Alyssa Ravasio’s formative years are marked by the outdoors. The Corte Madera native spent many summers exploring the forest and crossing rivers while camping with her family in the Trinity Alps, Hendy Woods State Park and other sites throughout California. In 2013, she started coding a website called California Camping that would later become Hipcamp — an app and site that offers various outdoor and camping options. Private landowners can list their property for camping, glamping, or RV space for users to book based on a variety of factors including listing type, location, landscape, activities offered and amenities. The site also includes user reviews and photos of public campgrounds in national parks.
You went to UCLA and created your own major there — what was that?
It was actually about the internet. From a very young age I wanted to be a film director. I went to UCLA and then ended up not getting into film school, so I created a major about the internet. Mostly out of necessity to get a degree, but also because I was obsessed with the internet. I had a series of pretty significant realizations that this technology represented a massive leap for our culture, and we were in such the early days of learning how to use it. So I fixated on figuring out how this tool was going to change the culture in the right way. Hipcamp was how I combined my obsession with the internet and its ability to reshape our culture with one of things I think is most missing in our culture, which is a connection with and a love for nature.
An unlikely partnership.
Totally, but in my mind a lot of things that seem like unnatural partnerships feel natural. For me, the internet and nature — perfect! They’re so similar. A map of the internet looks exactly like the map of a fungal network or your brain.
Like mycelial mats.
How many Hipcamp sites do you have right now?
We have a little over 300,000 across the whole country.
What’s your process for reaching prospective hosts?
That is the question for the company for sure. Our biggest challenge right now is reaching more landowners. We find that when landowners join the platform they stick around. It’s a really good platform and model for them. We’re doing a lot of experimentation, but word of mouth is actually the biggest way. Press is another big way. The Bay Area is actually one of our most supply constrained markets. We have the biggest imbalance of people who want to get outside and no place to send them. Probably not a big surprise. So in those markets, especially just getting the word out through the community tends to be the trick.
Another unlikely pairing — farmers and Instagram.
I agree with the overall point, but we’re actually experimenting with Instagram right now and there’s a surprisingly large number of cool — not a million — but cool young farmers. They’re on Instagram and they’re crushing it! And everybody loves them. But that case aside, landowners are hard people to reach. They’re busy. They have a big piece of land they’re taking care of. They have a million different chores and projects that they’re working on every day, not just sitting in a scrolling on their phone. They have no time for scrolling, that is a pastime of the urban and suburban. So they are harder to reach and also, interestingly, they are a type of person that very few tech companies have tried to reach. So it’s a fun challenge for us because there’s no playbook, we have to create it.
How have you pivoted since the pandemic?
The health and safety of our community is always our top priority, especially during the pandemic. We’re committed to making sure our landowners feel confident and prepared to host safely during the pandemic and educating everyone from first time campers to seasoned adventurers on how to get outside responsibly. Now more than ever, people are engaging in a deeper connection to the outdoors and interest in the outdoors is surging.
What are some safety precautions Hipcamp has taken?
We’ve added guidelines for campers in a prominent place at the top of the Trip Page so all Hipcampers have this information readily available before they arrive at a property. The main guidelines are: be mindful of the local community; adhere to local requirements; practice physical distancing; take care of your health; be fire safe; and leave it better. We’ve also created the Covid-19 Safety Standards to help hosts create a safe experience. Hosts can also choose when to list their property and are able to easily put their listing on hold for any reason, including COVID-19 and shelter-in-place requirements. Hosts can self-certify that they have implemented our COVID-19 Safety Standards and earn a badge on their listing page. We also send campers best practices for traveling safely ahead of their trip.
How do you set up a host with everything they need?
Everything is on the web and we have a team in place. You can call them and they’ll talk you through whatever questions you might have. They do a lot of that all day, every day. One of the cool things we learned in terms of infrastructure is that RVs and camper vans are the fastest growing segment of our audience. Obviously, van life is a big thing right now. What’s amazing is that as a landowner you don’t have to build infrastructure, so what we often advise is start small and see how it goes. What we see happen over time is they might start with the vans and the RVs and then they earn some income, and now it’s time to build that outdoor kitchen they’ve always dreamed of.
Have you seen a spike in campers since the pandemic?
