Pelland Blog

Adapt to Changing Times

August 27th, 2020

If there is one thing that is certain with respect to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is that it has almost universally inflicted a negative impact upon small businesses, campgrounds included. It has been a wild and bumpy ride that is far from over as I pen this column in late June of 2020. In most instances, the timing of the pandemic could not have been worse, delaying openings and leading to a wave of cancellations at the start of the season.

Campgrounds that were forced to delay their openings longer than those in most other states, understandably upset that their ability to generate income had been severely hindered, may end up faring better in the long run compared to parks in states that jumped the gun at reopening. With several Northeastern states – particularly New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts – representing early hot spots for the virus, some of the less densely populated states may be hitting their peaks at the height of the summer camping season – a situation that could end up being far worse than a delayed opening.

Wherever you fit in the continually evolving map, there is no question that you are going to have to get creative in order to at least partially offset an overall loss of anticipated income.

Reach Out to Non-Campers

Despite the fact that the airlines and the hotel industry are making serious attempts to persuade the public that they have made changes to safeguard the health and well-being of their passengers and guests, some of the last things that most people want to do at this time would be to take a non-essential flight and stay in a big hotel. There is even less desire to take a cruise (if the cruise lines were open) or to be a part of a large indoor event (if most of them were not cancelled out of respect for both common sense and the public welfare.) The hotel industry is adapting what are called enhanced cleaning protocols to sanitize guest rooms, common areas, and key touch points. For the time being, guests should not expect breakfast buffets, welcome drinks or mini bars, and nobody wants to ride on a crowded elevator with a man who is not wearing a mask and who just sneezed.

With all of the hesitancies that are challenging the hotel industry, campgrounds are rightly perceived as a much safer lodging alternative, particularly those that offer full-service cabins and other accommodations that appeal to people who have been non-campers. Of course, you need to practice those same enhanced cleaning protocols that apply to hotel rooms; however, you should embrace the opportunity to be able to reach out to a new category of guests who are new to the camping experience. This might mean stepping up your offerings of services and amenities that might have been expected in a more conventional setting, many of which offer new opportunities for added income. For example, just as hotel guests might rely on room service to order meals, you might offer deliveries of things like ice, firewood, and even pizza. You might also want to consider advance check-ins, express check-outs, escorting new guests to their sites, and adding branded face masks and sanitizer products to your store inventory.

Consider Extending Your Season

Although experts within the medical and infectious disease communities are currently predicting a 75% likelihood of a second wave of outbreaks in the fall (based upon previous pandemics in 1918 and 1957), should this not occur, you might want to consider extending your camping season beyond its usual closing date. This represents another means of compensating for some of your likely losses both at the start and at the height of your season. The interest in camping is less likely to wane at the end of the summer as may have been the case in past years. Schools may or may not be reopening, and spectator sports like NCAA and NFL football are likely to either be cancelled or have restricted attendance. In normal years, unless your park was located in close proximity to an NCAA college campus or sports stadium, the seasonal interest in these events tended to divert a portion of your guests away from camping. Those guests might now be quite willing to continue their camping seasons, particularly after getting off to a late start.

Recruit Seasonal Campers

There has always been somewhat of a quandary between whether a park should have a greater number of seasonal or transient campers. When occupancy rates are high, there is no question that transient sites generate more income than seasonal sites. On the other hand, seasonal sites represent stable income that is as safe and secure as money in the bank. In 2020, with phased business re-openings in most states, there is no question that predominantly seasonal or all-seasonal parks fared far better than parks that cater primarily to overnight guests. In particular, parks that rely upon their proximity to major nearby attractions have been hurt badly while many of those attractions have remained closed. Hurt even worse have been parks that cater to a highly mobile clientele, located midway along a highway connecting two major attractions.

Now might be the right time to consider converting a number of your park’s overnight sites into seasonal sites. With that same desire for safety and security, many campers are showing a first-time interest in becoming seasonals. Promote the availability of these new sites on your website and social media, not only for 2021 but offering pro-rated opportunities for the current season to your existing guests. If you have transient guests who are returning for multiple stays, reach out to them personally to offer them one or more incentives to become seasonals. Sometimes it is simply a matter of asking them what it would take on your part to persuade them to make the decision.

When it is necessary to adapt to changing times, it is important to be flexible and to think of innovative ways to safeguard your income, profitability, and your ultimate business survival.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

What Is Normal?

