Pelland Blog

Ten Common Website Mistakes to Avoid

July 29th, 2019

The biggest mistake that many small business owners might make would be to build and maintain their own website. Sure, companies like GoDaddy, Wix, Weebly, and Vistaprint make it look like an easy task that anybody can handle, but do you simply want a website or do you want a website that can effectively compete online? Playing part-time webmaster when your business is at stake is clearly an example of being penny wise and pound foolish.

The next temptation is to hire one of the thousands of amateurs who hang out a “webmaster” shingle simply because they can navigate their way around the basic use of a CMS website building platform. That might be the computer repair shop in town that is trying to keep itself busy or even a family member or that “nice kid who knows a lot about computers” down the road. Inevitably, these people know very little about how to generate effective online buying decisions, and they absolutely understand zero about your particular business and its competitive environment.

Whether you insist on building your own site, or whether you simply want to keep an eye on your webmaster, there are a few common mistakes that you will want to avoid. Usually these mistakes are errors of omission, but they can also be reflections of careless work habits.

  1. Ignoring Mobile Devices: Checking the Google Analytics of two client websites in recent days, I was astounded to see that over two-thirds of traffic was now coming from users of smartphones, with conventional desktop and laptop computers coming in third to tablets. If your site is not mobile-friendly, you are turning away a tremendous portion of your market. Do not be deceived by the fact that almost any website may be viewed on a smartphone. There is a big difference between being able to view a site and actually engaging in a non-frustrating experience. Has your site abandoned the use of Flash (a popular way to present dynamic website content until support was dropped by iOS and Android devices), is content scaling down to the size of the display, does the navigation work with pudgy fingers, and can users tap a phone number displayed on your site to initiate a phone call?
  2. Google Analytics: Yes, that comes next on the list. One of the biggest mistakes that can be made is to have a website without the advantage of running Google Analytics. It is a free tool, it is easy to install, and it provides a wealth of extremely valuable information regarding the visitors to your site, traffic sources, and much more.
  3. Using Templates and Ignoring META Content: I am amazed at how many website titles display as “Just another WordPress site” because the webmaster did not take the minimal time and effort (or perhaps did not have the knowledge) to substitute an appropriate keyword-based title for the default template setting. A site’s title tag is critically important in organic search, and nobody is ever going to search for the term “just another WordPress site campground”, so it should be clear that having that as your site’s title will put your park at a severe disadvantage. Without naming names, I just found campgrounds suffering from exactly this failure located in Wisconsin Dells, WI; Marcellus, MI; Crossville, TN; Antonito, CO; Fletcher, NC; and Calvert City, KY.
  4. ADA Compliance: Many of the factors that determine whether or not a website is ADA compliant involve the same META content that search engine robots love. These include image ‘alt’ tags and a site’s language tag. Other factors are part of a site’s mobile-friendliness, including scalable text. Your site should also maintain a proper contrast ratio between text and background colors, the site should be navigable by keyboard, and videos should be captioned. Very importantly, let people know about any accessible accommodations and facilities at your park.
  5. Orphans: I am not talking about Mickey Rooney and Boys Town. I am talking about pages on a website that fail to link back to the other pages of the site. Sort of like a dead end in a corn maze or a hall of mirrors, orphan pages are very frustrating to site visitors.
  6. Broken Links: Formula 409 is a well-known cleaning and degreasing product that has been around since the 1950’s, but 404 error messages on a website are about as popular as a “door-buster” item at Walmart that is out of stock the moment the store opens and the sale begins. People see these frustrating messages when they click on a broken link, typically because a page has been deleted without updating its incoming links.
  7. Unencrypted E-Mail Links: You would not display your credit card number on a poster in Times Square, and you would certainly not hand out keys to your home or automobile to total strangers, so why would you display an unencrypted e-mail address on your website? Without encryption, the message to e-mail address harvesting spam robots is “Here I am. Come get me!”
  8. Broken Graphics: One of the telltale signs of a beginning webmaster is broken graphics. If graphics are linked to files on a local computer, they will appear normally, but only on that computer. Anybody accessing the page from any other device anywhere in the world will see a broken graphic link.
  9. Slow Loading Images: Have you ever visited a website, only to watch images slowly loading, as if they were being slowly painted onto your screen? Almost inevitably, it is because the person maintaining the site has used enormous photos on the pages then has those images being scaled down to size by the browsers of end users. The enormous files are being needlessly downloaded, then resized, when properly sized and optimized images would have loaded immediately.
  10. Out of Date Content: You would not buy a gallon of milk that was past its expiration date, would you? Well, why would you expect people to “buy” what you are selling on your website if its content looks like it is way past its “best used by” date? Specifically, rates and schedules should show the current year. Particularly when it involves pricing, nobody wants to make a buying decision when there is pricing uncertainty.

These are only 10 common mistakes that webmasters frequently make. The overall best advice is to avoid working with that webmaster in your mirror (or that clever kid down the road) and to choose one of several professional companies that understand the campground industry and with reputations you can trust. You have better things to do than look for mistakes on your website … or to deal with the consequences of those mistakes.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Small Businesses Are Special

June 12th, 2019

I have always had an affinity for small family-owned businesses. I was raised in a small business environment, I own and operate a small business, and most campgrounds are small businesses. My favorite clients are probably otherwise known as Mom and Pop. What we have in common is a willingness to work endless hours and the ability to wear a variety of hats during the course of the day.

My small business experience began during my early childhood. My father’s business was located on the same parcel of property as our home, and I was fortunate enough to be able to appreciate the continuous overlap between our family life and business. Sometimes it’s just in your blood to control your own destiny and be your own boss, although you quickly understand that you are actually working for your customers. My father was one of 10 children of French-Canadian immigrants who built their lives out of virtually nothing, and most of his siblings were also small business owners.

In my father’s instance, his destiny was in the wholesale produce business, leaving high school in his junior year when he was offered a partnership in an existing business that he grew into that home-based business and a warehouse that was built the year I was born. When I was in grade school, I could not wait to return home in the afternoon to see what chores I could be assigned in the warehouse, even though most of the activity took place much earlier in the day. When I was a 16-year-old high school student, I remember getting my driver’s license one morning and being sent off by myself in a truck to pick up a load of butternut squash that afternoon at a farm in the next county.

