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Advantages of Multiple Websites & Multiple Domain Names

April 15th, 2014

These days, the domain name of a business is nearly as important as the business’s name itself. In a process referred to as a “type-in”, customers expect to be able to enter a business name followed by the .com extension into their browser’s address bar to be brought to the proper website. Stories abound about businesses (and even the White House!) that were asleep at the switch and found what should have been their domain names grabbed up by competitive forces. Of course, as time has progressed, many first choices have long ago been registered by businesses with similar names. For example, there appear to be more than a dozen parks name Shady Oaks Campground throughout the United States alone. The campground by that name in Maine registered the first-choice ShadyOaksCampground.com back in 1998, and the even more desirable ShadyOaks.com was registered by a nursery by that name in Minnesota two years earlier, back in 1996. Everyone else since then has faced the need for creativity in choosing an alternate domain name that might make sense.

When looking for the best available domain name, the rules of thumb are to keep it intuitive (in other words, having an obvious relation to your business), as short as possible, easy to spell, and ending in the .com extension. Some people persist in believing the myth that a long domain name that contains multiple keywords (even including words that do not relate to their business) will somehow enhance a website’s search engine ranking. In fact, I recently came across a campground in Georgia with a domain name that is made up of a combination of 9 words, for a total of 43 characters ahead of the .com – absolutely absurd! While it is true that an Exact Match Domain (EMD) name – such as the aforementioned ShadyOaksCampground.com – might offer a slight edge over less intuitive domain names in a list of search results, the general rule is to find the best available domain name that will make sense to your customers, particularly new customers who are not already familiar with your business.

Up until now, I have been referring to the best choice for a primary domain name for your business, but what about multiple domain names? Do they make sense?

Multiple Domain Names

Domain name registration fees are relatively minor in the overall scope of things, and many businesses like to explore the advantages of multiple domain names. These secondary domain names are typically setup as domain aliases that seamlessly redirect traffic to the primary domain. They are often based upon appropriate keyword phrases and are considered Phrase Match Domain (PMD) names. Whether or not these influence search results is open to debate; however, they may have value simply from the “type-in” perspective. My own research, based upon Google search results for keyword phrases that represent actual domains registered on behalf of our clients, suggests that domain aliases have very little influence upon search results.

Even in instances where these domain aliases are quite intuitive and directly relate to a business name or location, a search for the keyword phrase contained within that PMD typically produces surprisingly dismal results. My conclusion is that registering multiple domain names strictly for their search engine value is probably a futile effort that cannot even justify the relatively minimal expense. The exceptions are:

  • If an alternate domain name protects your name or trademark from potential infringement (or even confusion in the eyes of consumers). For example, if your business name was Willow Shores Campground and your domain name was WillowShores.com, you might want to register WillowShoresCampground.com as a domain alias.
  • If the alternate domain name points to unique content, rather than simply redirecting to another URL.

This last point is important. Although you do NOT want to have multiple websites for the same business competing for search engine ranking and confusing your customers, if you can justify building a secondary website that showcases unique content that represents a facet of your business, that website will appear in appropriate search queries and it will enhance the SEO of sites (including, of course, your primary website) that are linked to that secondary site. Note my emphasis on the word “unique” – search engines will typically penalize all of the sites involved when one or more sites simply mirror the content of another.

Examples Where Secondary Websites Make Sense

When justified by content, secondary websites make a great deal of sense. They can also help to generate search engine rankings and, subsequently, business. As an example, one of our clients is a large tea company with a long list of alternate domain names. Some are domain aliases that represent variations of their business name and protect their trademark from infringement. More importantly, there are separate, small websites for several of their flagship products. These sites appear at the top of search results for those products, while also directing significant traffic to the company’s main online commerce website.

Another example is the website for our client, James Kitchen, a prominent New England sculptor. His primary website provides all the information anyone might need – from finding the locations of installations, viewing a schedule of upcoming exhibitions, or watching a short documentary film on the artist. A new, smaller website showcases the artist’s contribution to a major Steampunk exhibition that is being hosted by the city of Springfield, Massachusetts from late March through late September 2014. This site will generate SEO and traffic within its own right, while also enhancing the SEO of the main James Kitchen site.

What works for a tea company and an artist can also work for a campground. Many campgrounds benefit (or could benefit) from a secondary website that showcases their canoe rental operation, adjoining restaurant or lodging, or miniature golf course that is open to the public. Others could benefit from a secondary website capitalizing upon their proximity to nearby attractions such as rail trails, fishing, or hiking. If your business has more than one profit center, there is no reason to limit your reach to a single website.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Advertising Messages That Generate Immediate Response

March 28th, 2014

Most advertising is intended to build long-term brand awareness and customer loyalty, factors that are not measurable in immediate sales numbers. At other times, advertising is intended to generate a more immediate short-term response. This is the kind of advertising that is typified by the weekly department store or supermarket circular, with a list of specific items and prices. For a campground owner, both types of advertising will work, although short-term offers are generally far more effective after long-term brand awareness has already kicked in.

Let’s say it’s a Thursday morning, and you have 8 vacant campsites and 2 rentals available for the upcoming weekend. Leaving them unoccupied is lost income, and it is time to spring into action. If your average camping fee is $40.00 per night and your cabin rentals are $80.00 per night, just those vacancies on a Friday and Saturday night represent $960.00 in income, prior to any residual sales in your store, snack bar, game room, and elsewhere.

There are many cost-effective ways to reach people who are likely to respond to your offers, including newsletters, Tweets, and Facebook posts. The prerequisite is that you need a significant number of newsletter subscribers or followers on social media like Twitter or Facebook. If few people see your message, even an extraordinarily high response rate will generate little in terms of actual results. For a small business, that magic minimum number is generally in the 800 – 1,000 person range. With those 8 sites and 2 rentals to book, if your message reaches 1,000 people, you only need to attain a very realistic 1% rate of response. Building a significant number of people who will be likely to respond to your offers takes a combination of time and ingenuity, with ingenuity speeding up the process.

