Pelland Blog

The Evolution of Two Industries

July 2nd, 2015

The 2015 Outdoor Recreation Participation Topline Report from the Outdoor Foundation includes a breakdown of outdoor participation by activity for everything from Adventure Racing to Wildlife Viewing. In summary, it reports that 48.4% of Americans participated in at least one outdoor activity in 2014, translating into 141.4 million participants engaging in a total of 11.8 billion outdoor events. These are impressive numbers, many of which are skewed – either positively or negatively – by weather patterns; however, it is important to examine individual industries in order to get a better grasp regarding trends.

With the gathering of statistics going back to 2006, the report includes 3-year changes within individual activities that provide a quick snapshot of either increases or decreases in participation. There are similar trends exhibited between Alpine/Downhill Skiing and RV Camping. Putting aside the reported 3-year changes, I think that it is even more compelling to compare the 2014 participation numbers with the high water marks within the 9-year survey period. Measuring people ages 6 and up, skiing peaked in 2010, when there were 11,504,000 participants, decreasing 24.8% to 8,649,000 participants in 2014. Similarly, camping peaked in 2009, with 17,436,000 participants, decreasing 16.1% to 14,633,000 participants in 2014.

Beyond Blaming the Weather, What Is Happening?

I have been working with the family camping industry since 1982, although I started my business in the New England ski industry back in 1980. With an intimate understanding of both industries, one of my most fascinating recent reads was Hal Clifford’s “Downhill Slide: Why the Corporate Ski Industry Is Bad for Skiing, Ski Towns, and the Environment”. In this compelling exposé, Clifford documents the evolution of skiing from its roots in Scandinavia, through a growth spurt following the 1932 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid (New York), through the development of Sun Valley (Idaho) as the first destination ski resort back in 1935-1938, through the return of World War II’s 10th Mountain Division veterans, through another growth spurt following the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley (California), through the “industrial tourism” that it became in the 1990s – when 3 major companies then controlled 24% of ticket sales from coast to coast. I believe that there are parallels between the downhill skiing and family camping industries.

The ski industry in the United States was essentially given birth in the first three decades of the twentieth century, including the development of Sun Valley as the first destination resort by railroad magnate W. Averill Harriman. By 1938, Harriman understood that there was far more income to be generated than what could be realized through lift ticket sales, adding tennis, golf, fishing, rodeo, hiking and swimming. The “golden age” of skiing took place in the 1950s. This was the period of time when 2,000 veterans from the Army’s 10th Mountain Division returned home from the Italian and Austrian Alps to kick-start the post-war ski industry, founding, managing, or running the ski schools at 62 American ski resorts. In New England alone, there are 605 former ski areas (most operating in the 1950s) that are documented by the New England Lost Ski Areas Project. Most of these were “mom and pop” operations run on snowy hills, with rudimentary rope tows run by the likes of tractors or old Packard automobile engines. In Massachusetts alone, my company has at least two campground clients with campsites that are partially located on the remnants of the slopes and trails of former ski areas.

In the 5 years following the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley, skier days increased by 50%, with the greatest increase going to destination reports. The handwriting was on the wall for the mom and pop areas attempting to compete. A decade later, in 1975, there were 745 ski areas in the United States, a number that would drop to 509 by the year 2000. Despite the advent of snowboarding, total visits to ski areas stagnated in the 1980s and 1990s, numbers which would have witnessed double-digit declines if not for snowboarding. According to Clifford, only 15% of beginners go on to become serious skiers. Although 33 million Americans considered themselves skiers or snowboarders (at the time when the book was written, in 2003), only a third of them actually go out even once in any given year.

Part of the problem with the ski industry is the aging of the post-war baby boomers. Statistics have shown that, once they hit the age of 44, the average skiers hang up their skis for the last time. The changing population does not bode well for the ski industry. People today have less leisure time, less disposable income, and new interests – such as fitness clubs and the Internet. Another strike against skiing is that it requires a learning curve, and most people today want instant gratification.

Lift Tickets Equate to Campsites

It is a well-documented fact that most of the ski industry is no longer in the business of selling lift tickets. Even with single-day lift ticket prices topping $100.00 at many ski resorts this past season, those ticket sales cannot begin to cover expenses. In the year 2000, a Poma detachable quad chairlift would cost just under $3 million to install, plus another 15% for site preparation. Then it would cost about $14,000 per month for the electricity to turn the lift. At the same time, an 8-place gondola carrying passengers only 2,200 ft. would run about $6 million, with a monthly electric bill of about $20,000. Not pocket change, even some of the biggest corporate players have faced economic challenges.

Then there are snowmaking costs. Again in the year 2000, the air compressors to run a bank of snow guns cost about $250,000 each, basic snow guns cost about $1,000 each, fan-driven snow machines cost about $10,000 each, and the electricity to make the snow might cost a large resort $1,000,000 per season. Clifford cites an interview with the general manager of Sugarbush Resort (Vermont), who said at the time that his snowmaking costs were $1,000 per acre per inch, with a monthly electric bill of $300,000 to $400,000. For all of this money, skiers and snowboarders get snow conditions that are as predictable as a MacDonald’s hamburger … something that not every skier actually wants. Whether or not skiers demanded the industry improvements, or whether they got caught up in the competitive one-upmanship of corporate skiing, the industry has changed. Just like the cruise industry, the theme park industry, and perhaps what is beginning to happen with camping.