People are traveling on average 40 percent closer to home on Hipcamp than they did this time last year. We’ve seen more and more people want to access the outdoors as air travel has become less frequent for many. Hosts on our platform are making over three times more revenue on Hipcamp this year versus the same time last year. It’s a great time to join Hipcamp if you’re a private landowner, farmer or rancher.
How do you feel about being called the Airbnb of camping?
I understand the comparison, but we’re a really different company. Our whole mission is to get people outside and we’re really building a community of people who are — both on the camper and the host side — extremely passionate about the land and connection with nature. Having a community that has those shared values and is focused on those shared values creates a really different type of organization.
Are there stories you could share of land being saved?
One of my favorite stories was when I showed up on a property and a landowner handed me this piece of paper. I actually thought it was a list of complaints, but it was a letter from a development company. It said the parcel was extremely interesting for development, and to call them. But the lady said, “I hate these letters, this would destroy everything I believe in. My whole goal here is just to leave this land a little better than I found it.” She was actually the inspiration behind “Leave it better than you found it,” which is our most important company value. She said, “Look at this nice thick paper. They know what they’re doing. They’re just waving the money in front of my face, and it’s hard because sometimes I’m afraid I’m going to have to call them. I don’t always know how I’m going to make it work. And I’m terrified I’m gonna have to call them, except not anymore, because Hipcamp makes this junk mail. So take this letter like bring it back to your team. I want you guys to understand the impact you’re having.” And so that was cool because I got a souvenir. But honestly, our team gets emails all the time where people have a very similar arc of, a few months ago, we were really struggling. Now we have income that we can invest in like this project we’ve always wanted to do.
What advice do you have for first-time campers who are curious but nervous?
Go glamping. It’s the perfect first step. Camping trips often go wrong when you didn’t realize you needed a thing — the sleeping bag wasn’t warm enough. You forgot the flashlight. You didn’t have the right tool for the stove. We have good guides on our site and there’s lots of places where you can rent gear. Also, if you have a friend that can take you in and be your guide, that’s the best.
You’ve grown a lot and have investors now. What was your day to day like and how has that changed?
That’s a good question. I used to solve problems and do things. Now, I lead and manage really talented people. They do the things, and that was a hard gear for me to shift because I love doing things and getting into it. I love the feeling of finishing something. I feel like I have a totally new job now, I got a promotion. It’s exciting because my capacity and the organization’s capacity for getting lots done has increased so radically because we’ve hired a head of engineering and a head of content and V.P. of operations and our head of policy. Now there’s this whole level of leaders in their respective areas that are setting strategy for all these things that I was trying to get done all the time. They’re hiring, they’re making sure things happen. They’re working with their team to actually make the work real. So that’s been a huge change, but a good one.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?
I got really good advice to fall in love with the problem, not the solution. It’s really easy to fall in love with our own ideas. Early on I was thinking, “I’m going to build this really cool website with all the different state parks and national parks and county parks on one website. People are going to love it.” But really the problem I was trying to solve was that it was so hard to go camping. I wanted to go camping and for it to be simple, I wanted to get excited and not have it feel like a giant hassle because I didn’t book a site six months ago. That problem is what allowed me to realize that private land and partnering with these landowners to create new places for people to get outside, essentially a people-powered park system, was a solution. One that I didn’t come up with. People came to me and asked if they could list on my website. But because I stayed anchored in the problem, I was able to see that that solution — which was actually way smarter than the original solution that I designed, and way more transformative and just a much bigger opportunity — matched my problem. So staying really in touch with the problem, not a solution, gives you the opportunity to collaborate with the universe on what the actual solution should be. It also makes sure you’re pointing in the right direction. I think the big risk for early stage entrepreneurship is if you’re not sure there’s a real problem, you can waste a lot of time trying to get people to like the thing you created. But if there’s a real problem and you keep pulling and pulling and pulling, like eventually you can create something of real value.
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Kasia Pawlowska loves words. A native of Poland, Kasia moved to the States when she was seven. The San Francisco State University creative writing graduate went on to write for publications like the San Francisco Bay Guardian and KQED Arts among others prior to joining the Marin Magazine staff. Topics Kasia has covered include travel, trends, mushroom hunting, an award-winning series on social media addiction and loads of other random things. When she’s not busy blogging or researching and writing articles, she’s either at home writing postcards and reading or going to shows. Recently, Kasia has been trying to branch out and diversify, ie: use different emojis. Her quest for the perfect chip is never-ending.