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In its early days, Airbnb created new lodging inventory by wooing people who had never hosted strangers to try renting out their spaces. Harvest Hosts isn't going to be the next Airbnb. But it does a similar trick to expand the bookable options available in the outdoor sector.

Harvest Hosts, a membership program for recreational vehicle, or RV, owners in North America, has raised $37 million from Stripes, a New York-based private equity investor in consumer and software businesses.

Harvest Hosts, based in Vail, Colorado, offers overnight camping at hundreds of non-traditional locations. The scenic attractions include wineries, farms, golf courses, and museums in North America. Rather than stay at a wooded site with other campers, an RV would stay overnight at, say, Nebraska’s Golden Spike Tower — a renowned railyard.

“We’re connecting RVers with really unique small businesses all around the country,” said CEO Joel Holland. “It’s great because some of these off-the-beaten-path attractions are very interesting, but they got hit hard by Covid.”

Membership costs about $80 a year, without additional fees.

“The expectation is that the members are going to support the businesses they visit,” Holland said. “This year, we project our members are going to spend over $30 million with these businesses they visit. It ends up being, on average, around an extra $13,000 per location.”

The startup’s funding is its first publicly disclosed one since its founding in 2010. Stripes is presumed to be the majority owner, but Harvest Hosts declined to say.

The injection comes against a backdrop of heavy investor interest in the outdoor travel sector. Companies like Hipcamp, a startup that pairs people who wish to pitch their tents with landowners who want to accommodate them, have raised record fundings in recent months.

The outdoor sector, including RVs, has seen a large wave of bookings during the pandemic. RV Retailer, an RV dealership group in the U.S. sold more than 20,000 units in 2020, an increase of 31 percent year-over-year.

At Harvest Hosts, RV owners and renters pay a membership fee to reserve spots to stay at locations where they promise to support small businesses, such as breweries and farm stands. The program works for RVers that don’t need connections for power, water, or sewer for an overnight stay.

Harvest Hosts doesn’t charge the hosts for advertising and listing in its marketplace. It attracts hosts and members via word of mouth, plus social advertising on Facebook and LinkedIn.

This month Harvest Hosts began testing a booking system with about 70 of its most engaged hosts. It’s processed thousands of requests in the past few weeks.

The startup will roll out the automated online booking system to all hosts. The system will replace today’s process, where members pick up a phone and call a host and give a membership number to make a booking.

Harvest Hosts’ tech doesn’t need to connect to any point of sale system because it’s not involved in any of the transactions that may take place on the ground. But it is offering to connect its booking system with any inventory management system a location might have.

Suri Alpacas harvest hosts

Members of Harvest Hosts can park their RVs at Sopris Alpaca Farm and Boutique, a tourist attraction in Garfield County, Colorado. Source: Harvest Hosts.

Hosts have to apply to be accepted. The startup pulls up Google Earth and online reviews to vet that a host offers a genuinely good experience.

Hosts can rate and review members, and vice versa. The membership program kicks out problem people and organizations.

Like Hipcamp, Harvest Hosts says it is creating new inventory by persuading people who own wineries, farms, or other attractions to host RVs, which they may not have done before. It aims to add about 1,000 hosts this year.

“It’s almost entirely new inventory,” Holland said. “That has been particularly important right now during the pandemic because campgrounds are just beyond capacity.”

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Tags: camping, funding, outdoor tourism, outdoor travel, outdoors, recreation, RVs

Photo credit: An RV camps at Wilde Prairie Winery, which participates in Harvest Hosts. RVers can learn all about the winery’s history, its operations today, its origins during an RV stay. Harvest Hosts

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