Pelland Blog

The Fine Art of Handling Negative Reviews

July 16th, 2014

Not all reviews are negative. The negative reviews are simply the ones that most deserve your attention. Some negative reviews are worse than others, but the worst negative review is the one that was left unanswered.

In most instances, I find that small business owners cannot be objective when handling criticisms of the businesses which are often extensions of themselves. That is understandable, but it is important to put subjectivity aside and recognize that, in the vast majority of instances, a negative review is providing valuable input regarding improvements that you should consider making.

In other instances, a negative review might provide insight into a situation that requires urgent action; however, if you are unaware of the review, the situation is likely to continue and the viral power of the online review will only multiply. Let me share an example.

I recently did a search of Google for the name of a business, hoping to find its correct mailing address. At the absolute top of the search results (#1 on page #1) was the following review that has been online since January of 2012. I have changed the names and any other identifying information, but the point is clear.

“While driving on Eastern Avenue (near Spring Street) today (01-11-12) at 2:05 PM I was tailgated by someone driving a truck (license plate RVJ-524) from Acme Enterprises. I was forced to pull over because the driver was driving too close. When I pulled over I was given the finger and when I continued driving the driver doubled-back to actually chase me! I’m a member of the [a local business association] and I will certainly be sending an email blast to my fellow members to ensure they avoid this organization. I took a picture of the driver and have it on file.”

Wow! Can you imagine this being at the top of the search results for your business for 2½ years, and not knowing about it? Can you imagine having an employee acting in this manner while driving a clearly identified company vehicle? I presume that any business owner would take immediate corrective measures if he knew about this situation. Without any such knowledge, this type of behavior on the part of an employee is only likely to continue.

Yes, this is an extreme example, but it is totally true. How about the employee who is short with one of your guests, or the employee who did not perform a maintenance task up to the expected standards? Those are often the foundation of a negative review. Even if a review site does not give you, as the business owner, an opportunity to directly respond online, it is still providing you with valuable information that should probably be incorporated into your next company meeting, job description, or employee performance review. The reputation of your business is at stake.

When you do have the opportunity to respond to a negative review, here are a few suggestions:

  1. Listen to what the reviewer has to say. Try to be as subjective as possible, putting your ego aside. The review is not a personal attack upon your reputation (even if you think that it is.)
  2. Empathize, introduce a positive factor into the conversation, and apologize if necessary. An apology is not an admission of guilt but simply a polite acknowledgement that the reviewer had less than a perfect experience involving your business.
  3. Try to take the conversation offline. I recently posted on Facebook how dissatisfied I was when an energy audit contractor failed to show up for a scheduled appointment. The organization saw that it had been mentioned on Facebook, responding by asking me to contact them privately with my telephone number. Offline, they apologized and re-scheduled the appointment for the following day. Any damage was under control.
  4. Despite the urgency of responding quickly, before posting a response to an online review, always run it by another set of eyes. Too often, in the absence of body language and tone of voice, a response with the best of intentions might sound condescending or even sarcastic. Remember that you are trying to rectify a situation, not make it worse.

There are literally dozens of online review sites, the most important which impact the travel and tourism industry being TripAdvisor, Yelp, and Foursquare. Other types of businesses are reviewed on sites like Angie’s List, MerchantCircle, Manta, Buzzillions, Epinions, and Insider Pages. Then don’t forget the BBB (Better Business Bureau) Online, where any consumer can file a complaint against a business.

Just as important, any comment on Twitter, Facebook, or Google+ is a de-facto review within the writer’s network. In fact, those can often do the most harm because they come from somebody whose opinion is trusted within his or her network of friends.

There are also more than a dozen of which are specific to the campground industry. These include RV Park Reviews, CampRate, Campground Report, Campsite Reports, RVparking.com, RVcampReviews.com, RV Park Finder, and of course GuestRated. Some of these sites get much more traffic than others, but keep in mind that only one person reading one negative review can translate into lost business. Do your best to try to keep that from happening.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Looking for Business in All the Right Places

April 25th, 2014

The owner of an equine campground contacted me recently, asking for advice on where to market her park to people who are interested in camping with their horses. I replied that she would likely see the greatest impact by targeting her marketing toward horse owners rather than the broader camping market. Her clientele consists of people who are both campers and horse owners; however there is a far greater percentage of horse owners who would like to camp than there are campers who happen to own horses. A so-called “shotgun” marketing approach is rarely effective – and almost never cost-effective.

The 2013 edition of the American Camper Report, published by the Outdoor Foundation in partnership with KOA and Coleman, lists detailed statistics regarding the sports and leisure activities of camping participants while camping. Not surprisingly, 76% say that their favorite activity is hiking, followed by outdoor cooking at 32%, and fishing at 23%. A full range of activities is listed, based upon actual survey results, right down to those that are only identified by 1% of survey respondents (including scuba diving, surfing, and skiing), with another 14% listing “other” activities (a very small unidentified percentage of which may include horseback riding).

The report also lists similar statistics regarding the sports and leisure activities of camping participants when they are not out camping. Once again, 76% say that their favorite such activity is hiking, followed by running or jogging at 71%, and road biking at 58%. Once again, a full range of activities is listed right down to those that are only identified by 1% of survey respondents (yoga, ATV trail riding, and tennis). Again, horseback riding is not even on the list.

These survey results support my thinking that a highly specialized campground needs to market to people who are already predisposed toward their message. Nudist campgrounds and other “lifestyle” parks have recognized this reality for decades, and the same logic applies to any campground with a specialized draw that might not appeal to the general population.

In offering further advice to the owner of the equine campground, I found that a Google search for “camping with horses” or “equine campgrounds” turned up dozens of sites where a campground could be listed – and subsequently located by people looking for precisely this experience. I also found that there were no sponsored search ads on Google for either of those search terms, meaning that a very inexpensive Google AdWords camping would result in first position ranking.