What I learned from my father I also see when observing my clients at work and fellow vendors at trade shows. In addition to the aforementioned commitment to long hours, I find that the key ingredients to success are a commitment to quality, a willingness to take risks, and the ability to innovate. Above all else, it involves a total dedication to the needs of your clientele.

My father’s customer base consisted of a combination of small businesses and larger commercial enterprises. Those customers included corner grocery stores (and later convenience stores), supermarkets, restaurants, caterers, schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and the commissary at the nearby air force base. At an earlier time, before I was born, truckloads of produce would be driven non-stop to be unloaded into the backs of transport planes that were part of the Berlin Airlift.

As times changed, my father’s customer base changed. In 1958, the “Chef” potatoes that were peeled and prepared by hand in virtually every food service operation in the country were suddenly replaced by the frozen French fry. Three railroad carloads of Maine potatoes sat and rotted in a new warehouse expansion that had been built specifically for their short-term storage. The crystal ball was not always crystal-clear, and the risks involved in the perishable food industry have always been enormous. It was important to explore new product offerings and to respond to new customer demands. Exotic fruits were introduced, and ethnic Asian and Hispanic businesses had demands for produce that had been previously somewhat “foreign”. Soon thereafter, organic produce became a major product line rather than merely a niche.

In every instance, it was important to not only respond to customer demands but to attempt to forecast that demand, influencing it through marketing that was based upon inventory of a highly perishable product line. It was also important to source produce as locally as possible, at least on a seasonal basis. Although primary sources of supply were large regional distribution centers (in our instance, Boston) with railroad sidings and easy highway access, every effort was made to buy directly from local farms during their harvest seasons. Freshness was mission-critical, along with same-day delivery – usually within two to three hours.

In the years since my family business experience, the produce industry – like the campground industry – has changed dramatically. Large buying groups were designed to eliminate the middleman, with large supermarket chains and food distribution networks like Wal-Mart, Whole Foods and Costco having the power to buy direct, providing their own transportation, warehousing, and distribution network. For the smaller buying organizations, the integral role that was played by wholesalers such as my father’s business was replaced by much larger food distribution companies such as Sysco, U.S. Foodservice, Performance Food Group, and Gordon Food Service – each of which maintains dozens of distribution centers throughout the United States.

With all of this background in my blood, it is easy to understand how I have an appreciation for smaller small businesses, and campgrounds provide a very natural fit. Fortunately for campgrounds, the vendors within the industry provide a myriad of opportunities to work with businesses that are similarly sized – or even smaller than most campgrounds themselves. I would encourage you to maintain loyalties with vendors that have proven their reliability and commitment, thinking “small” or more “local” whenever it makes practical sense. As I walked the halls of industry trade shows in recent months, it was easy to spot not only new vendors within established product and service categories, but also several startup companies with new approaches to old ideas, as well as some with entirely new ideas that might benefit your business. Be open to considering what they have to offer, understanding that they may or may not offer any advantages whatsoever over working with proven performers. Ask them to share their visions, explaining the problems their businesses are designed to solve, and giving them an opportunity to listen to you. Generally speaking, vendors who take more time listening and getting to learn about your business, rather than telling you about their products, are the ones whose trust you want to establish and maintain for years to come.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Is Your Customer Service Succeeding or Failing?

May 2nd, 2019

I attended a trade show in Florida late last year, flying into and out of Daytona Beach International Airport, a smaller airport that is serviced by only three airlines (Delta, American, and JetBlue) with a limited number of arrivals and departures. During the event, we stayed at the Hilton Hotel that was the designated host hotel for the conference. At the close of the conference, we were anxious to return home to Bradley International Airport. We had a connecting flight in Charlotte, where the airlines were already cancelling flights in advance of a large storm that had a bullseye on the Carolinas. Timing was critical.

Our flight out of Daytona Beach was on a plane that arrived with a mechanical issue that needed to be addressed, delaying departure on this, the last flight out of the airport for the evening. The delays were extended, due to the fact that there are no technicians available in Daytona Beach to sign off on a safety report. The plane was not moving until after a technician could drive in from Orlando. The gate counter had a line of people who were trying to explore their alternatives, essentially the choice between spending another night in Daytona Beach or waiting for the plane to be approved for its late departure. Unless your final destination was Charlotte, you were going to be stranded there for at least another day.

Some of the passengers were more irate than others, taking out their frustrations on the gate agents, seemingly without understanding that the situation was beyond the control of those airline employees.  In our instance, treating them with due respect, one of the gate agents and her supervisor went well out of their way to find alternate arrangements to get us home with the least delay possible. Flying to another airport, such as Boston or Providence, was not an option because our car was parked at our home airport outside of Hartford. American Airlines departures from Daytona Beach only fly to Charlotte, so our workaround involved getting us to another airport with alternate destinations.

The airline pulled our checked bags (refunding our baggage fees), paid for a taxi to take us to the airport in Jacksonville, arranged for a ticket agent to work overtime to meet us at the ticket counter in Jacksonville (that was otherwise closed by the time of our arrival), and paid for us to spend the night at a Hilton Hotel near the airport so we could catch an early morning flight that would connect in Philadelphia rather than Charlotte – ahead of the coming storm. This was customer service above and beyond anything that could be reasonably expected. Let me add that we were not flying first class but in economy seats.

If you have been following the news recently, you probably recall that several airlines have suffered some widely reported public relations disasters. There was the United Airlines incident where a passenger’s puppy died after they were forced to stow it in the overhead bin and another incident where a passenger was dragged from an overbooked United Airlines flight when he refused to voluntarily surrender his seat to another passenger. Recovering from bad press can be a slow and difficult process. Fortunately for most small businesses, customer relations incidents generally occur on a one-on-one basis. As long as you do the right thing, reasonable people will appreciate your efforts. These are example of successful customer service. The customer service failures in this story begin with Hilton Hotels.

