Pelland Blog

It’s All About Customer Service

December 11th, 2016

Returning from a recent vacation in Ecuador, I had time to pause and reflect upon the extraordinary customer service that my wife and I consistently experienced in our travels in a country that is doing everything imaginable to brand itself as the next major tourism destination. Far from being random instances where we were lucky enough to encounter that rare employee who cared, we found that customer service that extended far beyond all reasonable expectations was the rule rather than the exception. Let me outline a few specific examples. Then ask yourself if you and your staff are doing everything possible to make your guests feel special. It is my belief that the businesses that we encountered in Ecuador represent the new standard that will separate the winners from the losers in the hospitality industry. It is no longer about price. I believe that your next wave of guests will make their decisions based upon the customer service extended.

Casa Divina Lodge

During one leg of our trip, we rented an SUV and drove from the coastal city of Guayaquil through the Andes Mountains to the capital city of Quito. Along the way, one of our stays was at Casa Divina Lodge, high in the cloud forest of Mindo. On our way, we had the misfortune to find ourselves in a very awkward situation with the Transito police near Santa Domingo, thanks to an expired registration certificate on the vehicle that we rented from Thrifty Car Rental. The police did not speak English, we did not speak Spanish, and they were demanding a bribe. We called Casa Divina Lodge, and the manager intervened on our behalf, reducing the bribe that we were forced to pay and allowing us to continue our journey.

Upon our arrival in Mindo, Efrain Toapanta, the owner of Casa Divina met us in the center of town and escorted us to the eco-resort that he had built himself. Otherwise impossible to find, the resort is hidden in the forest some 5 kilometers from the center, and its owner trucked our suitcases in a wheelbarrow from the parking area to our second-level lodging. Meals were catered to our special dietary needs, and Efrain arranged for a local ornithologist to take us out for a lengthy session of birding where, with his assistance, we identified 74 species of birds in one day.

Molino San Juan

Our next stay was at Molino San Juan, in the shadow of Cayambe Volcano and on the outskirts of the city of Cayambe. The hospitality that was extended to us here, part of the family owned and operated Hacienda La Copañia, was truly remarkable. During our off-season stay, we were the only guests at what is considered the “hotel” of the hacienda, but Jaime Pallares, its owner/manager (who had previously worked with Hilton Hotels) gave us more undivided attention that one might expect to be afforded to a full house. For example, during the first night of our stay, just in case we needed anything, he slept in an upstairs guestroom rather than going home for the night!

Heated living spaces are not the norm in Ecuador, and our desire for greater warmth in our room was met with additional blankets, a space heater in our room, and hot water bottles in our bed. As part of our visit, we were given a personal tour of the Hacienda’s rose showroom. (The region is the world’s third largest producers of roses.) Displaying dozens of artistic arrangements, the roses are replaced every three days, ensuring that the blossoms are always nothing less than perfect – even if they are only to be seen by two guests. In addition to our personal tour of the hacienda grounds, museum, historic Jesuit chapel, and rose showroom, Jaime researched and arranged the finest possible guide service for our visit to Cayambe Volcano.

Carlota

The Carlota is a new boutique hotel in the historic district of Quito. From the moment that we arrived, we were greeted by name and made to feel right at home. Operations Manager Nydia Vargas did everything possible to ensure that we enjoyed our stay, even modifying her work schedule so she could be on desk when we might require her assistance. When we were unfamiliar with the area and needed to visit a nearby ATM, she had an employee escort us. When the weather was rainy, she reserved two umbrellas for our use. When we had two large bags of clothing to be laundered, she negotiated a significant discount with the hotel’s laundry service provider.

When we were checking out, we asked if the hotel could provide us with water in plastic bottles that we could take to the airport. (Their usual water is served in glass bottles.) Without hesitation, Nydia asked the waiter to get us two bottles of water (after first asking us if we needed more than two.) It was not until he reappeared a minute or two later that we realized that he had been sent to a nearby store to purchase the water bottles on our behalf. Are you beginning to get a feeling for the exceptional level of service at this hotel? The Carlota was once the home of a former President of Ecuador, and we were made to feel presidential!

What Is Your Park Doing that Makes It Special?

I have far more stories that I could relate, if space allowed, not the least of which would be our experience spending a week on a the M/Y Grace, a small yacht in the Galapagos Islands, where a dozen passengers were outnumbered by thirteen crew members. I think I have made my point, and I have already related my experiences in TripAdvisor reviews, where I now have 110,000 readers. Ask yourself what you can do that goes the extra mile for your guests, offering a service that would never be made available by your contemporaries. Standards and expectations in the world have changed, as baby boomers and subsequent generations finds themselves with disposable incomes but limited amounts of leisure time. Travel yourself, if necessary, and I think you will soon recognize that customer service has become mission-critical to your park’s success.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

All Links Are Good … or Are They?

