Around 40 million Americans a year go camping—many, only after suffering through a session on ReserveAmerica, an online campsite reservation system built in 2005 that still serves as the hub for nailing down a place to sleep on public lands. These would-be outdoorsfolk squint at grainy, thumbnail-size photos, hoping for the best as they reach for their credit cards. (When did you last visit a website from 2005? Talk about roughing it.)
“We were frustrated,” says Sarah Smith, a former international management professor. “I keep a journal in my car, and write down campgrounds I liked and ones I didn’t like. And I thought, why isn’t there a better way of finding this online?”
With the Dyrt, a year-old Portland start-up she founded with husband Kevin Long, Smith wants to yank the camping industry out of the pioneer era and into the modern, Yelp-filtered consumer world. Going live this month, the Dyrt will initially provide a bare-bones database of 20,000 campgrounds around the nation, culled from state and federal sites. (For the time being, Smith says they’re ignoring most uncharted backcountry campsites, which she says attract only 4 percent of the total demand.) From there, the Dyrt wants users to upload photos and reviews to create a robust virtual marketplace for campfire rings and RV hookups.
“With campgrounds, it’s hard to see what you’re going to get,” says Long, a digital marketing vet. “You wouldn’t go to a hotel without looking at Yelp or TripAdvisor.”
But the real opportunity arrives as ReserveAmerica’s aging contract with the federal government expires this September. Other websites—like the Dyrt—will be able to offer campsite bookings directly to their users, vying for a share of the commissions generated by all those bookings. “Our strategy is, win search this year,” says Long. “We’re going to be at the front of the line.”
The attack plan hangs on an aggressive goal: 75,000 to 100,000 user-generated photos and reviews by the end of this summer. The Dyrt is banking on a game-based approach: users will earn points for submitting photos and reviews, which can translate into prizes from a stash of $100,000 worth of outdoor and camping gear from major national brands like Clif Bar and Osprey. Long and Smith say a beta test last fall attracted 2,000 pictures and reviews over fewer than 45 days.
The two founders, who also employ three full-time developers, play to each other’s strengths: Smith handles product and operations, while Long thrives in sales and marketing. Another added benefit? “We would fight about finding a campsite,” says Smith. “The Dyrt is going to solve a lot of marital problems.”