Pelland Blog

Engage Local Businesses to Build a Competitive Edge

July 19th, 2016

The key to small business success is not a matter of cutting costs or raising prices. First and foremost, it is a matter of satisfying your customers in a manner that leaves your competitors behind. One of several highly effective ways of doing this is to engage local businesses that offer products or services that appeal to your customers.

If you run a campground, it is your responsibility to know your guests. When they leave your park for a day or an evening, where to they go? What are the types of businesses that appeal to their needs and interests? If a guest asks you for directions to the nearest supermarket or asks for a referral to a local Mexican restaurant, you are probably prepared with a recommendation and a set of directions. The important question is whether you “wing” your response each time or have a formally established referral system in place.

What Is Good for Your Customers Is Best for You

You may already be providing a rudimentary referral service of sorts if you have a bulletin board in your office area that includes local business cards, if you have a display rack of local business brochures, or if you have a site map that is supported by local advertising. Those all make sense, and they are helpful ways of generating awareness for those businesses, but it takes far more than awareness to really build a synergy between your park and nearby businesses. After all, if name awareness was all that it took, all that any business would need would be a sign at the road and a parking lot large enough to handle the endless influx of traffic. We all know that it does not work quite that simply.

Over the years, a number of companies have successfully run localized or regionalized direct mail advertising campaigns that provide offers from area businesses that are willing to offer incentives in order to reach new customers. Particularly when your business is attracting a pool of new potential customers from outside of the area, local businesses need your help to direct those people to their doors.

Offer Incentives

Although the direct mail campaigns have been successful over the years, rising postage costs and the relatively low response rates for offers that are not targeted to specific groups of likely consumers have taken their toll in favor of more cost-effective approaches. The same thing applies to local newspaper coupons, victims of declining circulation and the fact that so few people actually read newspapers today. The company that markets regional Entertainment coupon books in 41 states plus the District of Columbia and Canada gets people to pay $12.00 per annual coupon book or $19.99 per year for their mobile app. In addition, many supermarket chains now offer loyalty and rewards programs that include discounts on local businesses and services, and many local radio and television stations offer discounted gift certificates for a full range of local businesses. (In my market, the usual discount is 30% off face value.) One thing that all of these programs have in common is that they are offering some sort of discount in order to incentivize new and return customers to favor participating local businesses.

Make This Work to Your Advantage

Rather than asking local businesses to pay for the privilege of reaching your clientele, offer them a free opportunity to reach your campers in exchange for offering them some sort of monetary discount or incentive. Each offer must have real value, but may very well be the same sort of deal that they might already offer under other circumstances. In other words, it is a price that they are willing to pay in exchange for bringing in a new customer (or an entirely family of customers). Each offer should be in the form of a coupon (which visually creates the impression of real value) that is then bound together with the other offers into a booklet that you provide to each arriving guest at the time of registration. (You might also provide one booklet per month to your seasonal guests.)

The important thing to remember is not to pass these out prior to arrival (at a winter camping show, for example) because you want to be certain that they are used by your actual guests, not somebody who ultimately decides to stay at another resort on down the road. The cover of the booklet should show the total cash value of the combined offers, and you should include this discount booklet in the list of amenities that your park offers its guests. The result is not only an incentive for your campers to patronize participating businesses (in a way that those businesses can actually measure), but also an incentive for those same campers to actually stay at your park.

Identifying Your Prospects

As I mentioned earlier, it is your responsibility to know your guests. Basically, any local business offering a product or service that is of interest to your guests should be invited to participate, and any business that is already participating in another incentive program has demonstrated its interest in generating new customers. Refer to the incentive programs in your local market to find your “A List” of business to contact. That list will include – but be far from limited to – the following types of businesses:

• Restaurants • Ice Cream Stands • Supermarkets • Farm Stands • Retail Stores •
• Golf Courses • Driving Ranges • Mini Golf Courses • Indoor and Outdoor Paintball •
• Bowling Centers • Go-Kart Tracks • Skating Rinks • Batting Cages • Fishing Charters •
• Amusement & Theme Parks • Water Parks • Speedways • Tourist Attractions •
• Craft Breweries • Wineries • Factory Tours • Music Festivals •
• RV Dealerships • RV Repair Centers • Auto Repair Centers •
• Boarding Kennels • Pet Grooming • Veterinary Services •
• Movie Theaters • Museums • Historic Sites •

Why it All Works So Perfectly

Guess what? If you persuade your guests to patronize even a fraction of the local businesses who participate in your incentive program, you may have also given them a list of good reasons to extend their stay or to return for another stay at your park. Coupon redemptions will also have given you an opportunity to prove your park’s merit to your business partners in this endeavor, leading to the potential for further cooperative ventures. Wouldn’t it be nice for your park to be the “official campground” of the big nearby theme park or motor speedway? Or for your local supermarket chain to include your park in its loyalty and rewards program? Or for the local brewery and winery to run a tasting event at your park? Or for the local pet grooming facility to come to your park for on-site grooming days? The potential is only limited by your imagination, your belief in your business, and your ability to persuade fellow businesses to get on board.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

A Buyer’s Guide to the Ultimate in Customer Satisfaction

June 22nd, 2016

I have often written how customer satisfaction is the key to the long-term success of any business. This applies to the full gamut of service industries, but it also applies in a much more tangible manner to the manufacturers of everyday products. As the owner of a small business, you need to spend your dollars wisely, and there is no greater assurance of satisfaction than an unconditional lifetime warranty.