Building Your Numbers

Your first step is to grow the numbers of people who are subscribing to your newsletter or following your social media posts. Build your newsletter base by asking people to opt in during the online reservation process, asking them to “join your list” when they visit your booth at camping shows (preferably in real time, providing them with a laptop or tablet with Internet access), and including a sign-up form on your website. On Facebook, give people an incentive to “like” your page (but do not use “fangating” to force them to like the page in order to obtain the incentive). Encourage your followers to “share” and “retweet” your posts, helping to spread your message. Facebook Advertising is a highly effective and fairly inexpensive way to expand your reach. Just be sure to choose your demographics very carefully and always pay per click, not per impression. Of course, links to your social media pages should always be prominently featured on your website.

Very importantly, once you have gotten people to agree to receive your newsletter or to follow your posts, you must not abuse nor squander that privilege. Always provide timely and useful information that answers the reader’s question, “What’s in it for me?” Engage your followers, and get them excited about what you have to say. That generally means that you are providing them with some sort of offer that makes them feel like an “insider” who is receiving special treatment. Ideally, they will like what they read so much that they will look forward to hearing from you on a regular basis. Incidentally, that “regular basis” should usually not exceed once or twice a month for newsletters, three times a week for Facebook posts, and once or twice a day for Tweets. On one hand, you want to keep in touch, in order to avoid being forgotten. On the other hand, you do not want to become like an elderly uncle who seems to visit so often that he wears out his welcome. You work too hard to build a base of followers to see them unsubscribe or “unlike” your page.

Crafting Messages with a Sense of Urgency

Once you have the numbers of people within reach, it is time to present your followers with messages that will generate the desired response. There are generally three ways to accomplish this:

  • “Use it or lose it” limited time offers.
  • Limited availability.
  • Special bonus incentives.

Vacancies “this weekend” definitely constitute limited time offers, and “only three sites available” represents limited availability. Limited time offers have been a staple of price/item advertising for decades. Retail sales always have expiration dates, with occasional exceptions such as JC Penney’s disastrous attempt at giving itself a makeover and “retraining” its customers back in 2012. Even auctions on eBay generally show last-minute surges in bidding in the closing minutes (and seconds) of the sale of a popular item. On the other hand, if you have purchased airline tickets recently, you may have noticed that the airlines will often indicate countdown numbers such as the “last 2 seats” (true or untrue) for a given flight. That is an example of generating sales based upon limited availability.

Perhaps even more effective are special bonus incentives. In fact, special bonus incentives can be remarkably effective when combined with either a limited time offer or limited availability. What kind of incentive could help to persuade people to reserve those vacant sites? Experiment with different offers to find ones that fit. Examples might include free early check-in (which costs you nothing), a free bundle of firewood (particularly popular with tent sites), waiving the fee for additional family members (within limits), or a free one-hour boat rental (during certain times when you know that your boats would likely be tied to a dock). Maybe list three bonus options, and let people choose the one that they want. It has been proven that there is always magic in giving people a choice of three.

Rich or poor, from all walks of life, every human being likes to get a deal … or at least be given that impression. Once again, your ingenuity comes into play to make your advertising message both compelling and successful. Give it a try!

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Who Is Answering Your Phone?

March 20th, 2014

We all tend to think that technology makes life easier, believing that it can simplify the task of generating a new stream of business. While there is some truth to that idea, the fact is that the most effective technologies require a commitment of both time and old-school business principles. If you are a small business owner, the time that must be invested is quite likely to be your own.

The Internet is often seen as a technological panacea with respect to the harvest of a new base of customers. For campgrounds, the entire online process is typically funneled toward online reservations, the e-commerce component of the hospitality industries. Unfortunately, many people still buy into the “if you build it, they will come” concept that was the mantra of the 1989 fantasy-drama film, Field of Dreams. Things are not that simple in real life, and the reservation process rarely flies on autopilot.

In many instances, prospective online customers have pre-purchase questions that must be answered prior to making their decisions. These inquiries are almost always going to involve either e-mail or a phone call, with the customer expecting a prompt response (in the case of e-mail) or an immediate response (in the case of a phone call).

For campgrounds in the northern states and Canada, winter is the off-season, when owners are operating with skeleton staffs and simply trying to pay their utility bills and mortgages. Others are more fortunate and are able to vacation when their parks are closed for the season. This is perfectly understandable in either case; however, the off-season is the prime time for campers to make reservations for the upcoming season, and it is also the time when you, as a campground owner or manager, are likely to have the least number of interruptions competing for your attention.

If somebody is determined to camp exclusively at your park, they may be more patient in awaiting a response to an immediate question; however, a camper who is seeking a park in your local area may very well be contacting you and several of your competitors. Being the first to respond is the equivalent of getting your business to appear on the first page of Google or Bing search results.

If you are away from the office or away on vacation, either make arrangements to access and respond to your e-mails or delegate that responsibility to a trusted employee. Never use an auto-responder, which simply encourages the recipient to look elsewhere. Try to use personalized templates that will streamline the response process and that will minimize the number of back-and-forth e-mails that must be exchanged. Next, check to insure that the sender name on your e-mails is clear and intuitive to the recipient. It should include the name of your business. I am amazed at how many e-mails arrive in my inbox identified solely by vague sender names such as ‘info’, ‘reservations’, ‘office’, or some other generic term. If a customer has contacted several parks, ensure that he or she can immediately identify the source of your response. Finally, your e-mails should always include a “signature” that includes the full range of alternate contact information, including your mailing address, phone number(s), and social media addresses.

As you may be aware, at some point in 2014, the typical website will see the scales tip, when over 50% of online traffic will involve users of mobile devices. Internet users, in general, are characteristically short on patience, and users of mobile devices carry the need for speed to a new level. Anything that interferes with a smooth process can effectively become a roadblock. Typical hindrances (in the eyes of your potential online customers) include:

  • A slow or unresponsive website.
  • Content that is not easily viewed on a mobile display.
  • An overly complex process, including non-essential questions.
  • Lack of information. For example, what is the price of a site? What are the check-in and check-out times? Is wi-fi available?
  • Lack of social reinforcement. Provide testimonials or links to review sites that will help to assure new customers.

