Pelland Blog

You Think It Can’t Happen to You?

July 4th, 2021

If you are aware of ongoing news events, you know about the recent online cyberattacks at big companies like Colonial Pipeline and JBS. In both instances, ransomware was involved. Colonial Pipeline reportedly paid $4.4 million in ransom, after shutting down the delivery supply of gasoline, diesel, heating oil and jet fuel across much of the eastern United States, causing a spike in prices that you have paid at the pump. In the case of JBS, the meat processing network across the United States, Canada and Australia has been affected, with the impacts being felt by consumers at grocery stores and supermarkets. It has not yet been disclosed at the time of this writing what ransom, if any, was paid by JBS, but it joins a wave of ransomware attacks against businesses and organizations since the start of the year that includes Molson Coors, E & J Gallo Wines, Kia Motors USA, and the District of Columbia Police Department. Most victims prefer to keep their companies’ identities anonymous for obvious reasons.

Lest you think that these attacks only target big businesses and our national infrastructure, think again. Also recently, a ransomware attack targeted the Steamship Authority, the Massachusetts transportation entity that runs the primary transportation network that connects Woods Hole on Cape Cod with the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, disabling its reservation system. You may be seeing a connection there that suggests that the tourism industry is more vulnerable than you may have imagined.

According to Cybercrime Magazine, the fact is that a new business will be targeted by a ransomware attack every 11 seconds in 2021. The primary points of entry are vulnerable software (generally the result of a failure to apply security patches or the installation of apps than are either unsecure or intentionally contain malware) and email phishing. According to Fortinet, 1 in 3,000 emails sent to businesses and that pass typical security filtering, contain malware that includes ransomware. The average downtime for a business that has been attacked is 19 days, and the average ransom paid is nearly $250,000.00. An attack on a small business would have a smaller ransom, but could you afford to pay $25,000.00 or be unable to access your reservation system for days on end? A large percentage of these ransoms are covered by cybersecurity insurance, for businesses that carry that coverage. The ransoms always require payment using cryptocurrency, making the perpetrators totally untraceable other than generalities regarding their country of origin.

Although it is true that the reports that we see covered by the national news media involve larger organizations where the impacts are more broadly disruptive, smaller businesses are generally far more vulnerable and even more likely to be targeted. The recent surge in employees working from home, where security standards are usually less stringent, has also contributed to the proliferation in attacks. The smaller your company, and the more personally associated you are with that business, the more likely you are to be an easy target. If you are one of the hundreds of millions of people with an account on either Facebook or LinkedIn, your personal data has already been stolen since the start of this year and is being freely distributed on the Dark Net. That data likely includes your name, address, email address, phone number and more. There is a connection between these data breaches and the phishing emails and scam phone calls that you receive.

One common point of entry in recent weeks has been email that allegedly comes from your email service provider, claiming that your email account has been put on hold pending some sort of “verification”. While writing this, one of my clients forwarded me one such email that she had just received. The “verification” link was a cryptic 200-character URL based in India. How many people, through either carelessness, naivety, or a sense of panic over the thought of losing their email access, will click on those links?

Email service providers are getting far more vigilant about trying to stop malicious emails before they reach your inbox, but it is a frustratingly endless task. Users get upset if legitimate emails they either send or receive are falsely flagged. One of the large email service providers that my company uses for many our clients’ email accounts found itself blacklisted by Microsoft about a month ago, after a single user had sent out an email with malicious content. As a result, thousands of subsequent legitimate messages were not reaching their intended recipients with either Outlook or Hotmail email addresses. Then yesterday, an email account for one of our clients was automatically disabled after she had sent out an email to a couple hundred seasonal campers with a Microsoft Word document attached, a risky violation of typical email terms and conditions. She was unaware that Word documents are frequently used to harbor malware and that this would trigger a red flag.

In other instances, we have clients who ask us to set up email accounts for every new employee, typically designating a weak password to be used. We reluctantly follow instructions, but include a link to Security.org’s HowSecureIsMyPassword.net website, which can show that the designated password could be cracked by any computer in a day or less.

When it comes to employee email accounts, the questions you should ask yourself are:

  1. Does this employee actually need his own email account?
  2. Are you prepared to pay the costs and disruption to your business if your network is breached as the result of using a weak password?
  3. Are you prepared to pay a ransom because a minimum wage employee with little or no training in cybersecurity standards clicks on a malicious link?
  4. Do you give every employee a key to your front door and access to your cash register?

Ignoring these concerns comes at your own peril. Would you leave your car unlocked on a city street, maybe with the windows open, and maybe even with the keys left on the seat? If your car would be stolen, you would only have yourself to blame; however, if the car was then used to intentionally drive into a crowd of people, you would be guilty of criminal negligence. Another example would be somebody working the night shift at a convenience store, having a handgun for security and leaving it on the counter. That would be an invitation for an armed robbery and potential injuries or deaths.

If you would never think of doing anything as careless as either of those two examples, why would you use a weak password, or use the same password for multiple purposes? Using the same password to access more than one email account or online application is like leaving those keys on the seat of your unlocked automobile, except that the key ring including the keys to every other vehicle that you own, the front door to your office, and the front door to your home. You think it can’t happen to you? Think again!

This post was written by Peter Pelland

It’s Okay to Be Antisocial

March 11th, 2021

Let me be the first to admit that I am guilty. It was not that long ago that I was presenting seminars and writing how social media advertising – Facebook, in particular – was the greatest new development since the Internet itself. As recently as four years ago, I was offering suggestions on how to beat Facebook at its own game, using guerilla marketing techniques on the platform. Sure, we all recognized that the intrusions into our personal privacy were a bit creepy, but the ability to reach targeted marketing prospects seemed to be worth the compromise. After all, when I was a child watching television in the 1950’s, Captain Kangaroo would seamlessly segue from visiting with Bunny Rabbit and Mr. Moose to selling Kellogg’s Rice Krispies and Schwinn Bicycles, and what was wrong with that? Actually, there was plenty wrong with it, prior to a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) ruling in 1969 that prohibited children’s show hosts from directly promoting commercial products.

