Pelland Blog

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

Sounding an Alarm on Tick-Borne Illnesses

November 28th, 2019

I would like to share the knowledge that I have acquired as a result of my first-hand expertise on a very important and widely misunderstood topic. Tick-borne illnesses represent a broad spectrum of bacteriological infections, one of which is broadly recognized as “Lyme disease.” Ever since a cluster of families in Lyme, Connecticut first suffered varying but unexplained symptoms back in 1975, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) has been in denial about either the existence or the number of people infected, citing peer-reviewed medical studies conducted by physicians and scientists on the payrolls of the pharmaceutical and managed health (insurance) industries.

Family physicians have widely misdiagnosed tick-borne illnesses or depended upon the highly unreliable ELISA and Western Blot blood tests that the CDC endorses. Unless a patient was “lucky” enough to display an erythema migrans (the bull’s eye rash that does not always appear, does not always look like a bull’s eye, and does not necessarily appear at the location of a tick bite) that the CDC accepts as a definitive sign of infection, physicians tended to treat the symptoms rather than the underlying causes.

Since the early days, doctors who specialize in trying to help Lyme disease patients have frequently been subjected to formal complaints, typically initiated by the health insurance providers who do not want to pay for treatment and who have the CDC’s denial on their side, often leading to the suspension or revocation of their licenses to practice medicine. Often out of fear, as well as the lack of information, general practitioners generally throw up their arms or grasp at any diagnosis that might explain away the classic symptoms, uselessly prescribing painkillers, steroids, or perhaps a short dose of antibiotics.

My Journey

In my case, over the course of decades of occasional tick bites, primary care physicians repeatedly told me that I tested negative (the nearly useless ELISA tests) and explained away my symptoms. Pain in my hands was written off as rheumatoid arthritis, being continually tired was written off as chronic fatigue syndrome (an imaginary illness) and spending too much time in front of a computer screen, pain in my joints was written off as “tennis elbow” and too much exercise, and pain in my neck was written off as sleeping on a bad pillow. Due to a combination of a very strong immune system and a high tolerance for pain, my symptoms were generally manageable. On two occasions, when the fleeting pain in my limbs became overwhelming enough for hospital emergency room visits, the puzzle pieces were not assembled and there was no diagnosis.

It was not until early in the summer of 2019 that I experienced a flare-up of most of the classic symptoms of Lyme disease – including the definitive rash – after being aware of another tick bite. Fortunately, it was a Sunday, so I went to a nearby urgent care clinic, where the physician’s assistant on duty immediately recognized the rash and symptoms, prescribing three weeks of antibiotics. I called my (former) primary care physician’s office afterward, asking to be tested for co-infections, and the office never returned my call.

On that first round of antibiotics, after an initially violent immune system reaction, many of my symptoms subsided, and I started an odyssey of reading everything I could find on the subject of tick-borne diseases. Certain that I was suffering from co-infections, I searched out a nearby specialist who ordered what are probably the only blood tests that are truly effective at flagging antibodies to the various diseases. The results indicated that I am infected with two active strains of borreliosis (Lyme disease) and six serious co-infections, some of which have been present and undiagnosed for decades. I am now on a long-term treatment program that includes multiple antibiotics, probiotics, powerful herbal regimens, and herbal compounds to support my immune system. (It turns out that the roots of the invasive Japanese knotweed plant – highly revered in Japan, Korea, and parts of China – are a miracle herb, higher in resveratrol than anything else on the planet.)

I am probably one of the fortunate few who are now on what is nonetheless a long road to recovery. Tick-borne illnesses usually have a much more debilitating effect upon infected children and the elderly, where symptoms are quite often misdiagnosed (and mistreated) as Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Multiple sclerosis (MS), Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease. Part of the problem is that different people have different symptoms, co-infections require different treatments, and chronic (long-term) infections are much more difficult to treat than acute (recent) infections.