In the ski industry, the profit center is now real estate development, with million dollar building lots for second homes, condominiums for every middle-to-upper income level, fractional ownership, absentee homeowners, and artificial “ski villages” that are designed to keep all of the dollars spent in the resort’s pockets. People who were once attracted to authentic ski towns and their ambiance have found those towns displaced by the new manufactured village concept, with bars, restaurants, shops and hotels all designed to capitalize upon that now lost romantic notion of the ski towns of yesteryear.

At one extreme is the relatively new concept of the private membership ski resort. The Yellowstone Club, in Montana, is only open to members who can demonstrate a net worth in excess of $3 million, paying an initiation fee of $250,000 and an annual $16,000 membership fee – along with the mandatory purchase of property at the resort. Then there is The Hermitage Club, in Vermont, (located at the former Haystack Mountain, one of my favorites back in the day), with an initiation fee of only $75,000 and billboards along Interstate 91 in Connecticut and Massachusetts touting “your own private ski resort”.

The good news is that there is a backlash in the ski industry, with a growing popularity of back-to-basics skiing, often cooperatively owned, at ski areas like Vermont’s Mad River Glen, California’s Bear Valley, and British Columbia’s Shames Mountain. There are also many of the healthier “mom and pop” areas that are still maintaining their niches in their markets.

Yes, there are many parallels between what is happening in the ski industry and the family camping industry in North America. I will leave it to my readers to connect the dots. The bottom line is that there are forces that are driving up the price of camping, that profits cannot be based solely upon campsite fees, and that there is plenty of room for diversity. There are many definitions for the “perfect camping experience”, and it will continue to be the goal of every campground to effectively market itself within its niche target market. Define your park’s experience, and then do everything you can to get the word out, helping the people who want precisely what you are offering to find you.

Change might be inevitable, but the survival – and continuing success – of your business is held within your own hands.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Wait! No! I Did Not Want to Send That!

June 24th, 2015

Have you ever sent an e-mail, then moments later wished you had a way of “unsending” it? Of course you have. We all have done this. We accidentally hit the “send” button, realize that we sent the message to the wrong person, or think that maybe we should give more thought to the message before actually sending it. It is one thing to send an e-mail like that to your Aunt Clara, but it is something else entirely to send that e-mail to one of your business correspondents.

Many people use Gmail to host their e-mail accounts, and many of those people send and receive their messages using the Gmail Web interface. If you are one of those people, you are now in luck in those instances of “sender’s remorse”.

Most people are not aware that Gmail includes a setting called “Labs”, which they describe as “some crazy experimental stuff” and “a testing ground for experimental features that aren’t quite ready for primetime.” One of these has been the “Undo Send” feature, a setting that has been hidden away since 2009 but is now ready to be broadly introduced as a mainstream Gmail feature, although you must manually install it. The feature is also a component of Gmail’s new “Inbox” app. Want to give it a try? Follow these steps.

UndoSend_Step2

Click on the down arrow next to the little gear in the Gmail interface to enter the settings. In the settings, choose the “Labs” tab, all the way on the right. You will then see a list of available labs, along with any labs that you may have already enabled. They will be listed alphabetically. Scroll down to “Undo Send”. Click the “Enable” radio button, then scroll down to the bottom of the page to “Save Changes”.

UndoSend_Step3

The Undo Send feature will then appear under the “General” settings tab, where you can set the cancellation period for anything from 5 to 30 seconds. (I suggest the 30 second option.) Basically, what this is doing is caching your message for a brief period of time before it is actually sent, giving you an opportunity to have second thoughts and cancel the sending of your e-mail.

UndoSend_Step4

Now, when you actually send an e-mail, after you hit “Send”, you will see an “Undo” link. Click on that, and the message will be cancelled and sent to the Gmail drafts folder.

UndoSend_Step5

You can then recompose yourself, recompose your message, and continue through the rest of the day without further panic.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Successful Marketing: Long-Term Objectives

June 15th, 2015

For any business, the home run measure of success for any marketing tool is the generation of an immediate sale. Sometimes that means the purchase of an item or the ordering of a service. In the hospitality industry, that immediate sale translates into a reservation for a stay. Those are the home runs, but the game is won in multiple innings, the cumulative effect of singles, doubles, runs batted in, and strike-outs.

What are those lesser, long-term measures of marketing success that, taken cumulatively, can often exceed the impact of the immediate sales? Allow me to outline a few of them.

Engagement

Engagement is the encouragement of long-term customer loyalty. It can be argued that short-term sales can sometimes be in conflict with the interests of long-term customer engagement. For example, coercing an immediate sale through the use of deep discounting will almost never lead to long-term customer loyalty. Rather, it likely leads to either one-time sales or the development of customers who will only purchase again when you offer another deep discount. Customer engagement can be built through expertise in your field, the presentation of useful information, the delivery of frequently updated content, and interaction with your customer base.