In the beginning, Facebook (originally called Facemash) seemed to represent little more than an awkward attempt by nerdy Harvard undergrads with a lack of actual social skills to meet young women at neighboring colleges. When you think about it, even that original concept (an extension of the sexist freshman photo books that had been sold on college campuses for decades) violated the personal privacy of the young women whose photos were being used. From that start, it did not take long for Facebook to reinvent itself into a money making machine that would be built upon ever-increasing exploitations of personal privacy.

On a personal level, I stopped using Facebook in its entirety in early September of 2020. I actually experienced what I would describe as a 7 to 10 day period of withdrawal, missing the ability to stay in daily touch with countless friends both old and new, but my sense of newly discovered freedom afterward was absolutely refreshing. Over the course of the 10 years or so when I remained active on the platform, I would often joke about how Facebook would “coincidentally” show me advertising that was related to one of my recent posts or comments. When I, along with millions of other people, started using ad blockers, Facebook started showing paid posts in lieu of paid advertising. These paid posts represent advertising content that is being disguised as editorial comment, even when that advertising is originating with foreign governments or other unscrupulous characters. The only way this can happen is by Facebook’s algorithms monitoring every word that you type, just as craftily as the National Security Agency (NSA) monitors the telephone conversations of known terrorists.

What made me see the light was when I realized that Facebook’s business model was designed to amass huge profits by intentionally sowing discord among its subscribers. Regardless of where a person falls within an increasingly polarized political spectrum, Facebook will show that person paid content that pours fuel on the fire while demonizing those with opposing viewpoints. By being fed a one-sided diet that is often based upon disinformation, subscribers’ opinions and beliefs are reinforced in a manner that continually enhances the polarization. It should not require an insurrectionist attack upon the U.S. Capitol for reasonable people to understand that this represents a rapidly accelerating downward spiral.

Let us be clear that Facebook advertising is not a bargain. In the early days, businesses would pay to advertise on the platform in order to get users to “like” their page and then see their posts. Soon afterward, advertisers needed to pay Facebook so that even people who had already “liked” their page could actually see their posts. Think about it. This means that you are paying Facebook so you can reach your existing customers. Why would anybody pay to do that when there are countless alternate means of reaching your existing customer base at a far lesser cost? In the campground industry, some of the same people who willingly pour money into Facebook advertising question the rationale for offering Good Sam and similar discounts that they feel cut into thin profit margins. I would rather offer a customer incentive than to take that same money and pour it into Facebook’s coffers.

Yes, Facebook and the other social media may be capable of sending you customers, but at what price and in what environment? If a drug dealer approached you and said, “Yes, my main business is selling heroin, but I can also send you customers”, would you do business with that person? I doubt that many of us would enter into that sort of deal with the devil.

The Federal Trade Commission (yes, the same people who ruled that Captain Kangaroo should not be hawking breakfast cereal) is currently proposing the breakup of Facebook, a process that is long overdue. Facebook has steadily grown – with the acquisition of Instagram, WhatsApp and related platforms – and a breakup of its monopoly would be the first such action since the breakup of AT&T four decades ago. Many of my peers in the advertising industry will disagree with me, and I welcome that debate. I remember the days when tobacco products were extensively advertised on television, a practice that contributed to countless deaths. Today, I believe that many other types of advertising should be banned because they either mislead consumers or actually prey upon vulnerable segments of our population, typically the elderly. These include the advertising of prescription pharmaceuticals, advertising by class-action attorneys (think “mesothelioma”), advertising directed at children (think about Saturday mornings), and advertising directed at senior citizens (think about Medicare supplements and the aforementioned pharmaceuticals). In the meantime, it is your decision as a small business owner to decide whether or not to continue financing a business model that you may agree is inherently wrong.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Website Design Considerations

December 1st, 2020

Part 1
The Basics

I recently presented a webinar titled “Best Practices: Website Design Considerations” before members of several state campground associations. Although my company has been building campground websites since 1998, it was not my intention to promote my company in that webinar, nor is it my intention to do so in this column. What I would like to share is objective advice on how to make the right decisions when it comes to what is almost certainly the single most important tool to market your business both today and in the years ahead.

Let me start with some history. In the early days, websites were built to be viewed on computers, usually with small monitors and slow dial-up modems. Until Apple introduced the first iPhone in 2007, what was a smartphone? Websites were designed to fit narrow computer monitors and limited bandwidth. As time went on, cutting edge sites used Macromedia Flash, later acquired by Adobe. Flash is no longer supported on iOS (meaning any Mac or Apple device), Android devices (in other words, no mobile devices, which are two-thirds of the market), and will see the final nail driven into its coffin at the end of December. Websites now need to be built so that they present full content across all platforms and devices. If you have a narrow website that is not mobile-friendly, and perhaps uses animated GIFs and maybe Flash animation, you are probably wondering what happened to that Blockbuster store where you rented your VHS videotapes.

Mobile-Friendly

Just like we have both lifelong friends and recently made casual acquaintances, there have been many approaches to the presentation of mobile-friendly website content. In the early days (in this case, 2005), as website designers were feeling their way around in the dark, there was a proliferation of separate websites that were intended for smaller displays and limited bandwidth, typically with stripped down content and a .mobi URL. This was sort of like having a car that you drove in the summer and a separate vehicle that you could drive on snowy mountain roads in the winter. When somebody visited a website, they would encounter a link that said “Click here for a mobile version of this site.”

That was inefficient, and the search engines hated it. There were essentially two websites to maintain. Fortunately, these were soon replaced by adaptivewebsites, where the website did its best to detect the device being used and then presented one of two alternate versions of content. There were still two versions of content to maintain. This was sort of like having a big SUV where, when the roads got sloppy, you had to get out and turn the hubs on the front wheels and then engage the transfer case to drive in four-wheel drive.

Finally, responsivewebsite design came along, where one website was designed to detect the device being used and then present content that was scaled to the size of the display, whether it was a phone, a tablet, a laptop computer, or a big monitor. This is essentially the all-wheel drive of websites and could have been the brainchild of Subaru. This is the standard today, and Google and Bing love it.

There are no simple fixes or upgrades to turn an old website into a new responsive site. It is an entirely different framework, and it requires the construction of an all-new site. When a responsive site is being built, there are different approaches: Some website designers tend to first design for mobile devices then let the chips fall where they may on larger displays. Others tend to first design for larger displays, and then optimize the fluid content for smaller displays. Others yet, with no real design experience, rely on templates to do the job for them. In my opinion, due to the small display, almost any responsive website is going to look fine on a phone. Looking really impressive on a larger display, on the other hand, requires a more sophisticated level of design skills that go far beyond just making a bigger version of the content that appears on a phone.