Companies that offer no-questions-asked warranties generally do so because they know that they can stand behind the quality of their products, in a day and age where so many people have grown to accept the concept of planned obsolescence. Sure, you might pay a slight premium for the better quality product, but wouldn’t you rather support businesses that, like your own, are committed to customer satisfaction? As a bonus, many of these products are made in the USA, helping to employ people who might be the same people who will in turn patronize your business.

In years past, before the days of mass production, and certainly before the days when manufacturing began to be outsourced to foreign factories employing a low-wage workforce, manufacturers were more typically craftsmen who took great personal pride in what they had made. Products were designed and intended to last for years. When they eventually reached the end of their useful lives, they were often imaginatively repurposed, rather than being hauled off to a landfill for the rest of eternity.

Quality and Marketing Intersect in Freeport, Maine

Many companies today differentiate themselves from their competition by standing behind their products and using that customer assurance as a highly effective marketing tool. If any individual could be singled out as the originator of the concept, it would be Leon Leonwood Bean, who founded the company that bears his name in a one-room operation in Freeport, Maine back in 1912. His first and only product at the time was the Maine Hunting Shoe – affectionately known for many years as the “Bean Boot”. According to the company, 90% of the original production run back in 1912 was returned under the terms of L.L. Bean’s money-back guarantee, due to design defects. Those defects were corrected, and the company’s flagship store now occupies 220,000 square feet and is one of the leading tourist attractions in the state of Maine. Along with its 41 satellite stores, the privately-held company employed a workforce of 5,000 with sales exceeding $1.61 billion in 2014. The iconic Maine Hunting Shoe is still made in the USA, at a plant in Brunswick, Maine that employs 450 people.

Lifetime Warranty

The List

L.L. Bean: A full line of men’s, women’s and children’s clothing; footwear; outdoor gear; hunting and fishing gear and apparel; luggage; and products for the home.
www.llbean.com
100% satisfaction guaranteed, free shipping to the U.S. and Canada with no minimum order.

Eddie Bauer: A full line of men’s, women’s and children’s clothing; outdoor gear; footwear; outerwear; and home accessories.
www.eddiebauer.com
Unconditional lifetime guarantee

The North Face: Men’s, women’s and children’s clothing; outdoor gear (including tents and sleeping bags); footwear; and backpacks.
www.thenorthface.com
Lifetime limited warranty

Lands’ End: Men’s, women’s and children’s clothing and shoes; swimwear; and home accessories.
www.landsend.com
Lands’ End has actually trademarked its warranty: “Guaranteed. Period.”

Patagonia: Men’s, women’s and children’s clothing; outdoor gear.
www.patagonia.com
“Ironclad Guarantee”

Duluth Trading Company: Men’s and women’s outdoor clothing, footwear, and accessories. Over 150 products made in the USA.
www.duluthtrading.com
“No Bull Guarantee”           

Bogs: Boots for men, women and children.
www.bogsfootwear.com
100% satisfaction guarantee, free shipping and returns on all non-sale items.

Darn Tough Vermont Socks: Comfortable, durable socks, made in the USA.
www.darntough.com
Unconditional lifetime guarantee

Dr. Martens For Life: Men’s and women’s boots, shoes, and industrial footwear.
www.drmartens.com
Only “For Life” products are covered under the company’s lifetime warranty.

JanSport: Backpacks, bags and accessories.
www.jansport.com
Guaranteed for life, with free shipping and free returns.

Briggs & Riley: Luggage.
www.briggs-riley.com
Lifetime repair guarantee, even if damaged by an airline.

Buck Knives: A complete line of knives, made in the USA.
www.buckknives.com
Forever warranty

W.R. Case & Sons Cutlery: Pocket knives and sporting knives, made in the USA.
www.wrcase.com
Limited lifetime warranty

Craftsman: Hand tools, sold by Sears, Kmart and Ace Hardware stores.
www.craftsman.com
Limited lifetime or full warranty, varies by product.

Kobalt Tools: Hand tools and lawn and garden tools, sold exclusively at Lowe’s.
www.kobalttools.com
Lifetime hassle-free guarantee

Ridgid: Power tools.
www.ridgid.com
Full lifetime warranty on most power tool products

Vortex: Riflescopes, spotting scopes, binoculars and other optics.
www.vortexoptics.com
Unlimited lifetime warranty. Out of 297 customer reviews, 284 rate this company as “excellent”.