There was also a “Camping with Your Horses” open Facebook Group with over 3,000 members, as well as smaller Facebook Groups with similar missions. I suggested that those groups should be joined and that appropriate messages be posted, where allowed, along with comments regarding posts of others – subtly referencing the campground. A Facebook Advertising campaign could also be launched, targeting members of these groups as well as people who like a combination of camping and horses.

Finally, I briefly researched horse-related trade shows and suggested that participation in some of those more regional events might be worth investigating. Most campgrounds participate, either directly or indirectly, in camping shows, so why not participate in similar shows that reach out to your core clientele?

Your park need not be totally committed to any one particular activity in order to capitalize upon marketing to specific population segments, following the same basic concepts that I used in quickly researching equine camping. If your park has a safari field, think about inviting in groups that will fill the space, in many instances engaging in activities that will appeal to the rest of your guests. Here are a few additional ideas, but you should already know which activities apply to your park. It’s just that sometimes we take familiar things for granted, failing to realize their appeal and marketing potential.

  • Bass fishing: If your park includes a boat launch on the shore of a lake with some serious bass fishing, how about sponsoring a fishing tournament? Get a local sporting goods store or boat dealer involved, and give away some serious prizes. Waive entry fees with two or more nights of camping, keeping in mind that serious competitors may want to arrive a day or two early to get to know the lake. Include an “amateur” category that will get all of your campers, young and old, involved and enthused.
  • Nearby trail networks: If your park is adjacent to a network of off-road trails, you may want to consider reaching out to an ATV club or partnering with a tour operator. If your park is located in the North and is open year round, the same trail network may attract snowmobilers who are also looking for a friendly place to stay as a group.
  • Dark skies: So many people these days have rarely seen a starlit sky. If your park has truly dark skies, away from urban light pollution (and your own scattered lighting), capitalize on that fact. There are 777 astronomy clubs in the United States (and another 121 in Canada), with locations in virtually every state. Find them online at www.AstronomyClubs.com. Invite one or more nearby clubs to camp and set up telescopes in an area where you have an unobstructed view of the sky, with the understanding that they will devote some public viewing time for the education and enjoyment of your other campers. With no telescopes required, consider making the annual Perseids Meteor Shower (5 days around August 10th) a special event.

Notice that the examples that I have offered do not require any sort of investment on your part. Two capitalize upon proximity to nearby resources, and one simply requires a clear view of the night sky. Each in its own way, these group activities can help you to fill your campground while getting a significant number of people to enjoy the great outdoors.

To continue growing the occupancy rates at your campground – and to bring in new guests to replace those that are lost due to attrition – it is necessary to reach out to new markets. Markets full of people with very specific interests who might also recognize the appeal of camping at your park. Don’t expect these folks to go out and buy a horse (or a fishing boat, an ATV, or a telescope) just to try camping. Instead, reach out to people who simply need a good reason to invest in a tent or to reserve one of your rental units.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Advertising Messages That Generate Immediate Response

March 28th, 2014

Most advertising is intended to build long-term brand awareness and customer loyalty, factors that are not measurable in immediate sales numbers. At other times, advertising is intended to generate a more immediate short-term response. This is the kind of advertising that is typified by the weekly department store or supermarket circular, with a list of specific items and prices. For a campground owner, both types of advertising will work, although short-term offers are generally far more effective after long-term brand awareness has already kicked in.

Let’s say it’s a Thursday morning, and you have 8 vacant campsites and 2 rentals available for the upcoming weekend. Leaving them unoccupied is lost income, and it is time to spring into action. If your average camping fee is $40.00 per night and your cabin rentals are $80.00 per night, just those vacancies on a Friday and Saturday night represent $960.00 in income, prior to any residual sales in your store, snack bar, game room, and elsewhere.

There are many cost-effective ways to reach people who are likely to respond to your offers, including newsletters, Tweets, and Facebook posts. The prerequisite is that you need a significant number of newsletter subscribers or followers on social media like Twitter or Facebook. If few people see your message, even an extraordinarily high response rate will generate little in terms of actual results. For a small business, that magic minimum number is generally in the 800 – 1,000 person range. With those 8 sites and 2 rentals to book, if your message reaches 1,000 people, you only need to attain a very realistic 1% rate of response. Building a significant number of people who will be likely to respond to your offers takes a combination of time and ingenuity, with ingenuity speeding up the process.

Building Your Numbers

Your first step is to grow the numbers of people who are subscribing to your newsletter or following your social media posts. Build your newsletter base by asking people to opt in during the online reservation process, asking them to “join your list” when they visit your booth at camping shows (preferably in real time, providing them with a laptop or tablet with Internet access), and including a sign-up form on your website. On Facebook, give people an incentive to “like” your page (but do not use “fangating” to force them to like the page in order to obtain the incentive). Encourage your followers to “share” and “retweet” your posts, helping to spread your message. Facebook Advertising is a highly effective and fairly inexpensive way to expand your reach. Just be sure to choose your demographics very carefully and always pay per click, not per impression. Of course, links to your social media pages should always be prominently featured on your website.

Very importantly, once you have gotten people to agree to receive your newsletter or to follow your posts, you must not abuse nor squander that privilege. Always provide timely and useful information that answers the reader’s question, “What’s in it for me?” Engage your followers, and get them excited about what you have to say. That generally means that you are providing them with some sort of offer that makes them feel like an “insider” who is receiving special treatment. Ideally, they will like what they read so much that they will look forward to hearing from you on a regular basis. Incidentally, that “regular basis” should usually not exceed once or twice a month for newsletters, three times a week for Facebook posts, and once or twice a day for Tweets. On one hand, you want to keep in touch, in order to avoid being forgotten. On the other hand, you do not want to become like an elderly uncle who seems to visit so often that he wears out his welcome. You work too hard to build a base of followers to see them unsubscribe or “unlike” your page.

