Austin Startup RoverPass Looks to Become Kayak for Camping Industry

“We’re not doing rocket science. We’re just trying to get people to go camping.”

So says Ravi Parikh, co-founder and CEO of Austin, TX-based startup RoverPass. While his comment is a little self-deprecating, it certainly explains his company well. RoverPass helps campers and RV owners find and book places in campgrounds and RV parks while helping campground and RV park owners—the startup’s customers—find new revenue and manage online bookings and advertising in a simple way.

It’s a simple concept akin to what Kayak or Hotels.com are doing for travelers. But while those sites have brought airline and hotel booking into the digital age, Parikh says campgrounds lag far behind. Many do have websites where travelers can make reservations, but he says the technology is old and far from user-friendly.

“It’s often painful for people who want to go camping to make online reservations,” Parikh says. “So we’re looking to streamline that process and make it more consumer friendly.”

And unless you’re trying to book spots in a government-owned campground—more on that later—there really isn’t a single site that lays out all the options in an area.

“There’s no aggregation in the industry, and there’s no standardization in the industry right now,” Parikh said.

RoverPass was formed last year by Ticketbud co-founder and former CEO Paul Cross, uShip co-founder Jay Manickam, and Parikh, the co-founder of MakerSquare, the Austin-based 12-week bootcamp for Web developers. RoverPass’ website is scheduled to go live next Thursday, and the company has raised $500,000 from investors.

The startup is focusing on Texas as it launches, but plans to expand quickly, Parikh says.

The campground and RV park business is split between parks owned and managed by government agencies and those run by private companies, which sometimes can be quite small. RoverPass wants to make a dent in the private market by creating an affordable, easy-to-use product for parts of the industry that still rely on taking reservations over the phone and tracking them using pen and paper.

That means RoverPass will have to do some teaching, Parikh says.

“We have to educate and explain how technology can really revolutionize the way this industry has operated for a longtime,” Parikh says. That includes online marketing basics such as search engine optimization to more sophisticated tactics like variable pricing models.

It could help that it’s free for campground and RV parks to join RoverPass. The company gets paid by taking a 10 percent cut of the rental fee when reservations are made through RoverPass.com or its apps.

But the bigger fish are government-owned campgrounds, and the contract to manage online booking for the federal government is expiring soon. Its site, recreation.gov, enables campers to make reservations at more than 90,000 sites on federal land, including national parks, forests, and recreation areas.

The site is managed by a single private contractor, Active Outdoors, which is part of Active Network. But that could change next year—the feds are opening the bidding process and plan to pick a vendor by July 2015.

The contract for the state of Texas, which also uses Active Outdoors, also expires soon, Parikh says.

While RoverPass or competitors like Hipcamp might not be able to land those contracts, they’ve already made their influence felt.

Hipcamp has banded together with outdoor goods retailer REI, Code for America, the Sierra Club, and other startups to form Access Land. The coalition wants the government to create a more open system that relies on application programming interfaces, or APIs, that would allow multiple companies to initiate bookings and receive a 70 percent cut of the transaction fee for online bookings through their sites and apps. The company that wins the master contract would receive 30 percent of the transaction fee.

Access Land said the move would engage the next generation of conservationists and “transform Recreation.gov from a single website into a platform that will support an ecosystem of innovative apps.” It also contends a contract with a single vendor such as Active Outdoors creates a monopoly that doesn’t suit the changing needs of consumers.

Active Outdoors has defended the current setup, saying that the industry does not generate enough revenue to make the 70/30 split worthwhile for the contractor.

Access Land last year succeeded in getting the federal government to agree to revise the request for proposals it uses to solicit vendors and set the terms of the competition. It will be released this month, and it could contain requirements that allow third-parties to collect revenue for online bookings. That might enable RoverPass and other startups to compete on a more level playing field, whether they win the Recreation.gov contract or not.

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