Brand Awareness

Brand awareness is essentially the development of a company’s name recognition and reputation. It is far easier to accomplish for an established name brand with hundreds or thousands of locations to build brand awareness than it is for an individual start-up business. Think in terms of McDonald’s versus Charlie’s Burger Joint. Brand awareness goes beyond simple name recognition. It requires that consumers not only recognize your business name but also that they will be more likely to recall the name in the future and correctly associate it with the special attributes of your business. For example, you might be one of a dozen and a half campgrounds in the area, but you want to be remembered as THE place to camp in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. I have routinely documented instances where a campground that changed its name over 10 years ago continues to get business from people who recall the old business name (and are directed to the park’s website via the old URL, which we maintain.)

Customer Evangelism

Customer evangelism is good old word-of-mouth advertising on steroids. The term has obvious biblical origins, where surrogates are engaged to spread the good news, in this case regarding your business. Evangelists do not take their roles lightly, and they do not agree to take on their responsibilities without first being truly converted themselves. They have to really believe in a product or service before they will agree to act as voluntary advocates on your behalf. Their evangelism can take many forms, from direct referrals to social media posts to loyalty programs to affinity groups. A park’s seasonal campers might be one such affinity group. The bottom line is that any of these are unpaid customers who are perhaps your company’s best possible spokespersons, primarily because they are spreading the word based upon their authentic personal beliefs.

Customer Loyalty

Sharing some characteristics with both engagement and evangelism, customer loyalty is the result of an ongoing reassurance that your business is meeting the needs of its existing customers. A new website, an eye-catching billboard, or a well-crafted video or TV commercial can serve to not only generate new business but to reassure your existing customers that they made the right decision in choosing your business. Make them proud of their decision and help to give them a sense of belonging and involvement. This, in turn, is an added step toward taking loyalty to the next step … evangelism.

Lead Generation

Sometimes potential customers are not ready to make an immediate purchase or buying decision. For example, it is not easy to persuade people to buy snowmobiles in the summer. Beyond the attempt at timing your marketing efforts for when they will be the most effective, lead generation is a means of qualifying a broad list of prospective customers into a narrower list that is more likely to make a future purchase. Do you ask them to become involved? Try to encourage people to subscribe to your newsletter, join your e-mail list, or sign up for special offers and incentives. In any case, a potential customer who has taken the initiative of any such “next step” is that much closer to becoming an actual customer.

In summary, do not be discouraged if every marketing effort does not translate into immediately measurable sales. Marketing is a cumulative, long-term effort, not some sort of “all your eggs in one basket”, “get rich quick” scheme. Present your business in a professional, consistent manner, and it will eventually reap the rewards of a bountiful harvest.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Truth in Packaging

June 10th, 2015

When it comes to processed foods, probably the most deceptive phrases are:

  • Serving suggestion.
  • Enlarged to show detail.
  • All natural.

The serving suggestion lets you know that the strawberries and blueberries in that bowl of cereal are not included in the box, the image that is enlarged to show detail helps you to really see what that cracker or potato chip looks like, and the words “all natural” have no definition whatsoever and can include just about every chemical compound found on the planet. The first two phrases are usually shown in very fine print, whereas the last phrase is generally promoted in large text with an eye-catching graphic.

PackagingBuzzwords

It is unfortunate that parts of the business world have adopted language that essentially applies this same sort of lipstick to their pigs. A used car becomes “previously owned”, previously frozen fish in the supermarket becomes “thawed for your convenience”, products made in China might be “assembled and packaged in the USA”, and most people know that a “processed cheese product” is anything but real cheese. In particular, some of this deception has become commonplace in the Internet industry.

Serving Suggestion

If you have ever registered a domain name with a company like GoDaddy, you will encounter their version of the “serving suggestion”. I just went to GoDaddy to try to register a domain name for $9.99, the sale pricing for new domain name registrations. Before checking out, I am presented with an offer the “Get 3 and Save 67%” by registering the .net, .org, and .info versions of the domain name, as well as an opportunity to “target local shoppers” by adding the .nyc version of the domain name for an additional $39.99.

As I pass on those options and proceed to the checkout, I am encouraged to “Protect My Personal Information” by adding so-called “Privacy Protection or Privacy & Business Protection” for between $7.99 and $14.99 per domain per year. (The $14.99 price is made to appear particularly attractive, since it is discounted from a “regular” price of $32.97.) The next options are “Website Builder Hosting” for anywhere from $1.00 to $10.99 per month, and E-mail hosting for anywhere from $3.99 to $7.89 per month. Then, of course, I will be encouraged to register my domain for the maximum period of 10 years, rather than only paying for a single year.

Under this exercise, I only wanted to register a single .com domain name for $9.99 (plus a mandatory $0.18 ICANN fee). Most people are confused by all of the options – after all, doesn’t “privacy protection” sound important? – and will pay for at least some of the unnecessary add-ons. If I purchased everything that GoDaddy suggested, but still only registered my domain name for a single year, I would be paying $375.51 per year for that $9.99 domain name. Yes, those are “serving suggestions”.