April 4th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Taking the Mystery Out of Mystery Shoppers

March 30th, 2016

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

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

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

HotelCheckIn_183155984_600x394_90

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

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

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

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

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

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Listen to Your Customers

February 28th, 2016

I thought it would be useful to read through random reviews of campgrounds on the TripAdvisor website in order to determine whether there were some common complaints that savvy park operators might need to address. On TripAdvisor, we are generally dealing with that all-important market of first-time campers – precisely the people who are needed to grow the industry’s markets. We all know the old adage about first impressions being lasting impressions, and an experience that fails to live up to expectations could not only ensure that a first-time guest will not return to your park; you could very well sour that first-time camper on the entire camping experience, rather than turning him into the next lifetime camper.

I randomly chose campgrounds in four regions of the country and read through reviews. In the instance of one park, I found that every recent 5-star review was followed up with a management response, thanking the reviewer for taking the time to write the review; however, there was not a management response for even a single recent review that rated the campground as anything less than outstanding. The management of this campground is totally missing the point in its failure to address legitimate concerns or even to acknowledge those somewhat less-than-happy campers. Ironically, those unaddressed reviews are consistently flagged as “helpful” by fellow TripAdvisor users. In other words, these unaddressed complaints are being read by other potential guests who are thanking the reviewers for saving them from making the mistake of vacationing at the same park.

The most common complaints fell into 6 categories:

  1. Extra fees. People who have customarily stayed in hotels or conventional resorts are not accustomed to paying excessive add-on fees or for paying to take a shower. I frequently encountered the term “nickeled and dimed”, and that is not good. Reviewers complained about excessive fees for everything from arts and crafts sessions to the rental of recreational equipment, but the single biggest complaint was with any park that used metered showers. One reviewer wrote, “You have to pay for your shower, and the first three minutes are cold.”
  2. Indifference on the part of staff or management. Some of the specific complaints a bad attitude when staff members visited campsites, or security staff members who turned a blind eye away from issues that needed to be addressed. There were many complaints about rude employees (bad enough), but the people who referenced rude owners are really raising red flags. One reviewer documented about requesting a credit (not a refund) due to a medical emergency, and how the park owner insultingly demanded a note from her doctor! Another wrote, “The gate guards are not that friendly – actually they are aggressive and rude – and are easily annoyed.” That surly gate guard is the first person encountered upon arrival and can set the tone for the entire camping experience.
  3. Small sites that are not big rig friendly. Unless camping in a group, campers generally do not want to feel like they are on top of the adjoining sites. If they are camping in a big rig, they want to be able to get into and out of their site easily and without risk of damage to their investment. In the short term, this may mean carefully assigning sites to the camping equipment; in the long term, this may mean re-engineering smaller adjoining sites into larger single sites.
  4. Dirty, inadequately or infrequently cleaned restrooms. There are simply no excuses here. If it is a busy weekend, your cleaning staff may need to be cleaning your restrooms on a continuous rotation throughout the day. If you are short-staffed, hire people. The photo that I am showing below is one of eight that was included in an actual review, documenting a lack of bathroom cleaning – both short-term and long-term – at one particular park. Additional photos attached to the review show fecal matter in front of toilets, dirty floors, empty paper towel dispensers, and stained shower stalls.
  5. Lack of maintenance in rentals. Be careful about overselling you’re amenities. It is probably a mistake to market aging park models as “luxury cottages”, particularly if their amenities are inconsistent with what you advertise. If a furnished park model is designed to sleep 6 people, the kitchen utensils should not be limited to 3 forks, 2 glasses and 4 chipped plates (as mentioned in one actual review). There should be a printed inventory of furnishings (that are checked and replenished by housekeeping between rentals) that will allow guests to know exactly what they should expect to find in the unit.
  6. Lax enforcement of rules. Yes, we all know that rules are a double-edged sword where some people are always going to be unhappy; however, the guests who really count are the ones who expect quiet, not those who are creating a nuisance. Within this category of complaints, the biggest issues involved unattended dogs being allowed to bark, and quiet hours that were not consistently and politely enforced.

Restroom Trash Bin

All in all, the people who are addressing these concerns are far from being unreasonable. If you were on a vacation – perhaps a cruise or a trip to a vacation resort – would you find these shortcomings acceptable? Of course not! Treat your guests with respect, meet their expectations, and your business will grow and prosper.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

The Fine Art of Handling Negative Reviews, Reviewed

January 31st, 2016

Recent outdoor hospitality conferences in Daytona Beach presented me with an opportunity to stay at area hotels, dine at area restaurants, and visit area attractions during the course of two stays in town. For nearly 10 years, I have been an active reviewer on the TripAdvisor website, and I have come to rely upon TripAdvisor as a reliable source of peer reviews. I like to think that I write honest reviews, and I appreciate that same honesty in other reviewers. To date, I have written 120 reviews, 49.2% of which have given “excellent” ratings and 27.5% of which have given “good” ratings. My reviews provide business owners with wonderful opportunities to obtain valuable consumer feedback. Occasionally, business owners are incapable of accepting constructive criticism, and that is their loss. When they react with an over-the-top, non-objective management response, they are truly missing the point of the entire process.

