Pelland Blog

Listen to Your Customers

February 28th, 2016

I thought it would be useful to read through random reviews of campgrounds on the TripAdvisor website in order to determine whether there were some common complaints that savvy park operators might need to address. On TripAdvisor, we are generally dealing with that all-important market of first-time campers – precisely the people who are needed to grow the industry’s markets. We all know the old adage about first impressions being lasting impressions, and an experience that fails to live up to expectations could not only ensure that a first-time guest will not return to your park; you could very well sour that first-time camper on the entire camping experience, rather than turning him into the next lifetime camper.

I randomly chose campgrounds in four regions of the country and read through reviews. In the instance of one park, I found that every recent 5-star review was followed up with a management response, thanking the reviewer for taking the time to write the review; however, there was not a management response for even a single recent review that rated the campground as anything less than outstanding. The management of this campground is totally missing the point in its failure to address legitimate concerns or even to acknowledge those somewhat less-than-happy campers. Ironically, those unaddressed reviews are consistently flagged as “helpful” by fellow TripAdvisor users. In other words, these unaddressed complaints are being read by other potential guests who are thanking the reviewers for saving them from making the mistake of vacationing at the same park.

The most common complaints fell into 6 categories:

  1. Extra fees. People who have customarily stayed in hotels or conventional resorts are not accustomed to paying excessive add-on fees or for paying to take a shower. I frequently encountered the term “nickeled and dimed”, and that is not good. Reviewers complained about excessive fees for everything from arts and crafts sessions to the rental of recreational equipment, but the single biggest complaint was with any park that used metered showers. One reviewer wrote, “You have to pay for your shower, and the first three minutes are cold.”
  2. Indifference on the part of staff or management. Some of the specific complaints a bad attitude when staff members visited campsites, or security staff members who turned a blind eye away from issues that needed to be addressed. There were many complaints about rude employees (bad enough), but the people who referenced rude owners are really raising red flags. One reviewer documented about requesting a credit (not a refund) due to a medical emergency, and how the park owner insultingly demanded a note from her doctor! Another wrote, “The gate guards are not that friendly – actually they are aggressive and rude – and are easily annoyed.” That surly gate guard is the first person encountered upon arrival and can set the tone for the entire camping experience.
  3. Small sites that are not big rig friendly. Unless camping in a group, campers generally do not want to feel like they are on top of the adjoining sites. If they are camping in a big rig, they want to be able to get into and out of their site easily and without risk of damage to their investment. In the short term, this may mean carefully assigning sites to the camping equipment; in the long term, this may mean re-engineering smaller adjoining sites into larger single sites.
  4. Dirty, inadequately or infrequently cleaned restrooms. There are simply no excuses here. If it is a busy weekend, your cleaning staff may need to be cleaning your restrooms on a continuous rotation throughout the day. If you are short-staffed, hire people. The photo that I am showing below is one of eight that was included in an actual review, documenting a lack of bathroom cleaning – both short-term and long-term – at one particular park. Additional photos attached to the review show fecal matter in front of toilets, dirty floors, empty paper towel dispensers, and stained shower stalls.
  5. Lack of maintenance in rentals. Be careful about overselling you’re amenities. It is probably a mistake to market aging park models as “luxury cottages”, particularly if their amenities are inconsistent with what you advertise. If a furnished park model is designed to sleep 6 people, the kitchen utensils should not be limited to 3 forks, 2 glasses and 4 chipped plates (as mentioned in one actual review). There should be a printed inventory of furnishings (that are checked and replenished by housekeeping between rentals) that will allow guests to know exactly what they should expect to find in the unit.
  6. Lax enforcement of rules. Yes, we all know that rules are a double-edged sword where some people are always going to be unhappy; however, the guests who really count are the ones who expect quiet, not those who are creating a nuisance. Within this category of complaints, the biggest issues involved unattended dogs being allowed to bark, and quiet hours that were not consistently and politely enforced.