To overcome last-minute obstacles, provide your online visitors with one or more alternate means of contact. Online chat is great, as long as you have somebody available to respond at any given time; however, the single most important alternative is a telephone number. According to a recent Google AdWords report, 70% of users of mobile devices are likely to “click to call” either prior to or rather than completing an online purchase, and this statistic equally applies to online reservations at campgrounds. A smartphone user may be ready to make a reservation but would prefer to do so over the phone rather than fumbling through an online process.

What happens when someone calls your campground in the off-season? Do they get a message telling them that you are out of the office and will reopen in April? If so, you can almost be certain that you have lost a sale every time your phone rings. According to online industry statistics from SeeWhy, an average of only 3% of first-time website visitors finalizes a purchase, with 72% bailing out before hitting the ‘submit’ button. In other words, it could be a long wait before your next phone call, so you need to make each call count!

Of course, callers should expect to reach your voice-mail during off-hours and on weekends; however, if you are available to take a call during those times, do so. The caller will be highly impressed. What callers do not want to sense is a lack of response, whether that is an unanswered phone, a non-reassuring outgoing message, or a phone that is answered in an unprofessional manner. It is essential for the business phone number to forward directly to either the owner or manager of a campground and that the call be either immediately answered or returned within minutes. Do not include an alternate phone number “for a faster response” in your outgoing message. If another number will reach you more directly, forward the call to that number, rather than expecting the caller to write down that number and then place a second call. That second call is unlikely to be made.

When attempting to make the most of e-commerce, online reservations, or any other buying process, the bottom line is for you to put yourself in the shoes of the person at the other end of the transaction. When the transaction involves the Internet – and mobile devices in particular – be aware that the process is time-critical and do everything possible to respond accordingly.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Y’All Come Back Again!

March 8th, 2014

Anybody who has been in business for more than a month knows that it is far easier to get a repeat sale from an existing customer than it is to generate a new customer from scratch. As long as you provide a positive experience at the time of stay, and a first-time camper enjoys the company of his fellow guests, your main task is to simply invite him to return. Most of us have preferred “go to” businesses for almost everything in life. We do the bulk of our food shopping at one supermarket, have one favorite restaurant, and have a long list of preferred providers of a wide range of products and services – from auto mechanics to hair stylists, from dentists to cell phone service providers. What you want to become is the “go to” place for camping.

Catering to your existing clientele in order to generate repeat business is nothing new, but some businesses and industries have capitalized upon this concept better than others. For years, airlines have teamed up with credit card companies to offer frequent flyer programs, creating an unprecedented brand loyalty in a market that is otherwise highly price-sensitive. Supermarkets and pharmacy chains have reward cards that encourage repeat purchases and offer product discounts. Then, of course, is the highly competitive credit card industry itself. One thing that they almost all have in common is a plastic card that implies some sort of exclusivity and “membership”.

The Card Is the Key

Good Sam CardKOA Rewards Cards

The Good Sam Club and its accompanying card have been around for years. For as little as $22.00 per year, members get a 10% discount at participating Good Sam campgrounds, discounts on RV parts and accessories at Camping World, discounts on fuel purchases at Pilot and Flying J stations, and other less directly monetary benefits. KOA, on the other hand, offers its KOA Value Kard Rewards program. For $24.00 for the first year, participants get a 10% discount on registration fees at KOA campgrounds and earn points that can be redeemed for camping rewards. After earning 20,000 points, memberships are automatically upgraded to VIP status, which accelerates the earning of additional points. There are many other camping discount and membership rewards programs within the industry, including Passport America, Camp Club USA, and membership campgrounds like Thousand Trails. The latest player is the AmeriGO RV Club, offering the same sort of 10% discount on stays at affiliated campgrounds, along with other values, for an introductory annual membership fee of only $9.95.

To succeed at this concept, you do not need to belong to a group or a franchise. Your goal is simply to generate repeat business for your individual park. In fact, it may not be necessary to offer your customers a discount on registration fees to lure their repeat business. After all, if a 10% discount becomes too commonplace, it loses its perceived value altogether. Let’s look outside the camping industry to see how to make the customer rewards concept work as productively as possible.

Amazon Prime

Amazon Prime

Amazon Prime is a membership program that the online marketing behemoth launched back in 2004. The $79.00 per year bundle offers free streaming of more than 40,000 movies and TV shows (which capitalize upon the bandwidth that Amazon has at its disposal – through its Amazon Web Services division, the world’s largest Internet hosting services provider), free e-books (which help to spur sales of its Kindle readers), and – most importantly – free 2-day shipping on unlimited purchases of millions, without a minimum order size. Bingo! Shipping costs have always been the biggest barrier to online commerce, with free shipping the means to dramatically increased sales.

According to a recent article in the online edition of Forbes Magazine, even with Amazon’s logistical efficiencies and exclusive volume discounts with UPS and FedEx, the company loses money on its Prime program. On the surface. With over 20 million members (many lured in by the free 30-day trial program during the checkout process at the time of purchase), the Amazon Prime program has created a “go to” mindset that makes Amazon the first (and presumably only) place for its members to order merchandise online. According to Amazon, over 1 million buyers joined the program during the third week of December 2013 alone. Most are attracted by the free shipping, and Amazon reaps the rewards.

According to a recent report from Consumer Intelligence Research Partners, the average Amazon Prime customer spent over $1,300.00 with Amazon.com last year, as opposed to the average Amazon customer who is not a member of the Prime program spending about $600.00. Amazon is continually willing to experiment with its program, currently contemplating an increase in the annual fee, while extending the concept into its Prime Fresh discount, same-day produce and grocery delivery program being tested in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle.

That’s Amazon.
What About Your Campground?

