Pelland Blog

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

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

The Basics of Branding

January 1st, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Put Directory Advertising to Work!

September 19th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post was written by Peter Pelland

What’s in a Name?

August 7th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Factual
  • Axiom
  • Infogroup
  • Neustar/Localeze

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

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Start a Disruption (Updated)

May 27th, 2018

Successful business concepts today generally involve entirely new ways of thinking. In the world of computer software and mobile apps, the terminology is known as disruptive technology, and it refers to the fact that nothing really new or transformative comes from simply applying a new coat of paint or polish to something old and familiar. In a broad sense, the personal computer and the cell phone were among the greatest disruptors of recent time.

If you go back in time, other ground-breakers included the friction match, the printing press, the incandescent light bulb, the internal combustion engine, film, radio, television, and so on. Certainly, some of these inventions evolved over time rather than instantly bursting onto the scene. Television, for example, gradually evolved from radio to the flat-screen displays of today.

From the dozen local VHF channels of the early years, came UHF adapters, cable, and satellite systems that now bring hundreds of programming options into the home of any subscriber. Even the remote control has evolved by leaps and bounds from the original Zenith Flash-Matic, introduced in 1955, to the programmable, multi-function devices of today. I remember a very primitive one-button remote control on my family’s Sylvania console TV back in the 1960s. We could not watch TV during a thunderstorm because lightning made the remote control go crazy, endlessly changing the channels on the motorized tuner!

Disruptive ideas are far from limited to the technology industries. In the customer service industries, we need to think less like our grandparents and more like our next generation of customers. For campground owners, this means thinking outside the box, seeking out the next new idea that will appeal to your guests. When was the last time you invested in a major piece of new recreational equipment? Not simply a new playground, but things like a fitness course, canine agility park, jumping pillow, gem mining station, laser tag, or spray park. And when is the last time that you really shook up your activities schedule, adding an event or two that will run the risk of being ahead of its time but that could also prove to be overwhelmingly popular?

There are a couple businesses in New Jersey that fall under the “who wudda thunk it?” head-scratcher concept category. Stumpy’s Hatchet House was founded in 2015. Its first location, in Eatontown, was the first indoor hatchet-throwing facility in the United States, probably a lot more fun than either bowling or darts. Customers pay $40.00 per person for a two-hour session that includes safety training, a lesson, hatchet rental, and use of a hatchet pit. A separate party room can be rented by groups, or the entire venue can be rented for $1,500.00 per hour (up from $1,000.00 a year ago.) Spectators (referred to as “non-throwers”) pay a cover charge of $15.00 each. Stumpy’s is opening 3 more locations in June 2018, with a total of 12 locations soon to be in operation in 7 states.

Located in West Berlin, New Jersey, Diggerland USA is the first and only construction themed adventure park in North America, where children and families can drive, ride and operate actual heavy construction machinery. The park covers about 21 acres and is comprised of over 25 attractions, the majority of which are real, diesel powered, full size, pieces of construction equipment. Guests who visit Diggerland USA can drive full size backhoes, dig giant holes with real excavators, and operate just about every sort of construction machine you might imagine. Guests pay $129.00 for a one-hour package operating one machine, $258.00 for a two-hour package operating two machines, $387.00 for a three-hour package operating three machines, and an extra $395.00 to smash a car. There are also group packages and special adult sessions called Diggerland XL, designed for adults over the age of 18 and including more unrestricted equipment operation.

Both of these businesses fall under the umbrella category of the adult fun industry. Time will tell whether these ventures will take off and succeed in the long run, but most service businesses today are not planning where they will be 50 years from now. Serial entrepreneurs work within a far shorter time-frame (typically 10 years) within which to take risks, hopefully profit, move on to the next venture, and sell to a new investor. When you come right down to it, how many campgrounds are not currently for sale, given the right price and circumstances, along with a ready and willing buyer?

A park that embraces concepts on the cutting edge (no hatchet-throwing or excavator puns intended) will profit in the short run and tremendously increase its value in the long run.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Give Your Guests More of What They Want

February 24th, 2018

I opened a box of breakfast cereal recently, and the inner bag of contents reached about half the height of the packaging. It was a classic example of the disclaimer that warns us that “contents are sold by weight, not volume”. If the packaging properly matched the size of its contents, it would have been half the size, have far less visibility on the supermarket shelf, and I probably would have passed on a purchase that did not appear to represent a very good value. You might say that I was deceived into making the purchase. Even though I liked the cereal, I am unlikely to purchase it again.

