Pelland Blog

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

COVID-19: Your Response

March 21st, 2020

There is no question that our world has been turned upside down within the last few weeks. Just when some people were concerned that the spring allergy season was about to begin, we have been faced with a worldwide pandemic of an entirely new and highly deadly virus called COVID-19. One impacted state after another has responded in rather serious fashion, starting with the states that were hit with the earliest concentrations of outbreaks, eventually leading to a nationwide response at the federal level.

Here where I live, in Massachusetts, we have been one of the most highly impacted states after Washington, New York and California. As I am writing, most of our schools and colleges are closed, restaurants and bars are closed, state and municipal offices are closed, shopping malls and most retail stores are closed, and hospitals and nursing homes are closed to visitors. Gatherings of 25 or more people have been prohibited, including concerts, sporting events, theaters, conferences (including at least one campground conference), and even church services and faith-based gatherings. The terms “social distancing”, “self-quarantine”, and “sheltering in place” have been added to our everyday vocabularies.

The Campground Industry

The impacts upon private campgrounds are evolving on a daily basis. Let us start by looking at the positive side of the situation. First of all, Americans are coming together like we have not in years, sharing a common determination to overcome the current crisis. Secondly, we will continue to find a healthy refuge in outdoor environments. If nearby public parks and campgrounds are closed as a result of the pandemic, you may be able to fill a new demand. Thirdly, campgrounds are not being hit nearly as hard as businesses in many other industries, including airlines, cruise lines, travel agencies, hotels, tourist attractions, and restaurants. In that sense, we can count our blessings. On the other hand, many campground owners have told me that their cancellations have exceeded their reservations in recent weeks. Fear and uncertainty do not drive consumer confidence and spending, and families who are facing layoffs at work no longer have discretionary income to spend on vacations.

Your Response

Keeping in mind that we are all in this together, it is time to waive your usual cancellation policies for the time being. Do not even ask questions. The tide will turn, and people will return to the businesses that treated them honorably and respectfully. Next, go out of your way to let your customer base know that you care about their health and well-being and that you are introducing new measures to ensure their safety. It is time for every business to introduce a personalized Coronavirus Statement. This statement should be thoughtfully written and personalized for your own unique situation. Outline any of your recreational amenities or services that will be temporarily closed, curtailed or limited, stressing how those actions have been taken in the interest of your guests and employees. Outline the measures that you have taken to maintain cleanliness in your facilities that remain open, including your store, restrooms, snack bar, playground, fitness room, and rental accommodations.

When you have carefully drafted your statement (and run it by other sets of eyes for proofreading!), share it on social media and post it to the Home page of your website, updating the statement as necessary, as the crisis evolves and hopefully subsides. To post this statement to your website, you can include it as text near the top of your Home page; however, you may want to consider the alternative of providing a prominent link to a PDF file that people may download, particularly if your statement is somewhat lengthy. Another advantage to the PDF option is that it will avoid having text related to the Coronavirus be what search engine robots are indexing, rather than text that outlines the features of your park. One word of caution is to ensure that your PDF file is tagged and ADA compliant. (Remember when ADA compliance was one of your biggest concerns a few months ago?)

The Impact Varies

Some campgrounds will be impacted more than others. If your park’s primary selling point is that it offers a remote natural setting, you might be offering the type of escape that will be sought by an even wider group of people. If your campground has proximity to local, state or federal parks that remain open and offer recreational opportunities, try to capitalize upon that positive situation. On the other hand, if your guests primarily stay at your park due to its proximity to one or more major tourist attractions that have been closed as a result of the pandemic, you will need to improvise a more creative approach. Similarly, if people have historically flocked to your campground to partake in a well-organized activity program, you may need to find alternatives that will involve smaller gatherings and greater opportunities for social distancing. You may want to even rethink or rename certain events. Just this morning, I found myself updating the activity schedule on a campground website, and the annual “Hooray! School’s Out for the Summer” weekend suddenly took on a different and less jovial connotation, at a time when most schools are closed for either the next two weeks or the entire semester. Prepare to adapt and modify your schedule.