CamelBak: Hydration systems.
www.camelbak.com
Lifetime guarantee

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Nothing Wrong with Accepting Helpful Advice

June 11th, 2016

I think that many of us have become jaded to the thought that somebody might simply be willing to offer helpful advice. We have encountered too many phone calls from telemarketing scam artists, often alleging that they are calling from either Microsoft or Google, when they are really only trying to get their hands on our credit card numbers. It seems unlikely that anyone might be willing to offer assistance without some sort of strings attached. Well, that might not always be the case.

During the course of my work, I frequently encounter websites that are infected with malware or a virus, have forms or other content that are not functioning properly, or are entirely disabled. There are even instances when search results on Google will warn users either that “This site may harm your computer” or “This site may be hacked.”

I encounter these sites most frequently when checking for potential outgoing links – typically area attractions or local tourism districts – to be added to my clients’ websites. I also frequently encounter these warnings attached to do-it-yourself websites, where the webmasters have no knowledge or understanding of server security issues. Google provides several useful resources that will guide webmasters through the recovery process in these instances, but a quick glance will immediately suggest that anyone other than an experienced server administrator will be way out of his league and will be quickly sinking in quicksand.
https://www.google.com/webmasters/hacked/

Malicious content on websites goes hand-in-hand with browser security vulnerabilities, making it all that much more important for computer users to install the latest browser security updates. Between January 26 and April 26, 2016, the Mozilla Foundation has reported 48 security vulnerabilities affecting its Firefox browser – including 15 critical vulnerabilities – that have been patched by security updates … but only if users install those updates. Critical vulnerabilities are defined as vulnerabilities that “can be used to run attacker code and install software, requiring no user interaction beyond normal browsing.” As you can probably deduce, some threats are specific to users of certain browsers, especially outdated versions of those browsers. Sound scary? Absolutely!
https://www.mozilla.org/en-US/security/advisories/

WebsiteWarnings

The accompanying graphic shows a collage of just a few of the screen shots of warnings that have been displayed on my computer when clicking through to hacked websites. (Fortunately, I run the very robust Avast security software on my computer, stopping threats in their tracks.) I have blurred out the website URLs in order to avoid embarrassing the site owners.

I have often called the businesses or associations that own such infected websites, feeling socially responsible to inform them of the problems and explaining that they could be infecting significant numbers of visitors to their sites. In almost every instance, I encounter denial at the other end of the phone, am told that “nobody else has mentioned a problem”, or get brushed off with “we will tell our webmaster” before they hang up the phone. Never once has anybody thanked me for calling a problem to their attention.

If somebody calls you to report a problem with your website, take a moment to listen. Be cautious, if not suspicious, since most of those unsolicited calls are scams; however, at least do yourself the favor of soliciting a second opinion from somebody knowledgeable who you know you can trust.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Win by Adapting to External Factors

June 5th, 2016

I have been doing a bit of flying lately, and this has given me pause to think about how both airports and airlines have either adapted to external factors or have been doomed to fail. To survive – and indeed to succeed – any business needs to be aware of changes in its surroundings and to keep a proverbial ear to the ground. You may not be listening for an oncoming stampede of buffalo, but the consequences could be just as dire.

It was not simply the airliners being flown into the Twin Towers that changed the way we fly forever. There were other, much more subtle factors that came into play over time. Let’s examine two issues: reading and restaurants.

Reading

In years past, passengers tended to either nap or read while flying. On short flights, the monthly airline magazine and the (now defunct) SkyMall catalog would keep many people occupied. For longer flights (or for frequent flyers who had already read that month’s literature in the seatback pocket), you would find passengers reading books, magazines, and newspapers like The Wall Street Journal. Booksellers were among the busiest stores in the airport terminals.

If you were an airport bookseller, life was good … until external factors came into play. Those started with e-Readers like Kindle, but the real game-changer was when the airlines started offering wi-fi on flights. The same people who were glued to their phones and tablets when on the ground could now remain equally attached at 30,000 feet.

Restaurants

Back in the 1960’s and 1970’s, one of my cousins was the manager of the upscale restaurant at Bradley International Airport (my local airport, serving Hartford, Connecticut and Springfield, Massachusetts.) In those pre-TSA days, half of the restaurant’s clientele consisted of people who drove to the airport from the Hartford or Springfield areas specifically to dine at The Terrace Room.

Most passengers back in those days probably grumbled about the shrink-wrapped serving trays but were content with eating the meals that were routinely served by their Eastern, Northeast, Pan Am and TWA flight attendants, and airline catering companies were just as busy as baggage handlers. The first game-changer was when the airlines stopped serving meals to the coach class passengers who make up the bulk of each flight.

If they are not being fed in flight, passengers quite naturally turn to restaurants in the airport terminals. Fast food generally rules because it is, by definition, “fast”, at a time when passengers have mere moments to spare after snaking through the TSA screening process. Because only ticketed passengers are allowed into airport terminals these days, there are no opportunities for restaurants to solicit business from folks without boarding passes.

