Pelland Blog

Effective Direct Mail Techniques

September 14th, 2016

A direct mail piece that was addressed to my wife recently caught my attention when I was sorting through the day’s mail and deciding what made its way into the house to be potentially opened and what would not make it past the blue recycling bins in our garage. This window envelope, printed with what appears to be a $10.00 bill sticking out of the upper left corner where you would expect the return address to appear, really intrigued me. Although we did not “fall” for the gimmick and open the letter, it was sent by one of the large wholesale buying clubs, offering a $10.00 temporary membership.

tendollarenvelope

This got me thinking about direct mail advertising campaigns and how challenging it could be to send out an advertising campaign that would intrigue your recipients enough to persuade them to open the envelope and read your message. I am not including three-dimensional advertising pieces that are expensive to produce, rather limiting this discussion to conventional mailings that any small business can afford to produce and mail. The 8 tips that I am offering for your consideration have proven to be effective. You will not use all of them in one mailing; however, several of these could potentially be combined within a single mailing.

  1. Use an envelope. Postcards are your least expensive mailing option, and guarantee that they will be at least minimally perused, due to the fact that there is no envelope to open. That said, postcards should be reserved for mailings to existing customers who recognize your business name and are likely to welcome your message. When reaching out to new customers, it is always preferable to use an envelope, adding an element of intrigue; however, there are ways to improve upon that level of intrigue that will, in turn, determine the effectiveness of your campaign.
  2. Use a stamp. Stamps simply look more personal than a mailing indicia or metered mail. Better than using just one stamp, you can really catch the eye of the recipient by using multiple stamps that total the correct first class mail rate.
  3. Add personalization. Nothing says “junk mail” more than an envelope that is addressed to “Current Resident” or “Office Manager.” If you do not have the name of a contact – spelled correctly, I might add – do not waste your time, effort and money because you will have truly limited the chances of your message getting read.
  4. Look Official. This tip can cross the line between tacky and deceptive, but many mailers have found success in printing envelopes that mimic the look of telegrams or Express Mail or Priority Mail graphics. (Be careful not to mimic the latter too closely, or your mailing could be rejected by the postal service!)
  5. No return address. If you include your return address on the envelope, you will seriously limit the chances of your message getting considered by recipients who might already be predisposed against your business. The lack of return address also adds an element of curiosity that will encourage many people to look further.
  6. Use a handwriting font. There are quite a few fonts available that mimic handwriting while still remaining readable by automated postal service sorting equipment. Click here for a link to free handwriting fonts on Google. Needless to say, an envelope that appears to be hand-addressed (at least to some people) looks more personal than the more conventionally used mailing fonts. Of course, if your mailing is small enough, real handwriting (keep it legible!) is even better.
  7. Lumpy mail. Although you have to be careful that your mailing will not get jammed and damaged in automated sorting equipment, and also avoid the surcharge for letters that exceed a maximum one-quarter inch thickness, studies have proven that envelopes clearly containing something are more likely to be opened, particularly if the envelope has a lumpy texture. Ideally, that item should relate to your mailing, in order to take a step beyond simple gimmickry. For example, a teabag with a message that invites the reader to “sit back and relax with a cup of tea, while taking a minute to consider our offer.”
  8. A yellow repositionable note. These are yellow adhesive notes that are designed specifically for this purpose, with double the adhesive strip (so they stay attached in transit.) These are specialty items that are custom printed by companies on a list of vendors provided by the postal service.

If you will be turning to a mailing house for assistance, they will add the advantages of taking your mailing database and both removing duplicates and running it through the National Change of Address data registry. Mailing services pay enormous fees to the U.S. Postal Service in order to utilize this service, charging end-users a very reasonable service fee that is far less than the money that would otherwise be wasted on mailing to bad addresses.

According to the postal service, approximately 40 million Americans move their place of residence and/or business each year, estimating that at least 8% of all mail is undeliverable due to incorrect addresses. We all know how difficult it is to reach new customers. When direct mail is part of your efforts, do everything possible to make it work, starting with the design of your advertising campaign itself.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Clarify Your Cancellation and Refund Policies

August 26th, 2016

If you are selling a product on eBay, you are required to clearly define your return policy, and if your website is involved in any type of e-commerce or online payments, payment gateway service providers such as Authorize.net will require that your site defines its refund policies. Your policy may simply be “no returns and no refunds under any circumstances”, but that policy needs to be clearly defined – both for your protection and for the protection of your customers. Misunderstandings can lead to disagreements and the need for mediation.