One recent experience illustrates my point. When my wife and I stayed in Daytona Beach for a few days at the end of the KOA Expo, we visited an attraction that TripAdvisor rates as #1 out of 71 “things to do” in the nearby city of DeLand. We were disappointed in this historic house tour, felt that the tour was overcrowded, and considered it overpriced. What particularly bothered me – and aroused my suspicions regarding the validity of the attraction’s rating – was the way that the tour guide came right out and asked people to submit TripAdvisor reviews, followed two days later by an e-mail from one of the owners, again asking for a TripAdvisor review. I definitely had the impression that a ballot box was being stuffed.

Of course, I felt compelled to share my experience with others on TripAdvisor, particularly since I thought that the attraction’s #1 rating was highly misleading. I went out of my way to be objective and sensitive to the idiosyncrasies of the owners, quite generously giving it a three-star (“fair”) rating that I carefully documented. Prior to writing my review, I noticed how the owners of the attraction responded to every review on TripAdvisor, and how any reviewer who did not give the attraction an “excellent” rating was essentially attacked in one way or another. I was prepared for an assault but would not be intimidated. In my case, I was told that I had “baffled” and “insulted” them with my “false claims”, and that I was obviously an “angry” person.

Other reviews received management responses that were far more offensive. Here are some samples culled from various management responses: “Your comments are unsubstantiated and more importantly not true.” “Your comments are completely false and hurtful.” “I have contacted TA to handle your harassment, (and) your hateful attempt to try and discredit us is sad at best. You should be ashamed of yourself.” “Your ‘Poor’ rating is suspicious at best.” “For someone to go out of there (sic) way to give false feedback with the intent to hurt a small business owner is sad and actually difficult for me to comprehend.”

As you can see, some small business owners cannot be objective when handling criticisms of the businesses which are often extensions of themselves. That is understandable, but it is important to put subjectivity aside and recognize that, in the vast majority of instances, a negative review is providing valuable input regarding improvements that you should consider making.

When you have the opportunity to respond to a negative review, here are a few suggestions:

  1. Listen to what the reviewer has to say. Try to be as subjective as possible, putting your ego aside. The review is not a personal attack upon your reputation (even if you think that it is.)
  2. Empathize, introduce a positive factor into the conversation, and apologize if necessary. An apology is not an admission of guilt but simply a polite acknowledgement that the reviewer had less than a perfect experience involving your business.
  3. Try to take the conversation offline. Not long ago, I posted on Facebook how I was dissatisfied when an energy audit contractor failed to show up for a scheduled appointment. The organization saw that it had been mentioned on Facebook, responding by asking me to contact them privately with my telephone number. Offline, they apologized and re-scheduled the appointment for the following day. Any damage was under control.
  4. Despite the urgency of responding quickly, before posting a response to an online review, always run it by another set of eyes. Too often, in the absence of body language and tone of voice, a response with the best of intentions might sound condescending or even sarcastic. Remember that you are trying to rectify a situation, not make it worse.

It is important to separate yourself from your business, to keep your cool, and to try to treat every review as a learning experience. If you do not like what you are reading, avoid the temptation to take things personally and as an opportunity for retaliation. Respond following the guidelines above, and then move on. Put on your big boy pants and get on with the responsibilities of running your business to succeed within the best of your capabilities.

Note: Since originally writing this post, I have continued to receive e-mails from one of the owners of the attraction in DeLand, again asking me to write a positive review on TripAdvisor. (Apparently, they do not mind spamming their customers in their pursuit of TripAdvisor reviews.) Another e-mail arrived more recently, urging its recipients to e-mail the producers of CBS Sunday Morning to ask them to do a feature story on the attraction.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Big Things Are Happening at RV Park Reviews

January 10th, 2016

The following post is based upon an interview with Andy Robinowitz, the CEO of Social Knowledge LLC, and the owner of the RV Park Reviews website. The interview was conducted by Peter Pelland in July of 2015 and originally published in the November 2015 issue of Woodall’s Campground Management.

AndyRobinowitz_Airstream_Cropped_400x343_90


 

Let’s face it: The typical small business owner likes consumer review sites about as well as fingernails scratching on a chalkboard or tooth extraction without anesthesia. That disdain is generally unfounded. Yes, there are certainly instances when somebody with an axe to grind exploits the opportunity to try to inflict harm upon a business, but most readers of mean-spirited reviews are smart enough to read between the lines (and the usual spelling mistakes).

Smart small business owners look at consumer reviews in the aggregate and in an objective manner, recognizing the valuable feedback that the reviews provide. Big companies designate significant sums of money toward market research, employing focus groups, product sampling, surveys and many other costly tools. Whether somebody is thanking you for something that was done right, or pointing out an area where there is room for improvement, think of each review as free market research data that should influence decisions about how to run your business more successfully. Particularly when a comment or observation is expressed repeatedly, it should never be dismissed as simply an individual opinion. Reviewers are generally influencers, predicting future trends as effectively as canaries in coal mines.