First of all, determine that you are already doing everything possible to generate repeat business before creating a rewards program. The following are prerequisites:

  • When guests check out, do you ask them if you can book their next stay? Right then, before they leave.
  • Do you maintain a database of your active customers? These are probably people who have camped with you within the past two or three years, flagging guests who have already stayed multiple times.
  • Are you maintaining an e-mail marketing program and a direct mail program to reach out to these key customers both prior to the season and during any slumps within the season? Even a simple (and inexpensive) postcard, summarizing your weekend activities and mailed out during the winter months (for campgrounds in the North), can trigger early event-based reservations.
  • Do you have social media programs in place, particularly on Facebook and Twitter? Engage your followers, and encourage them to become a part of upcoming events.

Only once those prerequisites have been covered is it time to consider launching a rewards program. When you are ready, give your concept some serious thought to ensure the maximum success.

  • Order professionally designed plastic cards. They cost far less than you may think, and they provide a tangible sense of membership and belonging.
  • Determine the annual fee that you will charge for your program. It is entirely conceivable that you could provide your program for free; however, I would strongly encourage a fee-based program that will at least cover your administrative costs and a portion of the anticipated income lost from the rewards that will be offered. On one hand, you do not want to discourage participation by charging too high a fee; on the other hand, keep in mind that a paid service will intuitively have greater perceived value than an identical free service. The perfect balance will be a fee that users feel they will easily recover while enjoying added benefits from the program.
  • Allow people to sign up for your rewards program, immediately obtaining benefits, at the time of reservation and at the time of registration. The annual fee that you charge will represent immediate income.
  • Determine what you will offer as the key benefits of your rewards program, based upon both your profit margins and specific products and services that have significant perceived value among your guests. I cannot overemphasize that it is not necessary to offer a discount on camping.
  • Potential rewards might include express check-in, free site upgrades (if available), points toward a free future stay, waivers of early check-in and late check-out fees (based upon availability), discounts in your store and snack bar, free wi-fi or dump station services (if these are otherwise fee-based), discounts on things like mini-golf and boat rentals, a waiver of guest fees, free morning coffee in your store, and discounts for nearby businesses.
  • Be willing to experiment by changing your reward program’s benefits from year to year, based upon customer response and feedback.

Think about the types of benefits that will appeal to your customers, but also keep in mind the proven concepts that are working for others, most notably the examples and lessons to be learned from Amazon Prime. By offering free coffee or a store discount, you are getting people into your store, where they will buy merchandise, move inventory, and increase high profit margin sales. By offering free early check-in, you will stagger arrivals and reduce registration lines and the stress level of your staff. By waiving guest fees, you may be introducing your park to its next paying campers. And by offering discounts to local businesses, you open the doors to a wide range of reciprocal and cross-promotional possibilities. Imagine if, like Amazon, you could get your typical rewards program member to spend more than twice as much with you each year than your conventional campers. That would be a profitable program indeed!

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Respect – Rather Than Mislead – Your Customers

February 25th, 2014

I sometimes sense that some businesses think that they will profit by tricking customers into making purchases. We are all familiar with the types of practices that have given advertising a bad reputation since the days of P.T. Barnum. These include fine print disclaimers, “bait and switch” and its twin sibling “limited availability”, and hidden charges. With their short-term perspective, what these merchants fail to realize are the long-term benefits to be gained from satisfied customers who are treated with respect, integrity and appreciation.

If a misleading advertising campaign is accompanied by a measurable increase in sales from a small percentage of customers, its practitioners may be blind to the possibility that far greater numbers of more astute customers may recognize lipstick on a pig and might decide to permanently take their business elsewhere. Allow me to share a few examples.

In the days just prior to Valentine’s Day, I received three e-mails from FromYouFlowers.com – each with greater urgency – encouraging me to use a “$13.48 earned credit” before it expired (or before it was extended in subsequent e-mails). I realized that I did NOT have a credit in the amount of $13.48, or any other amount, with this online retailer; however, how many people ordered to take advantage of this bogus opportunity? This offer is misleading because the alleged credit is actually nothing but a discount. The random amount makes it look more believable, and most people are more likely to want to use a credit than to apply a comparable discount because a “credit” represents something that is due to you or an amount that you had already paid. Shame on ForYouFlowers.com!

Another recent e-mail advertising campaign was sent out by Uno Pizzeria & Grill, the week prior to the Super Bowl. The subject line was pretty clear: “A Free Pizza for Uno Fans”.


Only upon clicking through to the offer was it explained that the “free” pizza could only be redeemed with the purchase of an accompanying entrée of equal of greater value.


This should have been disclosed right up front, instead of wasting the time of their potential customers with a misleading subject line and a disclosure that required a visit to the Uno website. I suspect that the e-mail advertising campaign had a far greater click-thru rate than redemption rate. I certainly did not bother printing my coupon.

One of my favorites has to be SelectBlinds.com, a major online retailer of window treatments. Their website stresses “Free Shipping” right at the top of their Home page; however, if you place an order from their site, you will pay an “order processing fee” that they say allows them to maintain free shipping.



I need a set of mini-blinds, but I will not buy them here, strictly because of that fee. If you charge me a higher price, I will still order; if you insult my intelligence, I will not.

How does this all apply to your campground? I urge you to present your customers legitimate offers that represent true, measurable value. Avoid the “gotcha!” factor. It is fine to advertise “stay two nights, and the third night is free”, but you should not present this as “free camping” or include a hidden disclaimer such as “excluding weekends” or “based upon availability”.

When posting your rate schedule online, it is best to avoid showing base rates that require customers to use a calculator to determine the actual cost of a site with 50-amp electric on a weekend in your prime season. As much as the base rate may initially attract attention, what appear to be added fees will usually harbor resentment.

Do you charge a fee for wi-fi, or is your coverage area limited to certain sections of your park? Disclose that up front to avoid complaints and potential confrontations later.

