Pelland Blog

Listen to Your Customers

February 28th, 2016

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

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

The most common complaints fell into 6 categories:

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

Restroom Trash Bin

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

This post was written by Peter Pelland

The Fine Art of Handling Negative Reviews, Reviewed

January 31st, 2016

Recent outdoor hospitality conferences in Daytona Beach presented me with an opportunity to stay at area hotels, dine at area restaurants, and visit area attractions during the course of two stays in town. For nearly 10 years, I have been an active reviewer on the TripAdvisor website, and I have come to rely upon TripAdvisor as a reliable source of peer reviews. I like to think that I write honest reviews, and I appreciate that same honesty in other reviewers. To date, I have written 120 reviews, 49.2% of which have given “excellent” ratings and 27.5% of which have given “good” ratings. My reviews provide business owners with wonderful opportunities to obtain valuable consumer feedback. Occasionally, business owners are incapable of accepting constructive criticism, and that is their loss. When they react with an over-the-top, non-objective management response, they are truly missing the point of the entire process.

One recent experience illustrates my point. When my wife and I stayed in Daytona Beach for a few days at the end of the KOA Expo, we visited an attraction that TripAdvisor rates as #1 out of 71 “things to do” in the nearby city of DeLand. We were disappointed in this historic house tour, felt that the tour was overcrowded, and considered it overpriced. What particularly bothered me – and aroused my suspicions regarding the validity of the attraction’s rating – was the way that the tour guide came right out and asked people to submit TripAdvisor reviews, followed two days later by an e-mail from one of the owners, again asking for a TripAdvisor review. I definitely had the impression that a ballot box was being stuffed.

Of course, I felt compelled to share my experience with others on TripAdvisor, particularly since I thought that the attraction’s #1 rating was highly misleading. I went out of my way to be objective and sensitive to the idiosyncrasies of the owners, quite generously giving it a three-star (“fair”) rating that I carefully documented. Prior to writing my review, I noticed how the owners of the attraction responded to every review on TripAdvisor, and how any reviewer who did not give the attraction an “excellent” rating was essentially attacked in one way or another. I was prepared for an assault but would not be intimidated. In my case, I was told that I had “baffled” and “insulted” them with my “false claims”, and that I was obviously an “angry” person.

Other reviews received management responses that were far more offensive. Here are some samples culled from various management responses: “Your comments are unsubstantiated and more importantly not true.” “Your comments are completely false and hurtful.” “I have contacted TA to handle your harassment, (and) your hateful attempt to try and discredit us is sad at best. You should be ashamed of yourself.” “Your ‘Poor’ rating is suspicious at best.” “For someone to go out of there (sic) way to give false feedback with the intent to hurt a small business owner is sad and actually difficult for me to comprehend.”

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

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

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

It is important to separate yourself from your business, to keep your cool, and to try to treat every review as a learning experience. If you do not like what you are reading, avoid the temptation to take things personally and as an opportunity for retaliation. Respond following the guidelines above, and then move on. Put on your big boy pants and get on with the responsibilities of running your business to succeed within the best of your capabilities.

Note: Since originally writing this post, I have continued to receive e-mails from one of the owners of the attraction in DeLand, again asking me to write a positive review on TripAdvisor. (Apparently, they do not mind spamming their customers in their pursuit of TripAdvisor reviews.) Another e-mail arrived more recently, urging its recipients to e-mail the producers of CBS Sunday Morning to ask them to do a feature story on the attraction.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Free Yourself from Technology

January 20th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Big Things Are Happening at RV Park Reviews

January 10th, 2016

The following post is based upon an interview with Andy Robinowitz, the CEO of Social Knowledge LLC, and the owner of the RV Park Reviews website. The interview was conducted by Peter Pelland in July of 2015 and originally published in the November 2015 issue of Woodall’s Campground Management.

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Let’s face it: The typical small business owner likes consumer review sites about as well as fingernails scratching on a chalkboard or tooth extraction without anesthesia. That disdain is generally unfounded. Yes, there are certainly instances when somebody with an axe to grind exploits the opportunity to try to inflict harm upon a business, but most readers of mean-spirited reviews are smart enough to read between the lines (and the usual spelling mistakes).

Smart small business owners look at consumer reviews in the aggregate and in an objective manner, recognizing the valuable feedback that the reviews provide. Big companies designate significant sums of money toward market research, employing focus groups, product sampling, surveys and many other costly tools. Whether somebody is thanking you for something that was done right, or pointing out an area where there is room for improvement, think of each review as free market research data that should influence decisions about how to run your business more successfully. Particularly when a comment or observation is expressed repeatedly, it should never be dismissed as simply an individual opinion. Reviewers are generally influencers, predicting future trends as effectively as canaries in coal mines.

