Pelland Blog

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

Free Websites vs. Free Websites

June 28th, 2017

No, that is not a typo in the title, but it did catch your attention, didn’t it? In the campground industry, most park owners choose a website design and hosting services provider with a track record and industry presence. Others choose to affiliate with a franchise, where they can benefit from corporate branding and marketing expertise that has been proven effective. Yet others choose to go it alone, taking the D-I-Y route with so-called “free websites” from companies like Wix, Weebly, Homestead, and Vistaprint.

Sometimes the do-it-yourself people are simply “hands on” business owners who feel uncomfortable with delegating responsibility. I often wonder if they also build the washers and dryers in their laundry, make the ice cream that is sold in their store, and provide each weekend’s entertainment, performing as a one-man-band every Saturday night. Other folks seem to resentfully think that professional services are overpriced, failing to acknowledge the legitimate costs and years of education, training and experience that are the foundations of those services. Finally, there are park owners who truly cannot afford to hire outside services for something that they would admittedly prefer not to do themselves.

This post is intended for the people in that last category, park owners who recognize that they need assistance in marketing their parks but believe that help is out of reach.

One of my company’s clients, based in New Hampshire, had wanted to replace the old website that we had built for them back in 2009, but a new mobile-friendly site was just not in their budget regardless of how creatively they juggled their finances. That changed about a month ago, when they received funding through a Micro Enterprise Community Development Block Grant that paid for most of the project. Funds were awarded by the New Hampshire Community Development Finance Authority to Grafton County, which then sub-awarded funds to the Northern Community Investment Corporation. Yes, it can be a complex process! The new website is already live, generating positive customer reviews and new business for our client’s park. Your park might also qualify as a beneficiary from this type of funding.

In our client’s instance, they were located adjacent to what has been identified as a REAP Zone. That acronym stands for Rural Economic Area Partnership Program, an area that the United States Department of Agriculture has identified as facing economic and community development issues. Many, if not most, campgrounds are located in rural areas. By definition, many of these locations are geographically isolated and face population loss and economic distress often due to declines in agriculture. According to the USDA, the REAP Initiative was intended to address such issues as stagnant or declining employment, constraints in economic activity and growth, and disconnection from markets, information and finance. Pilot zones were designated in parts of North Dakota, upstate New York, and the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont (which can also benefit parts of New Hampshire.) Despite the current political climate, agencies continue to develop similar programs for other disadvantaged regions across the country, including the more recent Promise Zone Initiative.

The key to qualification for the CBDG Micro Program is generally to be located in an economically challenged area, to have a number of employees within a specified range, and for your household to fall within specified income requirements. Not every small business qualifies, but many might be surprised to find that they do. With goals that include the expansion of employment opportunities, a variety of projects that help to strengthen or grow a business might be funded, including marketing assistance and even social media training.

To determine if grants are available in your area, you will need to do a bit of research, with the understanding that small businesses do not directly apply for such funding. You must identify the local non-profit economic development agency that will apply for funding on behalf of the local businesses in your area. Start by performing an online search for “(name of your county and state) economic development agencies” or “(name of your county and state) small business development center”. Then call that agency to find someone who will assist you in determining what programs might be available in your local area at this particular time. Depending upon the organization that will be administering the program, you may be required to complete a brief application form to determine eligibility, with the agency assisting you every step of the way, approving an outside vendor, and authorizing the commencement of work.

In addition to Community Development Block Grant resources, you may also contact the Cooperative Extension Service office at your local land grant college or university or even ask your local banker to put you in touch with an organization that can provide the financial assistance that you need. Without taking the initiative, you will have no idea what resources might be available, and there are literally staff members who are waiting to be of assistance in helping you to grow your business. To paraphrase a famous newspaper editorial, “Yes, Virginia, there is a free website.”