A Few Facts

  • Although usually referred to as insects, adult ticks have 8 legs and are actually arachnids, more closely related to spiders.
  • All types of ticks are infected, not just one as was originally believed. This includes hard-bodied ticks, soft-bodied ticks, deer ticks, dog ticks, and every other type of tick.
  • Most ticks carry a laundry list of infectious bacteria, not just the Borrelia burgdorferi that cause Lyme disease.
  • The same diseases can also be carried and transmitted (though less commonly) by mosquitoes, biting flies and fleas.
  • Infected ticks are endemic throughout the United States (and most of the world), not limited to New England, the Mid-Atlantic, Upper Midwest, and West Coast as is often believed.
  • A tick can transmit the disease spirochetes into your bloodstream within 10 minutes, not the 24-36 hours that is commonly believed.
  • The Borrelia bacteria are spirochetes, highly adaptive organisms that respond to antibiotics by evolving into resistant cysts and forming biofilms.
  • The bacteria spend little time in the bloodstream, finding their way into ligaments (hence the common joint pains) and tissues, favoring the knees, brain and heart.
  • You can be infected by a tick in any stage of its development – larval, nymph, or adult.
  • Ticks most commonly feed on mice and deer; however, they are known to feed on well over 100 host types, including lizards and birds. Migratory birds have helped to make the diseases endemic. Check your dogs and cats when they come in from the outdoors!
  • Lyme disease is not new. Remember the 5,300 year old ice mummy found in the Austrian Alps back in 1991? That corpse contained Lyme disease DNA.
  • Ignore the conspiracy theories and quack cures found on the Internet.

Sounding the Alarm

If you run a campground, you are probably spending a significant amount of time outdoors doing things like raking leaves, cutting brush, and cleaning sites. Perhaps you hunt, fish, hike, golf, or pursue other outdoor activities in your leisure time. Ticks prefer moist woodland environments, tall weeds and grasses, edge zones (such as the roughs on a golf course), and places such as stone walls and wood piles. If you are spending time in any of these environments, it is recommended that you treat your outer clothing, footwear, and camping gear with permethrin solution which will kill ticks within 10-20 seconds. It is also recommended that you use an effective tick repellent when outdoors. DEET is commonly recommended, but there are equally effective herbal compounds that are safer to use. Whether or not you are aware of having been bitten by a tick, if you are experiencing flu-like symptoms, pain in your joints (particularly knees and elbows), pain that seems to migrate from one part of your body to another, headaches, a stiff neck, swelling in your knees or other joints, a feeling of always being tired, or memory problems that are often described as “brain fog,” seek out a Lyme disease specialist. Lyme-related diseases represent one of the fastest growing epidemics in the United States today, and they are not to be taken lightly.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Analyzing Analytics

September 12th, 2019

I recently wrote how one of the biggest mistakes was 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 a website, its traffic sources, and much more. I have also learned over the years that most people never take the time to actually review the data now at their fingertips, or they get lost in the sheer volume of all that is available. I have often spent 20 minutes on the phone with a client when both of us are logged into their Google Analytics account, walking them through the process of what to look for and where to find it. Let me attempt to take a similar approach to guide readers through the process.

Is it Installed?

Prior to proceeding any further, you need to confirm that Google Analytics is actually installed and running on your website and that you have been set up with user access. Ask your webmaster. If either you or your webmaster are uncertain (and it is not a good sign if your webmaster is uncertain!), view the source code on the Home page of your site by right-clicking on the page and choosing “View page source”. Then search the page’s source code for a string of text that begins with “UA-”. This will show you the Google Analytics tracking code and script if it is installed, usually near the top or the bottom of the page.

Presuming that Google Analytics is installed and running on your site, you also need to be set up as a user with access to the account. By only being accessible to authorized users, you are prevented from allowing just anybody to access this data, particularly your competitors. Once you have confirmed that Google Analytics is installed and that you have been set up with user access, it is now time to log into your account to sort through the mountains of data.