Enlarged to Show Detail

Many website builders have a way of exaggerating their skill levels. Often, these are the local jack-of-all-trades computer shops in town, where the owner fancies himself a webmaster in between attempting computer repairs and selling home theater systems. In other instances, this might be your son or daughter or that smart kid down the street, generally telling you that “anybody can build a website.” In yet other instances, you might be misled by TV commercials from companies like Wix, Weebly, SiteBuilder.com, VistaPrint, or those wonderful folks at GoDaddy again … all suggesting that it only takes a few mouse clicks to build a website for your business for next to nothing or even free (before, of course, leading you back into the “serving suggestions”).

Needless to say, there is not a single website for any seriously legitimate business that was built under any of those scenarios. Even among companies that are engaged full-time in website development, there is a propensity toward exaggeration and a “sure, we can do that” attitude. Your best protection will be a careful review of their portfolio and references. It has been said that “the proof is in the pudding”, and you may want to confirm that the dessert being served matches the dessert being described on the menu. If you are being promised a world-class website, that is unlikely to result if there are no signs of the necessary skills visible in previously completed projects.

All Natural

The trickiest to detect is the claim that a product is made with all natural ingredients. From processed foods to pet food, from cosmetics to candy, there are no clear standards or definitions for the term “all natural”. As a result, consumers need to rely upon their own instincts, underfunded consumer watchdog organizations, or the slowly moving wheels of governmental regulatory agencies for protection. Snake oil was all natural, but it never cured a single disease other than psychosomatic disorder.

The snake oil of the Internet age is search engine optimization, commonly known by its acronym: SEO. How many phone calls have you received recently from somebody offering to get your website “listed at the top of the Google search results”, offering to help get your business listed on Google Places, or asking you to “update your Google front page listing?” In most instances, you have probably gotten dozens of such calls. Not a single one of them has actually come from Google or a company that is legitimately sanctioned to call on Google’s behalf.

In a recent phone call with the former president of one of the world’s leading e-commerce companies, I was struck (but not surprised) by his advice to “never hire an SEO agency”. Wasting time trying to find a legitimate SEO company is like trying to find a “good” fortune teller, used car salesman, or payday loan company. They are all truly good at taking your money. SEO is nonetheless big business. Be suspicious of companies that offer SEO reports as a means of getting their foot in the door, offer to “fix” your website so that it will “start ranking higher on the search engines”, or show you Google Analytics charts and graphs with misleading annotations that allegedly document their expertise.

We are living in challenging times. In order to survive and prosper, you need to cut through the chatter and filter out the noise. Should you really expect one business to provide the same services for significantly less than most others, should you really expect companies to provide free services with no strings attached, and should you really believe that there are companies with magic wands that will make your website suddenly appear more highly ranked than any other relevant search results? Sometimes business decisions come down to who you can trust, and trusting your own instincts is almost always the soundest business decision.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Advertising Specialties: Are They Really Special?

May 28th, 2015

I am often asked about advertising specialties, long considered somewhat of a neglected stepchild of conventional advertising. Also known as promotional advertising, ad specialties are products that are imprinted or labelled with a company’s logo, tagline or other promotional message. The intention is to either create or expand upon brand awareness. We are all familiar with these items that we find at trade events – everything from pens and calendars to mugs and koozies to mouse pads and thumb drives, as well as the imprinted bags that hold our collections of loot. Sometimes referred to as swag, baubles or , promotional products are intended to be useful to the recipient, carrying some degree of intrinsic value that will enhance the reputation of the sponsoring company.

Well, sometimes the concept is well-executed and works effectively, sometimes it is a waste of money, and sometimes it can do more harm than good.

PromotionalItems_247183102_600x600_90

When done properly, advertising specialties can enhance your image, particularly if your company is new in its field. An eye-catching item can build brand awareness, and we all know that everybody loves both gifts and freebies. Particularly if the item is useful enough to be retained for more than a day, it can be an ongoing reminder of your company and the services that it offers.

Done poorly, the money spent can cheapen the image of your company. It is essential that your logo and branding be consistent with their application in your conventional advertising. Never settle for a modified version of your logo, simply because it will reduce the cost. If your logo is in full color, it is not going to be as effective in promoting your business if it is displayed in one or two standard colors, although those are sometimes your only options.

Be sure that the item(s) that you choose are appropriate for your business and the market that you are targeting. There should be some connection that will be immediately recognizable. Although lots of people think they are hilarious, you probably do not want your company’s logo on a whoopee cushion or dribble glass. In addition, a poorly made product (think of a pen that almost immediately breaks and leaks ink on the recipient’s clothing!) is not going to promote your business in a positive light. You are not going to connect with your market with a product that screams out the words “cheap” or “Made in China”.

Your goal should not be to produce an item so inexpensively that you are able to hand it out to thousands of people, most of whom have no interest in your business or the services that you offer. You want to produce an item that is clearly of value that can be somewhat selectively distributed to people who are not simply looking to add another free item to their bags. It is estimated that there are over 15,000 different types of advertising specialty products. According to Wikipedia, 30% of those items are t-shirts, baseball caps, or other wearable apparel. You need not try to compete with the companies that fill celebrity gift bags with expensive samples at film festivals and award ceremonies. Simply try to find one or more items that have a direct connection to your business and that will portray your business in a positive light.