On the other hand, with fewer non-stop flights, restaurants in hub airports like Los Angeles, Denver, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson, Chicago’s O’Hare, Charlotte’s Douglas International, and Washington DC’s Reagan National tend to offer more variety in dining, capitalizing upon sometimes lengthy layovers between connecting flights. One of my favorites is Café Intermezzo, located in Terminal B at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, in Atlanta. The restaurant features fine dining, an extensive alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverage menu, and – this is the kicker – a bookstore. Are you starting to get a feeling for how it is possible to adapt to external factors? At a time when standalone airport bookstores are struggling, adding bookshelves to a restaurant wall serve to supplement the dining experience without cannibalizing dining space or adding to the business’s rent.

Is your campground keeping abreast of external developments that can either positively or negatively impact your business? These can include low gasoline prices, highway construction detours, flooding and other extreme weather incidents, the potential onslaught of the Zika Virus, the proliferation of drones (and their potential threat to the privacy of your guests), and overall upturns and downturns in the local, regional and national economies.

As you can see, some of these are positive, others are predominantly negative, and in some cases negatives can be turned into positives. The important thing is not to be caught off-guard but to see these influences coming. Only with that knowledge can you prepare to develop strategies that will allow you to make the best of every situation that is beyond your control.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

More Lessons from the Airline Industry

May 19th, 2016

It is not breaking news that I often turn toward the airline industry for examples of both good business practices and reprehensible business behavior. Particularly since I am writing primarily for the outdoor recreation and travel industry – and the family campground industry in particular – the airline industry is something akin to that relative from the wealthy side of the family who rarely stays in touch.

It is no secret that there is a generally low level of consumer satisfaction with the airline industry. Seats are getting smaller, fees are increasing, and fares seem to be unresponsive to lower fuel costs. When the price of crude oil fluctuates, as has been the case with recent drops, consumer prices at the pump tend to either rise like a rocket or fall like a feather. In the case of the airlines, even the feather analogy appears to be absent.

Airliner-in-Flight_287304806_600x382_90

Unless you are flying out of or into a hub airport, plan on multiple flights and sometimes lengthy layovers. I just checked rates for a round-trip flight about 5 weeks in advance from Syracuse, New York to Sacramento, California. The fares ranged from $518.00 for a 14-hour flight with two stops to $1,540.00 for a 15-hour flight also with two stops. In either case, while booking through two different airlines (American vs. Alaska Airlines), the actual flights are operated by American Eagle. It almost makes no sense. If I return to the booking engine in a few days, the rates are likely to be entirely different. Without online booking and price comparisons, as well as online airfare watchdog services, non-business airline travel would probably be out of reach for most people.

In the old days prior to the airline deregulation of the 1990s, flights were booked through travel agents who earned base commissions of 10%, with bonuses for add-ons. When that was deemed to be contrary to the interests of consumers – concurrently with the onset of the Internet – companies like Expedia, Travelocity (since acquired by Expedia) and Priceline have filled the void and earn commissions on their services, which typically involve bundling flights with hotels and car rentals.

Whether booking through one of these giant online travel agencies or directly through an airline, the fees only begin with the actual airfare. When you book a flight, you are urged to upgrade to business class, pay extra to choose your assigned seating, pay extra for priority boarding, pay for checked baggage, and of course use or earn frequent flyer miles via your airline credit card. The airlines actually sell passengers “miles” that are later used for free or discounted flights. I guess when you come right down to it, buying miles is not that much different than buying a gift card at a discount – something that is most advantageous to the companies that are using consumers’ money between the time of purchase and redemption.

The question for the owners of small travel-related businesses like campgrounds becomes how to determine what can be taken from the business model of the airlines and then successfully applied on a smaller scale. The key is to choose the profit sources that will not infuriate your customer base. For example, nobody likes the ever-shrinking leg room – what the airline industry refers to as “seat pitch”, the distance between the back of one seat and the back of the seat in the previous row. Imagine the reaction if a campground consistently reconfigured its sites to become smaller and smaller, jamming one campsite as close as possible to the next.

On the other hand, there are add-on services that are likely to be broadly accepted. Campers have long accepted the fact that a larger, full hook-up, pull-thru site is going to cost more than a tent site with no hookups, and that there will be a wide range of prices in between. They also expect to pay a premium for weekends, holidays, and your prime season. Fee-based options such as private restrooms, cottage linen service, fee-based wi-fi, higher caliber arts and crafts, and late check-outs only apply to people who choose to use those premium services, and they represents opportunities for added profits.

The fee-based airline innovation that is likely to do the most for the campground industry from this point forward is be dynamic pricing. The least expensive days to fly are not coincidentally the least popular air travel days: Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. The best day and time to buy air travel tickets is generally Tuesday at around 3:00 PM, Eastern Time, and the best time to buy domestic fares is 30-90 days prior to departure. Notice how most flights are generally booked to capacity. Dynamic pricing will provide your guests with an incentive to book early – and ensure your highest possible occupancy rates – while maximizing your income from people who wait until the last minute. Quite likely, those dynamically priced reservations will be booked through one of a variety of online booking services.