The End User Experience

When you want a customer to get from point A (your site’s point of entry, usually its Home page) to point B (the call to action, the reservation request), you do not want to send them through a maze. This is the same reason that there is a consistent clockwise traffic pattern in almost every major supermarket, where you enter into the produce, fresh bakery, and prepared foods departments; proceed to the deli, meats, dairy and frozen foods; then find the impulse items like candy bars and the National Enquirer at the checkout stands.

Navigating the supermarket aisles is an intuitive process that has been carefully crafted and fine-tuned to maximize sales. The same sort of formulas should apply to your website. People expect to find the navigation either at the top of the page or the left-hand column, floating so they do not have to scroll back up for access. The content should be presented intuitively, organized in a logical fashion that translates into page structure, and nobody should have to search or click to access essential contact information.

The Easiest Approaches

Most small business owners have been convinced in recent years that a content management system (CMS) is essential, giving them the ability to directly maintain their website content. Most have been persuaded that CMS is their key to escaping dependence upon webmasters who charge exorbitant fees and take forever to make changes, a situation which may be far from truthful. Another temptation is to use one of the many “free” website building tools that can be found online. One claims that you will “make a website in minutes … (with) zero code or design skills required”. If you do not quite want to do-it-yourself, another company claims that it will “build you a stunning website in 48 hours” for only $400 per year, including hosting and a domain name. In both instances, try to find a “contact” link on their websites with an address in the United States (or anywhere, for that matter). Then, before getting burned, do a Google search with one of those companies’ names followed by the word “complaints”.

There isn’t a single larger-sized business in America where the owner pretends to be his own webmaster. Can you imagine Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk working on his own website? Recognize the value of having professional guidance and valid marketing advice incorporated into your website. Probably the most important factor is hiring one of the many reputable companies with both an extensive and an intimate understanding of the campground industry. Your business depends upon making the right decision.

Part 2
The Acronyms

Continuing on the theme, allow me to address some of the acronyms that you will want to implement either on your existing website or its successor. These ideas apply whether your site has been built by a company that understands your business and industry, a computer-savvy kid down the road, or that person who you see in your mirror every morning.

CTA

No, not the Chicago Transit Authority, CTA in this instance stands for call to action, a marketing term that references the next step that you want your website visitors to take in order to finalize the intended transaction. Typically, this means guiding people from their point of entry on your site’s Home page to your reservation process. Without smooth navigation and an intuitive end user experience, there can be a disconnection that breaks that intended path from point A to point B. A call to action tends to present an incentive, whether real or perceptual, that keeps people on track and focused.

In an e-commerce environment, that incentive often takes the form of a limited-time discount, a purchase bonus, or free shipping. Another e-commerce incentive that applies to campgrounds takes the form of limited inventory. When somebody wants to camp on the Fourth of July, it is a safe assumption that the demand for campsites will far exceed the available supply. Subtly stress how people should “avoid disappointment” by making their reservations early, with an accompanying “click here to reserve now” link. If they need more information or would like to communicate with you first, be sure that every means of direct contact is immediately accessible, whether they would like to call, email, or send you a private message on a social media site. Both on your website and in any direct communication help them to visualize the difference between everything that your park has to offer versus staying home and dipping their toes in the inflatable kiddie pool in their back yard.

SEO

Whether or not they really understand how it works or what it means, every website owner is at least vaguely familiar with the concept of search engine optimization. Although SEO is treated as a profit opportunity by many website development companies, it is essential if you want your website to be found and highly indexed in online searches. Beware of companies (often contacting you via spam email or telemarketing calls) who promise you #1 search engine placement on Google. 99% of those are scams. You know those telemarketing calls. The caller ID probably shows a local phone number, you answer the phone, wait a second, then hear a “bloop” sound, followed by somebody from a boiler room in Bangalore who tells you his name is Michael. The same people might be calling you another day, pretending that they are from the “Windows Help Desk” or “Apple Care”, telling you that your Windows computer or iCloud account has been compromised and that they are coming to your rescue.

There are no magic wands or shortcuts to effective SEO. Some people try to automate the process, typically using website plug-ins, but there is nothing like carefully incorporating it into the construction of the site. Important components are a carefully written page title, description, proper alt tags behind photos and graphics, open graph content, and a data feed for search engine robots. Most importantly, carefully written text where keywords are king. Many people comment that few people read text these days. Well, my answer is that the 10% of people who still care to read will appreciate the text on your site, and search engine robots devour every word. Make them count!

GMB

Another very important SEO factor is your listing on Google My Business. Your Google My Business profile is extremely important and under your full control. Start by claiming your Business Profile if you have not done so already. Then check that all of the contact information is correct. This includes the name of your business; your correct address, phone number, and website address; and your hours. Your campground is open 24 hours a day, so don’t let potential guests see the word “Closed”. Of course, update these hours in your off-season.

Choose the most appropriate category for your business, if it is not already showing, then choose appropriate secondary categories. There are over 3,000 categories to choose from, so be specific. The most obvious choices are “campground” and “RV park”. You have little control over the description that Google shows; however, you can write a “from the business” description. Select attributes (such as “free Wi-Fi” or LP gas) listing any of the full range of your park’s amenities. Be sure to add (and update!) photos on a regular basis, showcasing only the best available images. You can even add videos and Google 360 videos, all of which help to create greater engagement. Speaking of engagement, ask your best customers to write reviews; post questions and answers; and set up messaging.

KISS

Far from being unique to website, the acronym for “Keep it simple, stupid” should influence most aspects of marketing. Some people seem to think that, when it comes to websites, the more pages the merrier. Not true. Keep it simple and as concise as possible, with navigation that is consistent from page to page, that is located at the top of the page or the left-hand column, and is highly intuitive. Don’t make people guess because there is a chance they will guess wrong, and that is a source of frustration. For example, if the navigation says “Map”, does that mean your park’s Site Map, travel directions on Google Maps, or the “sitemap” of your website. Don’t waste clicks and your visitors’ time. Put your contact information on every page, without forcing people to click on a “Contact Us” link to access that information. Instead of just linking to your social media content, embed it into your Home page. Understand your target market, and ensure that your website is designed to appeal to those demographics – rather than missing the mark. Think smart!