The Campground Industry

Campground review sites are nothing new; however, they are growing in influence and becoming far more versatile as the sites add features and functionality designed to meet the needs of both campers and campground owners. While some review sites have stagnated a bit, and while TripAdvisor wastes valuable time deciding when to add a dedicated “Campgrounds” navigational tab, the RV Park Reviews website is undergoing some major improvements that need to be on your radar.

RV Park Reviews originated back in 2000 and has grown into perhaps the most significant contender among review sites that are specific to the campground industry. The site was acquired by Social Knowledge LLC, a Dallas-based company, in the fall of 2013, and the new owners are more focused than ever on meeting both the needs of the site’s readers and individual campground owners. They have shared both documentation and their vision for the future with me.

Over the past year, RV Park Reviews has reached nearly 6,000,000 unique users, 95% of whom were located in the United States. Both user and session numbers are up roughly 20% over the previous year, and a similar rate of growth is anticipated going forward. With well over 200,000 existing reviews, far more people are turning to the site to conduct research prior to choosing a park destination than are turning to the site specifically to write a review. (This serves to disprove the “axe-grinder” theory!) These users spend a considerable amount of time visiting multiple pages per session, considering the experiences of others while looking for campgrounds like yours. With over 30,000,000 page views over the past year, doing the math will suggest that the average review has been read over 150 times in the past year alone.

In an interview with Andy Robinowitz, the CEO of Social Knowledge LLC, I gained some insight into what the site is currently offering to campground owners, as well as some of the added functionality that will be introduced this fall.

PLP: What sets RV Park Reviews apart from other campground review websites?

AR: Our contributors, the scale of our readership, campground coverage, and amenity data are what set us apart. We tend to have more reviews per campground than other websites. Our readership has now grown to more than 6 million readers annually. About 25% of our readers return on a regular basis, indicating how the site is very popular.

PLP: What do you say to campground owners who see review sites as forums for people with an axe to grind, and what do you do to try to prevent that from happening?

AR: It’s a valid concern. We address this issue in a few ways with our policies. We also provide readers with tools to help them to better decide which reviews they want to trust, and soon we will be giving the campground owners the ability to respond to reviews, so they will have a voice as well.

To help our readers decide which reviews to trust, we recently added the rating distributions of each reviewer so someone can see if a contributor tends to only leave negative reviews. Alternatively, if you see a user who has lots of reviews with most of them being positive, then a single really bad review, you might take that into consideration in deciding whether to trust the review or not.

Going back to the axe grinders, our analysis shows that these types of issues are rare, with the vast majority of our reviews being positive. Regardless, we have a policy that requires a user to have at least two reviews approved before either will be shown on our website. This prevents people from creating an account to publish a single negative review. Most disgruntled customers never take the time to submit additional reviews. We also require reviewers to meet our Review Guidelines so they can’t just rant about poor service. We moderate all submissions from new users before they are published. Based on our historical information, we suspect less than 1 in 100 reviews are from disgruntled customers.

PLP: Do you encourage campground owners to ask their campers to write reviews?

AR: Yes, I would recommend that campground owners ask their campers to leave reviews. The more reviews you have, the better the odds that readers will get an accurate feeling for a campground where they have not previously stayed. It also helps establish a larger base for the ratings. For example, if you only have two reviews, an 8 and a 10 mean you had an average rating of 9. Then, if someone leaves a review with the rating of 6, your average falls to 8. If you have 7 reviews with an average of 9 and someone leaves a 6, your average will not change. Having more reviews is better for consumers and better for campgrounds.

PLP: You mentioned that campground owners will soon be able to directly respond to reviews. I know that Management Responses have been a key feature of TripAdvisor. Could you elaborate on what you have planned?

AR: This fall we will be rolling out a new feature called the Campground Owner’s Interface. Among other components, this interface will allow campground owners to respond to reviews. This will give campground owners a voice, allowing them to tell their side of a story so readers can use both perspectives when deciding whether to trust a review or not.

Keep in mind that review volume is important to help give more perspectives to readers. Campgrounds with lots of reviews are able to water down any negative effects from a disgruntled client. If you have 9 great reviews from happy customers and 1 negative review, it’s pretty easy for readers to see the trend.

PLP: If this is rolling out in the fall, how can campground owners get a jump start on joining the program?

AR: We highly encourage campground owners to claim their campgrounds. This fall, when the Campground Owner’s Interface is online, campground owners (or management) will then be able to manage their amenities, set their hours of operation, respond to reviews, and more. We’ll even e-mail them whenever new reviews are posted so they will know to respond in a timely manner.

PLP: What will be some additional features?

AR: We will also have a widget available so campground owners can showcase their positive reviews. Campground owners will be in control of what is shown on the widget so they can customize it to their needs. For example, if they want to show only snippets of 4 or 5 star reviews, they can set it to do that. If they don’t want to show any reviews, they can do that as well (and just link to their profile). By adding the widget to their site, a park owner makes it easy for their clients to leave reviews. We strongly suggest installing this on the campground’s website to get more reviews and help with search engine optimization as well.