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Promote Your Local Cultural and Heritage Tourism

March 7th, 2017

Most people are unfamiliar with the term “heritage tourism,” even though many have already personally engaged with this, the single highest growth segment of the overall tourism industry. Often based upon archeological, cultural or religious sites, heritage tourism is far from limited to world class destinations like Machu Picchu, in Peru or the Vatican, in Rome. Despite our more recent history in the United States, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has defined cultural tourism as the exploration of cultural, historic and natural resources through a process of “traveling to experience the places, artifacts and activities that authentically represent the stories and people of the past.”

Cultural and heritage tourism is so important that a Position Paper on Cultural & Heritage Tourism was developed by the U.S. Department of Commerce and the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities for the 2005 U.S. Cultural & Heritage Tourism Summit. The conclusion was that “America’s rich heritage and  culture,  rooted in our history, our creativity and our diverse population, provides visitors to our communities with a wide variety of cultural opportunities, including museums, historic sites, dance, music, theater, book and other festivals, historic buildings, arts and crafts fairs, neighborhoods, and landscapes.”

According to the report, cultural and heritage tourists spend more, and represent a significant international component (where the top 5 markets at the time were the United Kingdom, Japan, Germany, France and Australia) of guests who stay longer than others, in their quest for uniquely American experiences. The report also outlined how “Every place in America — rural area, small town, Native American reservation, urban neighborhood and suburban center — has distinctive cultural and heritage assets that can potentially attract visitors and their spending.”

The report continued, “Communities throughout the U.S. have developed successful programs linking the arts, humanities, history and tourism. Cultural and heritage organizations — such as museums, performing arts organizations, festivals, humanities, and historic preservation groups — have formed partnerships with tour operators, state travel offices, convention and visitors bureaus (CVBs), hotels, and air carriers to create initiatives that serve as models for similar efforts across the U.S.” It is time to take the initiative to add campgrounds to this list!

We often tend to be unaware of the historical treasures in our own backyards. For example, I was born and raised in metropolitan Springfield, Massachusetts; however, it was probably not until I was in my forties that I visited the Springfield Armory National Historic Site, when we had guests coming to visit from another region of the country. Founded as “The Arsenal at Springfield” under orders of George Washington, the Springfield Armory became famous for its innovative manufacturing techniques, the use of interchangeable components that simplified maintenance and repairs in the battlefield, and the development of the M1903 Springfield and the M1 Garand rifles that were manufactured in tremendous numbers and saw decades of legendary service. Now under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, a visit to the Springfield Armory National Historic Site (more locally, still referred to as the Springfield Armory Museum) is an essential stop for anyone with an interest in American history in general or its manufacturing or military components. This is the essence of local heritage tourism and its ability to draw in vast numbers of visitors from near and far alike.

According to an article published in the Springfield Republican newspaper on July 28, 2014, the Springfield Armory National Historic Site hosted 17,783 visitors, comprised of both individuals and groups, in 2013. Admission to the park is free, but these visitors directly contributed $980,200.00 to the local economy, on a per capita basis outspending visitors to any other National Park in the northeastern United States, including the Statue of Liberty and the Liberty Bell. Some of that spending should have gone to campgrounds in the local area, and it should certainly be a goal for local RV parks to promote this type of heritage destination. The things to do in the local area form the essence of why many people will choose to stay – or extend their stays – at the local campgrounds that make an effort to capitalize upon their proximity. Some of the major attractions in the Springfield area are Six Flags New England (open about half the year) and The Big E (open for 17 days in September.) The Springfield Armory National Historic Site is open 7 days a week from Memorial Day through October 31st, then 5 days a week throughout the rest of the year.

Continuing with heritage tourism in the City of Springfield, Massachusetts as my example, a visit to the Springfield Armory National Historic Site goes hand-in-hand with a visit to the relatively new Museum of Springfield History, located in the Quadrangle museum complex about a mile down the road. This museum offers superb collections and exhibitions that highlight the city’s important role in the American industrial revolution. In its Automobile Gallery alone, transportation buffs will see examples of vehicles built by Stevens-Duryea (locally argued to be the first automobile built in America), Knox, Atlas, and Rolls-Royce of America – which built nearly 3,000 luxury vehicles in Springfield between the years of 1920 and 1931, when this only manufacturing facility outside of England fell victim to the Great Depression. The fact that the site of the Rolls-Royce manufacturing plant was demolished in 2011 makes the preservation of what remains all that much more important.