Another impact will involve international travelers who would normally vacation in the United States. Many campgrounds have seen a steadily increasing volume of traffic from overseas, and many campgrounds in the Northeast rely upon an annual influx of guests from Canada. Travel from Europe is currently banned, as is traffic in both directions at the border crossings between the United States and Canada. It almost makes one long for the days when the greatest impediment to Canadian visitors was an unfavorable currency exchange rate! On the flip side, gasoline prices are currently at historic lows, which will help to encourage domestic travel.

The bottom line, as I sit here in mid-March, is that we have no idea where the chips will have fallen come Memorial Day and beyond. This may be the summer when people more than anything need to escape to the outdoors and experience a natural setting. It could even be that simply sitting around a campfire could be exactly the cure that the doctor has ordered.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Revisiting Lessons from the Wine Trail

January 20th, 2020

Five years ago I encouraged campground owners to take a close look at the tasting events at wineries. I wrote how wineries – and small wine producers in particular – rely upon tastings as they seek new and expanded markets, and how many campgrounds share the same marketing objectives.

I wrote how tastings meet one of several objectives:

  • To introduce wine enthusiasts who are familiar with a brand, have previously purchased its wines, or who are likely to purchase (often in case quantities) new vintages that they might enjoy.
  • To introduce a winery to connoisseurs who might be unfamiliar with its offerings.
  • To welcome casual wine consumers who are still refining their tastes and who will appreciate the time that is spent to help them to broaden their palates.

As opposed to the free tastings that were commonplace a generation ago, most tastings today are fee-based. Nonetheless, wineries know that their costs of running tastings are roughly twice the actual cost of the wines that they pour. As is usually the case, smaller wine producers have far greater costs and competitive challenges; however, what they also understand is the old adage about having to spend money to make money.

My wife and I recently spent a week touring wineries and attending a variety of mostly private reserved tasting experiences in the Sonoma Valley of California. Fortunately, we were there about two weeks prior to the Kincaid Fire that essentially shut down the county for several harrowing days, when the fires and destruction from the 2017 Tubbs Fire were still in the forefront of most people’s memories and far too evident in Santa Rosa and other parts of the county.

The key to wine events these days – whether in Northern California or at small local wineries that might be closer to your place of business – is to provide visitors with a variety of options. Yes, you can still belly up to the bar with ten or twenty other people for a $20.00 flight of tastings consisting of two ounce pours, usually on a walk-in basis. There are also wineries that schedule weekend entertainers, with outdoor seating to accommodate several hundred people who will buy their wines by the glass or the bottle. Many wineries will also offer pairing options with charcuterie, cheese, or fruit plates, an ancillary source of income.

Regardless of the level of tasting, an important component is the conversation between a knowledgeable person pouring the wine and his guests. People are asked for their thoughts and opinions regarding the taste, flavors that come to mind, and initial impressions. The discussions are always friendly, never condescending, and encourage a sense of discovery.

Our favorite events from our recent vacation week were private 2-3 hour tours and tastings that were reserved weeks in advance. These included a black glass tasting at Matanzas Creek Winery; a Meritage Blending Experience at Dry Creek Vineyard, where we carefully tasted, blended, and bottled our own bottles to take home; a truly behind the scenes tour at Francis Ford Coppola Winery; a private tour and lunch at Benziger Family Winery, led by Jill Benziger; a private tasting of reserve wines at Ledson Winery & Vineyards; and a Pinzgauer Excursion (on a six-wheel European military vehicle) at Gundlach Bundschu Winery and Vineyards, guided by Rob Bundschu. Some of these remind me of my visit to Robert Mondavi Winery back in the mid-1970’s, when Michael Mondavi was pouring the wines at the tasting.

Not everyone who attends a wine tasting makes a purchase of even a bottle of wine, let alone a case or more. That said, most of these pricey private events are tailored toward selling either wine club memberships or cases of reserve wines that are only available at the winery itself but that can currently be shipped directly to consumers in 43 states. Although there is no pressure to purchase (because your tasting fee will already cover all costs), the hosts are earning commissions on sales.