Crafting Messages with a Sense of Urgency

Once you have the numbers of people within reach, it is time to present your followers with messages that will generate the desired response. There are generally three ways to accomplish this:

  • “Use it or lose it” limited time offers.
  • Limited availability.
  • Special bonus incentives.

Vacancies “this weekend” definitely constitute limited time offers, and “only three sites available” represents limited availability. Limited time offers have been a staple of price/item advertising for decades. Retail sales always have expiration dates, with occasional exceptions such as JC Penney’s disastrous attempt at giving itself a makeover and “retraining” its customers back in 2012. Even auctions on eBay generally show last-minute surges in bidding in the closing minutes (and seconds) of the sale of a popular item. On the other hand, if you have purchased airline tickets recently, you may have noticed that the airlines will often indicate countdown numbers such as the “last 2 seats” (true or untrue) for a given flight. That is an example of generating sales based upon limited availability.

Perhaps even more effective are special bonus incentives. In fact, special bonus incentives can be remarkably effective when combined with either a limited time offer or limited availability. What kind of incentive could help to persuade people to reserve those vacant sites? Experiment with different offers to find ones that fit. Examples might include free early check-in (which costs you nothing), a free bundle of firewood (particularly popular with tent sites), waiving the fee for additional family members (within limits), or a free one-hour boat rental (during certain times when you know that your boats would likely be tied to a dock). Maybe list three bonus options, and let people choose the one that they want. It has been proven that there is always magic in giving people a choice of three.

Rich or poor, from all walks of life, every human being likes to get a deal … or at least be given that impression. Once again, your ingenuity comes into play to make your advertising message both compelling and successful. Give it a try!

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Y’All Come Back Again!

March 8th, 2014

Anybody who has been in business for more than a month knows that it is far easier to get a repeat sale from an existing customer than it is to generate a new customer from scratch. As long as you provide a positive experience at the time of stay, and a first-time camper enjoys the company of his fellow guests, your main task is to simply invite him to return. Most of us have preferred “go to” businesses for almost everything in life. We do the bulk of our food shopping at one supermarket, have one favorite restaurant, and have a long list of preferred providers of a wide range of products and services – from auto mechanics to hair stylists, from dentists to cell phone service providers. What you want to become is the “go to” place for camping.

Catering to your existing clientele in order to generate repeat business is nothing new, but some businesses and industries have capitalized upon this concept better than others. For years, airlines have teamed up with credit card companies to offer frequent flyer programs, creating an unprecedented brand loyalty in a market that is otherwise highly price-sensitive. Supermarkets and pharmacy chains have reward cards that encourage repeat purchases and offer product discounts. Then, of course, is the highly competitive credit card industry itself. One thing that they almost all have in common is a plastic card that implies some sort of exclusivity and “membership”.

The Card Is the Key

Good Sam CardKOA Rewards Cards

The Good Sam Club and its accompanying card have been around for years. For as little as $22.00 per year, members get a 10% discount at participating Good Sam campgrounds, discounts on RV parts and accessories at Camping World, discounts on fuel purchases at Pilot and Flying J stations, and other less directly monetary benefits. KOA, on the other hand, offers its KOA Value Kard Rewards program. For $24.00 for the first year, participants get a 10% discount on registration fees at KOA campgrounds and earn points that can be redeemed for camping rewards. After earning 20,000 points, memberships are automatically upgraded to VIP status, which accelerates the earning of additional points. There are many other camping discount and membership rewards programs within the industry, including Passport America, Camp Club USA, and membership campgrounds like Thousand Trails. The latest player is the AmeriGO RV Club, offering the same sort of 10% discount on stays at affiliated campgrounds, along with other values, for an introductory annual membership fee of only $9.95.

To succeed at this concept, you do not need to belong to a group or a franchise. Your goal is simply to generate repeat business for your individual park. In fact, it may not be necessary to offer your customers a discount on registration fees to lure their repeat business. After all, if a 10% discount becomes too commonplace, it loses its perceived value altogether. Let’s look outside the camping industry to see how to make the customer rewards concept work as productively as possible.

Amazon Prime

Amazon Prime

Amazon Prime is a membership program that the online marketing behemoth launched back in 2004. The $79.00 per year bundle offers free streaming of more than 40,000 movies and TV shows (which capitalize upon the bandwidth that Amazon has at its disposal – through its Amazon Web Services division, the world’s largest Internet hosting services provider), free e-books (which help to spur sales of its Kindle readers), and – most importantly – free 2-day shipping on unlimited purchases of millions, without a minimum order size. Bingo! Shipping costs have always been the biggest barrier to online commerce, with free shipping the means to dramatically increased sales.

According to a recent article in the online edition of Forbes Magazine, even with Amazon’s logistical efficiencies and exclusive volume discounts with UPS and FedEx, the company loses money on its Prime program. On the surface. With over 20 million members (many lured in by the free 30-day trial program during the checkout process at the time of purchase), the Amazon Prime program has created a “go to” mindset that makes Amazon the first (and presumably only) place for its members to order merchandise online. According to Amazon, over 1 million buyers joined the program during the third week of December 2013 alone. Most are attracted by the free shipping, and Amazon reaps the rewards.

According to a recent report from Consumer Intelligence Research Partners, the average Amazon Prime customer spent over $1,300.00 with Amazon.com last year, as opposed to the average Amazon customer who is not a member of the Prime program spending about $600.00. Amazon is continually willing to experiment with its program, currently contemplating an increase in the annual fee, while extending the concept into its Prime Fresh discount, same-day produce and grocery delivery program being tested in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle.

That’s Amazon.
What About Your Campground?