In other wings of the museum, visitors will marvel at over two dozen rare Indian Motocycles, built in Springfield from 1901 to 1953, and the largest collection of Smith & Wesson firearms (still in Springfield and now employing 1,200 workers) anywhere in the world. Other displays showcase Milton Bradley Company board games, Granville Brothers aircraft, and dozens of small manufacturers who once called Springfield home.

What I have described here is precisely what the Position Paper on Cultural & Heritage Tourism explained in the following words, “Linking similar assets together as a linear ‘strings of pearls’ allows consumers to travel by motivation and interests — such as military history, ethnic settlements, music, commerce and industry, architecture or landscapes — to expand opportunities for these visitors to stay longer and spend more.”

I have concentrated on only one component (manufacturing) within one city (Springfield) in Western Massachusetts. Wherever your park is located, there is an equally fascinating history that is waiting to be discovered by heritage tourism enthusiasts from around the country and around the world. The first step is for you to become aware of what is in your backyard, then to actively promote those unique resources to your guests. Consider arranging possibilities such as field trips, discount admission passes, and special presentations at your park.

In order for your business to grow and prosper, it is important to continually add to its customer base. Look toward the old to find a new component of business in local cultural and heritage tourism.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Print Marketing in a Digital Age

February 2nd, 2017

I thought that it would be a good opportunity to share some of the key points from one of my marketing seminars at the recent National ARVC Outdoor Hospitality Conference and Expo. In that seminar, I suggested that print marketing is very much alive and well in these days when most everybody obsesses over the impact of the Internet and its social media components. I also suggested that there are guidelines to be followed that will help you to maximize the impact of your investment.

First, target your marketing. A shotgun approach rarely works. For the same reason that it would make little sense to run an advertisement for a campground in Michigan in the Florida pages of a national directory, it makes total sense to embrace the opportunity to advertise in your own state association’s directory.

My next point was to never waste money on ad space that is too small to be effective. Size matters. An ad that is lost in the clutter generates little if any recall. Beyond size, a clean design that makes effective use of what is broadly referred to as “white space” will stand out on the printed page. That clean design will almost always be produced by an independent professional design firm that is working for you – not the publication – and that understands your marketing objectives and how to ensure that your ad is part of your business’s overall branding strategy.

Your print advertising should reinforce – and be reinforced by – your collateral advertising, website, social media content, signage, and branded merchandise. When it comes to graphics, colors, fonts, headlines and taglines, consistency is mission critical, and “close enough” represents nothing more than a missed opportunity.

Because you never want to settle for close enough, always see a proof prior to publication. If necessary, never hesitate to ask for a second or third proof. On the other hand, if you have been shown a third proof that you still feel is off target, it is time to decide what is going wrong. Is the design firm a mismatch with your company, or are you attempting to micromanage to the degree that you are interfering with the creative process? Always try to evaluate the marketing message from the perspective of a prospective customer.

Trust your designer to understand the “nuts and bolts” of ad production. We have all seen do-it-yourself advertisements with low-resolution graphics and text that is almost unreadable on the printed page. Your designer will choose the right color space, resolution, fonts, and file formats that will make your business look its best.

