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San Francisco startup seeks to connect campers to nature without the headache

Everyone’s favorite part about camping is having to reserve a space six months in advance to park their car next to a tent in a state park five miles from the nearest Denny’s, right?

Wrong.

The difficulty of reserving a place to camp can be frustrating, but Marin County native Alyssa Ravasio and her San Francisco-based startup Hipcamp are changing that.

Ravasio’s company allowscampers to book a variety of outdoor camping experiences that range from roughing it to pampering. Avoiding the overbooked public camping reservation system, Hipcamp partners with public lands but also private landowners to increase the supply of campsites and make booking easy.

The idea for Hipcamp grew out of Ravasio’s own frustration trying to find a place to camp in California’s Big Sur one New Year’s. After combing through state, national, county and private park websites, she finally found a spot but on arrival learned it was an ideal surf spot which none of the websites mentioned. Ravasio hadn’t known to bring her surfboard and the experience inspired her to launch a company to make booking easier and experiences, like surfing, more accesible.

“And so driving back that day, I just realized that this whole experience of figuring out where to camp and get outside is really broken,” Ravasio said at the company’s San Francisco headquarters which have an office-meets-summer camp feel.

A sustainably-sourced lacquered California redwood section serves as a standing meeting table in a conference room. There is a tent and a set of bunkbeds in the open space which features pennants emblazoned with the company’s core values. “Leave it better” one says.

“The three big pillars are tent camping, RV camping, and then structures or lodging,” Ravasio said, noting bookings on the site range from open space on private land where campers haul everything in to treehouses with fresh linens and banana bread.

The model relies largely on getting private landowners, who take 90% of the proceeds from a booking (the other 10% goes to Hipcamp out of which it also pays credit card fees and liability insurance) to sign up and allow campers to camp on their land. But that wasn’t always the idea.

Ravasio said when the company was just getting off the ground she was focusing on partnering with Reserve America, which manages the online booking for many campgrounds across the U.S. on public lands.

“They were busy telling me what a monopoly was,” Ravasio said.

She said she wanted to work on adding private land to Hipcamp in the future but didn’t focus on it until she met to speak with investor and former Facebook manager Dave Morin while she was attempting to raise her initial round of funding.

“At the time, we were just public land,” Ravasio said, adding that when she mentioned the idea of expanding to private land Morin stopped. “This is going to be huge,” he said according to Ravasio.

Morin put up half the money for Ravasio’s initial $2 million round of funding. In July 2019 Hipcamp wrapped up a $25 million funding round from the likes of Andreessen Horowitz, a Menlo Park based venture capital fund as well as rapper Jay-Z’s Marcy Venture Partners, and actor Will Smith’s Dreamers VC.

Between those two events, Hipcamp has had to overcome obstacles including securing liability insurance for any accidents that might happen on private land someone is renting as well as convincing landowners to open their tracts to campers.

“The first landowner we signed up is in Clear Creek Ranch up in Redding,” Ravasio said, noting she convinced the outdoor apparel company Mountain Hardwear to buy a summer’s worth of camping at the location.

“We were able to just give [the landowner] $15,000 to join Hipcamp,” Ravasio said.

Since then Hipcamp has expanded to offer bookings across over 9,000 parks, 18,000 campgrounds and 365,000 campsites across the U.S. in every state and Puerto Rico according to its website.

While the company has seen rapid growth since Ravasio began seriously working on the idea in 2013, it is not without future challenges, or competitors.

“I’m fairly confident the North Bay is our most supply constrained market on the planet,” in terms of campsites available Ravasio said. She said in some places like the North Bay landowners do not need the extra income, which she said could reach into the six figures for some hosts.

“A lot of Hipcamps are getting booked up really early in advance in the year now. Which feels really sad, because I mean, it’s great for the landowner, it’s great for the company. But as a camper, you’re like, ‘I thought the whole idea of having more places was this wouldn’t happen and I wouldn’t have to plan six months in advance,’” Ravasio said.

Still she said her company frequently brings on new hosts and campsites to keep up with demand.

“We do a good job bringing on new places every month, every week, every day. So actually, there’s always new stuff to book but definitely a lot of the more established ones get booked up pretty far in advance now,” she added.

Similar issues are also faced by Hipcamp’s competitors including online private camping experience booker Tentrr.

The company offers a different experience, installing fully equipped tents and some facilities on private and public land. Tentrr’s founder Michael D’Agostino said each set up costs about $10,000, a standard cost different than Hipcamp’s diverse experiences.

D’Agostino said while generating business is not something that keeps him up at night on the supply side, keeping up with demand does.

While D’agostino’s model is not exactly the same as Hipcamp, they are competitors trying to fix a similar problem and theoretically vying for a similar pool of venture funding. D’Agostino said his company, which has 1,000 campsites in 41 states, has raised $17 million in venture capital to date and is in the process of raising more.

“The funding challenges have maybe decreased to some extent,” now that venture capitalists have seen the model work with companies like Hipcamp and Tentrr, he added.

D’Agostino said his company also works with states and public land, recently partnering with the state of Maine.

“That will help the residential side of the business to rise as well as people see this is a trusted brand states trust to do business with.”

D’Agostino estimates the value of the industry at around $24 billion nationwide.

Back at Hipcamp headquarters, Ravasio said while her company is not profitable at the moment, it is still very early days and growth is the focus.

“We tend to scale our growth and our expenses so that if we decide we want to become profitable, we can be,” She said.

Ravasio said she sees a deep market in “Nature starved, overstressed city people” wanting to get into the outdoors and that she wants to expand the company to other countries. “I think additional capital will really help,” she added.

One of the sources of that capital, Andrew Chen of Andreessen Horowitz, wrote in a blog post announcing the company’s investment in Hipcamp about why he sees a future in the idea.

“Alyssa’s company has a simple and profound mission: ‘Get more people outside.’” Chen wrote. “Hipcamp is a marketplace that connects people of all kinds with private landowners to help them enjoy the outdoors, often through camping and other activities they can enjoy outdoors.”

“Diversity is strength” is one of Hipcamp’s core values, but the diversity in the kinds of offerings it has also appears to attract campers and investors alike.

Chen also pointed to a 2019 report by Kampgrounds of America, which found that 62% of U.S. households are active campers, an increase from 58% in 2014.

“A lot of this growth is driven by millennials, who make up 41% of new campers and who are drawn to camping as a way to unplug from technology and be physically active,” he added, painting the market as one ripe for growth.

Illustrating that growth for each party involved in Hipcamp, Ravasio said she had received a letter from a coconut farm in Hawaii that is listed on Hipcamp.

“They were saying that before joining Hipcamp it was really hard to figure out how to make ends meet. And now they have extra income. And they’re like, what projects should we invest in to improve our regenerative coconut farm?” Ravasio said. “And I was like, that’s, that’s what it’s all about.”

Staff Writer Chase DiFeliciantonio covers technology, banking, law, accounting, and the cannabis industry. Reach him at chase.d@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4257.

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