There are so many instances where corporate marketing decision-makers seem to underestimate the ability of their customers to make informed buying decisions and to alternately choose substitute products. Then there are instances that border on collusion, where companies follow the lead of a competitor who trail-blazes a reduction in product size without a corresponding reduction in price. For example, it only took one orange juice company to shrink its half-gallon container down to 59 ounces before every other company quickly followed suit. The same thing happened with ice cream, where the half-gallon container somehow evolved into a quart and a half. Perhaps the greatest offenses to consumer intelligence are meaningless comparison claims. I recently purchased a 50 ounce container of liquid laundry detergent where the label prominently stated “25% more ounces” (in a 36 pt. bold font) “vs. 40 fluid ounces” (in a 6 pt. light font). Needless to say, that claim did not influence my purchase.

Respect Your Guests’ Intelligence

People who feel that they have been somehow deceived into making a buying decision are almost never going to be return customers. When it comes to the outdoor hospitality industry, one of the biggest complaints is when guests feel like they are being “nickeled and dimed” during their stay. Although it is far preferable to avoid the imposition of add-on fees for incidentals like showers, Wi-Fi, or your planned activities, it is very important that any such fees be fully disclosed at the time of reservation. (One of my pet peeves is the imposition of so-called “convenience fees” for the making of reservations themselves!)

My best advice is to bundle as much as possible into your basic fees, promote the value within your rate structure, and stop presuming that people are comparison shopping for price without reading the fine print. One trend that I hope does not make inroads with the outdoor hospitality industry is the growing practice of hotels to impose so-called “resort fees”. This practice is so deceptive that it has generated lawsuits filed on behalf of consumers by 47 state attorneys general, who had recently negotiated an agreement with the Federal Trade Commission, until the Trump administration ordered the FTC to back off, siding with the hotel industry rather than the interests of consumers. Nonetheless, guests have little or no tolerance for deceptive rate embellishments.

Consider the All-Inclusive Approach

A far better – and opposite – approach is the all-inclusive concept, where guests are willing to pay a premium for the privilege of avoiding add-on fees. The all-inclusive concept originated with Club Med way back in 1950. It is the rule rather than the exception in some vacation destinations such as Mexico and the Caribbean. The concept has since been embraced by resort operators, cruise lines, travel agencies and online booking companies, several major airlines (including United, JetBlue, and Southwest), hotel chains (including Marriott and Hilton), and even wholesale buying clubs like Costco.

With all-inclusive pricing, as the name implies, guests willingly pay a premium fee for the privilege of vacationing without having to pull out their wallets throughout the course of their stay. All-inclusive pricing is most popular with destination resorts and highly competitive, saturated tourism markets. Probably the best known and most broadly marketed of these practitioners is Sandals Resorts International, which now promotes the tagline of “more quality inclusions than any other resorts on the planet”. Their all-inclusive stays include accommodations, dining, wine and spirits, golf, water sports, scuba diving, land sports, and entertainment. Even here, there are fee-based options such as spa treatments, premium wines, and scuba certification, as well as some restrictions on golf that vary from one resort or level of accommodations to another. The bottom line is that guests feel that they are being offered far more than they would otherwise expect.

Unfortunately, when I perform a Google search for the terms “all-inclusive campgrounds” or “all-inclusive camping resorts”, the results are pretty limited. I am more likely to find dude ranches, cabin resorts, and family resorts that do not fit the definition of a campground. Nonetheless, it seems that there is a small but growing list of campgrounds, ownership groups, and franchises that are discovering and beginning to capitalize upon the “all-inclusive” buzz words.

When I clicked through to the website of a campground in Michigan that calls itself “all-inclusive”, I found that it did not charge extra fees for most of its planned activities (something that is not all that uncommon); however, it charges extra fees for bike rentals, boat rentals, boat launching, and a few other “add-ons”. Another park in Wisconsin is promoting its all-inclusive pricing but is also charging for a short list of optional services that include boat and golf cart rentals, its laundry, and honey wagon service. Finally, a Jellystone Park in Texas is really promoting an all-inclusive pricing concept that includes full use of a wide range of recreational amenities – from miniature golf to a jumping pillow to a splash park. In each instance, the point of emphasis is not the list of fee-based options but the list of what is included at no additional charge.

The key to growth in the family camping industry has always been to draw in a new wave of guests who do not currently consider themselves campers. To reach them, offer them the unexpected and create the perception of overwhelming value that they have come to appreciate elsewhere. An all-inclusive approach to pricing may prove to be an idea whose time has come.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Who Is Answering Your Phone?

December 24th, 2017

For campgrounds in Canada and the northern states, winter is the off-season. Whether or not the owners are fortunate enough to spend their winters in Florida or other Southern climes, their parks are usually operating with skeleton staffs or are totally vacant, with hopes that off-season income will cover their utility bills and mortgages. Either way, the off-season is the prime time for campers to make reservations for the upcoming season, and it is also the time when you, as a campground owner or manager, are likely to have the least number of interruptions competing for your attention.

