02/21/2012 08:09 am ET Updated Feb 22, 2012

KOA Offers Free Camping This May (PHOTOS)

This May, Kampgrounds of America is giving away a free night of camping at all of its nearly 500 locations around the U.S. in an effort to convince families that enjoying the outdoors doesn't have to be a hassle.

The company, which has 484 campgrounds in North America, will give away the free night on May 12 to guests that pay for a night of camping on May 11.

"It's a perfect example of trying to get people out and get in the mindset of camping in the spring," KOA CEO Jim Rogers says. "It's a great opportunity to shake the cobwebs off the tent or off the rig."

It's part of a bigger Come Camp & Care weekend that the company organizes annually as a fundraiser for their Care Camps, a group of 44 specially-equipped campgrounds for children with cancer and their siblings. The weekend, says KOA CEO Jim Rogers, generates roughly $350,000 for the Care Camps.

"That is significant," Rogers says. "Fundraising's tough."

HuffPost Travel's Paul Brady talked camping with KOA's CEO.

Paul Brady: Tell us more about the rationale behind the free weekend.
Jim Rogers: We continue to believe that America needs to spend more time outdoors, and the strategy that we built into this was to make it easy and very reasonable for people to go out and try a campground.

It reinforces the idea of affordability because you're getting a free night, and it allows people to go explore the option of, Should we put up a tent? Should we try a cabin? Should we try a deluxe cabin? It's an opportunity to test the water.

I like to go out and do a test run before I hit the road to do something serious. It's fun to find out whether you've got a hole in your tent before it starts raining.

PB: How does KOA supporting the Care Camps with this weekend?
JR: We haven't done a good job of building awareness for it, and yet whenever we do, we find an outpouring of support. What happens here is that many of the campgrounds have activities during the weekend. So they'll have an auction of items donated by local businesses or they'll have a parade or they'll have a barbecue or pancake breakfast or ice cream social and all of them include some form of donation. It's our crescendo of fundraising we kick off the year with.

This has become one of the biggest weekends of the year. It's the eighth or ninth or tenth largest weekend that we have. We put it up against Fourth of July and Memorial Day.

PB: Do you get to travel much personally?
JR: Being based in Billings, Montana and having 500 locations, you do spend a lot of time elsewhere.

PB: What drew you to your job as KOA CEO?
JR: My first job out of college was with KOA. I worked for KOA for about three or four years in the '70s.

PB: What's changed since you came on board?
JR: I think we've really worked hard on improving the quality of service in our system. We've built metrics in to evaluate overall quality from the guest perspective versus an inspector from KOA. We're now at a point -- 10 or 11 years into it -- that we know that if [you] check in at a pop-up with a dog and three kids that when [you] check in tomorrow night at another KOA, we already know that information. That recognition is important to everybody.

PB: Any other changes in the camping business?
JR: Our business has gone local. Over the last 10 years, we've gone from about 43 percent of our guests spending the night before [staying at a KOA campground] at home to nearly 57 percent of our customers.

We just finished a study with Coleman and the outdoor industry. We tend to typecast campers. But we learned there's tremendous cross-over. A camper may indeed drive a trailer to a location, take his bike and ride through Moab for two or three days. He may go backpacking for a week. He may hike or fish or paddle down a river and I think we have to appreciate that our audience isn't limited.

We have to get people unplugged. People are seeking peace and quiet. When you're camping, within five minutes, the guy that's got a site next to you is talking to you. The kids are playing and they could be a quarter of a mile away -- and you're okay with it. Our society needs this sort of oasis of genuine interaction.

KOA camping