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Gimme Some Truth

November 15th, 2020

“Gimme Some Truth” is one of my all-time favorite John Lennon songs, originally released in 1971 as “Give Me Some Truth” on the Imagine album. It is a song of frustration that addresses the nearly ever-present deception that was running rampant at the time. The song was produced by Phil Spector and featured a slide guitar solo by John’s fellow former Beatle, George Harrison. The song later became the subject of a 2000 documentary film Gimme Some Truth: The Making of John Lennon’s Imagine Album. Perhaps even more relevant today than it was in 1971, Gimme Some Truth is the title of a new deluxe box set of 36 remastered recordings that was released on October 9, 2000 – what would have been John Lennon’s 80th birthday.

I have been thinking the words “Gimme Some Truth” to myself quite a bit lately, not only when I watch the news or when I am presented with online or television advertising, but when I read press releases right here within the campground industry. I have always been a believer in the glass being half full, rather than half empty, and there is certainly nothing wrong with presenting things in a positive light. The problem is when the positive light crosses the spectrum into the realm of absolute deception. Having spent my career in advertising, I know the importance of putting a positive spin on things, but there is a chasm – not a fine line – between a positive spin and alternative facts. Keep this in mind when promoting your own business.

It has always been my belief that with the exception of an occasional run-down park with owners who are overdue for retirement, there are very few undesirable campgrounds, despite what might be suggested by sometimes negative reviews. There are simply instances where, perhaps due to the way that a park has been marketed, the wrong campers choose to book a stay at the wrong campground. Every campground has its ideal clientele, and it is important that your park is not marketed in a way that presents itself as something that it is not, encouraging reservations by the “wrong” campers. It is far better to be booked at less than full capacity than to book even a single guest who will spell trouble.

There is a long list of characteristics that determine the types of campers to which any particular park will appeal. Determine where your park fits within these parameters, then formulate how to positively but accurately portray your park to the masses of campers who are seeking out a park exactly like yours.

  • Is your park considered large, or is it small?
  • Is your park located near major attractions, or is it in a remote setting?
  • Does your park offer non-stop activities, or does it offer guests an opportunity to relax and “get away from it all”?
  • If your park is next to a busy highway, you may want to promote easy access but not peace and quiet. You should also not promote a peaceful setting if your park is down the road from a shooting range, a kennel, or other source of frequent noise.
  • On the same token, do not promote dark skies at your park if the sky actually glows with the light from a nearby shopping center parking lot.
  • Does your park cater to seasonal campers? If so, do your transient campers find it difficult to feel welcome?
  • Does your park cater to big rigs? If so, if tents and pop-ups are allowed, do their owners feel out of place?
  • If your park caters to an older, retired clientele, are families still welcome? Will visiting grandchildren feel like they are in a reform school rather than a campground?
  • Is your campground at the upper scale of predominant rates in your area, or is it highly affordable?

Then there is a set of questions where the answers are not quite black and white, but where the wrong expectations can lead to serious misunderstandings and the ever-dreaded negative reviews:

  • If you say that pets are welcome, do you have a list of breeds that are not allowed? Telling a pet owner that his dog is part of a “vicious breed” is comparable to telling a parent that his child is ugly.
  • If Wi-Fi is provided at your park, are you describing its coverage, bandwidth and reliability without exaggeration?
  • If you say that your park is “handicapped accessible”, is your park truly making an effort toward ADA compliance?

Finally, in the midst of a pandemic, are you making everything as clear as possible prior to your guests’ arrivals?

  • Are you flexible in instances of cancellations and refund requests, particularly during a pandemic?
  • If activities and nearby events are either cancelled or subject to cancellation, and if nearby attractions are closed or operating under limited capacities, are you informing your guests to the best of your ability at the time of reservation?
  • If your guests are required due to either state regulations or simple common sense, to wear facemasks, practice social distancing or avoid assembling into groups, are those policies disclosed at the time of reservation?
  • If your store, snack bar, swimming pool, or other facilities are closed, operating with restrictions or require reservations for use, are your guests aware of those limitations prior to their arrival?

As you can see, many if not most problems arise from a lack of careful and honest communications, and those communications start well in advance of the time of registration. Try not to present your park with the words that you might think your potential guests might like to hear rather than an accurate and thorough description of what the park offers, what it doesn’t offer, and why the majority of your guests like it for exactly what it is. Life is too complicated, and running your business profitably is more challenging now than ever. Help yourself to succeed in that endeavor by treating your prospective guests to the truth that they deserve.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Domain Name Registrations Revisited

October 26th, 2020

I recently had some work done on my car, where I left the shop my wife’s key fob rather than removing my own from a crowded key ring. A few minutes later, the shop called to tell me that the battery was dead in that little-used key fob, requiring that I drive back to the shop and take my own key off of the key ring anyway. Domain name registrations are somewhat similar, where we give little thought to something that we do not use on a regular basis, but that lack of attention can suddenly become important.

One of my clients called me yesterday, when I was able to congratulate him on the impending sale of his business, a small marina on a lake in northern New England. He asked for advice on the transition of the business’s website, and I told him how he needed to ensure that the registrant information for his domain name was updated at the time of sale. The registrant is the owner of a domain name, even though nobody actually “owns” their domain name. Think of it as a long-term lease (from 1 to 10 years) that you enter into with a domain name registrar (the equivalent of a rental agent, in this instance.) That “lease” may be renewed indefinitely, as long as you keep up with your payments.

When selling a business, it is much easier and more efficient to leave the domain name registration with the current registrar. If possible, it makes more sense to simply change the registrant information (name, email address, and other contact information) to that of the new owner rather than fully transferring the ownership of the domain to a new account or a new registrar. When actual transfer of ownership is necessary, I have had transfers complete within minutes, and I have also had transfers that have dragged on for months or failed entirely.

Who “Owns” Your Domain Name?

In another recent instance, I was contacted by the new owner of a campground in Pennsylvania who is looking to replace the website that she inherited from the former owner. Upon doing a whois lookup, I immediately learned that not only had the domain name registration not been updated at the time of sale, but that the former owner never owned the domain name in the first place! The domain had been owned for nearly 10 years by the discount hosting services provider that the previous owner had been using, registered with one of its sister companies. In the attempt to rightfully transfer ownership, the park owner is at the mercy of the website host that they would like to leave.