Restroom Trash Bin

All in all, the people who are addressing these concerns are far from being unreasonable. If you were on a vacation – perhaps a cruise or a trip to a vacation resort – would you find these shortcomings acceptable? Of course not! Treat your guests with respect, meet their expectations, and your business will grow and prosper.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Free Yourself from Technology

January 20th, 2016

Yes, you read it right. Am I speaking blasphemy? Maybe not. I am currently reading an excellent book titled “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age” by Sherry Turkle, and it is about how smartphones, texting, and social media like Twitter and Facebook have destroyed our ability to carry on emotional and intellectual conversations. In the words of the author, “Technology gives us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship.” An entire generation of us, dominated by those under the age of 30, is uncomfortable with the unfamiliar concept of carrying on a direct conversation that involves eye contact, inflection, body language, and emotion.

We have grown accustomed to substituting ALL CAPS for subtle inflections, acronyms like LOL for a smile or a laugh, avatars for our faces, and emoticons for our emotions. Facebook encourages us to only post comments that will be broadly “liked”, discouraging any sort of intelligent discourse or exchange of opinions with anyone who is not like-minded. The fact is that we all have much to learn, in a respectful way, from people with beliefs and opinions that differ from our own.

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In the camping experience – built upon the concept of providing people with an opportunity to get away from their routines and to commune with a more natural environment – one of the single most highly demanded amenities is high-speed Internet access. The lion’s share of my own business is the development of mobile-friendly campground websites, ensuring that campers can learn everything possible about a park using nothing but their smartphones or tablets. Camping tends to mirror society itself, and somewhere along the line society has gone astray.

As school systems nationwide have been in a mad rush to see which of whom can install more computer classrooms faster than their peers, it may surprise some readers to learn about the growth of technology-free schools in America’s computer capital, Silicon Valley. That’s right. Back in 2011, the New York Times reported how educational alternatives like the Waldorf School of the Peninsula, in Silicon Valley, had a student body that consisted of the children of executives from eBay, Google, Apple, Yahoo, and Hewlett-Packard. It has also been widely reported how Steve Jobs limited his children’s access to technology at home, and how many of the other icons of technology follow the same course.

In fact, one of the latest trends in summer camps (those second cousins of family campgrounds) is the development of technology-free camping, sometimes referred to as “tech detox” camps. Mind you, these summer camps are available not only for kids but for adults, hundreds of whom are willing to pay dearly for the opportunity to put aside their cell phones for a week. There is clearly a demand for device-free vacations. In fact, one of my childhood friends (with whom I am connected on Facebook, of course) just posted last week, “I wonder if there is a place on earth where there is no cell phone service, no Facebook, no TV, no computers … I would go to that place for one week and do nothing but read, write, rest, and get away (just for a while) from this maddening crowd we live within.” Is there a campground ready to step up to the plate?

There was a recent discussion on the Campground Success LinkedIn Group that I moderate, initiated by a campground owner who wondered whether or not there might be a viable market for a pet-free campground. The general consensus was that there might be risks in suddenly implementing a pet-free policy, particularly when so many of us treat our pets like our own children; however, there is likely a demand for such an alternative. (I would consider it a far lesser risk if I was running a campground that was surrounded by 20 other parks in the immediate area, rather than a park where my nearest competitor was 50 miles away.) I believe that the time has also come for a few brave souls to experiment with running a technology-free campground, maybe testing the waters with a technology-free weekend. (Imagine the free publicity that you could garner in the press!)

This would have to be planned well in advance, before accepting reservations from any campers with conventional expectations. Campers would agree to leave their cell phones at home or locked away and to put away their satellite dishes. The park would shut down its wi-fi routers, pull the cable on TV service, and plan an entire weekend of activities and events that will allow campers to get to know one another – and to get to know themselves – like they used to do in the “good old days”. Let’s face it: Camping is the perfect setting and environment for tech-free activities and non-activities alike! You could offer things like a book exchange, an acoustic music jam session, nightly group campfires, nature walks, parent and child activities, and a Sunday morning service with a tech-free homily.

Sure, there are issues that would need to be addressed. What do you do about seasonal campers who do not want to participate? What do you do about people who do not easily withdraw from their technology addiction? Those are minor challenges that can be easily overcome. Think of the first restaurants years ago that toyed with the idea of going smoke-free. Today it is almost unheard of to find a restaurant in the United States that allows smoking, and we are all better off for the change.