The ticket agent working overtime at the American Airlines counter in Jacksonville was tasked with making our hotel arrangements at the nearby DoubleTree by Hilton airport hotel. When he called both Hilton reservations and the local hotel’s front desk, he was told that no rooms were available. I fired up my laptop, went to my Hilton Honors account, and saw that there were plenty or rooms available at the hotel. What Hilton would not do – after 10:00 PM on a night where they had dozens of vacant rooms that would otherwise generate zero income – was honor the so called “distressed passenger” discounted rate that is the usual arrangement between hotels and the airlines. We had to pay for the room ourselves, and then provide a receipt to the airline for reimbursement (which was processed and paid quite promptly.) Think of this from a campground’s perspective. If you have unsold inventory at the last minute on the day before the start of a summer weekend, you are likely to offer space at a discount rather than leave a site vacant. For a hotel, 10:00 PM on the night of arrival is definitely the last minute to sell an otherwise vacant room.

Also if you have been following the news, you know that both Hilton Hotels and its DoubleTree brand have suffered some public relations disasters over the past year, not the least of which was the incident in December of 2018 where a registered guest (who happened to be African American) was evicted from the DoubleTree Hotel in Portland, Oregon for using his cell phone in the lobby. With bad press like that, you would think that DoubleTree by Hilton Hotels would be going out of its way to try to cater to its customers. Public relations disasters are almost always preventable, and public relations success stories almost always result from employees who have been empowered to do the right thing, every time and under all circumstances. Of course, this does not mean that every Hilton or DoubleTree Hotel is problematic, but bad press for any member of a franchise casts a shadow of doubt over the entire chain.

Some might argue that providing exceptional customer service is too costly and time-consuming or that the good deeds are rarely recognized beyond the direct recipient. I would argue that consistently positive customer relations can serve as the foundation of a company’s success. In the long run, it is a winning strategy.

Wait, There’s More …

Did I mention how pleased I was with American Airlines? Well, it did not take long for this enthusiasm that American Airlines had generated to get flushed totally down the drain. Allow me to explain …

Three months later, I happily returned to American Airlines to book a flight from Hartford to Colorado Springs, paying $463.00 for my round-trip fare. My return flight was one of 40 flights that were cancelled on March 7, 2019 when 14 of American Airlines’ Boeing 737-800s were taken out of service due to mechanical issues with overhead bins.

Upon notification of the flight cancellation, I called and spoke with an American Airlines ticketing agent who, over the course of a lengthy telephone conversation, assured me that my ticket had been transferred to United Airlines for a return to Hartford via United. On the basis of this assurance, I checked out of my hotel, returned my rental car, and proceeded to the United Airlines ticket counter in Colorado Springs, where I was told that I did not have a ticket.

Going back and forth between the United and American ticket agents in Colorado Springs, I was told that American Airlines would not transfer my ticket because I had purchased a basic economy fare. I understood that this fare meant that I would board in the last group, not have pre-assigned seating, would not be eligible for upgrades, and that I would not qualify for flight changes or refunds due to changes in my plans. I was there to fulfill my end of the agreement and was not of the understanding that this fare would disqualify me for the transfer of my ticket to another airline in an instance of a mechanical failure on the part of American Airlines.

Without any viable options, I paid United Airlines $1,312.00 (plus a $30.00 baggage fee) for economy seating on my return flight. The American Airlines ticketing agent in Colorado Springs told me that I could contact American Airlines for reimbursement for the unused portion of my fare. I requested not only that reimbursement but reimbursement for the full amount that I paid to United Airlines after I had been told that American had transferred my ticket.

While I understood that American Airlines was under no obligation to offer me this compensation, I would hope that under consideration of my past loyalty and future travels, it would choose to do the right thing. It did not. It has been over 6 weeks since I wrote to American Airlines, and they have not even responded to my letter, let alone issue a refund. I know that, like several other airlines, American has been taking a hit with the grounding of its Boeing 737 Max 8 fleet. On the other hand, they have not been too preoccupied to prevent them from spamming me on a daily basis, promoting dubious travel deals and a variety of ways to earn AAdvantage miles. I will pass.

The lesson I have learned, in addition to NEVER again buying a basic economy airfare ticket, is that big companies like American Airlines can never be trusted to do the right thing in the long run. My enthusiasm has been crushed, and my loyalty has been obliterated. Thanks for nothing, American Airlines!

This post was written by Peter Pelland

ADA Compliance and Your Website

February 10th, 2019

In recent weeks, a growing number of campgrounds have received letters and phone calls from legal entities raising questions regarding their websites’ compliance with ADA standards. In this case, ADA stands for the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Signed into law by President George H.W. Bush, the ADA was a natural extension of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibiting discrimination against people with disabilities in all aspects of public life. At its signing, President Bush said, “This act is powerful in its simplicity. It will ensure that people with disabilities are given the basic guarantees for which they have worked so long and so hard: independence, freedom of choice, control of their lives, the opportunity to blend fully and equally into the rich mosaic of the American mainstream.” In 1990, the Internet as we know it today did not even exist, and interpretation of the law today is far from simple.

The ADA is comprised of sections referred to as “titles”. Title I prohibits discrimination in the workplace by any employer with 15 or more full-time employees. Clearly, this applies to the hiring practices of larger campgrounds. Title II prohibits public entities from discriminating against “qualified individuals with disabilities” by excluding them from services and activities. Title III requires that newly constructed or altered public accommodations comply with ADA standards. For campgrounds, considered “public accommodations”, this is why your new restrooms and other remodeled facilities must be universally accessible. Titles II and III have also raised issues regarding accessible swimming pools and accommodations for service animals. Titles IV and V cover telecommunications (closed captioning) and miscellaneous provisions that are of lesser concern for your business.

Title II Is the Basis for the Current Problems

Originally applied to state and local governments, the definition of what constitutes a “public entity” has become far more broadly interpreted. The Internet and websites (which, as you recall, did not exist in 1990) are now being challenged as “places of public accommodation” due to the way in which they are accessed. This interpretation has been encouraged by legal challenges; most notably the Winn-Dixie case in 2017, where a plaintiff in Florida was successful in one of over 175 (as of November 2018) such lawsuits that he has filed against businesses with websites claimed to be partially inaccessible to the blind. His attorneys were awarded over $100,000.00 in damages. In addition to South Florida, popular federal court jurisdictions for the filing of such suits include Western Pennsylvania, California, and New York City, according to Forbes Magazine.