Embrace innovations that will help you to run your business more profitably, and never fear emulating successful business practices from other industries, in this case the airlines.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Are You an Innovator?

May 4th, 2016

We are in an election cycle here in the United States, and the parade of candidates is a reminder that both the political and the business worlds consist of innovators and those who try to “play it safe” by simply meeting expectations. In both worlds, there is an eventual process of “weeding out” those who fail to impress their respective consumers. Some succeed by telling people what they want to hear or building products that are in constant demand, but others succeed by capitalizing upon an untapped demand for new ways of thinking and new products.

We are all familiar with the most highly innovative companies in the business world. They stand out from the crowd and dominate their market shares, not because they mimic competitors and existing products or services, but because they have a sense for the next best thing that consumers will eagerly embrace. These innovators have always been in our midst. A century ago, they were typically individuals like Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, whereas today they are more likely companies like Apple, Google, Toyota, and Procter & Gamble – with extensive research and development departments and a determination to introduce new products that extend an already iconic branding and offer the promise of a uniquely superior consumer experience.

Innovation_198169034_600x276_90

The ability to think outside the box is not limited to multinational corporations with billion dollar research and development budgets. Innovation can still originate from modern-day equivalents of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford (or Abraham Lincoln or Franklin D. Roosevelt), even though the challenges to the individual innovator are today probably greater than ever. Some of the most highly successful innovators of the last generation were not born with silver spoons in their mouths but with an ability to see things outside of the conventional norms. These include the “rags to riches” stories of billionaires such as Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Larry Ellison.

Campground owners can meet innovative challenges just like any other business entrepreneur. Often overshadowed by innovations in camping equipment – most notably modern recreational vehicle and tent designs – campgrounds have opportunities to distinguish themselves in their sites, rentals, amenities, recreational programs, customer service, and in technological areas ranging from online reservations to wi-fi. Right now, one innovative rage seems to be glamping, with rentals of extremely well-appointed cottages, yurts or even treehouses.

There are parks that are known for searching out that next innovation that will give them a competitive edge. These are the types of parks that attend trade events like the IAAPA (International Association of Amusement Parks & Attractions) Expo, in Orlando each year. Their campers return year after year, knowing that they can look forward to something new and exciting. On the other hand, there are park owners who think they should be successful simply because they have an employee who dresses up in an ill-fitting Santa costume for a weekend event every July.

Clearly, there is a market for conventional campgrounds that fail to innovate. Some people are not looking for shiny objects, but just want to get away for a quiet weekend of relaxation in a natural environment. The only problem is that this market represents an ever-shrinking sliver of an age-old pie.

As a campground owner, you need to decide whether you want to be satisfied with the income you will earn by providing your guests with a somewhat stagnant but predictable experience, or whether you are ready to embrace the potential risks of innovation. Not every innovation is successful, and repeated failure is often part of the process. One way of minimizing the risk is to closely follow the leaders rather than blazing trails yourself, but you must be prepared to recognize successful ideas and to embrace them quickly.

Somebody operated the first campground to offer its guests wi-fi, another was the first with 50-amp electric pedestals, another was the first campground to replace its metal pipe playground with a modern playscape, and yet another recognized the declining popularity (and the associated maintenance costs) of tennis courts, and how the square footage that they occupied might be more profitably utilized. The challenge is to avoid being the last person to get onboard, particularly if you are introducing the latest fad rather than an innovation that capitalizes upon a long-term trend.

Part of the beauty of innovation is that it does not always involve a significant financial investment. Ideas are priceless. Although transforming ideas into realities might usually involve facilities and infrastructure, innovative thinking can also involve low-cost or self-sustaining programs such as your park’s calendar of events. When somebody looks at your calendar of activities and is interested in camping on the weekend of August 12-14, does what they read generate excitement and lead to an immediate online reservation, or does it simply lead them to click through to another park – probably your competitor down the highway?

It is time to think about what you will do next to bring a new wave of campers to your park. What really impressed you on that last cruise or your last visit to a major resort or theme park? Then think about how that great idea could be customized for your campground. Better yet, be a true trailblazer and be the first to come up with your own original ideas that your campers will immediately embrace and that your competitors will later attempt to emulate.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

5 Ways to Annoy Your Customers

April 27th, 2016

It sometimes baffles me how some businesses will go out of their way to annoy their customers – and potential customers – when customer service should be their primary concern. Let me outline 5 bad practices that are in common use. I am hoping that none of my readers employ any of these practices; however, if you do, it is never too late to repent and change your ways!

Annoyed_Words_349705496_600x233_64T
Spammy E-Mail

It is amazing how everybody seems to think that only other people send out spam. We all think that our own messages are important and that the recipients are sitting on the edge of their chairs, just waiting to hear from us. Guess what? It doesn’t work that way.