In yet another recent instance, I was contacted by the owners of a campground in Alabama that has never had a website. The owners are interested in a website now, but the most logical domain name (the name of the park dot com) was registered earlier in the year by the owner of a local tattoo parlor who apparently dabbles in websites. I casually reached out to the owner of the domain on behalf of the campground, but he never even returned my call. In this instance, the campground’s only option is to seek out the next best domain name, but realizing that confusion with that most logical domain name is likely to haunt them for years to come.

Protect Your Existing Domain Name

Protect your existing domain name(s) from potential hijacking. Unless you are certain where your domain name is registered, know that it is locked to prevent transfer, and know its expiration/renewal date, do yourself a favor and perform a whois lookup. Go to https://whois.com/ and enter your domain name. Confirm that YOU are listed as the registrant, not your webmaster or your hosting services provider. This should list your name and your business name and address, along with your email address. You should also confirm that the domain status includes the words “Transfer Prohibited”, “Update Prohibited” and “Delete Prohibited”. If the information is outdated or incorrect, update that information without delay.

If the information in your whois lookup is not recognizable, you may be paying for a so-called private registration. That is probably the most commonly purchased domain name registration add-on, usually incurring an annual fee of $5.00 or $10.00. In almost all instances, a private registration is a waste of money, and it will prevent you from confirming your domain name registration details without logging into your account. When you actually do log in, you might be surprised to find – like the new campground owners in Pennsylvania – that your webmaster or hosting company is the actual registrant (owner) of your domain name. If that is the case, this is something that needs to be corrected immediately. You also want to confirm that the email address associated with your name is not an old AOL email address that you have not used in years, or that your domain is unlocked – which is roughly equivalent to the carelessness of leaving your parked car unlocked on the streets of a major city.

After the registrant, a second important piece of contact information associated with a domain name registration is the administrative contact. This will most often and correctly be the contact information for your current webmaster. The important things are for this to be updated if you change webmaster and for the associated email address to be valid, since the administrative contact is the one to approve (or decline) changes to your domain name registration. I have seen instances over the years where there is a falling out with a webmaster / administrative contact, a situation that can really put a domain name in jeopardy. Though this does not happen often, it usually involves a webmaster who is an estranged family member or a local webmaster who thinks he is owed money or who decides to become vindictive should you decide to take your business elsewhere. Take a moment to confirm that all of the information associated with your domain name registration(s) is correct and up-to-date, avoiding an encounter with last-minute surprises when you are ready to sell your business or otherwise need to make a change. While you are at it, check the batteries in your key fob.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

The Reservation Software Decision

September 4th, 2020

I am probably asked which reservation software I recommend more frequently than any other question. My answer is generally the same each time, responding that I do not recommend any particular reservation software package over another. They all appear to have their advantages and disadvantages, and one that is right for one business may not be right for another. In the 2020 edition of the Woodall’s Campground Management Business Directory, there are 45 businesses listed under the “Reservation Management Systems & Software” category. Essentially, those are too many choices. What I invariably end up doing is to provide a list of questions to ask when comparing the various products on the market.

As with any business investment, you should select software based upon its ability to streamline your workload and increase your profitability. Reservation software is a long-term investment, which is why software is likely depreciated in your accounting and on your tax returns. Consistency is good, particularly when it means that you do not need to learn new processes and your customers are not required to adapt to something unfamiliar. As with anything online, the ultimate determination of success is a highly intuitive end-user experience.

Most reservation systems are part of a broader back office software suite, not simply standalone reservation engines, allowing you to manage your available inventory in real time. They might include customer relationship management and property management system functions. The more robust the package, the more useful the software will be as you manage not only your inventory of campsites and rental units but your overall customer base.

When people tell me that they would like to make a change from an existing software suite, I generally ask them why they are thinking about making a change. Are they contemplating the costs and the learning curve, which also applies to employees? What is it in particular that they dislike about their existing software? I then generally advise them to talk to their existing account representative to see if they can address the new concerns (that may, in fact, not have existed at the time of the original set up.) More often than not, the “problem” is a lack of communication with the existing supplier.

The Important Questions

First and foremost, what are the costs involved? Nothing of value in the business world is free of charge. Is there an initial purchase price, plus a fixed monthly fee or a per-transaction fee? If there are transaction fees, are you expected to pass those along to your customers or are you expected to absorb them into your pricing as a cost of business? Customers will balk at a hefty fee, and absorbing that same fee could seriously impact your profit margins.

Do you have to pay fees on ALL reservations, keeping in mind that most of your customers are finding you from your own website, not the reservation engine? Generally speaking, nobody likes to loosen the lid on a pickle jar, only to pay someone else to actually remove the lid. If you are going to be paying a fee only on stays that are booked through the reservation engine, is the reservation engine competing against your website in search results?

Beyond the pricing issue, here are what I consider to be a few essential questions to ask:

  1. Will you have an account representative assigned to your business to offer support during the setup process, the learning curve, and beyond? Are there limitations or costs to that technical support, or are you simply expected to watch (and understand) video tutorials?
  2. Does it support dynamic pricing? How flexible is your control of that pricing? Keep in mind that you are looking into a long-term investment. Even if you are not engaged in the use of dynamic pricing today, you are highly likely to do so within the foreseeable future.
  3. Does it allow you to determine either a flat or percentage reservation deposit?
  4. Does it allow users to reserve add-ons at the time the reservation is made? For example, can a guest reserve a golf cart, or perhaps linen service in a rental unit?
  5. Of course you expect the reservation process to be responsive, working on both computers and the full spectrum of mobile devices. Do they have a responsive widget that can be embedded into your website? If not, who is responsible for making your landing page look like your website?
  6. Does the reservation engine support languages other than English, not simply using Google Translate?
  7. Is the reservation process ADA compliant? PCI compliant? GDPR compliant (important for any reservations originating from the European Union.)
  8. Can the reservation engine integrate with Facebook, where many of your customers may be ready to book?
  9. If the landing page URL changes, will the old link redirect to the new destination page?

