Finán O’Donoghue is a Kerry-born camping and hiking enthusiast who turned his lifelong passion into a business. After two decades working on multi-million-euro enterprise IT and online projects for companies including Vodafone, KBC Bank and Liberty Insurance, he established Campsited in 2015. Based in Dublin, Campsited provides campsites with the tools to respond to online supply channels, and campers with a user experience to book campsites of choice from a growing pool of campsites across Europe.
And with camping, we’re talking impressive numbers: over 1 billion nights are spent on campsites around the world annually, with 500 million of them in Europe. The European campsite booking market alone is worth €11.5bn annually. This will rise to €13.5bn in 2023. And when you consider that the wider outdoor tourism market in Europe is worth an estimated €65 billion and rising every year, that’s quite a slice of the pie.
Finán recently spoke to ITTN’s editor Fionn Davenport; the interview has been edited slightly for clarity.
Fionn Davenport So Finán, tell us about Campsited?
Finán O’Donoghue I’m a camping and outdoor enthusiast, and long ago I noticed that there was no easy way to find and book a camping holidays all around the world, so I started Campsited.
We launched the first part of the marketplace in 2015 and launched the consumer-facing side in 2016 – but only started to do a push on the consumer-facing side in 2019-20, when we’d developed a large choice of campsites in particular areas. The goal of the business from now is to significantly grow our supply, as well as growing the demand side for our campsite partners. To date we’ve raised €2.9m. Backers include Motley Fool Ventures (of The Motley Fool) and Enterprise Ireland. We successfully raised €300k of the €2.9m during COVID and are currently on the fundraising trail again for a further €3m.
Fionn Davenport How many campsites do you have?
Finán O’Donoghue We have over 2000 campsites now and across 18 countries in Europe. Our largest market – and the largest commercial camping market globally – is France. We have over 1000 French campsites on the site, and 15% of the French campsite market has signed up to use the campsite platform, which is very significant for us given the prominence of the French camping market globally. It’s a big validation of what we’re trying to do, I guess, both from a business and consumer standpoint.
Fionn Davenport Obviously 2020 was a virtual write-off for all of us in travel, but how popular are camping holidays with Irish consumers?
Finán O’Donoghue Very popular – and they actually grew in popularity in 2020! There was the perceived safety of the camping holiday in comparison to other holidays – it’s more outdoors, there’s more distance between you and your neighbours. And the various camping federations have taken it very seriously and put adequate protocols in place to ensure the safety of campsite guests.
Fionn Davenport Given that we’re going to have to deal with Covid in one form or another for quite a while yet, do you see camping holidays growing even more in popularity?
Finán O’Donoghue I think they will – and for a few reasons, notably the number of new campers that entered the market in 2020 and the investment in the sector, which has been significant even up to the beginning of 2021. There’s been investment across other B2C brands, primarily in the outdoor sector. And I suppose it plays very well into local regional and domestic travel booking preferences. People are travelling shorter distances to go to their holiday destinations.
And a lot of these campsites are in more rural locations. The only way you can access those locations is by car: you’re in your own bubble and then you’re at your pitch. You’ve got all of your own equipment, so in terms of managing your own environment relative to the risks that might be out there, camping lends itself very well to that. So we’ll see a continued growth in over the next 12 to 18 months.
Fionn Davenport So the timing of launching the consumer-facing element of Campsited right before the pandemic hit hasn’t been too bad?
We have over 1000 French campsites on the site, and 15% of the French campsite market has signed up to use the campsite platform, which is very significant for us given the prominence of the French camping market globally.
Finán O’Donoghue Not at all. And though we launched the consumer elements a bit before that, our first push – from a marketing perspective – happened in 2019 with a view toward growing the business significantly in 2020. And our reservations and revenue grew by over 500%.
Had we not had COVID we probably would have trebled or quadrupled that growth, but that for us was really very encouraging, especially as so many other travel sectors were decimated. We would be very optimistic about being able to repeat that growth and actually increase it in 2021 because the various countries are getting a better handle on what they need to do with COVID and are looking to plan for peak holiday seasons.
France, in particular puts a very big focus on that because of the size and the value of the camping sector. It’s worth about €3.5 billion annually just in terms of reservations. And that’s not including other spend like beverages, local shopping, activities and tours in those local areas. After hotel nights, camping is the most popular accommodation choice in France.
Fionn Davenport If you’re also working in the UK market, to what extent will Brexit be a factor in determining the popularity of, say, French campsites for UK holiday makers?
Finán O’Donoghue We started to see the effect of that in March of 2019. Theresa May was prime minister and was trying to get her plan through parliament before it got derailed – and as a result of that we saw an almost stop of bookings from the UK to France. And in fact we also saw some people looking to cancel their bookings.
And then we were hit by Covid. So what we did was to focus on French domestic bookings. What we’ll do now moving into Q1 is localise into German, Italian and Spanish and start to focus on domestic bookings in those markets. And then as that time goes by, as Brexit beds in, we will start to look at that at that market again. And hopefully start to push our growth in that market again.
Fionn Davenport So, let’s say I want to book a camping holiday – I go to my travel agent and tell them I want a camping holiday in France. Will the agent be able to lock into Campsited?
Finán O’Donoghue The travel trade side of the business is something that we will very much look to develop in the coming years. Now that we have the supply, and we know that the model works. So now we have the technology built and the vast majority of add-ons, we’ll be refining them and look to develop some trade partnerships with consumer facing brands.
They will be able to self-brand if they want to do that and just use it as something that is their own product – essentially, they’re leveraging off all of the supply and all of the consumer facing design work that we’re doing to drive bookings through their own channels.
Fionn Davenport Finally, your own predictions for 2021.
Finán O’Donoghue I think from a camping sector perspective it’s going to be a good year. Camping was down 20% in France last year, but I don’t think it will be hit to that extent this year. I think it will be a super strong season and year for local and regional domestic bookings. I don’t think people will really be traveling abroad.