The largest supplier of advertising specialties is the Promo Products division of Staples, but there are also many small suppliers who specialize in working with your particular industry. You should probably turn to them first for their special expertise. There are 5 primary categories for these products: Wearable items (that 30% share that I already mentioned), Calendars, Writing Instruments, Business Gifts, and “Everything Else”. That last category includes mugs, rulers and tape measures, luggage tags, key fobs, toys, sporting goods, and more.

For a campground, what might be some useful promotional items that you can hand out at camping shows and probably even sell in your store? Here is an abbreviated list of items that might have a connection with camping:

  • Tire Pressure Gauge – There are a lot of tires on the typical camper and tow vehicle!
  • Backpacks – It would be nice to at least encourage campers to get out and take a hike.
  • Blankets – Particularly if you have a music festival or another event where people will be sitting on lawns.
  • Caps – More and more people are concerned with shading themselves from sun exposure.
  • Coolers – Also go well with outdoor events.
  • First Aid Kits – You could help save somebody’s life!
  • Flashlights – Perfect for those after-dark scavenger hunts.
  • Hand Sanitizers – Of course, a larger size will have greater longevity.
  • Jar Openers – These get handier the older we get!
  • Keychains – Most of us see these on a daily basis, if you choose one that people will use.
  • Pedometers – Another item to encourage exercise in the outdoors.
  • Pet Products – Collapsible bowls for people taking their dogs hiking, or leashes for people who forgot to bring this required item.
  • Stadium Cushions – Everybody likes a little extra padding!
  • Sunscreen – Another sun protection item for outdoorspeople.
  • Tape Measures – An item that always comes in handy.

As you can tell, most of these suggestions come from the “Everything Else” category. If you are looking for other ideas, talk to your screen printed or embroidered apparel supplier for their suggestions. Try to choose items that people do not already have more of than they need, and try to find items that will hold up and stand the test of time. These are the keys to keeping your business in the forefront of your customers’ minds.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Mobilegeddon?

May 13th, 2015

No doubt you heard the cries of alarm a few weeks ago, when so-called experts warned of the end of Internet search as we knew it, effective April 21, 2015. Perhaps you have also noticed the eerie silence since the uneventful passing of that date.

This past winter, the national news media spent two days ignoring real news events to warn of the impending “storm of the century” that was headed toward my home base in Western New England. We were in the bullseye of the forecast map, with a prediction of 30 or more inches of snow. After all was said and done, I believe that we received 6 or 7 inches. A few local meteorologists apologized for the inaccurate forecast that was fed to them by the National Weather Service. Other than that, the “story” was dropped – for obvious reasons – like a hot potato.

I am embarrassed that so many of my peers jumped on the sensationally-named “Mobilegeddon” bandwagon. It was particularly disturbing when the dire warnings were used by companies that were in a position to exploit the fear that was generated by the spread of this misinformation. Let’s face it: If his midnight ride was based upon unconfirmed rumors that “the British were coming”, Paul Revere would be long forgotten as a little-known Boston tinsmith.

As I pointed out at the time, many self-proclaimed “experts” cited a Google blog post, a comment reportedly made by a Google employee, and a speculative article that had appeared in Entrepreneur Magazine as the bases for a warning that was an outright exaggeration. What the new Google algorithm means is that sites that are mobile-friendly will gradually gain an edge over sites that are not mobile-friendly, being flagged as “mobile friendly” alongside mobile search results. This rise in the ranking of mobile-friendly sites will come at the expense of sites that are not deemed mobile-friendly, but it does not mean that those latter sites are suddenly going to be dropped from being indexed. Mobile-friendliness is only one – although a very significant one – of over 200 ranking signals that Google employs to determine the best search results.

Using historical – and factual – Google Analytics data that I drew from actual client websites, I was able to draw the following conclusion: If we presume that 35% of the traffic to a website comes from search engines, and that 50% of that traffic comes from Google, and that 50% of THAT traffic comes from users of mobile devices, it would mean that a site that was not mobile-friendly would lose approximately 9% of its traffic if the website was totally dropped from mobile search results on Google (something that was not going to happen and did not suddenly happen on April 21, 2015.)

According to statements made in a live stream on Google’s Webmaster Central on May 8th, the search giant realizes there are “small businesses who (sic) don’t have the time or the money (to have built a mobile-friendly site yet) … that are still fairly relevant in the search results, so we need to keep them in there somehow.” For example, if you run one of the leading campgrounds in Sturgis, South Dakota, Google is not going to drop your website from mobile search results just because your website is not deemed mobile-friendly. That would run totally contrary to the delivery of accurate and comprehensive search results, the overall basis for Google’s commanding success in the search market. A non-mobile site will still rank highly if it presents the content that users seek.