One of my company’s clients e-mailed me late last week, after one of her campers contacted her on Friday, asking for a refund – minus her stipulated $25.00 processing fee – for a last-minute cancellation of his weekend reservation, due to a less than perfect weather forecast. The client balked at allowing the refund, even though her website did not clearly define the terms for cancellations and refunds. Under the circumstances, this first-time guest at her park was making a totally reasonable request. With this instance in mind, it may be time to take a closer look at your own park’s cancellation and refund policies, confirming that they are covering the full range of potential circumstances.

As I explained to the client last week, most of our campground clients who are booking either real-time reservations or online reservation requests have policies that are much more clearly defined than what she had instructed us to post to her site. Typically, they might say that a full refund, less a $25.00 administrative fee, will be issued if the cancellation is made 14 days or more prior to the intended date of arrival; a credit for a stay at another date will be issued if the cancellation is made between 7 and 14 days prior to the intended date of arrival; and no refunds will be issued for cancellations made less than 7 days prior to the intended date of arrival. Each park is likely to have its own timeline for cancellations, its own administrative fee (if any), its own expiration date for any credits that it may issue, and probably separate schedules for campsites and rental units. The important thing is for all of those details to be clearly defined.

Many of our more savvy campground clients (typically, campground owners who have decades of experience in dealing with people who will try to find loopholes that they can use to their advantage, in this case capitalizing upon any vagueness in a cancellation and refund policy) will also specify the following:

  • Deposit forfeited for non-arrival on scheduled arrival date.
  • Holidays, special events, monthly and seasonal reservations are non-refundable.
  • No refunds for early departure.
  • No refunds due to inclement weather.
  • No refunds for evictions due to violation of rules.

These policies should be clearly visible on your website, accompanying your rates and probably repeated on a page that lists your park’s rules and policies. You want your customers to see them, and you also want to be able to direct customers to the text should any misunderstandings arise. I also suggest that cancellation and refund policies be outlined, with a link to the full list, at the end of the reservation process, using a checkbox where the guest must indicate acceptance of those policies before the form will be processed.

I know that some people like to keep things simple, and others fear that they might scare away business by posting what might be perceived as stringent policies; however, a customer who is unwilling to accept reasonable cancellation and refund policies is probably not the ideal guest.

Despite having policies that are crystal-clear and etched in stone, you will probably still want to evaluate each instance individually, exercising a degree of discretion in resolving each request. The bottom line these days is that, if a customer demands a refund, it is a lot less expensive in the long run to keep that customer happy than to suffer the consequences of encouraging him to post negative reviews or to complain on the social media. Going out of your way to make an exception to the rule in order to accommodate a first-time guest might turn that new customer into a lifetime source of income for your park.

Remember that, at least in his or her own mind, the customer is always right. Try to make an effort to help reasonable people to understand – in advance – your business’s point of view when it comes to cancellations and refunds.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Never Burn Bridges

August 20th, 2016

There were two e-mails over the last week that got me shaking my head in wonderment. The first was forwarded to me by one of my clients. She had recently left a well-known website hosting services provider in favor of an extensive list of more personalized hosting services that my company provides. After the other company threw down as many roadblocks as possible, as well as making several attempts at trying to scare the client into cancelling her plans to move, the migration was finalized. When my client formally cancelled her services with the other company, they could not accept the loss of the account without one last word.

The e-mail that she forwarded to me included a sentence that started with the words, “When you are ready to come back to us ….” Apparently the sender either thought that she had nothing to lose or preferred not to use the phrases “When you come to your senses”, “When you realize you made a mistake”, or “When you realize that you made a stupid decision”, but her words had the same effect in insulting my client and ensuring that she would never reverse her decision.

The second e-mail arrived this afternoon. It was sent to me by a highly presumptive young salesperson for a startup Internet company that is trying to capitalize upon the consolidation of online campground reservations. I had previously written about this and similar companies after another of my clients had related his nightmare stories about trying to get his campground de-listed from one of these sites. As I wrote at the time, 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.”

These online reservation consolidators tend to compete with your own official website and your own chosen online reservation engine, a situation that can only serve to confuse consumers and dilute the effectiveness of how you run your business. In the instance this afternoon, one of our clients (with a new website that was less than a week old) was being asked to funnel traffic from his website to the startup company’s booking engine. The salesperson could not understand why I explained that it was not in my client’s interest to accept her offer and why we would not be installing her company’s “Book Now” button on the new website. Not only could she not understand why I would not matter-of-factly follow her instructions, she actually sent me two additional e-mails where she attempted to educate me in marketing basics.