A Campground’s Perspective

Campgrounds can also explore new ways of reaching out to their customers, generally translating into three groups of people who are very similar to the people who attend wine tastings:

  • Your existing campers, who have stayed with you through the years (and sometimes generations!) but who still need to be reminded that you care, that you continue to offer new activities or amenities, and that there is no reason for them to consider camping elsewhere.
  • Campers who have never stayed at your park and who need to meet you and learn about what you have to offer.
  • Non-campers who are just exploring and getting introduced to the concept and need some assurance that they will enjoy the experience.

Either in your early or late shoulder seasons, how about holding a Camper Appreciation weekend, open house, or another special event? How about a private event for your seasonal campers, possibly even being held off-site, where they will be given the opportunity to renew their seasonal contracts for the following year? Make any such events significant and special, with genuine costs incurred on your part. If possible, make it a free event; otherwise, keep the cost to a bare minimum. I am not talking about a potluck dinner, where the people attending are asked to provide the food and you simply provide soft drinks and snacks! This should be a truly memorable marketing opportunity for your park. You may want to consider requiring reservations or capping the total number of people who attend at the number that you can comfortably accommodate.

Keep in mind that not everybody staying at your park is looking for the lowest cost experience. Many are willing to pay for a special and somewhat exclusive experience that has value added. What can you offer that is equivalent to the access to reserve wines that are exclusively available at a winery?

Whether or not you offer a loyalty card, you know the people who are your frequent and most profitable guests. Try to reward them and take them to the next level! Can they be encouraged to become seasonal campers or to stay even more frequently with a simple incentive or two?There are many ways to expand your reach as you seek to introduce new people to your park and to encourage existing campers to become even more profitable. Take some examples from the wine industry and use them to your advantage!

This post was written by Peter Pelland

ADA Compliance and Your Website: A One Year Update

January 10th, 2020

I first addressed the issue of ADA compliance and its impacts upon campground websites in early 2019. In the year since, it has become a recurring nightmare and just about everyone has been made aware of the ongoing problem. Campground owners and website developers have reacted, some have overreacted, and we have all learned a great deal in the process. Rather than rehashing the background of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, its implementation, and the case law history that has encouraged the proliferation of lawsuits against campgrounds and other small businesses, I would like to share some of what we have learned over the past year, offering advice on what you need to do to protect your business.

As the title of a seminar that I recently presented before the Pennsylvania Campground Owners Association (PCOA) would suggest, it is important to separate the myths and rumors from the facts and solutions. Right from the start, let me explain that I am not an attorney and, in most instances, neither are you. If you are the target of what might be considered a frivolous lawsuit introduced by a serial plaintiff and an opportunistic attorney, you need serious legal representation, hiring a defense attorney with specific expertise in these matters. Far from small claims in a district court, these are class action lawsuits entered in federal courts, where the apparent objectives are costly out-of-court settlements.

Lawsuits Have Addressed Both Title II and Title III Complaints

A recent wave of lawsuits randomly targeted campgrounds in the state of New York. The complaints allege violations of both ADA Title II (which includes website construction, including reservation components) and Title III (compliant facilities, such as accessible facilities and rental accommodations.) In fact, one of the most significant website complaints is a failure to adequately outline, in detail, the accessible features within a park. Of course, this in itself presents a Catch-22, where you do not want your website to present an admission of a failure to comply.

The lawsuits that I have seen reference the need for compliance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0), even though these were replaced by WCAG 2.1 guidelines back in June of 2018. It is important to understand that these are only guidelines, since actual regulations were never released, as planned, in 2018. The lawsuits also reference the availability of “several screen reading software programs” for use by the blind and visually impaired, but then specifically references the expensive Job Access With Speech (“JAWS”) screen reader. Free screen reader software can be easily installed on any computer, and will demonstrate that the text is fully readable on almost all websites.