July 27th, 2020

We hear a lot of talk about the “new normal” and a “return to normal”, but what exactly is normal? I will admit to being a lover of language and linguistics. The dictionary defines normal as “conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected.” We can also get into some more statistical definitions involving standard deviation from the mean, along with more technical definitions in fields such as geometry, medicine and sociology. Allow me to offer a general definition for normalcy or normality (two synonyms with identical meanings as the more awkward and far less frequently used word “normalness”) as a condition that meets currently conventional cultural expectations. “Current” because what is normal changes over time, and “cultural” because what is normal varies among different social environments. Cricket is fairly unique to the British, bullfighting is fairly unique to the Spanish and football only begins to make sense to Americans, but they are all considered normal in their own environments.

In general, humans are not that interested in what is average, more likely considering it to be either boring or mundane. What we want is something that appeals to us individually and that falls within our own comfort zones. That is part of the big appeal of camping, and that is the reason for such a wide range of choices when it comes to campgrounds. Unless a person suffers from agoraphobia, there is a campground and its accompanying social experience that represents a perfect and easily accessible escape to the comfort of what constitutes that person’s “normal”.

A “Comfort Zone” or a “Twilight Zone”?

The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly thrown us all for a loop. Travel restrictions, social distancing, and the wearing of masks have certainly erected barriers to normal social experiences. As we cautiously evolve toward a state of normalcy – either old or new – comfort zones will vary from one person to another. In the opening narration of the first season of The Twilight Zone, host Rod Serling defined what he called that fifth dimension: “It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge.” We are in that Twilight Zone right now!

For example, as I am writing in early June of 2020, there is no way that I am ready to sit in a movie theater, attend a music festival, sit in a sports stadium, join a peaceful demonstration, take a seat on an airliner, and even think about attending a convention. I have written more than once in the past about my concerns over the lack of sanitation and cleanliness in hotels, and I am not yet assured that the hotel industry is up to meeting the new challenges. I already had no intention of ever taking a cruise again in my lifetime. Maybe I have always been more aware of sanitary standards than the average person, and a compromised immune system makes me ever more cautious; however, until each business category and individual businesses within each of those categories can put me into my comfort zone, those businesses will remain in their own twilight zones.

Campgrounds are in a much more persuasive position when it comes to meeting people in their comfort zones, as well as not worrying about contributing toward a spike in infections. Once interstate travel restrictions are eased, most people realize that staying in their own RV is just as safe as staying at home. Whether under state mandate or an abundance of precaution, it is up to individual campgrounds to offer the assurances that they have implemented measures to ensure the safety of their guests and employees. Some things will need to change, at least for the time being.

Shared Facilities and Group Activities

It is unfortunate that it sometimes takes a pandemic to open our eyes, but change is nothing new, especially when it comes to public health concerns. Two generations ago, who would have thought twice about people sitting around a swimming pool or involved in a group activity while smoking cigarettes? Even a decade ago, nobody would have given any thought to picking up their dog’s waste at the side of a roadway or trail. I am willing to venture a guess that there is nobody who yearns for the days when they could take a leisurely walk and accidentally step in a pile of dog waste.

As we exit from the current crisis, just as important as it is to outline your expectations for your guests’ behavior, it is necessary for you to outline what you are doing to alter your own business practices in the interest of your guests’ wellbeing. These are the assurances that will take those guests – both new and returning – from their twilight zones into their comfort zones, helping your business to recover from what has most assuredly been an economic disaster.

You will want to reassess standards in your shared facilities. This might include spacing out seating areas in pavilions, ensuring that separate employees in your store or snack bar are handling food and financial transactions, actively maintaining a housekeeping checklist in your rental units and restrooms, installing soap dispensers and hand dryers if they are lacking in your restrooms, and installing and maintaining hand sanitizer stations in frequent use areas. You will also want to reassess some of your planned activities and events. This might not be the best time to engage in shared food events such as potluck dinners, barbecues, or make-your-own sundaes. It is probably also not a good time to schedule events that involve close personal contact such as arm-wrestling contests or three-legged races. Your playground should be cleaned on a regular basis, and the clubs and balls on your mini-golf course should be sanitized when returned at the end of a game. A lot of this can be thought of as more of the “new common sense” rather than the new normal. We will get over this. Thinking over the concept of what is normal will help you to financially recover all that much sooner.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Your Small Business Short-Term Survival Guide

April 2nd, 2020

This morning, as the sun rose on a new day, outside my window I could hear birds singing and see trees budding. We are just short of seeing the first blooms of spring breaking through ground that was covered by a fresh blanket of snow just a week ago. Outside of humanity’s limited perspective, life is going on as usual. For those of us who are sheltering in place and seeing our livelihoods disappear like a magician’s grand illusion, life is anything but normal. None of us can predict where we will be a month from now or beyond. Will we have personally contracted the Coronavirus, and will we be added to the numbers of survivors or the growing numbers of victims? About all we can do is pray for the best and do everything possible to ensure our personal survival. This includes the survival of your small business.