In conclusion, it is best to advertise legitimate offers that are first intended to present opportunities to your customers and then secondarily intended to generate business. The two go hand-in-hand, and merchants who recognize this fact will be aptly rewarded.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Delegate Responsibilities by Partnering Locally

February 13th, 2014

Any business owner who is destined to succeed soon discovers the importance of delegating responsibilities. First and foremost, this means hiring and assembling a team of employees who can be trusted to not only carry your philosophy forward but to bring it to the next level through independent thinking. You simply cannot do everything yourself, nor can your staff do everything itself. There are only so many hours in a day, and there is a limit to the number of hats that any one person can wear. For this reason, there will be instances when it will make sense to delegate responsibilities beyond your staff itself, subcontracting to other businesses for your mutual advantage.

When you give it some thought, you are probably already engaged in this sort of partnering without being fully aware of the process. For example, it may make more sense to buy attractively packaged, bundled firewood that is delivered to your door and that you can sell at a healthy profit margin in your store than it is to delegate staff members to thin trees or remove dead timber from your park, then cut it to fireplace length, split it, and store it for sale. If you have a game room, it may make more sense to lease the latest and most popular arcade games from a local distributor than it is to purchase and maintain games yourself, soon finding yourself with a roomful of obsolete machines – many with “Out of Order” signs – that nobody wants to play.

On a recent business trip to Florida, we stayed at the Vista Cay Resort, in Orlando. Much to my initial surprise, the concierge desk was not manned by a resort employee. Rather, it was being operated by the Local Expert division of Expedia. Currently, Expedia Local Expert is operating concierge desks at leading hotels and resorts in Hawaii, Mexico, Orlando, Las Vegas, and New York City. The properties avoid hiring a concierge staff, actually lease out the desk space, and Expedia earns commissions from the restaurants, tour operators and attractions that are on their list of preferred referrals. The Expedia employees are friendly, well-trained, and knowledgeable about the local area, allowing them to provide accurate information about driving directions and transportation services.

According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, Expedia is far from the only player in the concierge industry, with others including New York Guest and Travelocity. Some of these outsourced concierge services pay as much as $10,000 per month for the privilege of occupying lobby desk space in a leading hotel, and the hotels save as much as $50,000 per year in salary that would be paid to an in-house employee. Many, if not most, major hotel chains are converting, or at least experimenting, with this arrangement. At the same time, most consumers are unaware of the transition, since the outsourced staff members typically wear hotel uniforms and have the outward appearance of being hotel employees.

Another example of a business partnership that would be unheard of until recently involves America’s public libraries and Redbox. If you have visited a public library in recent years, you know that things have dramatically changed since you were a child. More and more people are visiting public libraries for Internet access and to check out movies and games on DVD, rather than borrowing books. Although rapidly declining, due to the rising popularity of streaming content, at least 25% of patrons identify their public library as their primary source of movie rentals. According to an online report in The Digital Shift, “dollar for dollar, DVDs are the highest circulating category of items in the New York Public Library system”.

With those statistics in mind, the familiar Redbox rental boxes are appearing outside of more and more public libraries, adding an expanded service for the library (even though not contributing to circulation) and offering patrons 24-hour access to these materials. Beyond that starting point, Redbox has also introduced a pilot program called “Outside the Box”, partnering with the Online Computer Library Center, to launch library-based community entertainment resources in Billings (MT), Chicago, Columbia (SC), Columbus (GA), and Cuyahoga County (OH). Yes, this defines the concept of “outside the box” thinking. Looking back, did it make sense to you, years ago, when McDonald’s introduced its first “PlayPlace” in its fast-food restaurants?

As a campground owner, I would like you to think of new ideas that will allow you to run your business more efficiently, professionally, and cost-effectively, particularly when it comes to special events and theme weekends. Whether you generally do things yourself, pay staff members, or rely upon volunteers (typically your seasonal campers), there are advantages to subcontracting certain services. By doing so, your will ensure that things are done right, that positive impressions will be created in the eyes of your guests, and that an event will generate return business in subsequent years.

You are probably already hiring professional bands, DJs and entertainers. What about caterers for food-based events, particularly if you are already charging a fee? There are mobile barbecue services that can be found just about anywhere, run by people who know what they are doing and who would be happy to cater your event. Thinking about a wine tasting? There are local wineries in all 50 states, and many would be happy to run your event. Do you celebrate Christmas in July? How about hiring a professional Santa, instead of having somebody wearing a fake beard and a cheap suit that doesn’t fit? There is little demand for Santas outside of December, and you might be surprised at how little this might cost. Your guests will appreciate the difference, and happy guests translate into return visits!

Start thinking of ways that you can delegate responsibilities like these to local businesses. You will benefit, they will benefit, and – together – you might discover additional ways in which both of your businesses may benefit.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Learn from the Best, Then Learn from the Worst

January 23rd, 2014

For years, I have been advising campground owners to look beyond the campground industry for inspiration and ideas on how to more effectively run their businesses. What your competitor down the highway is doing is far less important than what cruise lines, theme parks, ski resorts and boutique hotels are doing to not only meet evolving consumer expectations but to essentially raise the bar and redefine those very expectations. Companies like Viking River Cruises, Disney, Snowbird, and Marriott’s Renaissance and new Edition hotel groups are game-changers, not only within their industries but within the broader travel and leisure industries. With an emphasis on customer service, industry leaders rarely – if ever – need to compete on the basis of price. They have established themselves in a league of their own.

There are certainly campgrounds that have embraced this management philosophy, and they have been recognized as the leaders within their field. Particularly with the growing emphasis on luxury cabins and the overall concept of “glamping” (glamour camping, something that was certainly considered an oxymoron less than a generation ago), they are rebranding the camping experience as a superior alternative to the typical resort or hotel. As leaders within the industry, they set both the pricing thresholds and the consumer expectations for all parks, and they are profitable operations as a result.