Spam is in the eyes of the beholder. If you are not already engaged in an e-mail conversation with the recipient, and you are initiating a marketing-related message, what you are sending out is an unsolicited e-mail. By definition, that is spam. If your e-mail is carefully crafted and subtle, many people might cut you a break. Want to increase the odds of having your message flagged as spam? Use a compiled list, use ALL CAPS in the subject line or body of your message, use different fonts and colors, or use words like “free”, “not spam”, “please read”, “winner”, “congratulations”, “selected”, “limited time”, “click here”, and “$$$”.

Junk Fax

Although the laws have been watered down in recent years and are rarely enforced, junk faxes are illegal. Nobody purchases a fax machine so they can get the latest offer on a “Funtacular Vacation” or “Ticket to Paradise” involving a trip to Cancun or the Bahamas. They also do not need to be contacted about emergency roof repairs after every heavy rainstorm, and, if they are in need of a small business loan, they are probably not going to arrange for one through a junk faxer. Are you going to pay for the recipients’ telephone line, ink or toner cartridges, paper, and electricity? If you send faxes to anyone who has not specifically requested your fax, get a life and stop it!

Telemarketing Calls

After the average person has already gotten calls on any given day from timeshare scammers and people in a boiler room in Bangalore who pretend to be working with either Google or Microsoft, they are already predisposed against receiving your phone call. I already have solar panels on my roof, so why do I get calls from at least 3 solar sales outfits every day? (Trust me … my solar installation did not originate with a telemarketing call!) The only thing certain about an unsolicited phone call is that the person at the receiving end is in the middle of doing something else that has nothing to do with anticipating your call. Disturbing people is not really the best marketing approach. Think of it like eating wild mushrooms. Unless you really know what you are doing, the experience is probably not going to end as well as you had hoped.

Unmonitored E-Mail

If you send somebody an e-mail message, particularly if it is a response to any type of consumer contact form, always ensure that the recipient can reply to your message. It amazes me how often I will contact a business (or a local politician, for that matter), only to get a canned response from an e-mail address that beings with “noreply” or “DoNotReply”. A few months ago, I sent a consumer inquiry to a major supermarket chain where I am a frequent customer. The response, with a “noreply” sender address, was addressed to “Dear Customer”, and continued, “The mailbox you attempted to send your e-mail to is not monitored. However, we do want to hear from you! For questions and comments, please contact us by calling: Consumer Affairs.” If your consumer affairs department has a contact form, and I have taken the time to initiate an e-mail conversation, why is your only response to tell me to call you on the phone – and probably get put on hold for several minutes?

Spell Your Customer’s Name Wrong

Finally, I remember about 10 or 15 years ago when I bought two season’s passes to a nearby summer theatre. I probably spent two or three hundred dollars for the tickets, but from that day forward, the theatre company started sending me mail addressed to “Paul Pillard”. Do you think that I ever renewed my subscription for another season, or even bought tickets for an individual production? No way! The supermarket that addressed me in their e-mail as “Dear Customer” was far better off than the theatre company that continually addressed me by the wrong name.

Speaking of names, never presume the use of a nickname or abbreviated name, and know how to pronounce a person’s name before speaking it. My name is Peter, and I am already predisposed against incoming telemarketing calls. Want to really call the wrong number? Be a total stranger who addresses me as “Pete”, or struggle with the pronunciation of my last name when you call me. If you catch me in a particularly good mood, you will not get an earful!

Okay, now that I have gotten these marketing pet peeves off my chest, I can go enjoy a pleasant dinner … until it gets interrupted by a telemarketing call.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Ten Common Website Mistakes to Avoid

April 21st, 2016

The biggest mistake that many small business owners might make would be to build and maintain their own website. Sure, companies like GoDaddy, Wix, Weebly, and Vistaprint make it look like an easy task that anybody can handle, but do you simply want a website or do you want a website that can effectively compete online? Whether you insist on building your own site, or whether you simply want to keep an eye on your webmaster (particularly if that webmaster is a family member or that “nice kid who knows a lot about computers” down the road), there are a few common mistakes that you will want to avoid.

Usually these mistakes are errors of omission, but they can also be reflections of careless work habits. Just this week, my company took over the hosting of a campground website that had been built by another company. In the process of fixing a few things that were broken, we noticed that no Google Analytics tracking code was installed on the site – even though the client insisted that he was accessing his Google Analytics data on a regular basis. It turned out that we were correct. Google Analytics was not installed on his site, but the site-specific tracking code had been mistakenly installed on one of his secondary websites, giving him the impression that the data that he had been digesting for over a year was based upon traffic to the main site.