Given an advance peek at what is coming, I can tell readers that there will also be tools that will allow campground owners to access their statistics at the RV Park Reviews website, keeping track of reviews, page views and more. They will also be able to directly update their seasonal dates, hours of operation, amenities and other campground information, keeping up-to-date and helping potential visitors. The amenities listing will include information that may be vital to some visitors in their decision-making process. For example, whether or not the park has cellular phone service, and if so, which cellular service providers have a signal available; whether or not the park offers wi-fi, listing the fee if applicable; and whether or not the park has showers, again listing whether or not there is an associated fee for that service.

To get started, go to the RV Park Reviews website at http://rvparkreviews.com, find your park by choosing your state and city from the alphabetical listing to the left of the map or by using the search box at the top of the page. When you find your park’s listing, click on the “View Campground Details” link. On the next page, click on the “Own this Campground? / Claim it and Unlock Features” link. Enter your name, e-mail address, phone number, and whether you are the campground’s owner, manager or employee, and you will be notified prior to the rollout of the new features.

When it comes to technology, early adopters usually benefit the most. The RV Park Reviews website is already sending you significant volumes of traffic. Make it work to your park’s maximum advantage. My recommendation is to get on board!

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Learn from the Examples of Successful Businesses

August 12th, 2014

This post was originally written in December of 2013, but was unintentionally not posted online. I was sharing my thoughts on my return flight from Orlando and the IAAPA Attractions Expo, the last and largest of my company’s fall trade shows. I took that opportunity to pause and reflect upon my recent experiences … and how they can be applied to your business.

Out of the fall events, the Pennsylvania Campground Owners Association convention and trade show was held at the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort, a first class operation in the Laurel Highlands of Southeastern Pennsylvania. From a business marketing perspective, there is much to be learned from these conventions, and much of that knowledge may be gained by observing the operations and management of the host facilities. We are all working within the broader tourism and outdoor recreation industries – where customer service is the key component of our businesses, but many of us tend to learn only from our peers, in this case fellow campground owners.

I have always been a firm believer that campground owners can learn a great deal from the operators of cruise lines, airlines, theme parks, and resorts like Nemacolin. The things that these businesses do to satisfy their customers – or the things that they do to alienate and annoy their customers – easily translate to the family camping industry. Regardless of your particular business, your customers want to be treated with respect and to be provided with exceptional service.

We are all human, and mistakes are inevitably made. One of our goals should be to minimize those mistakes, whether made directly ourselves or by one of our staff members. When a mistake has been made, damage control is time-critical.

NemacolinWoodlandsResort_21503

Nemacolin Woodlands Resort

At the PCOA Convention, a mistake was made by the kitchen staff of Nemacolin Woodlands Resort. One of the meal functions was a pasta buffet and, almost incomprehensibly, the facility ran out of pasta before everyone had been served. In fact, they ran out of pasta before perhaps half of the people in the dining room had been served. The situation made the resort look bad and made its guests unhappy – regardless of the quality of their prior experience. The barometer had suddenly changed.

Here is where there are lessons to be learned. A mistake had been made, and it was impossible for it to be unmade; however, the immediacy and the extent of the management response saved the day, maintained the reputation of the resort, and prevented PCOA from looking bad by association.

As soon as it had been confirmed that it was impossible to prepare additional servings of food for this many people in a timely manner, the cash bar became an open bar. This response in itself probably satisfied many of the inconvenienced guests, but management took a further step to insure everyone’s satisfaction. In the trade show hall the following morning, a member of the resort’s management staff took to the microphone to personally apologize for what should not have occurred the evening before. He then directed anyone who had been inconvenienced to see one of the several staff members at his side for a certificate that could be redeemed for a free night’s stay over the course of the following year. Each of these vouchers had a potential value of as much as $489.00. The resort had recovered from an awkward and embarrassing situation, and any lingering dissatisfaction from the previous night had been totally reversed in grand style.

What can your campground learn from this management response?

If someone complains that your restrooms are less than spotless, if a family’s sleep was interrupted by noise from an adjoining site, if a scheduled performer cancels out at the last minute, what is your response? If your response is simply that “stuff happens”, or if you assign the blame to somebody else, you are failing to provide exemplary service. We are all willing – perhaps even anxious – to pardon mistakes, but few people are willing to tolerate a business that demonstrates that it does not care.

Going back to the restroom example, do you ever profile a guest as a “complainer” and dismiss his concerns? Worse yet, do you ever take the attitude that everything is fine because 95% of your guests are content with the status quo? If a guest tells you that your restroom facilities require attention, it is time for you to drop what you are doing and personally look into the issue. Ask the guess to show you the problem that you might have been missing all along but that is capable of creating an indelible impression upon a new set of eyes. Empathize with your guest, apologize if necessary, then take immediate measure to rectify the situation. Your guest will no longer be displeased.

