It’s 6:30 a.m. at the Dark Sky RV resort in Utah. I’m sitting out by the gas firepit and everyone else is asleep. The sun is rising, but it’s not one of those sudden appearances that I often see in the Northeast. Instead, the sky is wide open above the vast horizon, and it begins to change colors over the short desert vegetation and red rocks. The rising sun gives a far longer preview of its arrival. It’s bright enough to be nearly daylight now and yet the sun has still not officially peeked over the horizon.
Now, our family is not an obvious RV family. When I tell our friends how often we have journeyed across land in these houses on wheels, complete with nighttime BBQs after arriving late to the site and impromptu stops at unplanned points of interests, I’m often met with wide eyes and expressions of disbelief. But we continue to realize the value of forced family time in close quarters and pushing out of our comfort zone to explore unfamiliar territory.
The other day, we toured the tiny motel strip at Page, Arizona, a road lined with extremely compact motels made for construction workers while they were building a nearby dam half a century ago. Last year, we stopped by the graves of the Gypsy King and Queen in Mississippi.
But the issue has always been where to sleep when the sun went down. Our days of exploration and delightful surprise too often lead to evenings of predictability and frustration. You see, although the RV camping industry in the US is an important slice of the US economy, employing nearly 23,000 people with an average salary of US $30,628 per year, the experience of spending the night at an RV camp leaves much room for improvement.
“Camps” are crammed close to each other to maximize the revenue per square foot. Public bathrooms are areas you avoid at all costs because your phonebooth-sized shower stall in the RV feels like a cleaner option. Paying for amenities, like bike rentals or laundry, is a cumbersome hassle.
Prior to discovering Dark Sky RV Park, I had never read an RV park review that said, “The bath stalls are like a hotel (air conditioned and clean) with an option to shower outdoors if you choose,” “From start to finish, everything was easy and painless,” or “This is the BEST RV campsite we’ve ever experienced.” It seems that we get what we pay for—pay more for better performance (like a hotel room that costs over $200 per night) or pay less for worse performance (the RV park model says, “We’ll give you a worse experience, but you’ll still appreciate it because it’s cheap.”)
A disruptive company is the one that draws a new line by offering an excellent experience at a comparable price. That’s what the couple who built the Dark Sky RV Park created: a campsite that customers actually love!
I got a chance to speak to the owners and creators of this unique RV resort. Their approach to designing a site customers love offers a formula that any of us can apply to rethink, redefine, and potentially disrupt our industries.
Step 1: Prioritize the pain points
Prior to founding Dark Sky, owners Meryl and Rick had earned Airbnb’s “Superhost” status by providing extraordinary experiences for their guests at their rental properties. Rick had RVed as a child with his family, so he was quite familiar with the pain points of RVing. By taking what they’d learned about turning lodging customers into raving fans through their Airbnb experience and contrasting it with Rick’s RVing knowledge, Meryl and Rick were able to clearly see several areas of opportunity to improve the experience of RV customers:
- Pulling in: Backing RVs into campsites was “nerve-racking,” Rick told me, and as a novice RVer, I’d concur.
- Payment: Having to fill out paper forms with credit card info, or shoving quarters into washing machines seems archaic.
- Privacy: Few things are more discomforting than stepping out of your RV in the morning to confront at close distance a “neighbor” in pajamas you have never met.
- Bathrooms: The tiny shower stall in your vehicle is too often preferable to stepping into utilitarian campsite facilities that resembles the showers of your high-school gym.
Step 2: Rethink each pain point
Having identified the pain points customers in your industry experience, rethink the accepted approaches in your industry to solve those pain points. Rick and Meryl came up with at least four that were simple enough to implement, but that are also game changers:
- Pulling in: They designed the camp as a circle, rather than as rows in a parking lot (as all other RV parks are conceived), and made each space a pull-over lane so that you never have to back in or back out. If you are in an odd-number unit, you enter the roundabout counterclockwise (your unit faces outward) and if you are in an even-number unit, signage directs you to enter clockwise (you will face inward). Often, innovating a business begins with changing the conceptual architecture of the business. In this case, they began with the mental model of a circle rather than a parking lot of rows.
- Payment: As we were driving westward from Colorado, my wife found Dark Sky via a Google search. She was pleasantly surprised to find that instead of the usual clunky checkout approach, in which you register on a website and enter your credit card info, Dark Sky’s website simply told us what units they had available and gave their Venmo account number to send payment, the receipt of which would automatically secure our space. Similarly, when we bought ice cream or did laundry, instead of having us pre-pay at a desk or change bills into coins to mash into a washing machine, they followed the honor system. Take what you want, wash what you need, and pay what you owe via Venmo or PayPal.
- Privacy: This is the biggest dilemma for RV parks, and most businesses. Once you have made an upfront investment to buy property, build a factory, buy a machine, you are financially motivated to use that initial asset as much as possible. Most RV park owners seek to cram as many units together as they can, and if they have paid the upfront costs with borrowed money, the pressure to do so grows even more. When Meryl and Rick started this business, they decided to sell everything they had and invest it in land. Since they bought the land with cash rather than borrowed money, they have less pressure to cram additional spaces in. Sure, the tension between customer experience (“I want privacy”) and asset utilization (“Let’s make the most money per square foot”) is always there, but choosing to prioritize customer experience is easier when you don’t have lenders on your back.
- Bathrooms: I’ve saved the best for last. This is the area for which Dark Sky is most well-known. Look at reviews of this campsite and you will see that the bathrooms are the most frequently mentioned amenity. A gas station chain in Texas called Buc-ee’s has grown into a major business to a great extent because it has become known as having the largest, cleanest bathrooms on the side of a highway. Dark Sky’s bathrooms take it to another level. Each bathroom is a private suite, with high-quality products (shampoo and body wash), Zen-inspired décor, and an option to privately move your shower outdoors under the desert sun.
How to apply Dark Sky’s model today
Many successful businesses were built on a simple premise: By creatively solving the key pain points in your industry, you can reinvent a category. The Ritz-Carlton did this with hotels, Starbucks did this with coffee, and Apple did this with personal computers. To reinvent your industry, simply think through three steps:
- What are the top pain points customers in your industry experience? Brainstorm at least 10 pain points, then prioritize them.
- What “blank canvas” solutions could you consider? For each pain point, ask, “If I were just entering this industry today, without bringing any preconceived assumptions about how to deliver value, how might I solve for this pain point?”
- Define your new strategy: Collect your ideas from step 2, and decide which you will test or implement. Then create a plan for a new approach or business model with the potential to redefine your industry.
Photos taken by Kaihan Krippendorff at Dark Sky RV Park