First of all, determine that you are already doing everything possible to generate repeat business before creating a rewards program. The following are prerequisites:

  • When guests check out, do you ask them if you can book their next stay? Right then, before they leave.
  • Do you maintain a database of your active customers? These are probably people who have camped with you within the past two or three years, flagging guests who have already stayed multiple times.
  • Are you maintaining an e-mail marketing program and a direct mail program to reach out to these key customers both prior to the season and during any slumps within the season? Even a simple (and inexpensive) postcard, summarizing your weekend activities and mailed out during the winter months (for campgrounds in the North), can trigger early event-based reservations.
  • Do you have social media programs in place, particularly on Facebook and Twitter? Engage your followers, and encourage them to become a part of upcoming events.

Only once those prerequisites have been covered is it time to consider launching a rewards program. When you are ready, give your concept some serious thought to ensure the maximum success.

  • Order professionally designed plastic cards. They cost far less than you may think, and they provide a tangible sense of membership and belonging.
  • Determine the annual fee that you will charge for your program. It is entirely conceivable that you could provide your program for free; however, I would strongly encourage a fee-based program that will at least cover your administrative costs and a portion of the anticipated income lost from the rewards that will be offered. On one hand, you do not want to discourage participation by charging too high a fee; on the other hand, keep in mind that a paid service will intuitively have greater perceived value than an identical free service. The perfect balance will be a fee that users feel they will easily recover while enjoying added benefits from the program.
  • Allow people to sign up for your rewards program, immediately obtaining benefits, at the time of reservation and at the time of registration. The annual fee that you charge will represent immediate income.
  • Determine what you will offer as the key benefits of your rewards program, based upon both your profit margins and specific products and services that have significant perceived value among your guests. I cannot overemphasize that it is not necessary to offer a discount on camping.
  • Potential rewards might include express check-in, free site upgrades (if available), points toward a free future stay, waivers of early check-in and late check-out fees (based upon availability), discounts in your store and snack bar, free wi-fi or dump station services (if these are otherwise fee-based), discounts on things like mini-golf and boat rentals, a waiver of guest fees, free morning coffee in your store, and discounts for nearby businesses.
  • Be willing to experiment by changing your reward program’s benefits from year to year, based upon customer response and feedback.

Think about the types of benefits that will appeal to your customers, but also keep in mind the proven concepts that are working for others, most notably the examples and lessons to be learned from Amazon Prime. By offering free coffee or a store discount, you are getting people into your store, where they will buy merchandise, move inventory, and increase high profit margin sales. By offering free early check-in, you will stagger arrivals and reduce registration lines and the stress level of your staff. By waiving guest fees, you may be introducing your park to its next paying campers. And by offering discounts to local businesses, you open the doors to a wide range of reciprocal and cross-promotional possibilities. Imagine if, like Amazon, you could get your typical rewards program member to spend more than twice as much with you each year than your conventional campers. That would be a profitable program indeed!

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Delegate Responsibilities by Partnering Locally

February 13th, 2014

Any business owner who is destined to succeed soon discovers the importance of delegating responsibilities. First and foremost, this means hiring and assembling a team of employees who can be trusted to not only carry your philosophy forward but to bring it to the next level through independent thinking. You simply cannot do everything yourself, nor can your staff do everything itself. There are only so many hours in a day, and there is a limit to the number of hats that any one person can wear. For this reason, there will be instances when it will make sense to delegate responsibilities beyond your staff itself, subcontracting to other businesses for your mutual advantage.

When you give it some thought, you are probably already engaged in this sort of partnering without being fully aware of the process. For example, it may make more sense to buy attractively packaged, bundled firewood that is delivered to your door and that you can sell at a healthy profit margin in your store than it is to delegate staff members to thin trees or remove dead timber from your park, then cut it to fireplace length, split it, and store it for sale. If you have a game room, it may make more sense to lease the latest and most popular arcade games from a local distributor than it is to purchase and maintain games yourself, soon finding yourself with a roomful of obsolete machines – many with “Out of Order” signs – that nobody wants to play.

On a recent business trip to Florida, we stayed at the Vista Cay Resort, in Orlando. Much to my initial surprise, the concierge desk was not manned by a resort employee. Rather, it was being operated by the Local Expert division of Expedia. Currently, Expedia Local Expert is operating concierge desks at leading hotels and resorts in Hawaii, Mexico, Orlando, Las Vegas, and New York City. The properties avoid hiring a concierge staff, actually lease out the desk space, and Expedia earns commissions from the restaurants, tour operators and attractions that are on their list of preferred referrals. The Expedia employees are friendly, well-trained, and knowledgeable about the local area, allowing them to provide accurate information about driving directions and transportation services.

According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, Expedia is far from the only player in the concierge industry, with others including New York Guest and Travelocity. Some of these outsourced concierge services pay as much as $10,000 per month for the privilege of occupying lobby desk space in a leading hotel, and the hotels save as much as $50,000 per year in salary that would be paid to an in-house employee. Many, if not most, major hotel chains are converting, or at least experimenting, with this arrangement. At the same time, most consumers are unaware of the transition, since the outsourced staff members typically wear hotel uniforms and have the outward appearance of being hotel employees.

Another example of a business partnership that would be unheard of until recently involves America’s public libraries and Redbox. If you have visited a public library in recent years, you know that things have dramatically changed since you were a child. More and more people are visiting public libraries for Internet access and to check out movies and games on DVD, rather than borrowing books. Although rapidly declining, due to the rising popularity of streaming content, at least 25% of patrons identify their public library as their primary source of movie rentals. According to an online report in The Digital Shift, “dollar for dollar, DVDs are the highest circulating category of items in the New York Public Library system”.

With those statistics in mind, the familiar Redbox rental boxes are appearing outside of more and more public libraries, adding an expanded service for the library (even though not contributing to circulation) and offering patrons 24-hour access to these materials. Beyond that starting point, Redbox has also introduced a pilot program called “Outside the Box”, partnering with the Online Computer Library Center, to launch library-based community entertainment resources in Billings (MT), Chicago, Columbia (SC), Columbus (GA), and Cuyahoga County (OH). Yes, this defines the concept of “outside the box” thinking. Looking back, did it make sense to you, years ago, when McDonald’s introduced its first “PlayPlace” in its fast-food restaurants?