Mobile search rankings have always been different that desktop search rankings, and that gap is going to gradually but continually widen over time for sites that are not mobile-friendly. According to a recent report by digital marketing agency Merkle|RKG, fully 46% of Fortune 500 companies and 29% of the Internet Retailer 500 businesses do not yet have mobile-friendly sites. Even among the Top 10 of the Fortune 500, there are companies that do not yet have mobile-friendly sites: Phillips 66 (# 6 on the list) and Valero Energy (# 10 on the list). On the other hand, Google reports that there was a 4.7% increase in the overall number of mobile-friendly sites that were introduced in the two months leading up to the April 21st algorithm update. You can expect the numbers to increase, along with the volume of mobile-based Internet access, by less proactive companies that slowly embrace the inevitable.

As of May 1, 2015, Google has confirmed that the new search algorithm has been fully rolled out, although the differences that have been measured by both major online marketing agencies and the people who earn a living by monitoring the inner workings of search engines have been almost immeasurably lackluster. This was not the “storm of the century”; however, to use another weather-related analogy, neither the presence of that storm nor the lack thereof would represent a reason to deny long-term global warming. In other words, the mobile-friendliness of your website is in the ultimate interest of your business. Just don’t panic.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Your Website: It’s All About the Results

April 30th, 2015

So many people obsess about the amount of traffic that their websites receive, putting far too much emphasis on the numbers of visitors rather than the behavior of those visitors. This would be somewhat similar to a suburban shopping mall acting like business was great because the mall is packed with teens on a Friday or Saturday night, out to enjoy a social experience but spending little if anything with any of the mall merchants. Anybody who has ever worked in sales quickly learns the difference between people who like to try on clothing versus people who actually buy the clothing if it fits, people who like to kick tires versus people who are actually out to buy a car, or people who like to attend open houses versus people who are prequalified to buy a new home.

With a website, the metrics that count are goals and conversions. Goals in the outdoor hospitality industry are generally going to be reservation-related calls to action, and conversions are when visitors respond to a website’s persuasive abilities. Until that happens, your website is simply spinning the wheels on one of those old-fashioned hit counters that were ever-present on websites in the early days of the Internet.

HitCounter_12179513_600x191_24T

The conversion of traffic to buyers is a complex process that relies upon several factors. Discount incentives are always the most effective online selling tool, but those are not always practical for every type of business. More subtle but equally effective factors might include time-sensitivity (Enter “free firewood bundle” in the comments box when making your reservation before midnight tonight!), limited inventory (Only 3 campsites still available for Father’s Day Weekend!), or a connection with another event (Reserve your site for the weekend of July 25-26, camping only 4 miles from the Downtown Food Festival!) are all viable incentives.

Incentives should not be limited to a single call to action. Your website should offer far more than simply a means for making a reservation. The time of that reservation (or the reservation confirmation) is also the time to offer an incentive for an extended stay, offer upgrades, and offer add-on services.

Okay, you understand the concept of website conversions, but how do you convert your basic traffic into buyers? If you are running Google Analytics or another traffic analysis tool on your website, you are probably familiar with the concept of “bounce”. These are people who visit your site and leave almost as quickly as they arrived for any one of a variety of reasons. (Note that the vast majority of traffic that appears in bounce rates consists of robots. Our concern is with actual visitors who get frustrated and leave.) It is quite simple to deduce that the means to reduce your site’s bounce rate is to increase the time that visitors spend on your site. The bonus here is that there is a direct correlation between the amount of time that a visitor spends on your site and the likelihood of that visitor taking your prescribed course of action.

Quite simply, your challenge is to determine ways to get visitors to increase the amount of time they spend on your site. Here are a few tips:

  • Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket (otherwise known as your site’s Home page). Distribute useful content throughout the pages of your site, encouraging visitors to click through to learn more.
  • Keep your site’s navigation highly intuitive. Make it crystal clear how a first-time visitor will find his or her way from point A to point B. Navigation should be consistent from page to page, located either across the top of the page or in a left side column, and it should be clearly labeled. Few people are going to click on a navigational link that presents a shortened equivalent of “Can You Guess What You Will Find If You Click Here?”
  • Present a visual flow that encourages exploration. A wall of text will not work. Balance text and graphics with a liberal dose of “white space”, a visual relief from sensory overload.
  • Keep the most essential content front and center, in newspaper parlance what is called “above the fold”. To sell newspapers, the lead stories are not buried at the bottom of the front page, initially invisible to a prospective buyer at a newsstand. With your website, try to present your case without requiring the user to scroll down the page (because that scrolling might never occur).
  • Keep your content easy to read. Choose font sizes and colors wisely, ensuring that there is sufficient contrast with background colors. Use headlines, bullet points, sidebars, and graphics to encourage engagement but, above all else, keep things simple.
  • Provide at least some content on your site that is not easily found elsewhere. Most people enter a site through its Home page (a website’s equivalent of your home’s front door); however, unique content that is of interest to your potential customers can present a side entrance with a very prominent welcome mat, particularly once that unique content gets indexed by search engines. This could be a blog, a consolidation of information compiled from other resources, or links to articles of interest to your visitors.

The common obsession with traffic, at the expense of conversions, misses the function and purpose of a commercial website. Focus on what is truly important, and you will be putting your website truly to work for your business.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Have a Question? Ask a Vendor!