Regulations regarding websites were slated to be finalized in 2018, but those standards were put on hold under the Trump administration. On the surface, that would appear to be a prudent move that provides relief for small businesses. Unfortunately, actual regulations (as ill-advised as they may have been) are replaced by extensive recommendations, and a “Wild West” of lawsuits appears to be on the horizon. The ability of robots to search for vulnerable websites has opened up new opportunities for eager attorneys representing not only the blind but individuals with low vision or cognitive impairments, as well as the deaf, using either computers or mobile devices.

In lieu of regulations, highly confusing recommendations have been put forward by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the international standards organization that develops protocols and guidelines for the Internet. Its Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) has developed a set of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the most recent version being WCAG 2.1, released in June 2018. The guidelines are broken down into three levels: A, AA, and AAA, where “A” is the most basic and “AAA” is the most extreme.

Meeting “AAA” standards would be prohibitively costly and would severely impede the online marketing efforts of most businesses. On the other hand, most websites are already in compliance with the “A” standards. In the event of a legal challenge, it is widely believed that a small business that shows a good faith effort at providing “reasonable accessibilities” on its website would prevail in its defense. This appears to translate into an attempt to meet as many “AA” standards as practical. The people who will face the greatest challenges are do-it-yourself webmasters. On the other hand, no website design company will realistically ensure 100% compliance with the existing standards.

I am not an attorney. Should you receive any communication regarding the ADA compliance of your website, you are advised to contact your attorney for legal guidance.

Presuming that you are simply taking a proactive approach, the following is a list of some of the most important “A” and “AA” standards.

  • Create “alt” tags (text alternatives) for all images and media files.
  • Identify 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.
  • Forms should be properly tabbed for easy keyboard navigation.
  • Offer alternatives and suggestions for input errors on forms.
  • Provide a consistent navigation and layout throughout the site.
  • Ensure that text may be scaled up to 200% of size without causing horizontal scroll bars to appear or breaking the layout.
  • Ensure that text and background colors maintain a high contrast ratio.
  • Allow users to pause and stop any moving content.

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.

If you are interested, the far more extreme “AAA” standards partially include sign language translations for all videos, text alternatives for videos, 100% keyboard access, definitions for unusual words, explanations of words that are difficult to pronounce, text using a basic reading level, and no time limits or interruptions of page content.

There are online tests that will allow you to check your website for compliance red flags. One of these is the WAVE web accessibility evaluation tool. There are other fee-based online service providers that offer tests and remediation. One such site that I found at the top of a Google search had an image with a missing “alt” tag right at the top of its own Home page, a very basic compliance failure. We are wading through some very murky waters. As always, you need to stay informed. With typically narrow profit margins, it is hard to imagine any business that would willingly fail to welcome all potential guests.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Liability Releases: Better Safe than Sorry

January 25th, 2019

Liability can take many forms, and it is important for every business to take reasonable precautions to protect its interests in the event of either physical or emotional injury claims on the part of guests. Injuries of either type may often lead to claims for compensation and damages, even when the injuries are the result of reckless behavior on the part of a guest or the failure to follow posted rules and regulations. Businesses with greater inherent risks of injury must take greater precautions to protect themselves from the threat of lawsuits.

Campgrounds with greater inherent risks might include parks with ziplines, shooting ranges, river rafting, paintball fields, mountain biking, mechanical bulls, and climbing walls; however, every park has liabilities, and there are probably more personal injury attorneys within a 50-mile radius of your park than there are churches, schools, and hospitals combined.

Many campgrounds utilize blanket release forms known as crowd releases. Crowd release forms are generalized notifications that your guests are surrendering their reasonable rights to sue pursuant to their use and enjoyment of your park and its facilities, and they typically apply to the taking of photographs or videos. A crowd release will warn people that photography and filming may be ongoing at any time, that the images may be used in any and all media, in perpetuity, and that the guest consents to the use of his or her image without compensation by nature of entry; however, crowd releases rarely cross the line and attempt to cover the issues of physical liability. Crowd release forms also constitute rather weak defenses in a court of law.

If your park offers recreational amenities or activities with greater inherent risk, you will want to incorporate some very specifically detailed liability releases. There is no question that risky activities offer a great deal of appeal, particularly among younger guests, and can go a long way toward expanding a park’s customer base; however, it is necessary for your business to take reasonable measures to ensure the safety of its guests and to take measures to protect itself against lawsuits that may result if injuries are inflicted during the pursuit of those activities. Needless to say, the incorporation of these precautions should go hand-in-hand with the purchase of suitable liability insurance.

Downhill skiing and snowboarding are activities where participants assume a degree of risk. For years, the National Ski Areas Association has promoted a Responsibility Code that has attempted to shift responsibility for injuries upon skiers and snowboarders, not the ski area operators. The code advised users to ski in control, be able to stop at all times, avoid those downhill, yield to those uphill, not stop where they would obstruct a trail, utilize retention devices, observe signage, keep off closed terrain, and know in advance how to use lifts.

The Responsibility Code was a start, but the extensive text printed on the backs of most lift tickets these days is now designated as a “Ski Ticket Contract and Express Assumption of Risk”. The following text is typical and taken from the back of a recently issued lift ticket: “I accept and understand that skiing, snowboarding, and other forms of winter mountain sports are hazardous, with many inherent risks and resulting injuries or death. By my purchase and use of this ticket, I freely and willingly accept and voluntarily assume all risk of property damage, personal injury or death which results from my participation in winter sports activities and the inherent risks of such activities as they are defined herein.” This statement is followed by an extensive paragraph that itemizes those inherent risks, both natural and man-made.