As a campground owner, I would like you to think of new ideas that will allow you to run your business more efficiently, professionally, and cost-effectively, particularly when it comes to special events and theme weekends. Whether you generally do things yourself, pay staff members, or rely upon volunteers (typically your seasonal campers), there are advantages to subcontracting certain services. By doing so, your will ensure that things are done right, that positive impressions will be created in the eyes of your guests, and that an event will generate return business in subsequent years.

You are probably already hiring professional bands, DJs and entertainers. What about caterers for food-based events, particularly if you are already charging a fee? There are mobile barbecue services that can be found just about anywhere, run by people who know what they are doing and who would be happy to cater your event. Thinking about a wine tasting? There are local wineries in all 50 states, and many would be happy to run your event. Do you celebrate Christmas in July? How about hiring a professional Santa, instead of having somebody wearing a fake beard and a cheap suit that doesn’t fit? There is little demand for Santas outside of December, and you might be surprised at how little this might cost. Your guests will appreciate the difference, and happy guests translate into return visits!

Start thinking of ways that you can delegate responsibilities like these to local businesses. You will benefit, they will benefit, and – together – you might discover additional ways in which both of your businesses may benefit.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Online Review Sites: Handle With Care

September 4th, 2013

In a recent post, I pointed out that it was necessary to take a proactive stance with regard to your business’ ranking on various consumer review sites. If you are lacking reviews on any particular online resource – or, worse yet, you have one or more unfounded negative reviews that are skewing readers’ opinions – you should make an effort to encourage positive input. The question is how to handle this task both properly and effectively.

Once again, a successful campground will be operated in a customer-friendly manner, and reviews of that campground are likely to be overwhelmingly positive. My advice is to proactively promote those reviews and the sites that contain the reviews, rather than simply reacting in a state of panic when a negative review appears, typically written by someone with an axe to grind.

Rather than hiding from reviews, campground owners should provide links to the major review sites – and to individual reviews – on their own websites and within the social media. Encourage your happy campers to post their own reviews, particularly if a review site has a less than stellar recent review of your park. The most recent reviews and the most intelligently written reviews (and responses) carry the greatest credibility. Older reviews or those written by somebody who is obviously on a rant are generally dismissed by readers.

What Is Different?

When taking this proactive stance at encouraging positive reviews, be careful not to cross any lines that might violate the policies of the review sites.

I recently made what I thought was a reasonable attempt at promoting one of our non-campground clients on Yelp. The client’s business was listed on Yelp, but had no reviews and, subsequently, no ranking. I added missing information to the client’s listing and uploaded photos. I then posted the following on their Facebook page:

“If you love our (products) and have visited our retail store, please take a moment to share your thoughts by writing a review on Yelp. It will only take a minute or two. When we have 5 reviews, we will choose one at random and that person will receive a $25.00 gift certificate. Thanks!” I then included a direct link to the listings page on Yelp.

One customer immediately posted a very flattering and positive review, with a 5-star rating. On the basis of this first review, our client then showed an overall 5-star rating … very briefly. Later that day, Yelp “filtered” the review, suggesting that it was of questionable origin. Apparently, our offer of the gift certificate – or possibly simply including a link to the listing page – crossed an imaginary line with Yelp, giving them the impression that we were bribing customers for their comments … which, of course, was far from the truth. A day or two later, the review was reinstated, with another review submitted soon afterward, and our client once again has a 5-star rating with two reviews, both highly positive.

To avoid this problem yourself, refer to Yelp’s review policy:

“The best word of mouth is organic and unsolicited. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, Yelp discourages business owners from asking people to write reviews about their businesses. It’s tough for an algorithm to tell the difference between a business owner aggressively putting a laptop in front of a client and saying, “Give me 5 stars!” and that same business owner flipping the laptop around and manufacturing a fake 5-star review about themselves.”

They continue, “As a general rule, Yelp has advised business owners not to offer incentives for reviews. It’s a slippery slope between the customer who is so delighted by her experience that she takes it upon herself to write a glowing review and the customer who is “encouraged” to write a favorable review in exchange for a special discount. In an effort to minimize spam and maximize trustworthiness of the site’s content, Yelp actively weeds out suspicious reviews through a combination of community self-policing and automated filtering; aggressively solicited reviews can ring hollow at times and end up flagged by users or the website for removal. The system is designed to ensure the reviews consumers rely on are as authentic and useful as possible.”

In other words, Yelp uses analytics to flag online review solicitations, and the worst case scenario could be the removal of your listing, not simply the filtering of the resulting review(s). Learn more about Yelp’s policy by following this link:
https://biz.yelp.com/support/common_questions.

How Do You Handle This?

Yelp encourages businesses to link to both their listing page and to individual reviews. When you have one or more positive reviews, provide links to them on your website and on Facebook, Google+ and Twitter. Let the power of subtle persuasion influence new reviewers. You may also hand out printed cards with the URL to guests as they check out and rave about their stay, but avoid directly asking for reviews in your online newsletter, on your website, or on your social media pages.

There is a similar policy in place at TripAdvisor, outlined in an extensive network of forum posts. One somewhat extreme example outlines a hotel in England that offered guests 10% discounts and free room upgrades in exchange for positive reviews on TripAdvisor, the Good Food Guide, or the Michelin Guide. Read more, following this link, shortened using Google URL Shortener:
http://goo.gl/cPmHxW

This scheme backfired and the property was red flagged, meaning that TripAdvisor posted that “individuals associated with this property may have interfered with traveler reviews” and showing users a record of the property’s alleged wrong-doing. How do you think that makes your listing look?