Also important, is the reservation software doing more than passively processing reservations? Does it allow you to follow up with users who do not actually complete the reservation process? E-commerce companies have long utilized “abandoned shopping cart” tracking software, with the understanding that somebody who went through 90% of the buying process is one of your best candidates to turn into a paying customer. Perhaps a person was sidetracked by a phone call, the needs of another family member, or it was simply time to call it a night. A little reminder will not hurt and can often resuscitate the otherwise uncompleted transaction. Choosing a real-time reservation services provider is a very important consideration, which is one of the primary reasons that so many park owners choose to go with a franchise system such as KOA. If you are the more typical unaffiliated “mom and pop” campground owner, you need to make this decision carefully. Too many people have been forced into making a hasty decision because their reservation services provider suddenly ceased operation. Do your homework and make your decision when you are not under duress, choosing a company that you expect to be a key player ten or more years down the road.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Adapt to Changing Times

August 27th, 2020

If there is one thing that is certain with respect to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is that it has almost universally inflicted a negative impact upon small businesses, campgrounds included. It has been a wild and bumpy ride that is far from over as I pen this column in late June of 2020. In most instances, the timing of the pandemic could not have been worse, delaying openings and leading to a wave of cancellations at the start of the season.

Campgrounds that were forced to delay their openings longer than those in most other states, understandably upset that their ability to generate income had been severely hindered, may end up faring better in the long run compared to parks in states that jumped the gun at reopening. With several Northeastern states – particularly New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts – representing early hot spots for the virus, some of the less densely populated states may be hitting their peaks at the height of the summer camping season – a situation that could end up being far worse than a delayed opening.

Wherever you fit in the continually evolving map, there is no question that you are going to have to get creative in order to at least partially offset an overall loss of anticipated income.

Reach Out to Non-Campers

Despite the fact that the airlines and the hotel industry are making serious attempts to persuade the public that they have made changes to safeguard the health and well-being of their passengers and guests, some of the last things that most people want to do at this time would be to take a non-essential flight and stay in a big hotel. There is even less desire to take a cruise (if the cruise lines were open) or to be a part of a large indoor event (if most of them were not cancelled out of respect for both common sense and the public welfare.) The hotel industry is adapting what are called enhanced cleaning protocols to sanitize guest rooms, common areas, and key touch points. For the time being, guests should not expect breakfast buffets, welcome drinks or mini bars, and nobody wants to ride on a crowded elevator with a man who is not wearing a mask and who just sneezed.

With all of the hesitancies that are challenging the hotel industry, campgrounds are rightly perceived as a much safer lodging alternative, particularly those that offer full-service cabins and other accommodations that appeal to people who have been non-campers. Of course, you need to practice those same enhanced cleaning protocols that apply to hotel rooms; however, you should embrace the opportunity to be able to reach out to a new category of guests who are new to the camping experience. This might mean stepping up your offerings of services and amenities that might have been expected in a more conventional setting, many of which offer new opportunities for added income. For example, just as hotel guests might rely on room service to order meals, you might offer deliveries of things like ice, firewood, and even pizza. You might also want to consider advance check-ins, express check-outs, escorting new guests to their sites, and adding branded face masks and sanitizer products to your store inventory.

Consider Extending Your Season

Although experts within the medical and infectious disease communities are currently predicting a 75% likelihood of a second wave of outbreaks in the fall (based upon previous pandemics in 1918 and 1957), should this not occur, you might want to consider extending your camping season beyond its usual closing date. This represents another means of compensating for some of your likely losses both at the start and at the height of your season. The interest in camping is less likely to wane at the end of the summer as may have been the case in past years. Schools may or may not be reopening, and spectator sports like NCAA and NFL football are likely to either be cancelled or have restricted attendance. In normal years, unless your park was located in close proximity to an NCAA college campus or sports stadium, the seasonal interest in these events tended to divert a portion of your guests away from camping. Those guests might now be quite willing to continue their camping seasons, particularly after getting off to a late start.

Recruit Seasonal Campers

There has always been somewhat of a quandary between whether a park should have a greater number of seasonal or transient campers. When occupancy rates are high, there is no question that transient sites generate more income than seasonal sites. On the other hand, seasonal sites represent stable income that is as safe and secure as money in the bank. In 2020, with phased business re-openings in most states, there is no question that predominantly seasonal or all-seasonal parks fared far better than parks that cater primarily to overnight guests. In particular, parks that rely upon their proximity to major nearby attractions have been hurt badly while many of those attractions have remained closed. Hurt even worse have been parks that cater to a highly mobile clientele, located midway along a highway connecting two major attractions.

Now might be the right time to consider converting a number of your park’s overnight sites into seasonal sites. With that same desire for safety and security, many campers are showing a first-time interest in becoming seasonals. Promote the availability of these new sites on your website and social media, not only for 2021 but offering pro-rated opportunities for the current season to your existing guests. If you have transient guests who are returning for multiple stays, reach out to them personally to offer them one or more incentives to become seasonals. Sometimes it is simply a matter of asking them what it would take on your part to persuade them to make the decision.

When it is necessary to adapt to changing times, it is important to be flexible and to think of innovative ways to safeguard your income, profitability, and your ultimate business survival.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

What Is Normal?

July 27th, 2020

We hear a lot of talk about the “new normal” and a “return to normal”, but what exactly is normal? I will admit to being a lover of language and linguistics. The dictionary defines normal as “conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected.” We can also get into some more statistical definitions involving standard deviation from the mean, along with more technical definitions in fields such as geometry, medicine and sociology. Allow me to offer a general definition for normalcy or normality (two synonyms with identical meanings as the more awkward and far less frequently used word “normalness”) as a condition that meets currently conventional cultural expectations. “Current” because what is normal changes over time, and “cultural” because what is normal varies among different social environments. Cricket is fairly unique to the British, bullfighting is fairly unique to the Spanish and football only begins to make sense to Americans, but they are all considered normal in their own environments.

In general, humans are not that interested in what is average, more likely considering it to be either boring or mundane. What we want is something that appeals to us individually and that falls within our own comfort zones. That is part of the big appeal of camping, and that is the reason for such a wide range of choices when it comes to campgrounds. Unless a person suffers from agoraphobia, there is a campground and its accompanying social experience that represents a perfect and easily accessible escape to the comfort of what constitutes that person’s “normal”.

A “Comfort Zone” or a “Twilight Zone”?