We all tend to think that technology makes life easier, believing that it can simplify the task of generating a new stream of business. While there is some truth to that idea, the fact is that the most effective technologies require a commitment of both time and old-school business practices. If you are a small business owner, the time that must be invested is quite likely to be your own.

The Internet is often seen as a technological panacea with respect to the harvest of a new base of customers. For campgrounds, the entire online process is typically funneled toward online reservations, the outdoor hospitality industry’s equivalent of e-commerce on Amazon. Unfortunately, many people still buy into the “if you build it, they will come” concept that was the mantra of the 1989 fantasy-drama film, Field of Dreams. Things are not that simple in real life, and the reservation process rarely flies on autopilot.

In many instances, prospective online customers have pre-purchase questions that must be answered prior to making their decisions. These inquiries are almost always going to involve either email or a phone call, with the customer expecting a prompt response (in the case of email) or an immediate response (in the case of a phone call).

If somebody is determined to camp exclusively at your park, they may be more patient in awaiting a response to an immediate question; however, a camper who is seeking a park in your local area may very well be contacting you and several of your competitors. Being the first to respond is the equivalent of getting your business to appear at the top of the Google or Bing search results.

If you are away from the office, either make arrangements to access and respond to your emails or delegate that responsibility to a trusted employee. Never use an auto-responder, which simply encourages the recipient to look elsewhere. Try to use personalized templates that will streamline the response process and that will minimize the number of back-and-forth emails that must be exchanged. Next, check to ensure that the sender name on your emails is clear and intuitive to the recipient. It should include the name of your business. I am amazed at how many emails arrive in my inbox identified solely by vague sender names such as ‘info’, ‘reservations’, ‘office’, or some other generic term. If a customer has contacted several parks, ensure that he or she will immediately identify the source of your response. Finally, your emails should always include a “signature” that includes the full range of alternate contact information, including your mailing address, phone number(s), and social media addresses.

Beyond listing alternate contact information in your email signature, consider offering your online visitors one or more truly alternate means of contact. Online chat is great, as long as you have somebody available to respond at any given time; however, the single most important alternative is a telephone number. In 2018, there is no question that well over 50% of your online traffic will be coming from users of mobile devices, and according to a Google AdWords report, 70% of users of mobile devices are likely to “click to call” either prior to or rather than completing an online purchase. This statistic equally applies to online reservations at campgrounds.

A smartphone user may be ready to make a reservation but would prefer to do so over the phone rather than fumbling through an online process. Are the phone numbers listed on your website properly linked to allow smartphone users to simply click the number to call you? It is otherwise awkward to try to read a number and then call it from the same device. Make the process easy!

It is essential for the business phone number to forward directly to either the owner or manager of a campground and that the call be either immediately answered or returned within minutes. Do not include an alternate phone number “for a faster response” in your outgoing message. If another number will reach you more directly, forward the call to that number, rather than expecting the caller to be able to immediately transcribe that number and then place a second call. Nobody likes to needlessly jump through hoops, and that second call is highly unlikely to be made.

What happens when someone calls your campground in the off-season? Do they get a message telling them that you are out of the office and will reopen in May? If so, you can almost be certain that you have lost a sale every time your phone rings. Of course, callers might expect to reach your voicemail during off-hours and on weekends; however, if you are available to take a call during those times, do so. Big companies that have the poorest ratings for customer service are almost always the companies that are notorious for putting callers on hold, forcing them to navigate through complex phone menus, or make it extremely difficult to get through to a live operator.

What callers do not want to sense from you is a lack of response, whether that is an unanswered phone, a non-reassuring outgoing message, or a phone that is answered in an unprofessional manner. When was the last time that you called your own number to listen to your outgoing message? Does it clearly identify your park, is the sound clear and friendly, and is the message current? I am amazed at how many businesses use a default outgoing message that only references the phone number. I will not leave a message in that instance because there has been no confirmation that I have even reached the correct number. In other instances, the recorded message might include long pauses or background noise. Use a written script, record it in a quiet space, play it back, and do it again if it is less than perfect. I have even called parks with outgoing messages that say that they will reopen at a certain date that was two months in the past, not to mention parks where it is impossible to leave a message because the mailbox is either full or not set up properly.

 

This post was written by Peter Pelland

A Fresh Look at Pets and Rentals

September 6th, 2017

There is no question that Americans love their pets. In most instances, they would not think of taking a road trip or weekend vacation where their furry “family members” were left behind. Most campground owners have capitalized nicely upon this trend, making their parks more pet-friendly than ever. Campground dog parks have become very popular (in many instances with two parks, one for smaller and one for larger breeds), waste stations and litter bags are commonplace, and many parks are installing dog-wash stations. Entire businesses, such as Dogipot, have been built around the combination of pets and parks, while other suppliers have added pet-related items to their product lines.