  1. Google Analytics: Yes, let me make that #1 on the list. One of the biggest mistakes that can be made is to have a website without the advantage of running Google Analytics. It is a free tool, it is easy to install, and it provides a wealth of extremely valuable information regarding the visitors to your site, traffic sources, and much more.
  2. Flash: Leisure suits were really popular for a brief period of time in the late 1970’s, but even John Travolta would not be caught dead wearing one today. The same with Flash. It was “really cool” for a while … until support for Flash was dropped by iOS and the latest Android devices. There are new ways of presenting rich content, but steer clear of Flash.
  3. Orphans: I am not talking about Mickey Rooney and Boys Town. I am talking about pages on a website that fail to link back to the other pages of the site. Sort of like a dead end in a corn maze or a hall of mirrors, orphan pages are very frustrating to site visitors.
  4. Broken Links: Formula 409 is a well-known cleaning and degreasing product that has been around since the 1950’s, but 404 error messages on a website are about as popular as a “door-buster” item at Wal-Mart that is out of stock the moment the store opens and the sale begins. People see these frustrating messages when they click on a broken link, typically because a page has been deleted without updating its incoming links.
  5. Unencrypted E-Mail Links: You would not display your credit card number on a poster in Times Square, and you would certainly not hand out keys to your home or automobile to total strangers, so why would you display an unencrypted e-mail address on your website? Without encryption, the message to e-mail address harvesting spam robots is “Here I am. Come get me!”
  6. Broken Graphics: One of the telltale signs of a beginning webmaster are broken graphics. If graphics are linked to files on a local computer, they will appear normally, but only on that computer. Anybody accessing the page from any other device anywhere in the world will see a broken graphic link.
  7. Slow Loading Images: Have you ever visited a website, only to watch images slowly loading, as if they were being slowly painted onto your screen? Almost inevitably, it is because the person maintaining the site has placed enormous photos onto the page, then has those images being scaled down to size by the browsers of end users. The enormous file is being needlessly downloaded, then resized, when a properly sized image would have loaded immediately.
  8. Ignoring Mobile Devices: All the talk these days is about mobile-friendliness and the fact that over 50% of the traffic to most websites is coming from people using smartphones and tablets. If your site is not mobile-friendly, you are turning away a tremendous portion of your market. Do not be deceived by the fact that almost any website may be viewed on a smartphone. There is a big difference between being able to view a site and actually engaging in a non-frustrating experience. Is your content scaling down to the size of the display, does the navigation work with pudgy fingers, and can users tap a phone number displayed on your site to initiate a phone call?
  9. Out of Date Content: You would not buy a gallon of milk that was past its expiration date, would you? Well, why would you expect people to “buy” what you are selling on your website if its content looks like it is way past its “best used by” date? Specifically, rates and schedules should show the current year. I know of another website design company that circumvents this maintenance issue by never including the year on a rates page. That is a big mistake because it fails to offer users the assurance that the content is current. Particularly when it involves pricing, nobody wants to make a buying decision when there is pricing uncertainty.
  10. Missing Meta Content: Meta content consists of essential elements written into the code of a website that are not generally visible when the site is viewed by an end user. This basic content is mission-critical for search engine optimization and to influence search engine users to choose to click on your site’s listing over another. This meta content only begins with a proper page title, page description, and “alt” tags that describe photos and graphics. That same site that was missing the Google Analytics tracking code also had a site title tag that read “My Blog | My WordPress Blog”.

These are only 10 common mistakes that webmasters can make. The overall best advice is to avoid working with that webmaster in your mirror (or that clever kid down the road) and to choose one of several professional companies with reputations you can trust. You have better things to do than to look for mistakes on your website … or to deal with the consequences of those mistakes.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

All Links Are Good … or Are They?

April 4th, 2016

One of my clients recently contacted me, concerned that his New Hampshire campground was listed without his prior knowledge or authorization on several websites that purported to be online campground directories. He discovered this when one of the sites contacted him on behalf of a camper who wanted to make a reservation to stay at his park and another contacted him to “claim” his listing. At first glance, these would appear to be good things, wouldn’t they? Any resource that is sending you business is generally welcome to do so. After all, your campground is probably sent online traffic from a variety of referring sites – everything from Go Camping America to your state association website to Good Sam to your local tourism association.

In the instances that my client described, something just didn’t seem right.

Over the years, a number of websites have sprouted up that are essentially directories of local businesses. Many of these have evolved from so-called “yellow pages” companies, and their business model is to persuade gullible business owners to pay for enhanced listings. In my own instance, about a third of these local directories lists my company’s street address correctly, but then locates us in the next town. Another third list our fax number as our phone number. Do I care? Not really, because these sites get close to zero traffic, and they have little if any effect – either positive or negative – upon the SEO of my company’s official website. These websites are working with compiled data, obviously harvested from unreliable sources.

The sites that my client described were an entirely new breed. Also based upon compiled data, their business plans are no longer focused upon selling enhanced listings but in providing reservation services where they collect referral or transaction fees. These can be problematic indeed. My client has gone through a fairly labor-intensive process of getting his business de-listed from several of these sites. The more that I looked into them, the better my understanding of how my client’s instincts were probably right on target.

Campground reservations are accurately perceived as a multi-billion dollar business, and companies that would like a piece of the action are suddenly coming out of the woodwork. Funded with infusions of venture capital, the focus is on generating income from the collection of processing fees on those reservations, either in real-time (with campgrounds that get on board) or with the type of delayed booking that initially caught my client’s attention. One such site posts that it “anticipates” use by 1 million campers per month, even though it does not currently show up as even a blip on the radar at Alexa, the leading provider of comparative website traffic analytics.