There are also companies that specialize in online reputation management, offering to repair damaged reputations for a fee, usually quite ineffectively. If you are considering a reputation management service, the damage has already been done, and you are no doubt at least indirectly responsible for the creation of that damage. There are even companies that will generate fake reviews for a fee, even though this practice is illegal in the United States, Great Britain, Ireland, France, Germany, and Italy. Quite naturally, those so-called “services” should never be considered. The best way to get positive reviews is to provide exemplary service that, in and of itself, will encourage people to share their enthusiasm!

This post was written by Peter Pelland

The Internet May Be the King of the Hill … but Print Is Far from Dead

August 23rd, 2013

I often advise people that their Web address should be treated like their second business name. I also tell them that their URL should be short, memorable, and easy to spell. Ideally, it is the shortest possible variation of your actual business name. This advice is based upon the fact that there are many ways to drive traffic to your website.

Many people think that they build a website, then just sit back and wait for a flood of new business to be magically generated by Google. Well, it doesn’t quite work that way. If you look at the Google Analytics for the average website, you will quickly learn that there are three basic sources of incoming traffic. One is search engines (where Google and Bing are, for all practical purposes, the only games in town), another is referring sites (like Go Camping America, your state campground association, and your local tourism office or chamber of commerce), and the last is what is referred to as “direct traffic”. In many instances, those three broad sources of traffic break down into equal thirds. In this installment, I would like to concentrate on that last segment: Direct traffic.

You can have one of the world’s best websites but, without traffic, it is nothing more than a business with its lights out. People need to find your business, and whatever it might be, every single potential customer counts. If direct traffic represents a third of your potential with respect to new business, you cannot afford to turn a blind eye to that traffic. To start, it helps to know direct traffic’s sources of origin.

Some direct traffic is what is referred to as “type-in” traffic. These are people who, although they already know your business, are probably not familiar with your website. They simply presume that entering your business name, followed by .com will take them to your website. (Hopefully for you, that is the case!) This is the argument in favor of choosing a short, memorable, and intuitive domain name.

Other sources of direct traffic include advertising and listings in printed directories and publications that reach your clientele. If you are a campground owner, you simply cannot afford NOT to be found in your state association directory. These are professionally designed publications that are printed in large quantities, are organized in a manner that makes it easy for people to zero in on specific regions, and are distributed in markets that reach out to both active and potential campers.

In most instances today, the primary purpose of any print advertising is to send prospects to your website, where they can find more information and immediately respond to your “call to action” … which is almost always going to be either a reservation inquiry or a real-time reservation. For this reason, your Web address should be one of the three primary elements of your message, along with your business name and telephone number. With a little imagination, there are so many ways of reaching out to people with your URL. Do you have signage on your vehicles? If so, does it include your Web address? Vinyl signage is very inexpensive these days, and a message on the rear window, tailgate, or rear bumpers on your vehicles will be absorbed by far more people than a message that is seen fleetingly on a side door.

Everything else aside, the single most important way to promote your website is through the use of printed literature. Like your directory advertising, your brochures, rack cards, or other printed literature need to get to the point of sending people to your website. As somebody who started in the advertising industry producing four-color brochures for the outdoor industry, I can tell you that people are printing smaller brochures (or more often rack cards) in lower quantities and with less frequency. The key is to insure that the quality of your literature stands out from the crowd and that it gets distributed. Just like a terrific website that is relatively unseen, the best brochures that sit in a box are failing to generate a penny in new revenues for your business.

Many state campground associations have very inexpensive distribution programs that allow your brochure to “piggyback” with directories that are mailed in fulfillment of consumer requests. Saving the postage will easily cut your costs of reaching those new customers in half. Your state association can also help you to reach campers at major RV shows. You cannot possibly afford the time or the expense to exhibit at every major camping show, typically held during the winter months, when Northern campers are itching for the snow to melt and when Sunbirds are anxious to migrate back to the Northern woods; however, “piggybacking” once again with your state association can be the next best thing.

Although you should certainly consider exhibiting directly at the major shows within your key markets, because there is no substitute for the one-on-one ability of being able to speak directly with your key prospects, rely on the experts to cost-effectively get your literature into the hands of the people who you cannot afford to meet yourself. In addition to the state campground associations, there are at least two companies that provide a similar service that is tailored to the family camping and RV markets. Those two companies are:

I apologize if there are others that I may have unintentionally omitted. If they exist, they are probably not doing an efficient job of promoting their own businesses. Other companies maintain literature racks that display campground brochures at RV dealerships from state to state. One of these, serving the state of California, is RV Travlin.

Incorporate these ideas and services, then watch the direct traffic to your website increase substantially by people who are campers, are interested in your state or region, and who would otherwise not know that your business exists.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Make the Most of Online Review Sites

July 28th, 2013

Years ago, as a business owner you were pretty much in control of how people perceived your business. You advertised to influence opinions, you went out of your way to please your customers, and you provided a quality product or service. Everybody was happy. In the rare instances where a customer was displeased, he told his friends and never returned. Things could have been worse.

Today, things are worse. Conventional advertising has lost much of its credibility and clout, and most people turn to their network of friends (including virtual friends online) for trusted opinions and recommendations. That dissatisfied customer from years past now has the means to amplify his displeasure before an audience of thousands. On the other hand, the same tools are available for your happiest of customers to share their experience and influence equally vast numbers of potential guests.

Most campground owners seem to fear review sites more than an attack of locusts. Those fears are unfounded. P.T. Barnum is often credited with coining the statement, “There is no such thing as bad publicity,” and that concept is truer today, in the age of the Internet, than ever before in history.

First of all, a successful campground will be operated in a customer-friendly manner, and reviews of that campground are likely to be overwhelmingly positive. My advice is to proactively promote those reviews and the sites that contain the reviews, rather than simply reacting in a state of panic when a negative review appears, typically written by someone with an axe to grind.