One might think that this broad wording would release the business operator from almost all liability; however, the ski industry takes added measures to reduce the risks of injury, including the use of ski patrollers to open and close trails during the course of the day, sweep trails at the end of the day, and evacuate injured skiers from the slopes. Grooming, signage, the increased use of helmets, and improvements in the safety of equipment also help to reduce the likelihood of injuries. Despite all of these efforts to reduce liability, enforceability is never ironclad. In December 2014, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that a season pass waiver was unenforceable, opening the way to a $21.5 million personal injury lawsuit, and this ruling has since been used to chip away at the overall validity of waivers and releases.

Bearing in mind the potential legal issues of enforceability, parks that provide higher risk amenities should follow the lead of not only the ski industry but also the amusement park industry, which routinely enforces height, weight and age restrictions, along with providing a long list of health conditions that should preclude participation. Those conditions typically include, but are not limited to, pulmonary problems, high blood pressure, cardiac disease, pregnancy, obesity, seizures, prior injuries, fear of heights, and psychological or psychiatric problems. Yes, that list covers just about everything. Health issues require a separate signed waiver.

When I enjoyed the use of a high ropes and zipline course recently, I signed both a written liability release and a health waiver. I was provided with copies of each, I was provided assistance in properly suiting up for the activity, and I was provided with basic instruction in the use of the equipment. In another recent outing, I visited a resort that operates mountain biking trails and a mountain coaster. At this facility, guests are directed to a row of computer kiosks where liability releases and health waivers are digitally signed before tickets may be purchased.

There are a number of companies that provide reasonably priced digital release services that work with either computer kiosks or mobile apps. These services save time, avoid the generation of a mountain of paperwork, are secure, offer cloud storage, provide analytical information, and can even integrate with email marketing programs as a means of generating return visits. Some services even allow seasonal businesses to adjust their subscription services between their peak season and off season. A few of the companies that you may want to look into include:

Whether your park uses crowd releases, liability releases, health waivers, or a combination of all three, it is important to make every effort to protect its interests and to avoid the many catastrophic impacts of personal injury lawsuits.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

The Basics of Branding

January 1st, 2019

If somebody asked you the name of the font used on your latest brochure or directory ad, would you be able to answer that question? In fact, if you paid somebody to design that advertising for your business, how long would it take that designer to identify the font? I actually encountered a situation about a year ago where a campground owner asked her website designer for the name of the font that was used as a substitute for a logo on her website. The website designer responded that she did not know, and that it was “just something that she thought looked nice.”

According to Thomas Phinney, the CEO of FontLab, there are perhaps 300,000 fonts in the world today, contained within about 60,000 font families (representing variations of a single font.) Those 300,000 fonts are not your biggest concern; however, the fonts that are used in your own advertising – from your website to print to signage to apparel – should all be singularly consistent. Fonts are one of the key components of branding, where “close enough” or “looking nice” is just not good enough to protect the integrity of your business.

There is only one font that represents such universally recognized brand names as Ford, Coca-Cola, AT&T, and Kleenex. For example, the font used in the Coca-Cola logo is called Spencerian script, a popular font in the United States from about 1850 to 1925, adapted by Coca-Cola in 1885 with special alternate character ligatures for the capital letters “C”. Needless to say, that font has shown some staying power! Also script based, the Kleenex logo is based upon the Montauk Pro Bold font, with proper kerning to connect the letters as if they were written with one continuous swipe of a marker.

Fonts such as these were not chosen randomly, even though we years later think of them as everyday acquaintances. The characteristics of various fonts trigger a series of predictable emotions – from strength and reliability and trustworthiness to modernity and cutting edge and fun. These fonts then go hand in hand with color, which is also anything but random. I still own sets of the old Pantone® Process Color System swatch books that were the color reference standard in the days before the personal computer came into everyday usage. Those color values allowed designers to communicate color values with a consistency from one project to another, allowing for the matching of very specific colors on press. In theory, computers and monitors today can reproduce as many as 16.7 million colors, described as various combinations of red, green, and blue (RGB) color pixels. In practice, those colors are often difficult to share from one computer to another because identical colors may appear with considerable differences when viewed on two uncalibrated monitors.

Then there is the issue of the differences between the RGB (monitors) and CMYK (print) color spaces, which do not even come close to perfectly overlapping and translating from one to the other. Generally speaking, if colors are to be reproduced both online and in print, it is necessary to work in the CMYK color space, where the differences will be less pronounced when converting to RGB than when converting in the opposite direction. None of this is particularly easy, which is part of the rationalization for turning to experts for assistance. When you thought Kodak®, you thought yellow and red, and when you think UPS®, you think brown, but the world has gotten more complex. Fonts and colors are only two components that come into play in the design of an effective logo that will stand the test of time. (Keep Coca-Cola in mind as your long-term goal!)

You can design your own logo, use clipart, buy one online for $79.00, or find thousands of graphic design hobbyists who will design you a logo, of sorts, for $5.00 on fiverr.com. You will get what you pay for. Work with a single designer (it is not a competition!), expect multiple concepts and revisions, reject clip art, expect multiple formats including a vector file, and expect to pay a fair price. Ask yourself if that designer in Bangladesh or the Philippines has any understanding of the concept of camping.

Along with a logo, try to develop a tagline, something that is clever, not a cliché. It is almost not necessary to identify the companies associated with the following taglines, but I will disclose them at the end of this article if you happen to get stumped on one:

  • Can You Hear Me Now?
  • Where’s the Beef?
  • When You Care Enough to Send the Very Best.
  • Think Small.
  • Just Do It.
  • We Try Harder.
  • You Deserve a Break Today.

Franchises from McDonald’s to Kampgrounds of America (KOA) recognize the importance of consistency in everything from fonts to colors to taglines, but you do not need to run a franchise business in order to think smart like one. Once you have established your branding, it needs to be used everywhere, without exception. This includes your signage, your building exteriors and interiors, and your apparel and branded merchandise. Branding is inherently not “generic” in any sense of the word. When there is a range full of cattle that all looks alike, you need to make your cattle stand out from the rest. It’s all about branding.

(Need help with matching the taglines with their corporate parents? Here you go: Verizon, Wendy’s, Hallmark, Volkswagen, Nike, Avis, and McDonald’s.)