The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly thrown us all for a loop. Travel restrictions, social distancing, and the wearing of masks have certainly erected barriers to normal social experiences. As we cautiously evolve toward a state of normalcy – either old or new – comfort zones will vary from one person to another. In the opening narration of the first season of The Twilight Zone, host Rod Serling defined what he called that fifth dimension: “It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge.” We are in that Twilight Zone right now!

For example, as I am writing in early June of 2020, there is no way that I am ready to sit in a movie theater, attend a music festival, sit in a sports stadium, join a peaceful demonstration, take a seat on an airliner, and even think about attending a convention. I have written more than once in the past about my concerns over the lack of sanitation and cleanliness in hotels, and I am not yet assured that the hotel industry is up to meeting the new challenges. I already had no intention of ever taking a cruise again in my lifetime. Maybe I have always been more aware of sanitary standards than the average person, and a compromised immune system makes me ever more cautious; however, until each business category and individual businesses within each of those categories can put me into my comfort zone, those businesses will remain in their own twilight zones.

Campgrounds are in a much more persuasive position when it comes to meeting people in their comfort zones, as well as not worrying about contributing toward a spike in infections. Once interstate travel restrictions are eased, most people realize that staying in their own RV is just as safe as staying at home. Whether under state mandate or an abundance of precaution, it is up to individual campgrounds to offer the assurances that they have implemented measures to ensure the safety of their guests and employees. Some things will need to change, at least for the time being.

Shared Facilities and Group Activities

It is unfortunate that it sometimes takes a pandemic to open our eyes, but change is nothing new, especially when it comes to public health concerns. Two generations ago, who would have thought twice about people sitting around a swimming pool or involved in a group activity while smoking cigarettes? Even a decade ago, nobody would have given any thought to picking up their dog’s waste at the side of a roadway or trail. I am willing to venture a guess that there is nobody who yearns for the days when they could take a leisurely walk and accidentally step in a pile of dog waste.

As we exit from the current crisis, just as important as it is to outline your expectations for your guests’ behavior, it is necessary for you to outline what you are doing to alter your own business practices in the interest of your guests’ wellbeing. These are the assurances that will take those guests – both new and returning – from their twilight zones into their comfort zones, helping your business to recover from what has most assuredly been an economic disaster.

You will want to reassess standards in your shared facilities. This might include spacing out seating areas in pavilions, ensuring that separate employees in your store or snack bar are handling food and financial transactions, actively maintaining a housekeeping checklist in your rental units and restrooms, installing soap dispensers and hand dryers if they are lacking in your restrooms, and installing and maintaining hand sanitizer stations in frequent use areas. You will also want to reassess some of your planned activities and events. This might not be the best time to engage in shared food events such as potluck dinners, barbecues, or make-your-own sundaes. It is probably also not a good time to schedule events that involve close personal contact such as arm-wrestling contests or three-legged races. Your playground should be cleaned on a regular basis, and the clubs and balls on your mini-golf course should be sanitized when returned at the end of a game. A lot of this can be thought of as more of the “new common sense” rather than the new normal. We will get over this. Thinking over the concept of what is normal will help you to financially recover all that much sooner.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Practices and Policies Need to Adapt to Changing Times

April 15th, 2020

Apprehensively but out of necessity, I had to venture to one of our local supermarkets about 10 days ago, in order to stock up on essentials prior to what was predicted to be the coming peak of the COVID-19 pandemic here in the state of Massachusetts. I headed out early, equipped with mask and gloves, in order to quickly run through our household shopping list during the store hours that are designated for those over the age of 60 or otherwise considered high risk for the virus. The fact that the store has designated these exclusive hours represents an example of adaptation to these changing times.

Within the store, my shopping habits needed to adapt as well. Once I grew accustomed to my eyeglasses fogging due to my face mask, I also had to learn to navigate the departments and aisles by following the new red one-way traffic arrows and, of course, maintaining a safe distance between myself and fellow shoppers. There were measures in place to reduce the interaction between employees and customers, such as the deli products being strictly pre-sliced and pre-packaged, as well as the large plastic shields separating customers and checkout clerks. It was not time to casually compare and select fresh produce items, and there were of course many items that either had a very limited selection or were totally unavailable.

If the usual background music was playing, designed to encourage shoppers to relax and linger, I did not notice it. I only noticed announcements about how there should be only one shopper per household, how there would be purchase limits of certain items (including toilet tissue, of course!), how you needed to maintain a six foot distance from other shoppers, and why reusable shopping bags were no longer permitted at this time. At the checkout, my gloved hand held out my loyalty card for the bar code to be scanned, rather than handing it to the clerk, and there was a new set of rules and policies posted on signs affixed to the large plastic shield. One of those new policies was that, during the course of the pandemic, all sales would be final, with no returns, exchanges or refunds. That policy makes total sense under the circumstances.

How Does This Affect Your Business?

Over the years, cancellation and refund policies were established and became the usual practice in the airline, travel, hotel, and outdoor hospitality industries. These policies protected those businesses that were reserving space that could otherwise be booked by other consumers, helping to discourage double-booking and last-minute cancellations. Although there were occasional grumblings and complaints, generally from people who would otherwise abuse the spirit and intent of those policies, most of us recognized and accepted the need for these practices to be in place. These practices were essentially part of a fundamental two-way contract. The customer was being guaranteed a room in a hotel, a seat on an airliner, or a campsite or cabin at a campground, in exchange for a guarantee of payment and a timely arrival at the reserved date and time.

During this same time, supermarkets and most retailers generally established extremely flexible return, exchange, and refund policies. Intended to keep customers happy, the primary rule at the courtesy desk was to ask no questions. The only exceptions were generally for custom-made merchandise, such as a gallon of a blended paint color at a hardware store, or merchandise where returns were prohibited by law, such as undergarments that had been worn. There were many instances when customers abused those policies, exemplified in a short play that I enjoyed not that long ago, involving a main character who predictably each January returned his recently purchased artificial Christmas tree to a department store, seeking a refund. In recent years, the desire to keep customers happy has been compounded by the desire to avoid the reputational damage that can be incurred as the result of online consumer complaints.

