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The “great outdoors” have historically lacked diversity.
Dubbed the “adventure gap” or “nature gap,” the lack of representation in the outdoor space is starting to shift however. In fact, the new North American Camping Report released by Kampgrounds of America (KOA) indicates more people of color, LGBTQ+, and other diverse identities are choosing camping as a way to experience the outdoors and reap nature’s benefits.
This is partly due to this year’s uptick in “revenge travel,” following two years where so many of us yearning to break free of the confines of our homes and jobs — shifting those who choose camping as a way to experience the outdoors. New campers continue to be more diverse when compared to campers overall, with 54 percent of new campers identifying as non-white.
Nathan and Alicia Lawson, the owners of Time Away RV Resort, the first recreational RV resort within walking distance of the NASCAR Talladega Superspeedway in Lincoln, Alabama, want to continue to change that narrative. Because RVing is for everybody.
And they’ve been on to something. While there is no shortage of campsites near Talladega (and in fact, there are RV sites on the grounds of the speedway), Time Away is unique in many ways, and particularly because of its appeal to Black travelers from across the country (and even the globe). In this interview with ESSENCE, the First Lady of Time Away RV Resort, Alicia Lawson shares why representation in the RVing industry is necessary and how there have been significant strides in getting there.
What have been your experiences as Black campers?
Alicia Lawson: I grew up in the Port Lawrence Housing Project in Toledo, Ohio and would never have had the chance to experience camping as a child had it not been for a camping program our elementary school implemented. I went camping for the first time in 6th grade on a week-long trip and absolutely loved it!
My husband Nate had a much different experience. His parents owned an RV from the time Nate was born, and even belonged to a camping group with their cousins where they’d camp regularly. Eventually, Nate’s mom gave the family RV to him and we used it as our getaway while our kids were growing up. Although we shared the camping experience with our kids, it was really a chance for Nate and I to be together on our own at least once a week as a date night. We’d drop off our kids with our parents and take our ‘time away’.
When we first started camping together, we never saw or looked for another Black camper. We just assumed we’d be the only Black people at the campground until about 3 years ago when we stumbled across another Black couple at an RV Park we were visiting for the first time. They used the “Whooty Whoo” call to catch our attention, which we thought was hilarious, and since then we’ve been great friends.
Starting out, we kept to ourselves at the campground. It wasn’t really a communal atmosphere then. The camping experience is so different now. We walk around, meet new people and feel really safe and welcomed. There have been times when we’ve pulled into a campground and particular flags are flying at various campsites. We turn around and leave, knowing that’s not a space we’re going to feel comfortable in.
There’s only been one incident the entire time we’ve been camping when we felt unsafe and unwelcomed at a campground. We were sitting around our campfire and our neighbor came over to introduce himself. At first, he was lovely and we hit it off. But as night fell and he had a few cocktails, his personality changed and he started asking us questions that made us feel very uncomfortable. I used a ‘safe’ word that Nate knew was a signal to get inside the RV. In the morning, the campground staff came to our campsite having heard there was an issue the night before. We told them what happened and they completely supported us letting us know they have a zero tolerance for any form of racism. They called the police who removed our neighbor from the campground and the campground expelled him forever!
What inspired you to open Time Away RV Resort?
Alicia Lawson: I’ve been in marketing for more than 20 years and my husband has more than 30 years in infrastructure (builder, electrician, plumbing, etc.), transferring those skills from his time in the army to a lucrative career. We thought it would be a great decision financially to expand on our business model of owning many rental properties by adding an RV Park. This would also give me the opportunity to visit 6th grade classrooms and invite them to camp just like it was done for me. We love community outreach and supporting our neighbors so we thought this would really help us achieve our financial goals and our need to give back. My husband and children are Army and Navy veterans and have a work ethic that keeps our goals moving forward. People honor a vet in their life with a permanent brick and we use those funds to improve the campground and support our community outreach.
Why was it important for you both to create a location for other Black campers to be seen?
Alicia Lawson: To be forthcoming, we initially thought it would be great to offer an experience that was different to all ethnicities and we would look at people as campers first. However, we received a super overwhelming response from other Black entrepreneurs and campers that we were doing something special. We changed the way they looked at camping. Still, many folks couldn’t understand why we would open an RV resort in Alabama with such deep historical ties to some of our darkest days. But we’ve had so many of our African American guests confirm that they feel safe traveling though Alabama and visiting our park because of Time Away.
How have you seen the industry shift — in terms of demographics — over the past couple of years? What is it going to take for the industry to sustain a diversity shift?
Alicia Lawson: We have seen a tremendous growth of people of color camping just in the past few years. I believe it’s because they feel much safer seeing more people like them at nearly every campground across the country. As more minorities like Nate and I open campgrounds of their own as well, our camping community will only grow. RV camping is also so family-friendly and many minorities are family-focused. They feel like it’s a safe atmosphere for their children and a chance to experience some of the most beautiful locations in America.
In terms of the shift in the industry, African Americans make up the largest group of new campers and the fastest growing population of new campers. We are so proud that we had something to do with that! To sustain this shift we feel that parks will have to make the decision to exclude flags and have a zero-tolerance policy for any form of overt racism. Some will do it because it’s the right thing to do and others will make that decision based on our financial strength.
We opened Time Away in 2021 with the goal of creating a beautiful, inclusive campground where everyone would feel welcomed. We never thought we would achieve so much in such a short amount of time but Time Away has boomed to a point where we’ve brought in new management who will continue the mission and hospitality that is the foundation of Time Away. This will give Nate and I the time to create another campground in our home state of Ohio. We’re in Ohio now and are searching for the perfect piece of land to build our second campground. This time, our children (a 30-year-old girl who was in the Navy, our 34-year-old son who was in the Army, and our 35-year-old daughter who was a dancer for Alvin Ailey) will be a part of the campground from the ground up. You can follow our adventure at www.polishingdirt.com. That’s what we’ll be doing! Building a campground literally from the dirt up.
Time Away RV Resort is open year-round with reservations available at www.timeawayrvresort.com. To start your own RV adventure, including where to buy or rent one, what to bring, where to go, recipes for the roads, a first-timers video series, budgets and more, visit www.gorving.com.
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