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Beware the “Sextortion” Scam: A New Form of Cybercrime Making the Rounds

October 28th, 2018

Most people realize that the ultimate in cyberwarfare would be for one country to take down the power grid, telecommunications network, financial industry, or military and defense networks of a foe country. There is no doubt that the United States, Russia, China and other countries maintain this capability but wisely withhold use of this “nuclear option” in cyberwarfare, although there have been instances where the waters have clearly been tested. As has been recently demonstrated, cyberwarfare tends to take a much more subtle and individualized approach, exploiting weaknesses in things like social networks and ballot tabulations. The same sort of approach, where individuals are targeted, is generally practiced in cybercrime, the aggressive bully that is the awkward little stepbrother of cyberwarfare.

Cybercrime takes a variety of forms but generally targets either individuals or individual companies. Small businesses, where there is often only a subtle distinction between a business and its owners, can be particularly vulnerable. In most instances, the criminal activity exploits vulnerabilities in the security practices of the target. These vulnerabilities include the failure to apply software patches and updates, unsecure office practices, and the use of weak, old, and/or repetitive passwords. The results include the easy entry of computer viruses and malware that can turn a computer into a bot on a criminal network or install ransomware that will hold a computer and its files hostage. The same vulnerabilities lead to the proliferation of phishing attempts and other email and telephone scams where the senders or callers impersonate trusted companies in an attempt to obtain passwords, secure information like social security numbers, your credit card numbers, or remote access to your computer.

One of the latest trends in cybercrime exploits a combination of known hacks and personal fears and anxieties. As most of us know, there have been a number of major websites that have been hacked in recent years, some instances more widely publicized than others. The ultimate victims are the individuals whose personal data has been breached and compromised. The term “pwned” originated in early online gaming as a typographical error in the word “owned”. If you have been “pwned”, it means that your personal information is now “owned” by others. To see if your personal data has been “pwned”, visit the “Have I Been Pwned?” website and enter your email address. At the time of this writing, there are 296 websites that have been “pwned” with over 5 billion accounts compromised. Some of the websites that have been hacked include Adobe, Ancestry, Avast, Comcast, Dropbox, Exactis, Experian, Forbes, Kickstarter, LinkedIn, MySpace, River City Media, Snapchat, Ticketfly, tumblr, and Yahoo. This list includes websites that you have probably used, and in all likelihood, your personal information has almost certainly been hacked. In my own instance, my email address has been compromised in 10 of these major hacks, most recently the Exactis hack in June 2018. That recent hack disclosed credit status information, dates of birth, email addresses, income levels, marital statuses, names, phone numbers, physical addresses, and much more from 340 million personal data records.

Stolen passwords are then readily exchanged, sold, or even made freely available on a number of forums and so-called “pastes”, utilized by cybercriminals who are well aware of the human tendency to reuse usernames (many simply the users’ email addresses themselves) and passwords across a variety of websites. Security breaches like the Yahoo and Dropbox hacks go back to 2012. Although savvy Internet users will have changed their passwords on those sites long since then, if those same passwords were used on other websites, the vulnerability remains. More recent hacks will expose passwords that are currently in use, demonstrating a strong argument in favor of changing passwords on a regular basis.

With this combined background information in mind, you will understand how I felt both alarmed and violated when I received an email one evening back in July that made it past the Gmail spam filter. The subject line included a username and password combination that I frequently used 10 or 15 years ago, indicating that somebody had gained access to my personal information, even though it no longer represented valid credentials. The email had successfully caught my attention and, at first glance, seemed like there could be cause for concern. It went on to allege that a visit to pornographic websites led to the installation of remote access and keyboard logging software on my computer that gave the hacker complete access to my email and social media address lists, as well as my computer’s microphone and camera. Cutting to the chase, the sender was threatening to send a compiled split-screen video of the sites I had visited, along with my “interactions” with those sites, to my friends and family members as allegedly compiled from access to my computer. The only way to prevent this from happening was to pay $3,200.00 in Bitcoin (a cryptocurrency that is popular with online thieves) using a key that was provided.

The facts that I do not spend my time visiting pornographic websites, do not have either a camera or microphone installed on my computer, would immediately know if somebody had remote access to my computer, my passwords are highly secure, and Trend Micro Maximum Security software shows that my computer is free of any malware, spyware or viruses, still left me feeling personally violated. The following morning, I spoke with an agent at the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Boston field office who told me that this extortion scam had been circulating quite widely throughout the month of July 2018. (In fact, I found a variation in my spam folder a couple days later, with this second thief only seeking $250.00 in Bitcoin.) The agent also told me that there were people who reported receiving variations that were sent through the mail. I also have friends and clients who told me that they have received the same sort of email during the same time period and as recently as last week. I went on to file an online complaint with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, commonly referred to as the IC3. There is also a page on the Krebs on Security website that outlines the “Sextortion” scam and currently includes nearly 1,000 comments from people like me who have received the emails and are trying to warn others from falling victim.

The lessons to be learned are to:

  • Be aware that your personal information has been stolen, probably on multiple occasions.
  • Your personal information can be used in extortion attempts.
  • Minimize vulnerabilities on your computer and run up-to-date security software.
  • Never trust any email that sets a deadline or seeks payment in cryptocurrency.
  • Never make an extortion or ransom payment.
  • Notify legal authorities if you are a victim.

It is challenging enough running a small business these days. Nobody needs to waste time, worries, or money with the perpetrators of online scams, who are going to continue to evolve into using more creative and credible formats.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Red Flag Emails

October 15th, 2018

An email that recently made the rounds among campground owners encouraged them to “renew” their advertising on the Go RV Park website. In instances that were called to my attention, Maryland campground owners were provided a link to a page where they could see their advertising located, along with a $49.00 renewal price. The email also stated that the website had “acquired the Maryland Campground and RV Park Directory Inc. and SW Publications Nationwide.” At first glance, $49.00 sounds like a good deal, and the fact that your park (and every other park whose data has been harvested) is already listed makes the “renewal” make sense.

