than just a business-centred statement. The company went well beyond this, not only considering the value given to the customer but the one provided to society and the environment as a whole. In this sense, Hipcamp represents an excellent example of a purpose-driven approach to developing a mission.

Creating a platform connecting landowners with responsible campers is not only considered a business opportunity but as an occasion to protect the environment and preserve the land. Keeping this land undeveloped helps protect the habitats where plants and animals can reproduce.

At the same time, providing an alternative to traditional campsites helps to relieve the pressure on public campsites in national parks, which are often not enough to accommodate all campers. Giving them alternative accommodation also helps fighting illegal camping that damages the environment. To reach these ambitious objectives, Hipcamp is collaborating closely with farmers, land trust, and conservation organizations around the country.

Photo by Warren Wong on Unsplash

Bringing added value to camping

While crucial for the environment, the concept of 'land-sharing', is much more than this. It introduces a new mindset on how to 'get outside'. With millions of Americans living in overcrowded cities, camping can help them escape the hustle and bustle of the urban environment and reconnect with nature.

Camping and land-sharing open up new opportunities to explore what's outside the city, a chance to experience the rural environment and culture, which are often left at the margin of the tourist experience. By connecting with landowners, people can discover, for example, organic farming, local produce, and how rural communities are taking care of the land.

“We’re creating community across the political divide and the consistent geographical line that marks the split, usually between rural and urban” - Alyssa Ravasio, CEO, as seen on fastcompany.com

By promoting a new type of camping, Hipcamp is adding entirely new values around the traditional camping experience. The company has managed to change the concept of camping, shifting from a pure leisure activity to a more purpose-driven experience. With the slogan 'leave it better' the company is inviting the whole community of Hipcampers to respect the environment.\

Photo by Kimson Doan on Unsplash

Camping then becomes a tool to build more resilient communities and conscious travellers, connecting the cities and the countryside. The scale at which Hipcamp operates can truly become a driver for positive impact on the community and the environment.

By promoting this new concept, Hipcamp is bringing added value to camping, which is not anymore seen as a leisure activity but as a tool to foster land stewardship and regenerative experiences.

Intercepting market trends and the impact of the pandemic

The case of Hipcamp is an example of a business best practice not only for its purpose-driven business model but for its capability to intercept market trends and build a solid offer around them.

The boom of the sharing economy driven by actors such as Airbnb and Uber has first sparked and then exacerbated the latent needs of the new holidaymakers. Nowadays, people are evaluating new ways of travelling and spending their free time and holidays, considering alternative types of accommodation which are more local and authentic.

Alongside these trends, a new kind of tourist, more environmentally conscious, respectful for the local community and with a flair for outdoor experiences has emerged. The rise of responsible tourism, nature-based experiences and rural escapes are concrete expressions of this new mindset.

Hipcamp represents the example of a business which blends effectively the sharing economy business model with the new market trends. Taking a clear and defined strategy, the company was able to intercept the new needs of the market developing an offer that is relevant and targeted to the segment.

Photo by Scott Goodwill on Unsplash

Thriving through the pandemic

The Covid-19 pandemic has undoubtedly disrupted the global economy, with the tourism sector being one of the most severely hit. Tour operators, airlines and online booking platforms faced an unprecedented crisis, with many forced to cease operations and lay off staff. In this context, Hipcamp made no exception.

Back in April 2020, the company saw massive cancellation of bookings and was forced to cease all activities due to the lockdown restrictions. After restrictions were lifted though, the company saw an exponential (and somehow unexpected) rise of bookings: from June to August, revenue went up to 50% over the previous year. Even if revenue has been steadily growing since 2013, such an exponential rise was something the company has never seen before.

The offer developed by Hipcamp once again proved to be extremely relevant to the needs of the market. With international travel restrictions tacking over, people across the US have been searching for alternative ways to spend their holidays. With people stuck at home for weeks, the need for short nature-breaks, already on the rise before the pandemic, has seen an unprecedented surge.

Photo by Shayna Frankenfield

In parallel with bookings, the company has also seen an exponential rise in terms of new hosts joining the community. With many rural businesses, such as wineries, farms and ranches forced to close to visitors, the possibility to share their land through Hipcamp provided them with an essential source of revenue.

Such a success wouldn't be possible though without the implementation of clear guidelines and strict safety standards for hosts developed by Hipcamp. The COVID-19 Safety Standards allow hosts to self-certify the implementation of safety standards in their properties and have been developed based on the official recommendations from the US government. Hosts who have completed the self-certification can then display a safety-badge, which certifies to their guest their property is safe.

The action of Hipcamp was not only limited to this, as the company, aware of the fact that many hosts were working remotely, has created guidelines for 'remote hosting', which tell hosts which actions to take in case they cannot be present when guests are coming. The guidelines explain how to arrange self-check-ins, developing detailed welcome messages to guests before arrival and even organise the site to ensure the best possible experience.

Hipcamp represents an exceptional example of how a purpose-driven business can succeed in the marketplace by applying business innovation and developing a clear positioning in the market. By applying the sharing economy concept to camping the company has been able to tap into the latent demand of nature-based and environmentally-conscious experiences, creating new business opportunities for the company itself and for rural businesses. The case of Hipcamp represents an example to follow both for businesses operating in the online environment, such as online platforms and communities, but also for small rural businesses.

Online businesses can take inspiration from the approach provided by Hipcamp to develop a more purpose and market-driven business model, a model that ensures scalability and auto-feeds itself thanks to the community at the base of it. On the other side, small rural businesses such as wineries and farms, have the occasion to discover the hidden potential of their land, and how they can generate new business opportunities that can become crucial to thriving.

Key Takeaways

Published on:
June 2020
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