Who will be the first to step up to the challenge? Without explorers who risked sailing into uncharted waters, we might still believe that the world was flat. Just think of what you might accomplish. If the lessons learned at your tech-free weekend lead to just one family that returns to having dinner together each evening without the distractions of cell phones and TV, you will have just accomplished far more than you had ever intended.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

From Percolators to Pods

April 14th, 2015

If you are a typical American, you probably started your day with a cup of coffee. According to the most recent National Coffee Drinking Trends (NCDT) report, published by the National Coffee Association, 54% of Americans over the age of 18 drink an average of 3.1 cups of coffee each day. More casual coffee consumption is practiced by 83% of the public. Of these coffee drinkers, 65% enjoy the beverage with breakfast. In total, consumers in the United States spend $40 billion on coffee each year. Impressive statistics, but what do they mean for you?

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Just as there are all types of coffee products, there are all types of campgrounds. Trends change over time, and demands ebb and flow for various types of coffee and styles of camping. Remember the days of coffee percolators? They were an integral part of a long-running advertising campaign for Maxwell House. Today, half the population could probably not even identify a coffee percolator in a line-up of obsolete kitchen appliances.

Today, there is a market for high-end artisanal brews, as evidenced by the $950 million in annual sales at Starbucks; however, the vast majority of Americans do not have an appreciation for single-origin coffee brewed from freshly-ground beans. Those markets are limited, in a similar manner as the markets are limited for other high-end beverages such as loose teas, cask conditioned ales, single malt Scotch whiskies, or small batch bourbons.

According to the market research firm Euromonitor, only about 8% of the coffee purchased in America is whole bean coffee, meaning that sales of pre-ground coffee outpace whole bean coffees by 12.5 to 1. When it comes to coffee, it seems that most of us prefer convenience over quality. Driving that fact home is the astronomical growth in sales of K-Cups, the ubiquitous pre-portioned coffee pods. Years ago, the coffee kings in America were Folger’s (owned by consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble) and Maxwell House (owned by another giant, Kraft Foods). Today, K-Cups from Keurig Green Mountain account for 20% of the total coffee market, not only more than any other company but more than Folger’s and Maxwell House combined. Again according to Euromonitor, the sales of coffee pods have grown by 138,325% over the past 10 years!

Going back to the National Coffee Association’s NCDT, it is important to note that Hispanic Americans far outpace all other ethnic groups in the consumption of coffee, including gourmet coffees and espresso-based beverages. Also comprising the fastest growing ethnic group in the country, this is a very positive sign for the overall industry.

Henry Ford, in the days of skyrocketing sales of his Model T, commented that he could “sell to the masses and eat with the classes.” In other words, fortunes can be made by providing products or services that appeal to the broadest possible market. In today’s world, most businesses succeed by appealing to mass markets through low prices (the Wal-Mart and Amazon models,) although small businesses usually excel by catering to the niche and local markets that might not be profitable pursuits by mass marketers. Let’s translate this information into concepts that directly relate to your campground.

  1. Keep in step with current trends. Coffee consumption has been on the increase in recent years, in large part thanks to the coffee pods that have made things quick and easy. Are cabins and other rentals the quick and easy way for new people to be introduced to camping? If so, are you making the process as simple as possible, or are you still requiring your guests to bring their own towels and linens?
  2. If you think of your campground as a supermarket, are you still devoting all of your shelf space to Folger’s and Maxwell House? When the world is changing around you, you cannot succeed by becoming stagnant. If your guests want 50-amp electric, pull-thru sites and free wi-fi, it is time to meet their needs.
  3. Starbucks has proven that people will not hesitate to pay the price for premium products and services. If you are running the Starbucks of campgrounds, you can probably raise your rates without fear of losing business.
  4. The Hispanic-American market has outpaced every other ethnic group in the consumption of coffee. Are you surprised? What is your campground doing to reach out to this large and expanding market of consumers … or are you continuing to miss the boat?
  5. Are you capitalizing upon the fact that 65% of coffee drinkers consume the beverage first thing in the morning? A selection of fresh-brewed coffees in your store can draw people in every morning, encouraging the sale of a long list of other merchandise that goes far beyond donuts and the morning newspaper.

In general, it pays to keep an eye on industry trends, only one of which centers around coffee consumption. Put the old percolator in the attic of your logic, and do your best to reach out to both existing and prospective guests in new and innovating ways.

This post was written by Peter Pelland