Particularly given the power and the persuasiveness of the social media and online review sites, you cannot simply hope that time heals all wounds. The fact is that time actually compounds those wounds. A lack of response – or an inadequate response – has the capability of harming your business both immeasurably and indefinitely. Think of yourself as the guest – and how you would expect to be treated under the circumstances. When mistakes are inevitably made, go out of your way to overcompensate as rapidly as possible. Never wait for a complaint to be aired online before responding. Worse yet, never assume that most of your guests are content and that you can simply pretend that nothing bad ever happened. The guests who have been left unhappy will have a bitter taste for your business. If they happen to have been first-time campers, you may have just poisoned them toward the entire camping experience. The weight of an industry is on your shoulders. Do your business and the industry a favor by treating your guests with respect. Respect is contagious, and the world will be a happier place.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

The Fine Art of Handling Negative Reviews

July 16th, 2014

Not all reviews are negative. The negative reviews are simply the ones that most deserve your attention. Some negative reviews are worse than others, but the worst negative review is the one that was left unanswered.

In most instances, I find that small business owners cannot be objective when handling criticisms of the businesses which are often extensions of themselves. That is understandable, but it is important to put subjectivity aside and recognize that, in the vast majority of instances, a negative review is providing valuable input regarding improvements that you should consider making.

In other instances, a negative review might provide insight into a situation that requires urgent action; however, if you are unaware of the review, the situation is likely to continue and the viral power of the online review will only multiply. Let me share an example.

I recently did a search of Google for the name of a business, hoping to find its correct mailing address. At the absolute top of the search results (#1 on page #1) was the following review that has been online since January of 2012. I have changed the names and any other identifying information, but the point is clear.

“While driving on Eastern Avenue (near Spring Street) today (01-11-12) at 2:05 PM I was tailgated by someone driving a truck (license plate RVJ-524) from Acme Enterprises. I was forced to pull over because the driver was driving too close. When I pulled over I was given the finger and when I continued driving the driver doubled-back to actually chase me! I’m a member of the [a local business association] and I will certainly be sending an email blast to my fellow members to ensure they avoid this organization. I took a picture of the driver and have it on file.”

Wow! Can you imagine this being at the top of the search results for your business for 2½ years, and not knowing about it? Can you imagine having an employee acting in this manner while driving a clearly identified company vehicle? I presume that any business owner would take immediate corrective measures if he knew about this situation. Without any such knowledge, this type of behavior on the part of an employee is only likely to continue.

Yes, this is an extreme example, but it is totally true. How about the employee who is short with one of your guests, or the employee who did not perform a maintenance task up to the expected standards? Those are often the foundation of a negative review. Even if a review site does not give you, as the business owner, an opportunity to directly respond online, it is still providing you with valuable information that should probably be incorporated into your next company meeting, job description, or employee performance review. The reputation of your business is at stake.

When you do have the opportunity to respond to a negative review, here are a few suggestions:

  1. Listen to what the reviewer has to say. Try to be as subjective as possible, putting your ego aside. The review is not a personal attack upon your reputation (even if you think that it is.)
  2. Empathize, introduce a positive factor into the conversation, and apologize if necessary. An apology is not an admission of guilt but simply a polite acknowledgement that the reviewer had less than a perfect experience involving your business.
  3. Try to take the conversation offline. I recently posted on Facebook how dissatisfied I was when an energy audit contractor failed to show up for a scheduled appointment. The organization saw that it had been mentioned on Facebook, responding by asking me to contact them privately with my telephone number. Offline, they apologized and re-scheduled the appointment for the following day. Any damage was under control.
  4. Despite the urgency of responding quickly, before posting a response to an online review, always run it by another set of eyes. Too often, in the absence of body language and tone of voice, a response with the best of intentions might sound condescending or even sarcastic. Remember that you are trying to rectify a situation, not make it worse.

There are literally dozens of online review sites, the most important which impact the travel and tourism industry being TripAdvisor, Yelp, and Foursquare. Other types of businesses are reviewed on sites like Angie’s List, MerchantCircle, Manta, Buzzillions, Epinions, and Insider Pages. Then don’t forget the BBB (Better Business Bureau) Online, where any consumer can file a complaint against a business.

Just as important, any comment on Twitter, Facebook, or Google+ is a de-facto review within the writer’s network. In fact, those can often do the most harm because they come from somebody whose opinion is trusted within his or her network of friends.

There are also more than a dozen of which are specific to the campground industry. These include RV Park Reviews, CampRate, Campground Report, Campsite Reports, RVparking.com, RVcampReviews.com, RV Park Finder, and of course GuestRated. Some of these sites get much more traffic than others, but keep in mind that only one person reading one negative review can translate into lost business. Do your best to try to keep that from happening.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Why You Need to Know and Love TripAdvisor

May 9th, 2014

According to the 2012 and 2013 editions of the Special Report on Camping, published by the Outdoor Foundation in partnership with KOA and Coleman, overall camping participation shows its ups and downs from year to year. The most recent statistics show 38 million Americans over the age of 6 – equating to 16% of the U.S. population – taking at least one camping trip over the course of the previous 12 months. If the industry is to grow, it needs to aggressively pursue the remaining 84% of the population, and individual campgrounds need to do the same.