What do these two e-mail stories have in common? They demonstrate the importance of never burning your bridges. As a campground owner, if a guest has a less than perfect experience and expresses his or her dissatisfaction on a review or social media website, take a deep breath before posting a thoughtful and empathetic response. There is no logical reason for the last word from you to be along the lines of “I hope that the door didn’t hit you on the way out!” or “Don’t even think of ever trying to come back here again!”

If you want your business to grow and prosper, every camper who enters your gate is your most important customer ever. To alienate only one represents not just the loss of any potential future business from that person and his family, it also likely means the exponential loss of business from every friend of that individual, as well as the friends of those friends. I am a frequent contributor to the TripAdvisor website, where statistics tell me that my reviews have influenced over 90,000 readers, many with recommendations of businesses but others with warnings to stay away. Since I have written 136 reviews, this means that my average review has been read by over 660 fellow travelers.

That is a demonstration of the power of exponential influence. Think about it the next time you might be too tired to thank a guest one more time for choosing to stay at your park … or the next time that a guest gets under your skin and you really want to serve him a piece of your mind. Always remember that bridges are for connecting, not for burning.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Tired of the Same Meal?

August 2nd, 2016

Even if you can no longer recall the days of school cafeterias or army mess halls, you probably can appreciate the concept of having a bit of variety to spice up your meals from day to day. How many people would want to have the same bowl of corn flakes for breakfast, a slice of pizza for lunch, and a hot dog for dinner … day after day after day? Beyond the lack of nutrition, you would probably be really turned off by somebody who offered you another hot dog.

In recent years, the menus in both academic and military settings have been tremendously improved, with food service operations subcontracted to companies that take pride in both food preparation and the nutritional value of the meals they serve. Gone are the days of cooks whose only formal training was how to prepare meals in large volumes, having been replaced by executive chefs with training in the culinary arts.

Yes, times have changed, but what about your website? Are you asking your prospective customers to get excited about a template-built site that looks just like thousands of others? Having the same menu from one fast-food restaurant to the next is desirable because those establishments are serving a clientele that is seeking consistency, not surprises. However, when planning a special occasion (like a week-long camping vacation, for example), most people are looking for something a little bit out of the ordinary. It becomes problematic when your website is conveying a message that says “boring” when your campers are looking for “spicy” or “savory” on the menu.

Just another WordPress site

I never know whether to laugh or moan when I see sites that seem to display an oh-so-distinctive templated look. I have even seen sites where the site title displays as “Just another WordPress site” because the webmaster did not take the minimal time and effort (or perhaps did not have the knowledge) to substitute an appropriate keyword-based title for the default template setting.

When somebody performs a basic search on Google, the words in the intuitive search term that they enter are either highlighted or made bold in the search results, and a user is more likely to click on search results that contain more of that highlighted or bold text in the site title, domain name, and site description. Nobody is going to search for the term “just another WordPress site”, so it should be clear that having that as your site’s title will put your park at a severe disadvantage. Sadly, there are hundreds of campground websites suffering this limitation. Click here to view the Google search results for campground websites with the “just another WordPress site” title. If your campground is on the list of search results, it just might be time to question the status quo and start searching for another webmaster (realizing, of course, that your existing webmaster may be that person in your mirror.)

Would You Like Arial or Times New Roman with Your Meal?

Even something as seemingly insignificant as font usage is ultimately very important. Once your site shows up in a search, if the person performing the search clicks or taps the link, is that person going to stay on your site … or does something like an overused font send them the message that you are offering the same old menu of hamburgers, cheeseburgers, and a side of fries?

In the old days of the Internet, webmasters usually chose “safe” fonts because the correct fonts would only display if they were installed on the end user’s computer (otherwise defaulting to the dreaded Courier font.) Today, there is a nearly endless selection of fonts available through the Google Fonts API, allowing your webmaster to choose distinctive fonts that are consistent with the overall branding of your business and which will render properly in all current browsers. Using CSS, your webmaster can also specify font styles and can even specify eye-catching font effects like drop shadows and outlines, all of which are supported in Chrome and Safari, and many of which are supported in other browsers.

Once again, if your website is not presenting its visitors with this type of very basic content customization, how can you expect your occupancy levels to be anything but blandly boring?

This post was written by Peter Pelland

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.

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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.

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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