We hear the news reports each day about the massive layoffs of employees in the hotel, restaurant, airline, and retail service industries. Massive retailers such as Macy’s, Kohl’s, Best Buy, JCPenney, and Gap have furloughed hundreds of thousands of employees. When shopping malls and retail stores are closed, it is difficult to keep sales associates on the payroll.

Your Small Business

The big companies and the big industries dominate the news because of their impacts upon larger numbers of people; however, there are some 45 million small businesses in the United States today, ranging from sole proprietorships with a single employee to somewhat larger businesses with fewer than 500 employees. Family campgrounds, as well as the vast majority of suppliers to the industry, fall into this small business “mom and pop” category. If you run a campground, albeit on a smaller scale, you are hurting just as badly as the airlines, hotels, and cruise ship companies. Nobody needs to tell you that your phone is not ringing off the hook with reservation requests.

Absolutely nobody asked for the COVID-19 pandemic, but we are all being impacted. As you probably know, the United States Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act in late March. Several of the provisions of this economic stimulus package are designed specifically to provide assistance to businesses like yours. You simply need to file the applications, and to file them quickly. As I have mentioned, there are some 45 million small businesses in America, and probably 99% of them have been seriously impacted; however, the funds that have been allocated under this massive stimulus package will only cover approximately 1 million claims.

You Are Entitled to Assistance

The first component that is now available is the COVID-19 Economic Injury Disaster Loan assistance program that is administered by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA). This program involves a simple, five-page online application that will entitle you to receive a one-time $10,000 non-taxable, forgivable loan payment. It is essentially a grant that will be issued directly by the SBA and deposited directly into your bank account, designed to help your small business to weather the storm and be ready to welcome guests again when all of this is behind us. It is important for your business to survive and to return to its role as a productive component of our country’s economy, and these funds are intended to help to make that happen. Go here to apply now:        
https://covid19relief.sba.gov/#/

The second component that directly applies to your business is the Paycheck Protection Program. This applies to you even if you are the only employee at your campground, but it is particularly helpful for campgrounds with a number of employees, particularly full-time year-round employees who are essential to the operation of your business. I understand that many mid-sized and larger campgrounds have put their hiring of seasonal employees on hold, but you cannot be expected to find, hire, and train replacements for your management and supervisory staff at a moment’s notice. You need to do everything possible to keep these people on your payroll (and off of your state’s unemployment compensation rolls.)

The Paycheck Protection Program consists of calculated loans that will be forgiven and converted to non-taxable grants as long as the funds are used as intended. The amount of the loan is determined by your documented payroll expenses (including independent contractors who are provided with 1099’s rather than W-2’s) and a simple formula. The general idea is for these funds to be used to help you to keep as many employees as possible on your payroll for 8 weeks, even if they are unable to perform their usual responsibilities. These loans will be distributed through the SBA through local banks. The applications will be available online starting on Friday, April 3, 2020. They will be found here: 
https://www.sba.gov/funding-programs/loans/paycheck-protection-program

In the meantime, contact the bank (credit union, or other lending institution) where you conduct your usual business, to determine whether or not it will be participating in this program. (It is likely that it will be participating, since it will earn fees for processing these loans.) You will otherwise be directed to another nearby bank.

The Bottom Line

As we have heard it said from the many recent White House briefings, “America wants to return to work.” The only way for this to happen is if businesses, both large and small, can survive this current crisis and be ready to open their doors to their customers once again. There was a fight to include small business assistance in what could have otherwise been nothing more than a massive corporate bail-out. It is your responsibility to apply to receive your fair share of assistance. The federal government wants you to return to being a productive taxpayer, your state wants you to keep employees on your payroll and off the unemployment lines, and your campers are eagerly waiting for the time when you can welcome them to a fully operational park.

This post was written by Peter Pelland