The COVID-19 Pandemic Is a Game-Changer

During the current pandemic, it is necessary for all businesses to reassess their policies and to accept the fact that everybody is in the same big boat where we are all hurting. If you own a campground, you know that people would like nothing better than a return to what was normal just a few short weeks ago. Your customers are not cancelling their reservations because they decided to camp elsewhere or because there is rain in the forecast for the upcoming weekend. They are cancelling their reservations either because your state has temporarily shut down your business or out of a legitimate fear that social gatherings could currently lead to either infection or death. In addition, many have lost the security of employment.

With 15 million Americans filing for unemployment claims over the past three weeks, most of us are finding it necessary to limit our expenditures to necessities for the time being. The family who paid a $300.00 deposit to reserve a campsite for July now needs to be concerned about putting food on the table and paying their rent or mortgage.

When this pandemic has passed its peak, but not until we have a proven vaccine, there is going to be an understandably cautious return to the normalcy that we once enjoyed and took for granted. Your business will return, but it is unlikely that it will return as quickly as the opening of the floodgates at a dam. When business eventually returns to normal, the businesses that will prosper will be the ones who treated their customers with respect and understanding, not the ones who pointed to their rules and refused to relax their refund and cancellation policies during this pandemic.

If you would like to offer your guests an option, you could give them the choice between a full refund or an unexpiring credit with a value of 110% of what they paid. For those guests who can afford to forego the refund, consider their deposit as a voluntary loan that will help you to weather the storm. Have confidence that you and those guests will be there when the dust settles.

Remember, we are all facing this crisis together and need to pull together as a nation. We are all hurting.

At the time of this writing, as limited and inadequate as they may be, your small business may qualify for both a COVID-19 Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) and a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, both designated to be at least partially converted into non-taxable grants. Meanwhile, your customer is hoping to qualify for an Economic Impact Payment of only $1,200.00 per adult taxpayer and $500.00 per dependent child, with the expectation that those might not even materialize until September. It is not easy, and it may be painful, but I suggest you to do the right thing regardless of what your cancellation policy has outlined prior to this crisis.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Your Small Business Short-Term Survival Guide

April 2nd, 2020

This morning, as the sun rose on a new day, outside my window I could hear birds singing and see trees budding. We are just short of seeing the first blooms of spring breaking through ground that was covered by a fresh blanket of snow just a week ago. Outside of humanity’s limited perspective, life is going on as usual. For those of us who are sheltering in place and seeing our livelihoods disappear like a magician’s grand illusion, life is anything but normal. None of us can predict where we will be a month from now or beyond. Will we have personally contracted the Coronavirus, and will we be added to the numbers of survivors or the growing numbers of victims? About all we can do is pray for the best and do everything possible to ensure our personal survival. This includes the survival of your small business.

We hear the news reports each day about the massive layoffs of employees in the hotel, restaurant, airline, and retail service industries. Massive retailers such as Macy’s, Kohl’s, Best Buy, JCPenney, and Gap have furloughed hundreds of thousands of employees. When shopping malls and retail stores are closed, it is difficult to keep sales associates on the payroll.

Your Small Business

The big companies and the big industries dominate the news because of their impacts upon larger numbers of people; however, there are some 45 million small businesses in the United States today, ranging from sole proprietorships with a single employee to somewhat larger businesses with fewer than 500 employees. Family campgrounds, as well as the vast majority of suppliers to the industry, fall into this small business “mom and pop” category. If you run a campground, albeit on a smaller scale, you are hurting just as badly as the airlines, hotels, and cruise ship companies. Nobody needs to tell you that your phone is not ringing off the hook with reservation requests.

Absolutely nobody asked for the COVID-19 pandemic, but we are all being impacted. As you probably know, the United States Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act in late March. Several of the provisions of this economic stimulus package are designed specifically to provide assistance to businesses like yours. You simply need to file the applications, and to file them quickly. As I have mentioned, there are some 45 million small businesses in America, and probably 99% of them have been seriously impacted; however, the funds that have been allocated under this massive stimulus package will only cover approximately 1 million claims.

You Are Entitled to Assistance

The first component that is now available is the COVID-19 Economic Injury Disaster Loan assistance program that is administered by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA). This program involves a simple, five-page online application that will entitle you to receive a one-time $10,000 non-taxable, forgivable loan payment. It is essentially a grant that will be issued directly by the SBA and deposited directly into your bank account, designed to help your small business to weather the storm and be ready to welcome guests again when all of this is behind us. It is important for your business to survive and to return to its role as a productive component of our country’s economy, and these funds are intended to help to make that happen. Go here to apply now:        
https://covid19relief.sba.gov/#/

The second component that directly applies to your business is the Paycheck Protection Program. This applies to you even if you are the only employee at your campground, but it is particularly helpful for campgrounds with a number of employees, particularly full-time year-round employees who are essential to the operation of your business. I understand that many mid-sized and larger campgrounds have put their hiring of seasonal employees on hold, but you cannot be expected to find, hire, and train replacements for your management and supervisory staff at a moment’s notice. You need to do everything possible to keep these people on your payroll (and off of your state’s unemployment compensation rolls.)

The Paycheck Protection Program consists of calculated loans that will be forgiven and converted to non-taxable grants as long as the funds are used as intended. The amount of the loan is determined by your documented payroll expenses (including independent contractors who are provided with 1099’s rather than W-2’s) and a simple formula. The general idea is for these funds to be used to help you to keep as many employees as possible on your payroll for 8 weeks, even if they are unable to perform their usual responsibilities. These loans will be distributed through the SBA through local banks. The applications will be available online starting on Friday, April 3, 2020. They will be found here: 
https://www.sba.gov/funding-programs/loans/paycheck-protection-program

In the meantime, contact the bank (credit union, or other lending institution) where you conduct your usual business, to determine whether or not it will be participating in this program. (It is likely that it will be participating, since it will earn fees for processing these loans.) You will otherwise be directed to another nearby bank.

The Bottom Line

As we have heard it said from the many recent White House briefings, “America wants to return to work.” The only way for this to happen is if businesses, both large and small, can survive this current crisis and be ready to open their doors to their customers once again. There was a fight to include small business assistance in what could have otherwise been nothing more than a massive corporate bail-out. It is your responsibility to apply to receive your fair share of assistance. The federal government wants you to return to being a productive taxpayer, your state wants you to keep employees on your payroll and off the unemployment lines, and your campers are eagerly waiting for the time when you can welcome them to a fully operational park.

This post was written by Peter Pelland