One of the challenges for every campground is to grow its customer base. Despite your best efforts at customer satisfaction, you will lose campers from year to year. Some succumb to the lure of a competitor’s marketing, an aging population gradually loses its mobility, and others are simply not totally sold on the concept of camping. The American Camper Report refers to this churn rate among camping participants as the “leaky bucket” effect, and it increased from 16% to 32% from 2012 to 2013. Not a good trend. To continue growing the industry – and, of course, to continue growing the occupancy rates at individual campgrounds – it is necessary to reach new markets of first-time campers, as well as to re-engage campers who are still not fully committed to the experience.

In 2012, first-time campers comprised 10% of the overall numbers. If 16% of the population camped that year, this means that only 1.6% of participants came from the enormous 84% potential market of non-campers. Admittedly, campers are never going to constitute 100% of the population; however, as an industry, we need to choose between scrambling to rearrange shares of an existing market and engaging in the pursuit of new markets that will lead to real growth. We need to spend less time focused on pulling campers from one campground to another or one region to another, spending more time introducing new people to the overall camping experience.

Camping Cabins

One way of doing this is to focus on the gateways for new campers. Few people who have never camped before are going to spend $25,000 on a trailer of $250,000 on a motorhome just to see if they like camping. The gateways are tents (typically for younger campers) and rental accommodations – generally cabins and cottages, but also including rental trailers, yurts, treehouses, and other types of specialty lodging. Although the latest American Camper Report shows that people camping in their own RVs outnumber those camping in cabins by an 8 to 1 ratio, it is time to concentrate on reaching out to those new campers.


This Is Where TripAdvisor Comes to the Rescue

If your campground includes cabins or other types of rentals, you are on the right track. If rentals are not part of your package, it is something clearly worth considering. TripAdvisor is the undisputed giant of online travel resources, with 260 million users per month posting 90 new reviews every minute. Campgrounds with rental accommodations are now listed under TripAdvisor’s Specialty Lodging category. According to Alexa, TripAdvisor is currently ranked as # 92 among the most popular websites in the United States (# 209 globally), higher than any other travel-related website. For the sake of comparison, Expedia is # 138 (# 508 globally), Travelocity is # 371 (# 1,390 globally), the National Park Service is # 874 (# 4,175 globally), RV Park Reviews is # 19,215 (# 93,364 globally), and Go Camping America is # 186,792 (# 492,114 globally).

Part of the beauty of TripAdvisor is that it is not a search engine or directory. It is a depository of travel-related consumer reviews. Unlike many of the campground review sites (which reach very limited and narrow audiences), TripAdvisor reviewers are serious about travel and generally do not post reviews because they have an axe to grind. People turn to TripAdvisor for ratings and reliable reviews that have been written by their peers, basing subsequent travel decisions upon what they have read. I have personally planned entire vacations upon TripAdvisor reviews and always turn to this resource when choosing restaurants in unfamiliar destinations. I have never been disappointed. In an effort to share my experiences with others, I am also a Top Contributor who has up until now written 64 reviews which have received 58 helpful votes (which are indications that subsequent visitors made decisions that were at least partially based upon one of my reviews).

For campground owners, TripAdvisor represents a perfect opportunity to reach new markets, both domestic and international. When someone is looking for lodging in your area, they soon recognize that there are many alternatives to conventional hotels – including inns, house rentals, and cabins at your campground. In a recent seminar that I presented before the Mid-Atlantic Coastal States Campground Conference (consisting of New Jersey and Maryland campground owners), I showed that there were four campgrounds listed under the specialty lodging category for Cape May Court House, New Jersey. (Three days later, there were five campgrounds listed, an indication of how these listings are rapidly growing!) Each of these campgrounds had positive ratings, one with 29 reviews and two others with 11 reviews apiece. I would venture to guess that the owners of most of these campgrounds did not even know that their parks were listed. Out of all of the reviews that were posted for these campgrounds, there was not a single management response. Their owners are missing the boat on an opportunity to directly engage, not only with the reviewers but with every reader of those reviews.

It Is Time to Get on Board

Go to https://www.tripadvisor.com/Owners, follow the links to claim your business, then create a free business account. This will allow you to update the details about your business, add photos that will make your listing stand out, receive e-mail notifications every time somebody reviews your business, track your performance on TripAdvisor to see how your business is comparing with its competitors, and – most importantly – allow you to respond to guest reviews. If a review is positive, enter a personalized “thank you” response. If a review demonstrates either a complaint or disappointment, address the issue as immediately and diplomatically as possible. Either way, you are sending a message that you care about your guests. If a review is suspicious (for example, if it appears to be written by a competitor on an employee of a competitor) or if it violates TripAdvisor’s guidelines (for example, if it is off-topic or contains inappropriate language or content), you may file a request for editorial intervention.

Most campground review sites do not present business owners with these vital tools, nor do they reach potential new markets of non-campers. This is why you need to get to know and love TripAdvisor as a means of growing your market and base of campers!