There are certainly some infrastructural investments that help to differentiate the leading camping resorts from the rest of the pack. These include things like heated swimming pools, paved roadways, modern playgrounds, reliable wi-fi, 50-amp electric service, spacious pull-thru sites, and dog parks; however, most of what differentiates industry leaders has little to do with infrastructure and everything to do with attitude. Let me be clear that not every campground is destined to meet these new levels of consumer expectations, and not every camper is seeking out this type of experience. It is all about choices, and let’s be honest: have you ever worried about raising your rates by $1.00 per night, even though there are parks charging $20.00 or $30.00 more for a similar site?

It is easy to learn what sets certain businesses apart from others, and I encourage you to take the time – probably in your off-season – to personally investigate. Put your financial concerns aside for a weekend, and book a stay in a leading boutique hotel in a major American city. Take notes. Everything that you experience can be translated into an equivalent experience at your campground, from the doorman who welcomes you, to the valet parking attendant who parks your car, to the front desk clerk who puts you in a room with a view, to the concierge who gets the dinner reservations that you could not get on your own, to the front desk clerk again who calls to confirm that everything in the room meets your expectations, to the housekeeping staff member who knows when you are away and turns down the sheets and leaves a rose and chocolate (or the hand towel equivalent of a balloon animal) on your pillow. What they all have in common is friendly, personalized service that exceeds common expectations.

Yes, it is easy to learn from the examples of businesses that are setting themselves apart by doing things right. It is also possible to learn from businesses that consistently seem to be doing things wrong. Let me relate my recent personal experience with United Airlines, when returning from a family vacation in Mexico on a one-stop flight to Boston.

When we arrived at Guanajuato International Airport for the first leg of our flight, we were told that our departure would be delayed by about 45 minutes, leaving us plenty of time to make our connecting flight in Houston. We were told that the incoming flight had returned to Houston with some sort of mechanical trouble. Shortly afterward, we were told the delay would be three and a half hours, because the plane was being replaced with another aircraft. Nobody wants to argue with delays that are based upon mechanical issues, true or untrue, and we had no choice but to wait. In the meantime, the United Airlines ticket agent hand-wrote new connecting flight numbers on our tickets from Houston to Boston. Yes, that seemed a bit unusual. About two hours later, I returned to the ticket counter (of course, going through airport security checks each time) to ask for the assurance of real, printed tickets. Another desk clerk at that time admitted that the hand-written ticket revisions did not even represent an actual flight number! The new printed tickets contained the actual flight number and terminal but, suspiciously enough, no seat assignments. The connection time was tight, and our flight would arrive in Boston around midnight.

When we finally arrived in Houston, we knew that we had to keep moving in order to get to the correct terminal, get our bags checked, and make it through security. Even with TSA Pre-Check, we were not getting anywhere quickly, with perhaps 1,000 people bottlenecked in security and trying to get to their outbound flights. We could only presume that the airlines are aware of long lines in security and are aware of passengers who have not yet arrived at the gate. Being the last departing flight to Boston, and flying non-stop, you would think that the airline might delay the flight’s departure by 10 or 15 minutes. Think again.

When we arrived at our gate, the door was closed, and we were told to go to the United Airlines customer service counter. We were far from the only passengers who had missed our flight to Boston, and the counter was severely understaffed. When we finally got to speak with the customer service agent, he explained that 2 out of the 6 of us did not even have seats on the plane that had just departed! (Remember the tickets with no seat assignments?) The attendant was very nice (and seemed highly embarrassed by the United policies), but his hands were tied. He said that our bags made it out on that flight, leaving us without changes of clothing, personal items, or medications. We were also told that the next flight would be early the following morning, and were given hotel vouchers for a nearby Holiday Inn (we passed more desirable Hilton and Hyatt properties along the way on our shuttle), along with $7.00 meal vouchers for dinner and breakfast. In the meantime, our limo driver was already halfway to Boston, because United did not post the original flight delay online and we could not contact him until we were in Houston with the bad news. That incurred an understandable $300.00 charge. Thanks, United!

At this point, there were still people in line at the United Airlines customer service counter, including a young couple with two children in tow. It was 8:30, the lights were turned out, and the customer service clerks announced, “Sorry, we are now closed for the night.” Can you imagine having guests in line at your registration desk and telling them that you are closed?

 

Our dinners alone (nothing fancy, at the Holiday Inn’s restaurant) exceeded twice the value of all of our dinner and breakfast vouchers. Our displeasure with United Airlines was the primary topic of conversation during our meal. Toward the end, a man who had been dining at a nearby table stopped by, identifying himself as a United Airlines pilot. He empathized with our experience and urged us to complain as loudly as possible to and about the airline.

After four hours of sleep, we caught our flight the following morning and arrived in Boston. We went directly to the United Airlines baggage counter to retrieve our bags that we were told were on the flight the night before. Guess what? Half of our bags had arrived with us on the morning flight. I had earlier picked up a copy of USA Today in the lobby of the Holiday Inn. Interestingly enough, there was a graphic that displayed a summary of results for the 2013 American Consumer Satisfaction Index airline industry benchmarks. To nobody’s surprise, United Airlines occupies last place, with a consumer satisfaction index of only 62%, well below the industry average and far below first and second place airlines, JetBlue and Southwest (our airline of choice). Note that, a week or two later, JetBlue probably took a major hit, when they cancelled hundreds of flights during the so-called “polar vortex” cold snap. Consumers have a voice, and they will share their displeasure in as many ways as possible.

In the case of United Airlines, you would think that they had learned a lesson, with the “United Breaks Guitars” video having been viewed over 13,000,000 times on YouTube over the last 4 years, or the more recent “United Airlines Almost Killed My Greyhound” video that also involved a United Airlines flight from Houston to Boston. The power of the social media cannot be overemphasized or underestimated.

In one instance after another within our ordeal, the problem was not with United Airlines employees, but with the airline’s corporate policies. Ticket agents apologized, the pilot advised us to express our anger, flight attendants could not have been more cordial, and the customer service agent seemed highly embarrassed when he was told to turn out the lights at 8:30. As far as United Airlines is concerned, they fully met their responsibilities by putting us up in inexpensive hotel rooms for the night and providing us with $7.00 meal vouchers.

