Notre Dame alumna maps out her journey from Montana to South Bend and back

Author: Sue Ryan

Toby Orourke Koa Resized

Toby O’Rourke remembers the day as vividly as if it was in the recent past. She was lying on her living room floor on a Saturday afternoon in southwestern Montana, watching a Notre Dame football game with her dad. Even though she was only in elementary school at the time, her mind was made up. 

“I rolled over, looked up at my dad and said, ‘I’m going to go to Notre Dame,’” O’Rourke recalled. At that, her journey began.

“Being from such a small town (Sheridan, Montana, population: 600), Notre Dame felt like a world away but I was dead set on that goal. I remember in third grade asking the teacher for more homework because I felt like I needed it to get prepared. I was just so focused.”

Ten years later, she left Big Sky Country for God, Country and Notre Dame. O’Rourke graduated from Notre Dame in 2000 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science and a supplemental major in computer applications. Since her departure from campus, her life’s path has been a meandering trail that set off from South Bend to Chicago for an MBA and a technology and marketing career, followed by a move farther west to Denver and eventually a return home to Montana to take a digital marketing job at Kampgrounds of America (KOA), the world’s largest system of public campgrounds. 

She excelled there and quickly rose through the ranks. Eight years later in 2019, she was named president and CEO of KOA, the first woman to lead the 60-year old company. Under her direction, KOA has grown, modernized and expanded its business with a persistent focus on data, continuous research and digital technology.  

On April 17, O’Rourke returned to campus as the featured speaker at Idea Week’s Industry Innovation Forum, presented by IndustryLabs and the South Bend-Elkhart Regional Partnership. Her presentation, “Camping Reimagined: Innovation, Technology and Trends in Outdoor Hospitality,” provided insights into how KOA has transformed its business to meet the modern needs of today’s camper.

As an undergraduate student, she admittedly understood very little about business and industry outside of campus. But the irony is that now, 20 years later, she returns to the South Bend-Elkhart region regularly as a critical figure to a very important industry in northwest Indiana. Known as the recreational vehicle (RV) capital of the world, Elkhart is home to approximately 80 percent of global RV manufacturing, including more than 30 manufacturers that account for about 100 brands. Camping and RVs go hand-in-hand. 

“Eighty-five percent of our business is RVs,” she said during her presentation, “which is why we have such a strong partnership with the RV industry.”

The COVID-19 pandemic catapulted the industry into unprecedented growth. “Outdoor hospitality has really come into its own these past few years, particularly since the pandemic,” she said. “It is now a formidable part of the travel industry. Last year, of all leisure travel 32 percent of those trips were camping. 

“Fifty-eight million households camped last year,” she continued. “That’s an almost 40 percent increase from the amount of people who camped in 2019. Over 6 million new households started camping last year. People have gravitated to the outdoors as a result of the pandemic. Research shows that 44 percent of campers just started camping within the past few years. That’s really been a big boost for our business. RVing and camping account for $140 billion economic contribution. Overall outdoor recreation, so that’s beyond camping and also includes RVing, boating, fishing, hunting, ATVing, accounts for $862 billion in economic contribution or 1.9 percent of the country’s GDP (gross domestic product).

To stay on top of the wants and needs of the growing population of today’s campers, O’Rourke explained that services that may have been considered amenities in the past are now necessities at a modern campground. “Seventy-one percent of people who camp are under the age of 42 — that’s a 31-point change since we measured that data in 2015. If we look at the new camper, who just started camping last year, 69 percent are Gen Z and millennials, so we have to respond to that. We must really understand the needs of today’s campers and respond to these changing demographics with changes to our business.”

Accommodations like reliable Wi-Fi, pet zones, kitchens, private bathrooms, on-site playground equipment, pools and patios are considered must-haves. To appeal to today’s campers, O’Rourke spoke about innovation in the outdoor hospitality industry. Treehouses, yurts, well-appointed cabins, cabooses and canvas tents with bathrooms are some of the unique choices that can be found at KOA campgrounds. She has also been a leader in the “glamping” (glamorous camping) industry as KOA recently opened Terramor Outdoor Resort, its first luxury camping venture in Bar Harbor, Maine.   

O’Rourke also spoke about the importance of issues impacting major corporations and other industries as well as the outdoor hospitality space — sustainability, accessibility and inclusion. KOA continues to research and innovate in these areas with solar panels, water reclamation, bioswales, electricity conservation, electric vehicle charging and other means to care more thoughtfully for the land while also making the camping experience welcoming to those with physical, sensory, financial and other barriers. 

Idea Week at Notre Dame, an annual event celebrating entrepreneurs, innovation and the incubation of new ideas, concluded on April 21 with the McCloskey New Venture Competition, an annual prize competition for early-stage ventures. Open to the Notre Dame students, faculty, staff and alumni as well as members of the surrounding South Bend-Elkhart community, the McCloskey competition began in 2001 with $30,000 in awards and 70 teams. Now in its 23rd year, the competition gave out more than $400,000 in prize money, and it attracted a record 175 teams in 2019.