Consumers spent more than $8.5 billion on camping reservations in the US in 2020, but the camping industry itself has yet to be fully digitized. Nowadays it may be necessary to reserve a place at some campsites, both public and private. And the reservation itself is often recorded with old-fashioned systems, such as pen and paper. A startup called Sēkr, which offers a mobile app for outdoor enthusiasts and campers, wants to change that.
However, the early-stage startup wasn’t about to become an Airbnb for camping right away.
In 2017, Sēkr co-founders Breanne Acio (CEO) and Jess Shisler (COO) were simply looking for a better way to explore new camping locations. The two traveled independently with their partners in their motorhomes and had embraced the so-called ‘van life’ lifestyle. But they soon realized it was difficult to find safe places to camp, as well as people to interact with while on the road. In addition, they both wanted an easier way to find campsites with the specific services they needed – whether that was shower facilities, toilets, overnight parking for vans, access to water or free wifi.
“Travel planning is the biggest problem for anyone who goes out,” explains Acio. And it’s especially difficult for campers, she notes. “Just like in the 90s, you had to call hotels individually if you wanted to book a hotel or travel somewhere. There is no online website or availability.” Camping is similar these days.
“We used 15 different apps, most of which were inaccurate because they’re databases based on or taken from old government websites or old databases,” she says.
Some of these challenges here weren’t just annoyances; they complicated the realities of living and working on the go. At the time, Shisler had a job in public relations, and Acio, who later went on to run an RV conversion company, was a professor at San Diego State University. They wouldn’t be able to go completely off the network without even a cell signal to stay connected.
After meeting via social media where they had become micro-influencers in the van life space, the co-founders decided to build a mobile app for people in the same position. The founders wanted to provide a way for campers and others in the van-life community to come together and share their individual knowledge and experiences across different campgrounds and other locations. In March 2018 they launched the first version of this app, then called The Vanlife App. In addition to a centralized community for fellow campers and ‘van lifers’, the app also provided a social component. Users were able to connect with fellow travelers who wanted to participate in outdoor activities together, such as mountaineering or skiing, and write reviews about specific places.
“Even though you have your partner, [traveling] gets very lonely,” notes Acio. “Being able to find community — community [where people] being like-minded and loving the same things and being similar to you — is a really powerful thing,” she says.
But the original version of the app was too niche. While there are approximately 5 million people in the U.S. traveling in their self-converted or manufactured RVs, or other smaller vehicles, the founders realized that this narrow focus was leaving out people engaged in other styles of travel and camping. The rebrand to Sēkr allowed them to appeal to the wider market of anyone looking to go camping – even if that’s just a family trip once a year.
In the Sēkr app, you can search for campgrounds across the US, filter them by amenities and services, save favorites, and network with others through social features. The lists are created through public repositories of government data and other databases, which are then augmented with crowdsourced information. Sēkr’s team of ambassadors will explore locations, verify information and take photos to share with the community, just like the members of the app.
Now the company is working to add more reservable inventory directly to Sēkr by digitizing and merging campgrounds and campgrounds ranging from private lots to campgrounds. However, this work is still in its early stages.
Right now there are about 200 accommodations that can be booked from the Sēkr app, ranging from locations where you can park for free in someone’s driveway to luxury glamping sites. To generate revenue, Sēkr charges a 5% fee from guests and 5% from property owners for facilitating the transactions. The company also plans to work with others to bring more reservable inventory to the app over time.
Currently, Sēkr is seeing an average of over 10,000 user sessions per week – an early bit of traction that has attracted investors.
The San Diego-based startup has secured $2.25 million seed funding led by Storyteller Overland, along with Backstage Capital, Techstars, Ad Astra Ventures, Crescent Ridge Ventures and Andy Ballester, co-founder of GoFundMe. The funds will be used to grow the reservable inventory of Sēkr and its community initiatives, including the coalition called Project Respect Outdoors, which aims to unite women and minorities to take scalable action to develop the outdoor industry into a more inclusive room.
“The camping industry is one of the few hospitality industries that has successfully adopted technology to date, and Sēkr seized the opportunity to digitize camping inventory on a massive scale, transforming the planning process for outdoor activities from a frustrating course of hours of failed Google searches into something consumers can do by themselves,” said Jeffrey Hunter, CEO of Storyteller Overland and the round’s lead investor, in a statement. “Like the leaders before them in the hotel and vacation rental industry, we believe the Sēkr team is uniquely positioned to have the greatest influence and impact on outdoor travel planning for the nearly three-quarters of Americans who travel annually. participate in outdoor trips,” he added.