According to the American Pet Products Association, U.S. pet owners spent over $66 billion on their pets in 2016, with those same expenditures expected to approach $70 billion in 2017. Not only do they want to take their pets with them just about everywhere, they are not hesitant to pay for that privilege. Campgrounds, resorts, bed and breakfasts, and even luxury hotels are attempting to find ways to increase their share of this lucrative market.

With luxury hotels embracing the demands of the market, most campgrounds remain somewhat more cautious and hesitant to allow pets in their cabins, cottages, yurts, park models, and other rental units. Just this past week, one of my campground clients asked for my thoughts on whether or not she should allow pets in her new glamping tents and, if so, she was wondering about a waiver and how to handle security deposits. I suggested that she touch bases with her insurance provider, but it became clear to me that some guidelines might be needed.

One of the first things to bear in mind is that it is important that you avoid alienating guests who do not own pets in your efforts to reach out to pet owners. When I booked a reservation for several nights at a luxury hotel in Colorado ski country this past winter, the property’s website indicated that it was pet-friendly and included a prominent photo of a St. Bernard lying on the bed in a guest room. I almost booked my stay elsewhere, prior to being assured that I would be staying in a pet-free room.

Back to my client with the new glamping tents, how can a park owner make these decisions in a deliberate and informed manner? First of all, decide whether potential damage is a risk that you are willing to incur, keeping in mind that those instances are likely to be fairly infrequent. In those instances where damage might occur, both the repair costs and the lost revenue during the time of the repair must both be taken into consideration. What if a unit has been reserved by a subsequent guest during the repair timeframe? What if that unit is unique or it is a time of year when a suitable substitute is unavailable? It is probably due to questions like these that most parks tend to limit their pet-friendly accommodations to older units or rentals that would not otherwise realize full occupancy.

According to the Irons Family, owners of Ole Mink Farm in Maryland, a park with a long history offering pet-friendly accommodations, “For several years, guests at Ole Mink Farm Recreation Resort had been requesting Pet-Friendly lodging, and with some hesitation, we began accepting ‘fur babies’ in 2002. Initially, we allowed pets in our basic cabins, but as demand increased, we slowly included a few luxury cabins as well; choosing ones with wood or tile floors to allow for easier clean up due to shedding and potential accidents. Pets are required to be on leash, and we charge a nightly pet fee as well as a refundable security deposit to cover any damage that may occur; however, our experience has been largely positive! Becoming pet friendly has increased revenue for our cabins and increased our target guests with minimal overhead and upkeep.”

One way or another, you must be covered against even the remote potentiality of losses due to damage. Usually these risks are covered by either deposits or fees that are outlined in a signed agreement. Have your attorney check to see if your state allows you to collect pet deposits or fees, whether or not there is a limitation on those fees, and whether or not you are allowed to restrict animals according to breed or size. Keep in mind that you will NEVER be allowed to apply any charges to designated service or companion animals. This latter issue is an entirely separate problem. My Google search for “how to make your pet a companion animal” just returned 17,600,000 results, including explanations of how any pet can be fraudulently designated as a service dog for a $50.00 fee.

Subject to any limitations in your state, a “pet fee” is simply an added charge for a pet. Similar to charging fees for extra persons or visitors, these pet fees may be higher for rental units than for conventional campsites. Such fees do not cover damages, and the fees are not refundable. You might think of them as a type of self-insurance. On the other hand, a “pet deposit” must be refunded upon inspection and confirmation that no damage has occurred. If damage is found, you will be responsible for providing an itemization that will justify keeping all of part of the deposit. Since it might be impractical to perform immediate and thorough inspections at the time of check-out, your agreement should outline the timeframe and manner for return of the deposit. Also keep in mind when setting your deposit that it will be very difficult to collect damages that exceed the amount of the deposit itself. Unless you are prohibited from doing so by your state laws, there is no reason why you cannot collect BOTH a non-refundable pet fee and a refundable pet deposit.

Whatever you charge, a signed agreement between your park and the pet owner(s) is essential. At minimum, that agreement will:

  • Clearly identify the pet(s) that are covered by the agreement.
  • Clearly – and in great detail – list your applicable rules and regulations. (Just because a fee has been paid does NOT mean that an animal cannot be evicted for just cause.)
  • Clearly outline the liability for damages. These will include damage to your property, damage to the property of other guests, personal injuries, and the costs of cleaning and repairs both inside and outside of the rental unit.
  • A clearly delineated outline of the associated fees.

A series of pet agreements, some of which are designed for landlords and tenants but easily modified for campgrounds and related properties, may be downloaded on the Sample Forms website. I would suggest finding one of these that appears to be a good fit for your business, customizing it to your specific needs, and then doing your best to capitalize upon this growing market.

This post was written by Peter Pelland