What is the problem with these sites? Well, first of all there is a problem with compiled data. How often is the data updated and how accurate is the initial source? (Think back to those local sites that list my business in the wrong town or with our fax number as our primary phone number, where incorrect data tends to perpetuate itself.) On one of these sites that my client called to my attention, I perused the campgrounds listed in my home state of Massachusetts. I am intimately familiar with the industry players in my home state, and I found fictitious listings, listings for municipal parks that have nothing to do with camping, listings for campgrounds that have been out of business for several years, and listings for summer camps.

The second problem is the potential for these sites to compete with your own official website and your own chosen online reservation engine, a situation that can only serve to confuse consumers and that could inflict harm upon your business. I know that I do not want any other company representing my business, and I would be feverishly protective against any threats to my company’s unique online identity. Particularly if pricing (that may or may not be accurate) or reservations enter into the equation, the potential for problems is very real.

Thirdly, if you choose to get on board, be sure to read the fine print. The “Terms of Service” listed on one of these websites, when copied and pasted into a Word document, consisted of over 20,000 words that ran 42 pages in length. That’s a far cry from the old-fashioned handshake agreement of years past and probably reason to proceed with caution.

Keep in mind that any online directories or search engines built upon compiled data (even Google itself!) need businesses like yours as much as you need them. Without listing real businesses that consumers are seeking, they have no product to offer. It is your decision whether or not to get on board with any particular website. Understand the potential risks and benefits, and then make a decision based upon what is best for your business and how it can most effectively meet the needs and expectations of its core clientele.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Taking the Mystery Out of Mystery Shoppers

March 30th, 2016

Over the years, I have heard campground owners consistently complain about ratings that are generated by independent, third-party inspectors from organizations ranging from AAA and Trailer Life to Wheelers and Woodall’s. With the demise of the “big books,” the consolidation of Trailer Life and Woodall’s into Good Sam ratings, and the explosive growth and credibility of online consumer review sites such as RV Park Reviews and TripAdvisor, ratings are as important – if not more important – than ever. What remains consistent is the question as to why a campground owner would be surprised by ratings or consumer reviews, as if he was unfamiliar with the shortcomings of his own park.

Perhaps it would make sense for the industry to be a bit more proactive with regard to the types of third-party assessments that would identify problems and nip them in the bud. Other industries – most notably the hotel, restaurant, cruise line, retailing, banking, and automotive industries – have routinely employed what are referred to as “mystery shoppers”. It is important to know that both your business and your employees are up to par and providing exceptional customer service. At my local bank, I noticed last week how one of the tellers had been awarded for having successfully passed 5 out of 5 such test situations during the previous year.

To make these inspections work, they must be carried out in an anonymous and seemingly random fashion. Think of the popular CBS reality TV series, Undercover Boss, where even Jim Rogers, the former CEO of KOA, went undercover to gain an inside perspective on various employee issues at three parks within the KOA franchise system. Another popular reality TV show is Food Network’s Restaurant Impossible, where host Robert Irvine helps to turn restaurants around by identifying problems with everything from their menus and décor to their staffs and the attitude of their owners. We all need to see our businesses sometimes with the objectivity of another set of eyes.

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In the hotel industry, which is so closely related to the campground industry, there is a wide range of companies that provide independent inspection services. The companies include Secret Hotel Inspector, Coyle Hospitality Group, and Guest Check. There is also a network of independent contractors that provide similar services, in some instances on a smaller scale and meeting the needs of businesses with more limited budgets. These services are so important that there is actually an association of service providers, the Mystery Shopping Provider Association of North America. According to MSPA-NA statistics, 70% of shoppers (yes, that includes campers!) state that they are willing to spend up to 13% more with companies they believe provide excellent customer service. Perhaps more importantly, 78% of customers have opted to cancel a transaction or did not complete an intended purchase because of a poor customer experience. Think of how that latter statistic relates to the usability of your website or the user experience during your online reservation process.

Some companies even recruit and hire their own secret inspectors, one example being Small Luxury Hotels of the World, an affiliation of 520 luxury hotels located worldwide.

What these companies share in common is the proven statistic that the fees for their services are more than offset by the increased profitability that results from the improvements in customer loyalty, customer satisfaction, staff training, and morale that are realized after implementing their study recommendations. More than simply running a white glove along a windowsill, these companies identify weaknesses and waste, and then recommend solutions and remedial actions.

It is important to have access to this type of information prior to the time of interaction with your paying guests. Why not make now the time for a new beginning? My suggestion is for some of the larger, more progressive state associations to explore an affiliation with a mystery shopping organization, and then offer this as a paid add-on service for members who are striving for excellence. Not only would the member campgrounds benefit greatly from their participation, this would also be a service that would add significant value to the member benefits package of any such state associations themselves.

As always, it is always wise to think outside the box, learn from other industries, and emulate the various formulae that have contributed to their success.

This post was written by Peter Pelland