When I was a child in the 1950s and 60s, before the microwave oven became a staple in almost every kitchen (remember the Amana Radarange, the first microwave oven intended for home use, introduced in 1967?), my mother cooked almost everything in a Presto pressure cooker. It cooked food quickly, but there were risks involved. After turning on the stove’s heating element, you had to wait for the air to escape, then install a valve (known as a “jiggler”) on top of the steam release vent. This monitored the internal pressure and warned you to lower the heat. If you failed to do so, there was also an emergency relief valve that would shoot your meal onto the ceiling rather than having the cooker explode under pressure. Despite the risks of microwave radiation, most people decided that microwave ovens were safer and easier to use.
I have been advocating for all-inclusive pricing in the outdoor hospitality industry for quite some time now, but many park owners legitimately want to know where to draw the line (or when to reduce the heat) when it comes to what to include and what should be considered a fee-based option. Like that jiggler, your customers will often provide the necessary feedback (perhaps on social media and review websites and apps). If you go too far, that emergency relief valve will essentially send your customers, not to the ceiling, but to another campground down the road. Beyond customer feedback, the decisions regarding what to include in your free amenities versus add-on services for which most reasonable people would expect to pay extra, often come down to basic common sense or putting yourself into the shoes of your customers.
I like to think that campground amenities fall into one of three categories:
- Always included in the basic fee. Nobody in their right mind would ever expect to have to pay a fee for their children to use your playground, nor would they expect to pay extra to use basic campsite features such as a picnic table or fire ring. They would also never expect to have to pay to use your restrooms. Other amenities that clearly fall into this category include the use of your swimming pool, hot tubs, recreational fields, basketball or volleyball courts, horseshoe pits, and shuffleboard courts. In most instances, planned activities also fall into this category.
- Always expected to be fee-based. This includes propane fills, EV charging, the washers and dryers in your laundry, store merchandise, visitor fees, premium food events (such as a pig roast or lobster roast), and concerts that involve ticket sales to the general public. Some campgrounds might also offer rentals of golf carts, motorboats, scooters, or electric bicycles. Generally speaking, these all involve consumables, dedicated staff, significant maintenance costs or higher insurance premiums.
- The gray area in between. This is the broad category of diverse amenities, many recreation-based, where discretion is necessary. The all-inclusive concept involves moving as many of these as possible into the first (free) category, whereas moving too many of these into the second (fee-based) category will “nickel and dime” people into finding another place to camp. The challenge is to honestly determine which of these amenities incur actual operational costs, as opposed to investments that have long ago been written off and incur little or no current costs. There is a difference between a new fleet of kayaks and beat up old rowboats. Ask yourself if you would be happy paying $25.00 to rent a creaky old rowboat for an hour. Wherever possible, try to expand your base of free amenities, building them into your basic site fees.
Let’s spend more time looking into this “gray area” to determine what truly belongs in the free category.
Recreational amenities: Beyond the basic recreational amenities that always fall into the first category, some parks offer attractions such as waterslides, spray parks, go-kart tracks, personal watercraft rentals, laser tag, paintball courses, miniature golf, disc golf, fishing, and dog parks. Some parks deal with this category of amenities by selling recreational wristbands, which help to soften the blow and are somewhat all-inclusive. Wristbands also help to make the elderly couple on site 87, who will never use any of these amenities, not feel like they are subsidizing the “younger crowd”. In each instance, you need to be objective in determining which features might be moved into the free category. For example, if you have a spectacular miniature golf course that is open to the public, maybe you could include one free round for every member of a camping family, then charge a fee. On the other hand, if you have a weather-beaten mini golf course that was built 25 years ago, and you are not paying an attendant to be on-duty, use of this course should never incur a fee. The same goes with tennis courts, which are not as popular as they were years ago. If your courts have broken pavement, torn nets, and a growth of weeds, you are better off either converting them to new pickleball courts or removing them from your list of amenities.
Utilities: You may already be well aware that WiFi is the new utility. Charging a fee for this service or access to cable TV channels, particularly if the services are limited, is an invitation to customer dissatisfaction. Your campers should also not have to pay to use your dump station, and despite water conservation arguments in drought areas, nobody wants to feed quarters into a shower meter. Metered electricity, on the other hand, might increasingly become a necessity in order to discourage wasteful excess usage.
Store: Your campground store (along with a snack bar and video arcade) clearly represents an opportunity for add-on purchases and added income. Your campers expect to pay for ice, firewood, prepared food and groceries. That said, sometimes it makes sense to think outside the box. For example, free coffee between certain hours each morning will draw customers into your store, where they may purchase additional items – including a one pound bag of that special coffee blend. If there are items gathering dust on the shelves (everyone makes an occasional buying mistake), put them in a bargain bin so you can make room for in-demand merchandise that will sell at full markup. Most campgrounds limit out-of-state firewood in order to curtail insect pest infestations; however, if you have a pile of firewood that is the result of cleanup from storm damage, offer it to your campers at no charge rather than letting it rot on the ground. They will appreciate little extras like that!
In summary, adjust your rates and any add-on fees to reflect your operational costs and necessary profits, but try your best to package your services in a manner that offers you an edge over your competition and represents true value in the eyes of your campers.
This post was written by Peter Pelland