April 21st, 2015

Early in the summer of 2014, one of my campground clients e-mailed me to let me know that she had sold her campground. She provided me with the name and cell phone number of the buyer. The following day, I called the new owner to introduce myself, encountering a highly unprofessional outgoing voicemail message but leaving my own message that explained the purpose of my call and asking him to get back to me. There was no response. I tried again a few days later with the same outcome.

I realize that some people have an aversion to what they may perceive as sales calls; however, my call did not include the words “I need to speak with the person who orders your office copier supplies.” I was not trying to sell him anything, I mentioned the name of the seller, and suggested that he might like to discuss changes that should be made to the website that my company had built and was hosting. He might like something as simple as having us add a notice that said “Under New Ownership”. There was no response, and I moved on to other things … such as being of service to people who return my calls.

About a month after the park changed hands, I started getting error logs from people submitting reservation requests on the campground’s website. The request forms were set to be sent to the campground’s Comcast e-mail address, and the new owner had cancelled the previous owner’s contract with Comcast. After four reservation requests were rendered undeliverable over a weekend at the height of the summer camping season, I made another round of calls to the new owner’s cell phone. I listened to his same childish outgoing message, and told him specifically why I was calling, that he was losing business, and that he needed to provide me with a new e-mail address for the reservation request forms on his website. I also called the campground’s main phone number. Once again, no response.

As of this writing, there have been 82 people who have attempted to make reservations through the campground’s website, some of whom were inquiring about multiple sites or stays of one week or longer. Let’s presume that the average request was for a two-night stay at the campground’s $35.00 average nightly rate. That translates into $5,740.00 in lost business from the undelivered forms alone. Stated another way, this is $5,740.00 in lost business because my phone calls were not returned. Of course, I have no alternate e-mail address, allowing me to reach out in another manner. The campground’s website hosting service (prepaid by the former owner) expires in July. Will he call me when his website is disabled? Time will tell.

The point of all this is to stress the value of industry vendors. Yes, we sell products or services. However, selling is not a crime. In fact, it is the backbone of our economy. I have always had a policy of providing up to an hour of free consultation services to anybody who calls me and who would like to plug into my expertise. There are no sales attempts or strings attached, and my base of knowledge extends well beyond the services that my company provides. For example, at the recent Northeast Campground Association conference, I participated in the “Learn from the Experts” roundtable sessions, where my topic was online and office security standards.

If you have a question about payment processing, insurance, wi-fi installation, or which store merchandise will provide the greatest return on investment, ask an industry vendor. If you want to know the pros and cons between alternate lines of laundry equipment, golf carts, power pedestals, lawn mowers, or picnic tables, ask an industry vendor. With very few exceptions, the people who I know who are serving the family campground industry are truly committed to the industry and can be relied upon for honest and objective information. I believe that most put the interests of their customers and the overall industry ahead of their own interests. There is a tremendous resource at your disposal. Put it to good use. Those who fail to do so may suffer the consequences.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

From Percolators to Pods

April 14th, 2015

If you are a typical American, you probably started your day with a cup of coffee. According to the most recent National Coffee Drinking Trends (NCDT) report, published by the National Coffee Association, 54% of Americans over the age of 18 drink an average of 3.1 cups of coffee each day. More casual coffee consumption is practiced by 83% of the public. Of these coffee drinkers, 65% enjoy the beverage with breakfast. In total, consumers in the United States spend $40 billion on coffee each year. Impressive statistics, but what do they mean for you?

Percolator_K-Cup_Small

Just as there are all types of coffee products, there are all types of campgrounds. Trends change over time, and demands ebb and flow for various types of coffee and styles of camping. Remember the days of coffee percolators? They were an integral part of a long-running advertising campaign for Maxwell House. Today, half the population could probably not even identify a coffee percolator in a line-up of obsolete kitchen appliances.

Today, there is a market for high-end artisanal brews, as evidenced by the $950 million in annual sales at Starbucks; however, the vast majority of Americans do not have an appreciation for single-origin coffee brewed from freshly-ground beans. Those markets are limited, in a similar manner as the markets are limited for other high-end beverages such as loose teas, cask conditioned ales, single malt Scotch whiskies, or small batch bourbons.

According to the market research firm Euromonitor, only about 8% of the coffee purchased in America is whole bean coffee, meaning that sales of pre-ground coffee outpace whole bean coffees by 12.5 to 1. When it comes to coffee, it seems that most of us prefer convenience over quality. Driving that fact home is the astronomical growth in sales of K-Cups, the ubiquitous pre-portioned coffee pods. Years ago, the coffee kings in America were Folger’s (owned by consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble) and Maxwell House (owned by another giant, Kraft Foods). Today, K-Cups from Keurig Green Mountain account for 20% of the total coffee market, not only more than any other company but more than Folger’s and Maxwell House combined. Again according to Euromonitor, the sales of coffee pods have grown by 138,325% over the past 10 years!

Going back to the National Coffee Association’s NCDT, it is important to note that Hispanic Americans far outpace all other ethnic groups in the consumption of coffee, including gourmet coffees and espresso-based beverages. Also comprising the fastest growing ethnic group in the country, this is a very positive sign for the overall industry.