As a campground owner, you need to hire and train staff members who are friendly and obsessed with customer service; however, you must not interfere with the customer satisfaction process by implementing rigid standards that will be resented by your guests and lead to frustration amongst your staff. United Airlines seems unwilling to learn, but you – as a much smaller player within the travel and leisure industry – can clearly profit from their mistakes by implementing flexible policies that will always put your customers first.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Weather: That Double-Edged Sword

January 15th, 2014

Whenever we tune into the TV news in the winter months, we are sure to see stories about the latest storm that is pummeling the Midwest, the lake-effect snow that is piling up on Buffalo, or the latest Nor’easter that is heading up the coast to New England. Our lives seems to revolve around the current weather, whether it means there will be school cancellations, problems getting into work, or difficulty starting a campfire at a campsite the following night.

If you run a campground, you know that your customers are craving the latest weather forecast. If the weekend is going to be sunny and warm, you are sure to get a barrage of last-minute callers inquiring about vacancies. If the weather is bad, you can count on calls attempting cancellations due to the sudden death of Aunt Clara or young Billy’s sudden case of the mumps. Inclement weather forecasts are a good reminder for why your business needs to have a clearly written cancellation policy in place.

Years ago, when I worked rather extensively with the New England ski industry, it was my understanding that the major ski resorts made an annual practice of wining and dining the chief meteorologists at major market TV stations, in attempt to get them to put a more positive spin on upcoming snowstorms. Like the glass that is both half empty and half full, the same snowstorm can be described in terms of gloom and doom or as the driving force behind the best ski conditions in years.

All that aside, your campers are always going to be obsessed with the weather forecast for next weekend. You can’t fight human nature. When it comes to online weather, there are two major competitors and two major players: The Weather Channel’s Weather.com and AccuWeather’s AccuWeather.com. They each have more than one free option. If you would like to post the current weather conditions and forecast on your website, here is how to do it.

The Weather Channel / Weather.com

Let’s start with Weather.com and its Weather Widget. This could not be simpler to create and install on your site. To put a Weather Widget on your website is as easy as going to Weather.com, scrolling down to the bottom of the page, clicking on “Weather Tools” (under the “Our Products” menu), then clicking on the “WEATHER Widget” link. Enter your city or zip code, choose Fahrenheit or Celsius, choose a horizontal or vertical orientation (whichever will fit better on your website), choose one of 10 themes (including Outdoors), the click on the “Get the Code” link. Copy and paste (or send to your webmaster). It’s as easy as that. For a direct link, go to:
www.weather.com/services/oap/weather-widgets.html

If you would like a similar but somewhat more robust option, start at the same page, but click on the “NEW & Improved Weather On Your Website” link. This one will associate the weather widget with your specific website and its authorized domain. In subsequent steps, this tool will allow you to choose one of four sizes and orientations, will display your city or town name, and will allow you to choose from twice as many background images or one of two seasonal collections (which alternate four images with the seasons.) Depending upon the size of the widget, it will also allow you to display localized real-time information showing your choice of several options that include wind speed and direction, humidity, UV index, atmospheric pressure, dew point, visibility, and the dreaded “chance of precipitation”. In exchange for being able to embed this tool onto your website, you will also choose a category for the unobtrusive advertising text links that will appear on your widget. Again, when you are finished, you will get a snippet of code (in this case, longer than the code for the basic website widget) that you or your webmaster will be able to insert into your site. For a direct link, go to:
http://www.weather.com/services/oap.html

AccuWeather.com

From the AccuWeather.com website, click on the “Apps & Downloads” icon and link at the bottom of the page. Then choose the “FREE Weather for Your Site” option for the AccuWeather Widget, which is created with a responsive design that will automatically scale for readability on virtually any desktop computer or mobile device. Basically, there are two weather widgets that can be used either individually or in combination. The first is the Current Weather Widget, the second is the 36 Hour Weather Widget, and the third is a combination Linked Weather Widget.

The Current Weather Widget comes in one of four sizes, and the 36 Hour Weather Widget is fully responsive, scaling from 890 pixels down to 320 pixels, depending upon the device. (You can even preview this feature prior to downloading the code!) With either widget, you can set the forecast for a fixed location (presumably your campground’s location) or set it to auto detect the user’s location (not as useful in your instance). You can also choose a language, which is very useful if you have a version of your website in Spanish, French, or another language other than English.

Finally, the AccuWeather widgets include the popular hourly forecasts, links to a local video forecast, radar, and weather maps. For a direct link, go to:
http://www.accuweather.com/en/free-weather-widgets

Weather, love it or hate it. However you look at it, your business needs it, and your customers want access to this information. Would you rather they get it from you or from somebody else?

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Learn from Failures

January 9th, 2014

It seemed oddly bizarre to hear the news recently that most of the last 300 remaining Blockbuster video rental stores would be closing within a month. Think back to 1985, when the chain became a behemoth that swallowed up an industry that was built upon local mom and pop businesses. Less than a decade later, at its pinnacle in 1994, Viacom bought the chain for a cool $8 Billion. How many of us cannot remember browsing the new releases and waiting in line to check out VHS tapes, later DVD’s, on a Friday or Saturday night? My local store, wedged between a supermarket and a liquor store, remains vacant since it closed about 3 years ago. A year or two afterward, after struggling to survive, the last remaining independent video store chain in our area also succumbed.

The local video store (Pleasant Street Video, in Northampton, Massachusetts) outlasted its monster competitor a mile up the road because it catered to serious film buffs, with an extensive inventory that included independent, fine art, and foreign films. The clerks who worked there loved film, they weren’t simply teenagers asking us if we wanted popcorn and soft drinks to go with our movies. In fact, when the local independent store closed, there was a fundraising campaign that allowed the store’s expansive collection to be acquired by the local public library.