Rather than hiding from reviews, I encourage campground owners to provide links to the major review sites – and to individual reviews – on their own websites and within the social media. Quote great reviews on your Facebook page and in Tweets, and encourage your guests to post their own reviews, particularly if a review site has a less than stellar recent review of your park. Some review sites allow you to respond to reviews, while others do not. Either way, the most recent reviews and the most intelligently written reviews (and responses) carry the greatest credibility. Older reviews or those written by somebody who is obviously on a rant are generally dismissed by readers.

If you are going to encourage your happy campers to submit reviews, you need to know the review sites that count. You also need to know whenever a review of your park appears online. Use Google Alerts to stay on top of what is being posted about your business online. When guests are checking out, commenting how much they enjoyed their stays, ask them if they would like to submit a review that puts that satisfaction into words. If they agree, send them a follow-up e-mail with a direct link to the review page for your park on the review site of your choice. (Don’t ask them to submit a review on more than one site, since that would be a bit of an imposition.) The following is a list of some of the review sites that need to be on your radar.

RV Park Reviews – This site has been online since 2000 and includes nearly 200,000 reviews of every campground in North America, including yours. If you are not aware of this site and have not read its reviews of your park, you have only yourself to blame. Use this site to your advantage. If you have the highest rated park in your city or town (based upon the average of your 10 most recent reviews, rated on a 1-10 scale), promote that fact by providing a link to the reviews for your park and its competitors. Use transparency to your advantage!

Yelp – This site was started in 2004, gets over 100 million unique visitors per month, and hosts over 39 million reviews. Originally designed to rate local business service providers (like mechanics, electricians, and plumbers), it now includes reviews to lodging services, including campgrounds. As a business, you can setup a free business account that allows you to post photos and additional information that will enhance your listing on the site, as well as generating free widgets that you can use to promote your Yelp reviews on your website. Follow this link to get started: https://biz.yelp.com

TripAdvisor – This is the world’s largest travel-related website. It gets more than 200 million unique visitors per month and contains over 100 million trusted reviews covering more than 2.5 million businesses around the world. Although the site originally concentrated on hotels and similar lodging, it now includes campgrounds under the Specialty Lodging category. If your campground is not yet listed on TripAdvisor, you can submit a listing by following this link: http://www.tripadvisor.com/GetListedNew

Because of the volume of traffic, reviews on TripAdvisor carry plenty of clout. As a business owner, you can (and should!) create a free business account, allowing you to update your business details, add photos, receive e-mail notifications of new reviews, and – most importantly – respond to reviews. You can also generate free widgets that can link your website to your reviews. Follow this link to get started: http://www.tripadvisor.com/Owners

GuestRated – Campground owners are probably also familiar with the GuestRated program that was founded by industry consultant Bob MacKinnon in 2008 as the first ongoing guest satisfaction rating program relating to the private campground industry in the United States. Run in conjunction with National ARVC, this online survey program provides very useful consumer information and statistical analytics to campground owners, as well as providing an opportunity to respond to guest reviews. There are also widgets that allow campgrounds to feature reviews and ratings on their websites and that encourage visitors to initiate their own review process. Learn more about the program at: http://www.guestreviews.com

This is far from a conclusive list of review sites. There are many other campground review sites that generate less traffic and less impact upon public opinion. I would recommend not fretting over any of the more obscure review sites, particularly if any investment of your time would come at the expense of the attention that you should be devoting to these review sites that count.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Realistic Offers Produce Measurable Results

June 25th, 2013

One of the challenges for almost any campground is the generation of a continuous flow of new campers who will grow the business and expand its customer base. You cannot simply rely upon your existing clientele and word of mouth to grow your business. People move, their interests change, and the population ages. If your campground caters to a significant number of senior citizens, you have certainly faced the reality of long-time campers who are now living in nursing facilities or who have simply passed on. Regardless of the reason for the “customer churn”, you have campsites and rental units that need to maintain the highest possible occupancy rates.

The replacement campers will generally come from one of three sources: existing campers who have never stayed at your park, existing campers who have not stayed at your park either frequently or recently, and non-campers who need to be persuaded to give camping a try (and to try it out at your park). Needless to say, there is not a one-size-fits-all marketing approach that will effectively reach all three of these groups. Non-campers clearly need a greater incentive than it takes to simply persuade a previous camper to return.

Probably the most cost-effective way to reach each source of replacement campers is the Internet and promotions on your campground’s website; however, it is necessary to give your offers some serious thought before posting them online. There are several pitfalls to avoid.

  • Do not make an offer so broad that you are offering discounts to customers who do not require the discount. You may want to consider requiring that a discount be requested at the time of reservation. You probably do not want to grant a 10% discount to everybody who pulls out a membership card at the last minute when they see a GoodSam or AARP logo on the wall behind your registration desk. For the same reason, just because the fourth week in August is historically a slow week, you probably want to think twice about offering a blanket price cut for that week. There are some people who want to camp that week and who do not require an incentive to do so.
  • Try to avoid offers that are limited to “new customers only” in a manner that might run the risk of creating ill feelings with your existing, loyal campers. Alternatively, you may want to reward those folks by offering a discount to both parties if they refer a friend and bring in new business for you. DirecTV has used this approach very successfully in recent years, offering its subscribers and their friends a $100.00 discount for referrals.
  • Do not offer a discount of little or no perceived value, since this will likely generate little if any results. If you are old enough, you will remember the days when the manufacturer’s coupons that were clipped and redeemed in supermarkets offered discounts like “Save 7¢”. That kind of offer these days is perceived as not being worth the time to clip – let alone redeem – the coupon. A more typical coupon offer these days might read “Save $1.00 on 2”, with a very short expiration date. With this in mind, how many new campers will be generated by a “Save 5% on your second night’s stay, excluding weekends and holidays” promotion? You guessed it: Zero.
  • On the other hand, do not give the store away in a desperate attempt to bring in business. Yes, deep discounts will always generate business, but at what price? The Groupon concept is based upon discounts of 50% or more. After offering the deep discount and paying Groupon its fees, merchants inevitably lose money in the hope of generating new customers who will return and pay the full price. That rarely happens, and many Groupons are purchased and redeemed by existing customers. Generating business by losing money is not part of a sound business plan.
  • Do not presume that all incentives need to be monetary. Smart marketers often utilize merchandise incentives, understanding that most consumers are willing to attach the full retail value of merchandise that costs the merchant 50% (or less) of the retail price. Possibilities include free bundles of firewood, free boat rentals, free games of mini-golf, or free passes to local beaches or attractions. Be sure to total the full value of the merchandise as part of your promotion.
  • Do not presume that people only respond to discounts. A growing number of businesses are finding that customers are willing to reward businesses that allow them to act in a socially responsible manner when making a purchase. Sometimes a discount may be involved as an added incentive. For example, consider a $10.00 discount on a night of camping (or, better yet, on food in your restaurant or snack bar, if you have one) in exchange for 10 non-perishable food items that you will donate to a local food pantry. Everyone wins, and you can also benefit from publicizing the successful event in a variety of avenues.

