Not so happy campers as new Youcamp owner Hipcamp levies hefty service fees

Youcamp, which pioneered the concept of camping on private land in Australia,  has been sold to US company Hipcamp, which in rapid succession has closed the site, migrated its content to the parent portal, rebranded it Hipcamp Australia and introduced a controversial customer service fee that can exceed 20 percent.

Closing the Youcamp website has met with dismay among some of Youcamp’s customer base – both hosts and consumers – but it’s the service fee that really has really upset people, who can book many of the same sites at no cost on other platforms such as Campermate, Australia’s most popular commercial camping app.

Meanwhile, Mike Hill, the co-founder of the Aircamp app, claimed in an update email that his business has been approached by hundreds of disaffected Youcamp hosts “who don’t want to be associated with an American company”.

“Hipcamp is an American startup who have done an amazing job capturing the private land market. It doesn’t appear they’ve been welcomed here though,” Hill wrote to his database.

“We have had hundreds of enquiries from Youcamp Hosts saying they don’t want to be associated with an American company and want to switch to us…. So watch this space!”

Hill was more circumspect when contacted by Travel Trends, saying the hosts may dual list rather than leave Youcamp altogether, but reiterated it’s a “big issue” for many landowners that Hipcamp is an American rather than Australian company.

Youcamp co-founder James Woodford, now Managing Director of Hipcamp Australia, doubts the veracity of Hill’s numbers, saying that while there were some issues with the migration those have now been overcome and that no hosts have been lost.

“What I can tell you from a migration perspective and from just keeping business going it’s been very very successful. It’s been a remarkably successful migration (in terms of) our bookings and retention of hosts,” Woodford says.

“Because we went for a really ambitious timeline to do the migration, we had do a few ‘fast follows’ but those things happened in the first week and there’s a lot of work that’s now being done to get the search functions to actually meet the user expectation and we’re very satisfied with that.”

Basically a lot of people don’t like change, says Woodford.

“There is a lot of extra functionality associated with Hipcamp, things that we were never able to introduce ourselves because we were in this situation being 100% owners, basically a mum and dad business.

“We never had the capital to invest in things like an app, calendar synching, being able to introduce the functionality to review guests, something that our community very much wanted.

“The reason why we migrated over to that platform is because that investment has already been made.

“We’re very confident people will actually see that is not a takeover of an Australian business by an American business but actually coming together of two businesses that were actually doing almost exactly the same thing.”

Woodford defended the introduction of customer service fees, which are variable. They average 15% but can account for more than 20% of smaller transactions due to a $3 minimum charge.

Hosts, meanwhile, are charged a 10 per cent commission by Hipcamp, marginally less than Youcamp’s 11 per cent commission, while local staff numbers have increased. 

“We’re running a business and the simple fact is that if we’re going to commercialise private land camping then we have to have service fees.”

However the consumer service fee model is unique to Hipcamp in the online camping sector, giving consumers a clear reason to book sites through other platforms.

“Well you know one of the things we’ve  always done is be adaptable and we’ll keep an eye on market pressures and always meet the market.”

He says bookings are currently running hot after being hard hit hard by bushfires and COVID shutdowns.

“Bookings collapsed during the national lock down but since then we’ve had the strongest run of months we’ve ever had and that trend has continued beyond the migration.”

Nick Baker, CEO of Outdoria, which owns the Campermate app and website, says many Youcamp properties (there are around 1000) were already on the platform pre-Hipcamp and there’s been no influx since the acquisition.

The Campermate app has been downloaded 1.8m times, charges hosts 8% to 10% commissions plus an annual listing charge, and doesn’t impose consumer booking fees.

He says the app had 14,000 downloads last week and that bookings have really picked up after a difficult first half of the year, although border closures mean that international business – 30% in Australia and 60% to 70% in New Zealand – has disappeared.

“But we’ve picked most of that up through domestic. Now we’re skewing the app much more for domestic users,” says Baker.

“For instance we’re working with the Department of Conservation in New Zealand to bring 1200 walks onto the app and we’re starting to build road trips onto the app in Australia – all the kind of stuff the domestic traveller will be interested in.”

Baker says “we’re focussing very heavily on tours and activities” and is in the middle of an integration with Rezdy to increase its product range.

“Bookings numbers fell off a cliff obviously but they’ve started pulling back nicely in September,” he says.Warmer weather and the looming school holidays are major factors. “The amount of people who are going to be on the road for school holidays, caravaning and camping, is going to be significantly up and we’re also getting all the pre-booking for summer holidays as well, which I think are going to be very strong.”

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