Take a second glance before reaching for your wallet. The “Maryland Campground and RV Park Directory Inc.” does not exist to my knowledge, although it sounds both legitimate and oddly similar to the directory of the Maryland Association of Campgrounds. Then, “SW Publications Nationwide” is another company that appears to be both nonexistent but very similar to “Southeast Publications”, a well-recognized vendor within the campground industry. Many of us tend to miss the little details, and many people who read “SW Publications” mistakenly interpreted that as “Southeast Publications”. Finally, the GoRVPark.com website sounds confusingly similar to the GoRVing.com website that is a partnership of the RVIA, the RVDA, and National ARVC.

In addition to your own listing and compiled listings of every other campground, the website features banner ads for industry giants that include KOA, ELS, Good Sam, Bass Pro Shops, and Walt Disney World’s Fort Wilderness Campground. This certainly suggests legitimacy, but who says that any of those businesses paid for, authorized, or might even be aware of their ad space (at least until now)?

Back to the $49.00 “renewal” price, that would truly appear to be a bargain. The company’s website offers a $149.00 advertising fee and says that “This $149.00 yearly price is for a LIMITED time only. RV Parks, Campgrounds & RV Resorts who sign up NOW will NEVER be subject to the regular annual cost of $499.00 per year.” Interestingly enough, this exact wording appears on the earliest appearance of the website on the Internet Archive, when it was apparently launched in 2010. How can this possibly be a “LIMITED time” offer? To further suggest its authenticity, the website claims that “Go RV Park is the #1 Google ranked portal and intuitive network of websites for RV information.” Beyond the fact that this gobbledygook is total nonsense, a Google search for “RV information” shows the website totally missing in action, at least on the first 10 pages of search results.

Fortunately, the assessment that I provided to the Maryland Association of Campgrounds was shared with its membership as well as National ARVC, which issued a press release warning members to read their emails carefully before responding to this type of offer.

Another type of email that is not specific to the campground industry but seems to continually make the rounds are the ones that scare recipients into believing that their domain names are ready to expire and need to be renewed immediately. Only the fine print (which many people either skim or do not read) explains that the senders are not domain name registrars but are selling highly suspect “traffic generator software tools”, implying that failure to pay for the “search engine optimization service by the expiration date, may result in the cancellation of this search engine optimization domain name notification notice.” (Don’t think for a minute that anything you do will stop these email notices!) Along with a number of payment links and the recommendation to “Act immediately”, the recipient will typically misread the words “Failure to complete your SEO domain name registration search engine optimization service process may make it difficult for customers to find you on the web.” This statement means absolutely nothing, but many people think that their domain name registration is ready to expire, or that their listing on Google is ready to suddenly disappear, and pay the fee (typically $84.00 or $86.00) before they realize their mistake. Fortunately, most reputable email service providers (such as Gmail) send these solicitations into spam folders.

Another email scam is the one that sells compiled email lists. They usually state that the lists are “opt-in verified, 100% permission based and can be used for unlimited multi-channel marketing.” One that I recently received began with the words, “Greetings of the day! Would you be interested in acquiring an email list of ‘RV Owners List’ from USA? (sic)” Another that came in within the last 48 hours offered “100K Email Marketing only for $160 USD, regular price $360 USD” or “900+ Million World Wide Email List only for $75 USD, Regular Price is $450 USD (sic).” Unless you like receiving spam yourself, want to get your email account closed, want to have an email marketing account terminated, and want to be reviled by most recipients, do not even think of buying or using a compiled list. Again, most of these solicitations end up on spam folders themselves.

Confusion over email scams like these is quite valid, as evidenced by the dozens of emails that clients have forwarded to me, wondering whether or not the emails are legitimate. Scammers like these profit tremendously if only a small percentage of recipients fall for the bait, and knowledge like this is your best defense against becoming victimized.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Put Directory Advertising to Work!

September 19th, 2018

This is the time of year when ads are due for next year’s print advertising in state campground association directories, local tourism agency guides, and big national directories like the Good Sam Directory. Unfortunately, most of us have too much on our plates, too many hats to wear, and too many balls to juggle. Pick your excuse, but then pause before you simply renew your ad from last year, and the year before that, and the year before that. Too many of these decisions are based almost solely upon how much money we are willing to spend, failing to treat advertising as a well-planned investment.

If you are satisfied with the status quo in your advertising, it must mean that you are content with your current volume of business. On the other hand, if you are seeking to grow your business, sometimes it is necessary to shake things up with your advertising. Even if your park is booked to capacity for most of the year, there are ways to reach out to new markets that might make the occupancy of a fixed number of campsites more profitable.

Thumbing through the pages of the 2018 campground directory for one of the larger state associations, I am seeing 1/16 page ads with dark text that is almost unreadable against dark background photos, poor quality photos, excessive amounts of text that can only be read with the help of a magnifying lens, and a serious lack of coherent design. I am also seeing ads that, regardless of size (but not 1/16 page!), command attention and stand out from adjacent ads where the only thing in common is the cost of the advertising space.

A well-designed ad should be part of a carefully executed marketing campaign. It should mirror the design and objectives of your website, collateral advertising, social media content, and overall branding. Even if your park is part of a franchise like KOA or Leisure Systems, you will want to capitalize upon the dollars that the corporate offices spend on national advertising campaigns, maintaining a consistency with their branding specifications and quality standards, while singling out your park’s individual identity and key selling points. It involves more than including the KOA logo or Yogi Bear graphics in an otherwise disconnected ad.

My best advice is to avoid trying to design ads yourself. You cannot design your own ad using software like Microsoft Word or Publisher and expect it to be press quality. There are too many details that cannot be properly fine-tuned using that type of non-professional software. You will also want to resist the urge to save money by having the directory publishers design your ads in-house. Almost without exception, the most highly skilled graphic designers are not designing free ads in that type of production-oriented environment. Finally, you do not want to take your chances with a freelance from a site like Fiverr.com who knows nothing about your business. All of your ads should reinforce one another with a consistency that steadily builds your brand awareness. If you are not already using a marketing company that has developed an overall marketing strategy for your park, consider hiring a local graphic designer who is experienced, has a solid portfolio, and has a proven track record.