Changing the Default View

When you reach your Google Analytics Home page, you will be shown a snapshot that includes active users (the number of people who are on your site right now) and a summary of some of the basic data compiled over the past 30 days. Although it is fun to see the number of active users on your site, along with which pages they are visiting, this information is generally not as useful as cumulative data. To get into the detailed data, click on the “audience overview” link. By default, this is going to show you a graph with daily traffic counts over the last 30 days; however, I think that it is generally more useful to chart the previous year’s traffic. In the upper right of the page, click on the down arrow to the right of the date range, then choose “custom”. There will be two date boxes, with the one on the right showing yesterday’s date. Change the date in the box on the left to show today’s date last year. While you are there, check the box that says “Compare to previous period”, then click “Apply”. I suggest that you continue to graph your data on a daily rather than weekly or monthly basis.

Sort the Wheat from the Chaff

Because most campgrounds are seasonal businesses, the annual graph is likely to look like a rocky roller coaster ride. For parks in northern states, the lowest traffic volumes will probably occur in December, after your park has closed for the season, people are more concerned with holiday shopping than where to camp next August, and the winter camping shows have not started to spur new interest in camping for the following year. You are also likely to see occasional spikes in traffic that may coincide with marketing efforts such as camping shows, investments in advertising campaigns, or links that appear in social media or review sites. The overview data will display the number of users, new users (people who had not previously visited your site during this time frame), sessions (which accounts for users who visit your site more than once and which is directly related to the number of sessions per user), pageviews (a cumulative number), pages per session (where you want people to visit enough of your site’s content to progress to your reservations page), the average session duration (where more time is more likely to persuade), and bounce rate (worthless traffic, generally bots that visit a single page on your site for a total of 0 seconds.) Because you have elected to compare data to the previous period, every set of number will be accompanied by a percentage showing an increase or decrease from the previous year, a useful demonstration of overall trends.

Refer to the “Reports” in the left-hand column, then scroll down to Audience > Geo > Location, and you will reach a world map and summary of demographic information. Your primary source country for traffic will undoubtedly be the United States, but it is also useful to know if you have significant amounts of traffic from beyond our shores. Click on “United States” (or the U.S. on the map) to open or zoom into a sequential list of the states that are sending you traffic. You can also click on any state to see the clusters of cities and towns within the state that are sending you traffic. With Google Analytics, you can click on almost anything to open a more detailed breakdown. Do you want to know if your participation in a camping show or advertising in a local newspaper provided you with a return on investment? This is one place to look.

Scroll down again to Audience > Mobile > Overview, and you might be surprised by the increase in traffic from users of mobile devices, generally coming at the expense of users of desktop (including laptop) computers, with tablets generally never gaining a significant amount of traction. If your site is not mobile-friendly, here is proof that it is losing you income.

Traffic Sources

When you are driving down the highway, the last thing you want is to encounter traffic; however, when you have a website, traffic is mission critical. Scroll down to Acquisition > All Traffic > Channels, and it will not be surprising if your primary source of traffic is organic search on Google. Although the results will show a list of the most important search phrases that have been used to actually reach your site (and which should influence the keywords in use on your site or chosen for any paid advertising campaign), the highest number will probably be “(not provided)”, which represents tracking data that Google was unable to gather, generally because the user was logged into Gmail or another Google Account while performing their Google search. When this occurs, the search is conducted over SSL and the search query data is hidden. Hopefully enough actual keyword numbers are shown to still provide you with the useful information you need.

Pennies from Heaven

Scroll down again to Acquisition > All Traffic > Referrals to see the other sources of traffic to your site. The top of the list will probably include your state association website, various campground review sites, Good Sam, state and local tourism websites, Facebook, Yelp, and local businesses with reciprocal links to your site. Once again, these numbers will help to justify your involvement with any paid advertising programs on referring sites. Although there may be costs involved in Good Sam advertising, your state association membership, and your membership in your local chamber of commerce or tourism association, their websites are targeting your market demographics and are likely to send you significant amounts of traffic that far outweigh your out-of-pocket costs.

These are only a few tips in the process of discovering what Google Analytics can do for you. There are hidden treasures to be found with many other clicks, but you will never discover them if you do not log into your account and put it to work.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

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