Henry Ford, in the days of skyrocketing sales of his Model T, commented that he could “sell to the masses and eat with the classes.” In other words, fortunes can be made by providing products or services that appeal to the broadest possible market. In today’s world, most businesses succeed by appealing to mass markets through low prices (the Wal-Mart and Amazon models,) although small businesses usually excel by catering to the niche and local markets that might not be profitable pursuits by mass marketers. Let’s translate this information into concepts that directly relate to your campground.

  1. Keep in step with current trends. Coffee consumption has been on the increase in recent years, in large part thanks to the coffee pods that have made things quick and easy. Are cabins and other rentals the quick and easy way for new people to be introduced to camping? If so, are you making the process as simple as possible, or are you still requiring your guests to bring their own towels and linens?
  2. If you think of your campground as a supermarket, are you still devoting all of your shelf space to Folger’s and Maxwell House? When the world is changing around you, you cannot succeed by becoming stagnant. If your guests want 50-amp electric, pull-thru sites and free wi-fi, it is time to meet their needs.
  3. Starbucks has proven that people will not hesitate to pay the price for premium products and services. If you are running the Starbucks of campgrounds, you can probably raise your rates without fear of losing business.
  4. The Hispanic-American market has outpaced every other ethnic group in the consumption of coffee. Are you surprised? What is your campground doing to reach out to this large and expanding market of consumers … or are you continuing to miss the boat?
  5. Are you capitalizing upon the fact that 65% of coffee drinkers consume the beverage first thing in the morning? A selection of fresh-brewed coffees in your store can draw people in every morning, encouraging the sale of a long list of other merchandise that goes far beyond donuts and the morning newspaper.

In general, it pays to keep an eye on industry trends, only one of which centers around coffee consumption. Put the old percolator in the attic of your logic, and do your best to reach out to both existing and prospective guests in new and innovating ways.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

The Sky Is (Not) Falling

April 6th, 2015

Chicken Little was well-intentioned when he hysterically warned of impending disaster. The only problem was that his predictions were based upon conjecture rather than facts. Back at the turn of the millennium, modern-day Chicken Littles mongered fear over the impending “Y2K” disaster that, of course, never happened. More recently, there has been more than a bit of press about the implementation of the next round of Google search ranking algorithms that will only begin to be rolled out on April 21, 2015. Without doing any research of their own, many self-proclaimed “experts” are citing a Google blog post, a comment reportedly made by a Google employee, and a speculative article that recently appeared in Entrepreneur Magazine as the bases for their warnings of dire consequences for today’s typical website. Like grade school students spreading rumors in the schoolyard, it is time for some people to take a “time out”.

TheSkyIsFalling

Like the news networks that love to exaggerate stories and develop sensationalist headlines like “Stormageddon” and “Blizzard of the Century” (and, of course, the aforementioned “Y2K”), the new buzz word amongst the uninformed is “Mobilegeddon”. People using this type of terminology remind me of those who blindly share urban legends on Facebook, without taking a moment to first check the facts. The stories may generate excitement, but they lack credibility.

The fact is that Google will be rolling out a new set of search algorithms starting on April 21st; however, this does NOT mean that a website that is not deemed mobile-friendly will suddenly drop from the results of Google searches made from mobile devices. That is an outright exaggeration. What the new algorithms mean is that sites that are mobile-friendly will have an edge over sites that are not mobile-friendly, being flagged as “mobile friendly” alongside those search results. This rise in the rankings of mobile-friendly sites will come at the expense of sites that are not deemed mobile-friendly, but it does not mean that those latter sites are suddenly going to be dropped from being indexed.

Chicken Littles have suggested that half of a site’s traffic is suddenly going to disappear effective April 21st, if the site is not mobile-friendly. This is patently untrue. Using historical Google Analytics data that I have drawn from actual campground websites, let’s presume that 35% of the traffic to a website comes from search engines, and that 50% of that traffic comes from Google, and that 50% of THAT traffic comes from users of mobile devices. Do the math. That would mean that, if a website was totally dropped from mobile search results on Google (which is NOT going to happen at this time), that site would lose approximately 9% of its traffic. That is the reality, rather than conjecture and misguided speculation.

There are plenty of valid reasons why every business should be moving to replace a conventional website with a new mobile-friendly site, and to do so sooner rather than later. However, the people who are suggesting panic are doing a tremendous disservice by encouraging the jerking of knees rather than the exercise of a careful plan for execution that includes properly methodical planning and budgeting for the long-term investment in mobile-friendly technology.

In years past, many businesses were advised to buy into expensive mobile apps or separate mobile websites, in an attempt to capture the market for users of mobile devices. In retrospect, those dollars were generally not well spent. Today, the dust has settled and responsive website technology has taken its place as the mobile-friendly solution that Google and the other search engines prefer, with one site presenting full content that is optimized for every device. If your site is not currently mobile-friendly, make plans for the transition – as I have said, sooner rather than later. In the meantime, don’t panic. The sky is not falling, and the world is not about to end on April 21st.

This post was written by Peter Pelland