Yes, the video rental industry found itself in the difficult situation of trying to continually adapt to keep up with what was essentially an industrial evolution. Suddenly, there was a second Goliath in the room – Netflix – and Blockbuster was slow to respond to video-by-mail, kiosks, streaming video, and a more customer-centered philosophy. Blockbuster considered itself indomitable. Rather than adapting to a changing competitive marketplace, it grew to 8,000 stores, passed on an opportunity to acquire rival Netflix, and collected as much as $500 Million a year in the late fees that were universally hated by its customers.

More than the changes in the way that Americans watched movies, Blockbuster ultimately failed because it simply didn’t care about its customers … you and me.

With most campgrounds in the United States being individually owned and operated, it is not difficult to see parallels between camping and the video rental industry. Certainly, there have been campground ownership groups that have appeared on the scene, capitalizing upon the leverage and efficiency of centralized business plans, marketing, buying power, and name recognition … not to mention sometimes very deep-pockets.

As campground owners, it is important to learn from the Blockbuster experience. My advice is to run your business in the most customer-centric manner possible. Ask your campers how you can better provide what they really want from their camping experience, then follow through and deliver. Whether it’s free wi-fi, pet-friendly facilities, live entertainment, or new recreational amenities, you need to recognize that resting on your laurels is not going to compensate for even a normal rate of attrition. Go out of your way to make it clear to your existing campers that their interests are your interests, and reach out to new campers by showing them what makes your campground unique. A homogenous Blockbuster-style operation is going to lose its appeal sooner rather than later.

Although family camping appears to be “here to stay”, there are certainly demographic shifts that both individual campground owners and the industry need to address. A generation that has been brought up on computers and video games has not been introduced to the outdoors to the same degree as previous generations. It is imperative that campgrounds find ways of drawing this younger generation into the outdoor experience. Ask Blockbuster – which considered innovations like the Redbox kiosks as insignificant niche markets – about the need to adapt. Hindsight is said to be 20/20. If you bought or built your business back in 1985, I suspect that you happy today that your investment was in a family campground and not a Blockbuster franchise.

Insure the long-term survival of your business by learning valuable lessons from those who have failed, as well as those who succeed, both from within the industry and from industries beyond.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Get the View from the Street

November 6th, 2013

There are so many tools available from Google that it is almost difficult to keep track of them all, with new tools being introduced on a regular basis. In general, these tools enhance the Web experience and make it easier than ever for people to find information online, including information that relates to your business. In many instances, these tools provide opportunities for your business to save money, replacing existing paid services with free alternatives.

Google Maps Street View

Are you familiar with the Street View component of Google Maps? This is the feature where you can zoom into a map beyond what is otherwise the most detailed level, and then drag the “pegman” icon onto a mapped roadway to view panoramic photos of a neighborhood. Introduced in 2007, Google Street View started as a complex process involving vehicles with 9 directional cameras, GPS units, and laser scanners that captured a 360° view of stitched panoramic images. By June of 2012, Street View had covered over 5,000,000 miles of roads in 39 countries.

Less accessible areas (initially places like national parks and ski resorts) are mapped using Google Trikes and snowmobiles. Now Street View Treks has introduced portable mapping where the equipment is worn like a backpack, producing everything from treks into the Grand Canyon to climbs up the Eiffel Tower to descents to the Great Barrier Reef. The current generation of cameras uses 11 lenses and is producing high-definition images and 3-D renderings.

Get Your Campground Mapped

Did you know that you can ask Google to create a street view of the roadways on your property? For a campground, this means that you can ask Google to create what is essentially a free virtual tour site map that will tightly integrate with the other features of Google Maps.

Many campgrounds have included site maps on their websites that allow visitors to view specific sites by hovering over or clicking links on the map. An expensive and time-consuming process to create, especially if a campground has a large number of sites, it is a far cry from panoramic 360° views. Like so many paid services that have been rendered obsolete by new free services from Google, if you are willing to wait your turn, it may no longer be necessary to invest hundreds or thousands of dollars into a 360° virtual tour of your campground’s road network. Google will now do the work for free. Several added bonuses include integration with Google Maps, the ability to embed the content into your website, and no hosting or recurring fees. Weather is taken into consideration, and your mapping will not be done on a rainy day.

According to my conversations with Google associates, there is no guarantee when – or, in fact, even if – Google will get around to mapping your campground; however, it is unlikely to happen unless you get the ball rolling from your end. Currently, most college and university campuses are waiting to be mapped, and I would expect that those would be considered a higher priority than the typical campground. (For example, in the entire state of Pennsylvania, I am told that only Penn State’s main campus has been mapped so far.) That said, there is nothing to lose. Google is quietly expanding this program, and I highly recommend that campground owners sign up using the following link:
https://services.google.com/fb/forms/streetviewinterestedpartner/

More Extensive Virtual Tours

Do you want to include virtual tours of your cabins, store, or rec hall?  Entirely separate from its Street View mapping project, Google now maintains an extensive network of Trusted Photographers who you may hire to produce virtual tours of facilities within your park, at competitive rates. There are over 100 Trusted Photographers based in California alone. They are all professionals with the equipment that is necessary to photograph tight spaces under difficult lighting situations. They are using conventional digital SLR cameras, shooting stitched panoramas of high-definition images that you own and that may be used on your website, brochures, or any other purposes.

Google retains usage rights to the images taken by people in its Trusted Photographers network, meaning that your photos will appear online in searches, generally a positive feature, since many people perform searches based upon images. One limitation is that Google will not deal with releases and will not allow these photographers to include people in their photos, somewhat counterproductive from a marketing perspective. If you can deal with that restriction, I would suggest that you search for photographers in your area, visit their websites to view their portfolios, then contact them to discuss (and negotiate) rates. Start at the following URL:
http://maps.google.com/help/maps/businessphotos/get-started.html

The bottom line today is to get on board with Google before you decide to commit hundreds or thousands of dollars on a virtual tour of your campground. Weigh your options. One step at a time, Google is changing the way that we view the world, the way that the world views your business, and the way we run our businesses. Take advantage of these tools in order to maximize your competitive edge!

This post was written by Peter Pelland

   
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