Trust the Competency of Your Website Developer

Regardless of which company you may be using, it is fair to say that if you are working with any of the major website developers serving the family campground industry, you can trust their competence. The greatest risks are when your webmaster is the man in the mirror, your nephew, a local computer shop, or the boy down the road. Remember that it is your business that is at stake. Your website must meet WCAG 2.0 (or 2.1) guidelines. There are online tests that may be run, including the Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool (WAVE) and the PowerMapper SortSite Desktop website testing tool. Though highly inaccurate and full of false positives, they can represent a starting point for evaluation. They use different heuristics for essentially guessing whether or not a site is accessible. For example, some checkers do not know the difference between a missing alt attribute (a very important factor with screen reader software) and one that is intentionally specified as blank. Your webmaster knows the difference.

Presuming that you are taking a proactive approach and have not yet been sued, the following is a list of some of the most important factors to check on your website.

  • Does your website include an “accessibility statement” that outlines how you are making a good faith effort toward being compliant (but NOT admitting a failure to comply)?
  • Do you have “alt” tags (text alternatives) for every non-text element, not just images?
  • There should be no text on your site that is scanned from a document and presented as a JPEG or other graphic file. Is there any text that cannot be selected by dragging your cursor?
  • Are you identifying the site’s language (typically “en-us” to indicate “English” with the “United States” subtag), allowing text readers to more easily identify the language used?
  • Does each page on your website have a unique and adequately descriptive title?
  • Can the text on your site be resized up to 200% and maintain its clarity?
  • Are all forms properly tabbed for easy keyboard navigation?
  • Do your forms (including third-party reservation forms) offer alternatives and suggestions for input errors?
  • Do your text and background colors maintain a high contrast ratio, avoiding text that overprints images?
  • If videos on your site include any spoken words, are the videos captioned?
  • Does your website allow users to pause and stop any moving content?
  • Does your website avoid content that changes upon visual interaction, such as so-called “mouse-over” or “hover” content?
  • Are PDF documents on your website tagged and compliant with PDF/UA (ISO 14289) and WCAG 2.0 standards?

Many of these standards have been long followed by website designers for a variety of reasons. For example, “alt” tags that are used by text readers are also read by search engine robots, and tabbed forms enhance usability for all users.

Talk with Your Insurance Agent

I am hoping that most people reading this article have not yet been victimized by an ADA compliance lawsuit. If you have not been sued, it is safe to say that it could happen at any time. It is not a matter of “if” but a matter of “when” it is your turn. Fortunately, every commercial insurance carrier serving the campground industry offers what is known as cyber insurance coverage that will provide coverage under these and a variety of other computer-related circumstances. Consider this a necessary cost of doing business, and contact your insurance agent without delay.

Final Warnings

You should also be aware that, although frequently evaluated in visual terms that impact the blind and visually impaired, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 also prohibits barriers to the deaf, dyslexic, or people with cognitive issues or learning disabilities. We are currently only seeing the tip of the iceberg.

Many people are trying to capitalize upon the current fears and hysteria. Keep in mind that no website developer can build you a website that is guaranteed to be 100% ADA compliant (short of a site that consists of nothing but bold black text on a white background.) Avoid the temptation to believe that a compliance widget will solve your problems, even though it might help you and your webmaster to feel good. If you would like your website to include a tool such as the Userway Web Accessibility Widget, that is fine but keep in mind that it is not a substitute for proper coding and that it does not perform any functions that a handicapped person cannot already perform without the use of the widget. On the other hand, it might serve as one step toward potentially persuading a judge or jury that you are making a good faith effort at compliance.

Above all else, do not panic and overreact. Some people have gone to the extreme of taking down their websites or redirecting their URL to their Facebook page. Even temporarily, that will inflict major harm upon the search engine ranking that you have worked so hard to build over the years. You may as well disconnect your telephone or take down the sign at your entrance. We are living in a complicated world, where it is important to adapt to changing circumstances, not retreat into a cave.

This post was written by Peter Pelland