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A Few Secrets to Lowering Your Cost
and Maximizing the Impact of Your Directory Advertising

  • A professional design firm may qualify for a 15% agency discount, essentially negating the cost of its services. In a smaller publication with light distribution numbers, however, do not be surprised if your ad production costs equal or exceed the cost of the ad space itself.
  • Ask for discounts. Most publishers offer early payment discounts. You may also obtain discounts if you are placing more than one ad in a publication, if you are bundling your ad with other media, or if you hold out for a “remnant” – unsold advertising space just prior to a publishing deadline.
  • Insist on color, but never pay a premium for it. Most publications these days are printed in four-color process. Be aware that it does not cost a publisher a penny more to run your ad in full color than it does to run that same ad in black and white. Negotiate, and do not pay a penny more.
  • Keep your eye on auctions. Most campground state associations have fund-raising auctions that are incorporated into their annual meetings or conventions. These auctions often present opportunities to purchase ad space at deep discounts, especially if there are not several parks bidding up the price.
  • Ask for preferred ad placement. This generally means a right-hand page, with your ad adjacent to related editorial copy. You never want your ad to appear on a page (or a two-page spread) that is populated by nothing but advertising. Those are what I like to call “page-turners” because nobody spends time lingering on those pages. Negotiate premium ad space at no charge, using your leverage as either a new advertiser or a loyal advertiser. Never agree to “ROP” ad space. This stands for “run of publication” and means that you will have zero control over where your ad appears. It will usually be buried away somewhere in the back of the book.
  • Proofreading requires more than one set of eyes. We rarely see our own errors or omissions. Always get another set of eyes, but explain your objective. When you are asking somebody to proofread, you are asking them to look for typos or other blatant errors. You are not asking them to critique the ad concept or design at this stage of production. If you want design input, ask for that earlier on in the process, never forgetting the old idiom that “too many cooks spoil the broth.” Trust the professionals that you hire, taking the opinions of relatives and employees under advisement. Ultimately, remember that once you have signed off on a final proof, a publisher is beyond liability.
  • Always include a compelling call to action. Be sure to include your telephone number and website address, but present them in a manner that encourages people to proceed to that next step. Never expect any single ad to generate a significant amount of business in and of itself. There is only so much that can be said within the confines of a printed space. Use your ad as an effective tool that will encourage prospective customers to go online or call, where your persuasive process may continue to its intended conclusion.
  • 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.

For any business to prosper, it is important to maintain ongoing awareness in the eyes of its consumers. This should be accomplished in a variety of ways, with directory advertising being an important component in the mix. Wisely executed, that directory advertising can easily be one of the single most effective components of your business’s overall marketing strategy.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Long Term Success

January 27th, 2017

I am writing this article after attending the latest Warren Miller Entertainment ski film, “Here, There & Everywhere”, at the first of two showings on a Saturday night in November at the Bushnell Theater, in Hartford, Connecticut. For those unfamiliar, this was the 67th in a series of annual ski films that bear the name of the now 92-year-old, legendary filmmaker, author, philanthropist, and outdoor sports enthusiast, Warren Miller.

Miller actively directed and narrated each of these films through the 1990’s, selling the company to his son in the 1980’s, with the company eventually being sold to a series of publishing conglomerates, starting with Time, Inc. and now Active Interest Media (the publisher of Ski Magazine and a long list of equestrian, backpacking, and outdoor lifestyle magazines.) It has come a long way from when a young Warren Miller was discharged from the U.S. Navy in 1946, buying his original wind-up 8mm Bell & Howell movie camera, and camping out in a teardrop camper in the parking lot of Squaw Valley for two years. The production quality of the films has spectacularly improved, with high-definition cameras and helicopters replacing the old 8mm movie camera, as I can clearly recall from the time when I attended my first Warren Miller film back in 1971 or 1972.

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That night’s two showings in Hartford represented only one of 136 venues in the United States for the English language version of the current film, with the United States being one of 14 countries that are included in the world tour. These extravagant live events all take place within the month of November, leading into the upcoming ski season (already underway at some resorts that strive for early opening dates.) People pay an average of $20.00 per ticket (with a discount for purchasing a month or more in advance) to attend, and there were probably 1,000 people at the Bushnell that night for the first showing. Per the Warren Miller Entertainment website, the films are shown to 500,000 fans per year.