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Online Review Sites: Handle With Care

September 4th, 2013

In a recent post, I pointed out that it was necessary to take a proactive stance with regard to your business’ ranking on various consumer review sites. If you are lacking reviews on any particular online resource – or, worse yet, you have one or more unfounded negative reviews that are skewing readers’ opinions – you should make an effort to encourage positive input. The question is how to handle this task both properly and effectively.

Once again, a successful campground will be operated in a customer-friendly manner, and reviews of that campground are likely to be overwhelmingly positive. My advice is to proactively promote those reviews and the sites that contain the reviews, rather than simply reacting in a state of panic when a negative review appears, typically written by someone with an axe to grind.

Rather than hiding from reviews, campground owners should provide links to the major review sites – and to individual reviews – on their own websites and within the social media. Encourage your happy campers to post their own reviews, particularly if a review site has a less than stellar recent review of your park. The most recent reviews and the most intelligently written reviews (and responses) carry the greatest credibility. Older reviews or those written by somebody who is obviously on a rant are generally dismissed by readers.

What Is Different?

When taking this proactive stance at encouraging positive reviews, be careful not to cross any lines that might violate the policies of the review sites.

I recently made what I thought was a reasonable attempt at promoting one of our non-campground clients on Yelp. The client’s business was listed on Yelp, but had no reviews and, subsequently, no ranking. I added missing information to the client’s listing and uploaded photos. I then posted the following on their Facebook page:

“If you love our (products) and have visited our retail store, please take a moment to share your thoughts by writing a review on Yelp. It will only take a minute or two. When we have 5 reviews, we will choose one at random and that person will receive a $25.00 gift certificate. Thanks!” I then included a direct link to the listings page on Yelp.

One customer immediately posted a very flattering and positive review, with a 5-star rating. On the basis of this first review, our client then showed an overall 5-star rating … very briefly. Later that day, Yelp “filtered” the review, suggesting that it was of questionable origin. Apparently, our offer of the gift certificate – or possibly simply including a link to the listing page – crossed an imaginary line with Yelp, giving them the impression that we were bribing customers for their comments … which, of course, was far from the truth. A day or two later, the review was reinstated, with another review submitted soon afterward, and our client once again has a 5-star rating with two reviews, both highly positive.

To avoid this problem yourself, refer to Yelp’s review policy:

“The best word of mouth is organic and unsolicited. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, Yelp discourages business owners from asking people to write reviews about their businesses. It’s tough for an algorithm to tell the difference between a business owner aggressively putting a laptop in front of a client and saying, “Give me 5 stars!” and that same business owner flipping the laptop around and manufacturing a fake 5-star review about themselves.”

They continue, “As a general rule, Yelp has advised business owners not to offer incentives for reviews. It’s a slippery slope between the customer who is so delighted by her experience that she takes it upon herself to write a glowing review and the customer who is “encouraged” to write a favorable review in exchange for a special discount. In an effort to minimize spam and maximize trustworthiness of the site’s content, Yelp actively weeds out suspicious reviews through a combination of community self-policing and automated filtering; aggressively solicited reviews can ring hollow at times and end up flagged by users or the website for removal. The system is designed to ensure the reviews consumers rely on are as authentic and useful as possible.”

In other words, Yelp uses analytics to flag online review solicitations, and the worst case scenario could be the removal of your listing, not simply the filtering of the resulting review(s). Learn more about Yelp’s policy by following this link:
https://biz.yelp.com/support/common_questions.

How Do You Handle This?

Yelp encourages businesses to link to both their listing page and to individual reviews. When you have one or more positive reviews, provide links to them on your website and on Facebook, Google+ and Twitter. Let the power of subtle persuasion influence new reviewers. You may also hand out printed cards with the URL to guests as they check out and rave about their stay, but avoid directly asking for reviews in your online newsletter, on your website, or on your social media pages.

There is a similar policy in place at TripAdvisor, outlined in an extensive network of forum posts. One somewhat extreme example outlines a hotel in England that offered guests 10% discounts and free room upgrades in exchange for positive reviews on TripAdvisor, the Good Food Guide, or the Michelin Guide. Read more, following this link, shortened using Google URL Shortener:
http://goo.gl/cPmHxW

This scheme backfired and the property was red flagged, meaning that TripAdvisor posted that “individuals associated with this property may have interfered with traveler reviews” and showing users a record of the property’s alleged wrong-doing. How do you think that makes your listing look?

There are also companies that specialize in online reputation management, offering to repair damaged reputations for a fee, usually quite ineffectively. If you are considering a reputation management service, the damage has already been done, and you are no doubt at least indirectly responsible for the creation of that damage. There are even companies that will generate fake reviews for a fee, even though this practice is illegal in the United States, Great Britain, Ireland, France, Germany, and Italy. Quite naturally, those so-called “services” should never be considered. The best way to get positive reviews is to provide exemplary service that, in and of itself, will encourage people to share their enthusiasm!

This post was written by Peter Pelland