The bottom line is that, if you are serious about generating new business, think beyond the same old, tired incentives that are available anywhere and everywhere. Almost everybody offers a weekly discount, a midweek discount, and discounts for active duty military. You need to give people incentives with either a real perceived value or discounts that give them a sense of exclusivity.

Want to carry the incentives to the next level? Consider partnering with other local merchants. Here is just one idea: Consider partnering on an otherwise historically slow weekend with your local Ford dealership. Offer campers a substantial discount on a weekend of camping, doubling the discount if they are driving a Ford motor vehicle. Get the dealership to participate in the discount in exchange for your promotional efforts and the opportunity to display some of his latest Ford truck inventory with trailer-towing capacity. He gets people into a temporary outdoor “showroom” where he has the opportunity to sell a potential vehicle or two, your campers get a discount and a mini auto show, and you fill more campsites. Hate Fords and love Chevys? You get the idea. Ski resorts have been using this concept for years, in successful cross-promotions with Subaru and other manufacturers of all-wheel drive vehicles.

Whatever incentive programs you provide, promote them aggressively on your website and within the social media. If you can arrange them far enough in advance, include them in your brochures and related print advertising. Just as the incentives need to be realistic, you need to promote the incentives – and get the word out – in order for them to succeed. There may be some trial and error in determining what works best for you, but one thing is certain: What works best is whatever the campgrounds down the road are unwilling to try. Capitalize upon your competitors’ lack of imagination!

This post was written by Peter Pelland

How Would You Like to Increase Your Market Share by 15% or More?

May 22nd, 2013

Remember the days when there were 3 major television networks – ABC, NBC and CBS? Needless to say, there are many more television networks these days of cable and satellite TV, and the “Big Three” no longer dominate the market. In fact, can you name the fourth largest TV network in prime-time ratings? It is Univision, the Spanish language television network. (In case you are wondering, the Top 5 Networks, in order, are now CBS, Fox, ABC, Univision, and NBC.)

According to Wikipedia, Hispanics and Latinos now comprise 16.7% of the population in the United States. Of these, 90% speak English, 78% speak Spanish, 69% are bi-lingual (Spanish and English), 22% speak only English, and 9% speak only Spanish. Are you reaching out to this vast market, or are you simply following an outmoded and incorrect stereotype that says that Hispanics and Latinos are not part of your customer base?

The Growing Hispanic & Latino Market

Most small businesses work on very small margins, and incremental increases in income can make the difference between profit or loss. Factors such as additional retail sales in your store, extended stays, lower credit card processing fees, propane fills, and firewood sales all come into play and have a cumulative effect; however, these shy in comparison to the potential of an overall increase in market share.

For several years now, my company has been building French language versions of websites for Northeastern clients with businesses located in destination areas that consistently draw significant percentages of French Canadian vacation traffic. Those clients have frequently been complimented by their French Canadian customers, thanking them for providing a French language version of their website that was thoughtfully created, carefully translated, and contained full content. One of the comments that was shared with us earlier in the year (accompanying a reservation that was made with one of our campground clients) read, “Thank you for your French site. It’s the first time that we see this quality of French language out(side) of Quebec, whether it was on menus in restaurants or on web sites. Nice work and nice attention.” The message that is conveyed to customers says “we want your business and we care about your business”.

We all make buying decisions that are based upon purchasing products and doing business with companies that lie within our personal comfort zones. Those comfort zones may be defined within a variety of standards, and they are particularly crucial when you are trying to persuade a group of people to try something new. What better way could there be to communicate with new customers than for your marketing to speak their language?

In the case of the French Canadian market, the need generally applies to businesses within driving distance of Quebec, in historical destination markets (such as Old Orchard Beach, ME; Hampton Beach, NH; Cape Cod, MA; The Wildwoods and Cape May, NJ; Ocean City, MD; and Virginia Beach, VA), or that are conducting online commerce and seeking out that market. In the case of the Hispanic and Latino markets, there are no regional limitations. If you are running a business in the United States today, you need to be reaching out to these vast and growing populations in the language that represents their comfort zone.

The skeptics – or dare I say the ignorant – like to say that Hispanics, Latinos, and other demographic groups simply do not camp. My response is that these are people who have simply not been sent the invitation to engage in the experience. One fact is certain: They are not camping with your competitors, giving you the opportunity to introduce them to camping and to essentially define the experience.

Think of automobile manufacturers 10 or 20 years ago who viewed the market in China as nothing more than a nation of people who did not drive cars. Did that mean that the Chinese middle class did not want to own vehicles, or did it mean that the biggest demand in automotive history was ready to flourish? In hindsight, we all know the answer, and the companies that have successfully tapped into this market are doing so in their new customers’ native language, using marketing messages that are consistent with their native culture.

Your new markets are much closer to home. Speak their language.

This post was written by Peter Pelland