Even the best designed ad can leave you with lingering questions regarding its effectiveness. With online advertising, running Google Analytics on your website can pretty clearly demonstrate how much traffic is coming from referring sites. It is quite possible that your analytics will show that an expensive Good Sam ad is a far better value in terms of cost per click than an inexpensive ad that sends little or no traffic to your website. With print advertising, it is far more challenging to measure results, although you may consider using unique website landing pages and unique phone numbers (either local or toll-free) using a call tracking service provider.

Now that you have an advertising campaign that has been effectively designed, here are a few pointers that will help you to get the most bang for your buck:

  1. Never allow an ad to print without seeing a proof, and always get a second set of eyes to proofread, because we rarely catch our own errors. If anything needs to be corrected, demand to see a new proof.
  2. Ask if any discounts are available. These might include a 15% agency discount and early payment discounts. If color is available, ask for it at no extra charge. Advertising rates are frequently negotiable.
  3. Ask for preferred ad placement. This generally means right-hand pages, with your ad adjacent to related editorial copy, not placed on a page with nothing but other advertising. Negotiate this premium ad space at no charge, as either a new advertiser or a loyal advertiser.
  4. Learn to say no, but also learn to say yes. Do not waste money on advertising that is not a natural fit for your business, but remain open to exploring new opportunities.
  5. Keep it simple. When it comes to ad content, less is usually more. Avoid the temptation to include the kitchen sink, but keep in mind that “white space” is not necessarily white.
  6. Include an incentive and a call to action. The incentive may be strictly emotional, and the call to action may be finalized online, following a link to your website.

Print advertising is alive and well, but plan it carefully to ensure that it will be as effective a component in your marketing mix as possible.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

What’s in a Name?

August 7th, 2018

In the campground industry, there are instances where it makes sense to change the name of a business, particularly if the old business name is too closely associated with a previous owner or has garnered a questionable reputation. In other instances, a park will change its name when it joins a franchise system and adopts the name that is assigned to its local area. Sometimes new owners will want to make a fresh start, after purchasing a park that they love that comes with a name that strikes them as less than well-informed.

Name changes are neither simple nor inexpensive. When Nissan decided to change its brand name from Datsun to Nissan back in 1984, its direct costs were said to be $500 million. It cost the company $30 million just to change the signs of 1,100 dealerships, as well as another $200 million to replace the “Datsun, We Are Driven!” ad slogan with a new campaign designed to build its new identity. Name changes should not be taken lightly because they carry innumerable costs, including the following:

  • Filing changes and paying the associated fees with your Secretary of State
  • Updating business registrations and licensing
  • Checking trademarks
  • Designing a new logo
  • Replacing signage
  • Replacing all of your advertising materials, from business cards to your website
  • Checking the availability of a new domain name (which may, in itself, determine or at least influence the new business name)
  • Taking measures to ensure that traffic from your old website redirects to your new site, without the new site needlessly taking a hit in its search engine ranking
  • Correcting listings on every website that references or links to your business

The website-related issues start with checking on the availability of a new domain name that will well-represent the new name of your business. To do this, you cannot simply enter a URL into a Web browser and presume that it is available because a website does not appear. You need to perform what is called a “whois lookup”, and a quick and easy way to do that is to go to https://whois.com/. If your first choices are already taken by similar businesses in other states, that might impact your choice of business name. Even without taking potential trademark issues into consideration, any businesses with the same name are going to confuse consumers looking for your site and will probably adversely impact your search ranking for years to come. Keep in mind that you do NOT want to settle for a non-dot.com variation of your desired domain name because too many people who see a .xyz, .dot, .fun, or .web URL will not recognize it and will type in the .com variation anyway.

In order to ensure that traffic from your old website will redirect to the equivalent pages on your new site, have your webmaster employ what are called “301 redirects”. These will seamlessly send visitors to your new site while signaling search engines to update their links. If you have a series of alternate domain names, either referencing the old or new business name, you will also want to set those up as domain aliases so they will direct visitors to your new online presence. Of course, you will probably want to reference the old business name on the new site, at least for a year or so. Something like “Welcome to New Campground, formerly Old Campground!” will assure people that they have arrived at the right place.

Updating the links on all of the sites that reference your business will be perhaps the most time-consuming and potentially frustrating, yet critical, process. It is important to maintain your continuing flow of incoming referral traffic. Some sites will require you to log in to your account, others will have an update form, and some others might require a phone call or email. In each instance, you will want to update your business name and Web address; however, while you are there, check to see if anything else should be updated in the listing. Start with the most obvious and important resources, then work your way down the list. For campgrounds, the list will include:

  • Your state association website
  • National ARVC and the Go Camping America website
  • Your listings with Google My Business and Bing Places for Business, which will also affect their respective online mapping resources, Google Maps and Bing Maps
  • Good Sam and the campground listings on GoodSam.com
  • Your Facebook page, including an update of your Facebook URL to reflect the new business name, and an update of your profile photo and cover image
  • Any other social media accounts that you are using
  • Campground review sites such as RVParkReviews.com, GuestReviews.com, and Campendium.com
  • Broader review sites such as TripAdvisor and Yelp
  • Your regional tourism agencies and local chambers of commerce, if you are members
  • Any other referring sites that show up as significant sources of traffic in your Google Analytics

Finally, there are literally dozens of local directory sites that you will want to at least try to update. Although few people actually use these sites as resources when looking for campgrounds, these sites are important because they can influence search engine rankings. You can attempt to update these listings yourself; however, some will charge a fee, and whatever you update might still be undone by one of the data aggregators that feed these sites their listing information. Alternately, you can go direct to the four major data integrators to search for and update your listings:

  • Factual
  • Axiom
  • Infogroup
  • Neustar/Localeze

There are companies like Yext that will provide this latter service of updating your local directory listings for a fee. Another option is Insider Perks, a company that specializes in working with campgrounds, and probably a better choice. With everything involved on this checklist, maybe that old business name isn’t looking so bad after all. One thing is certain, and that is necessity to consider all of the costs in advance of making such an important decision.

This post was written by Peter Pelland