I am relating this story because I see remarkable parallels between the business enterprise that a young Warren Miller founded and the histories of so many of the leading campground operations today, particularly the nominees and winners of the annual National ARVC Park of the Year awards. Many campgrounds share a common beginning, with owners who devoted endless hours to performing every necessary task, saddled with shoestring budgets and staffs that often consisted of little more than family members who shared the commitment to a vision. One common element that I see between Warren Miller Entertainment and successful campground operations is an investment into consistent improvements from one year to the next.

The parallels between Warren Miller films and the campground industry only begin with production quality and infrastructure. Both businesses are probably incorrectly perceived by most people as “seasonal” operations, since most of their respective incomes are generated within very narrow calendar windows. (If you think that a campground with a prime season between Memorial Day and Labor Day has a short season, imagine showing a film in venues around the world within the single month of November!) What most people fail to understand are the endless hours and investments behind the scenes that involve everything from backhoe labor to hiring an upcoming season’s entertainment.

I should also mention that the Warren Miller films feature some of the finest athletes on skis and snowboards today (as well as a tip of the hat this year to snowmobiles and fat bikes.) The films do not simply show footage of anybody who knows how to stand up on a pair of skis or a snowboard. The common thread here would probably be represented by the quality of the staff employed at a park, a persuasive argument for recruiting the best employees possible.

The success and longevity of Warren Miller films is only partially based upon the income from ticket sales to people who want to see the finest athletes on snow. Perhaps the biggest players are the sponsorships. These include the obvious connections like Ski Magazine, with the same corporate ownership, as well as several of the destinations, such as Western Montana’s Glacier Country, that are featured in the various location segments within the current film. Other current sponsors include K2 Skis, L.L. Bean, Helly Hansen Outerwear, and Moosehead Beer. Then there are local sponsorships and media partners, such as the Hartford Courant newspaper and Connecticut’s Ski Sundown.

The sponsors pay dearly for the opportunity to be promoted both within the films and within the events. In at least one segment of the film, the product placement for Moosehead Beer was almost embarrassing in its transparency. In another segment, everybody seems to be skiing on K2 skis, with frequent close-ups of the K2 logo and branding. These sponsors are also prominently featured in the “Warren Miller’s Snoworld” magazine that is given out to each person who attends a film showing (remember that the parent company is in the magazine publishing business), featured in the on-screen advertising preceding the film and shown during an intermission, given the opportunity to participate in the free “swag” coupons that are available online exclusively to film attendees, on on-location signage, and during the live program segments where handlers work up the crowd to cheer for sponsors.

There are also opportunities for schools, clubs, and independent promoters to host DVD showings of the films in local venues in exchange for an upfront guarantee or percentage of gross tickets sales, whichever is greater. These opportunities come with a wide range of marketing and promotional support materials that help to ensure a successful partnership.

Whether a sponsor or a venue for a local showing, these arrangements are highly profitable for Warren Miller Entertainment and present an opportunity for businesses to effectively reach a wide audience with sought-after demographics. The sponsorships themselves help to drive ticket sales. For example, our price of admission was more than offset by the value of the free lift ticket to Vermont’s Sugarbush ski resort, a solid incentive for us to attend the showing. When we ski at Sugarbush this winter, we will be spending money on food and drinks, while others might include lodging, rentals, and additional lift tickets. These are clearly win-win situations for everybody involved.

For years, I have been encouraging campgrounds to develop partnerships with local businesses that need their guests … and that their guests need to both choose a campground and to justify extending their stays. I am hoping that this article will have demonstrated the potential benefits of building those relationships with any of a wide range of local businesses that depend upon the same base of consumers that is represented by your guests. This goes far beyond having local businesses buy an advertisement in a guest guide or displaying their literature in your registration area. It is to your advantage to work these partnerships for everything they’re worth. Your business will benefit, and the results will be clearly visible in your bottom line. Perhaps the most famous Warren Miller one-liner from among his many compiled words of wisdom sums this up: “If you don’t do it this year, you’ll just be one year older when you do.”

This post was written by Peter Pelland