The Campground Industry

Campground review sites are nothing new; however, they are growing in influence and becoming far more versatile as the sites add features and functionality designed to meet the needs of both campers and campground owners. While some review sites have stagnated a bit, and while TripAdvisor wastes valuable time deciding when to add a dedicated “Campgrounds” navigational tab, the RV Park Reviews website is undergoing some major improvements that need to be on your radar.

RV Park Reviews originated back in 2000 and has grown into perhaps the most significant contender among review sites that are specific to the campground industry. The site was acquired by Social Knowledge LLC, a Dallas-based company, in the fall of 2013, and the new owners are more focused than ever on meeting both the needs of the site’s readers and individual campground owners. They have shared both documentation and their vision for the future with me.

Over the past year, RV Park Reviews has reached nearly 6,000,000 unique users, 95% of whom were located in the United States. Both user and session numbers are up roughly 20% over the previous year, and a similar rate of growth is anticipated going forward. With well over 200,000 existing reviews, far more people are turning to the site to conduct research prior to choosing a park destination than are turning to the site specifically to write a review. (This serves to disprove the “axe-grinder” theory!) These users spend a considerable amount of time visiting multiple pages per session, considering the experiences of others while looking for campgrounds like yours. With over 30,000,000 page views over the past year, doing the math will suggest that the average review has been read over 150 times in the past year alone.

In an interview with Andy Robinowitz, the CEO of Social Knowledge LLC, I gained some insight into what the site is currently offering to campground owners, as well as some of the added functionality that will be introduced this fall.

PLP: What sets RV Park Reviews apart from other campground review websites?

AR: Our contributors, the scale of our readership, campground coverage, and amenity data are what set us apart. We tend to have more reviews per campground than other websites. Our readership has now grown to more than 6 million readers annually. About 25% of our readers return on a regular basis, indicating how the site is very popular.

PLP: What do you say to campground owners who see review sites as forums for people with an axe to grind, and what do you do to try to prevent that from happening?

AR: It’s a valid concern. We address this issue in a few ways with our policies. We also provide readers with tools to help them to better decide which reviews they want to trust, and soon we will be giving the campground owners the ability to respond to reviews, so they will have a voice as well.

To help our readers decide which reviews to trust, we recently added the rating distributions of each reviewer so someone can see if a contributor tends to only leave negative reviews. Alternatively, if you see a user who has lots of reviews with most of them being positive, then a single really bad review, you might take that into consideration in deciding whether to trust the review or not.

Going back to the axe grinders, our analysis shows that these types of issues are rare, with the vast majority of our reviews being positive. Regardless, we have a policy that requires a user to have at least two reviews approved before either will be shown on our website. This prevents people from creating an account to publish a single negative review. Most disgruntled customers never take the time to submit additional reviews. We also require reviewers to meet our Review Guidelines so they can’t just rant about poor service. We moderate all submissions from new users before they are published. Based on our historical information, we suspect less than 1 in 100 reviews are from disgruntled customers.

PLP: Do you encourage campground owners to ask their campers to write reviews?

AR: Yes, I would recommend that campground owners ask their campers to leave reviews. The more reviews you have, the better the odds that readers will get an accurate feeling for a campground where they have not previously stayed. It also helps establish a larger base for the ratings. For example, if you only have two reviews, an 8 and a 10 mean you had an average rating of 9. Then, if someone leaves a review with the rating of 6, your average falls to 8. If you have 7 reviews with an average of 9 and someone leaves a 6, your average will not change. Having more reviews is better for consumers and better for campgrounds.

PLP: You mentioned that campground owners will soon be able to directly respond to reviews. I know that Management Responses have been a key feature of TripAdvisor. Could you elaborate on what you have planned?

AR: This fall we will be rolling out a new feature called the Campground Owner’s Interface. Among other components, this interface will allow campground owners to respond to reviews. This will give campground owners a voice, allowing them to tell their side of a story so readers can use both perspectives when deciding whether to trust a review or not.

Keep in mind that review volume is important to help give more perspectives to readers. Campgrounds with lots of reviews are able to water down any negative effects from a disgruntled client. If you have 9 great reviews from happy customers and 1 negative review, it’s pretty easy for readers to see the trend.

PLP: If this is rolling out in the fall, how can campground owners get a jump start on joining the program?

AR: We highly encourage campground owners to claim their campgrounds. This fall, when the Campground Owner’s Interface is online, campground owners (or management) will then be able to manage their amenities, set their hours of operation, respond to reviews, and more. We’ll even e-mail them whenever new reviews are posted so they will know to respond in a timely manner.

PLP: What will be some additional features?

AR: We will also have a widget available so campground owners can showcase their positive reviews. Campground owners will be in control of what is shown on the widget so they can customize it to their needs. For example, if they want to show only snippets of 4 or 5 star reviews, they can set it to do that. If they don’t want to show any reviews, they can do that as well (and just link to their profile). By adding the widget to their site, a park owner makes it easy for their clients to leave reviews. We strongly suggest installing this on the campground’s website to get more reviews and help with search engine optimization as well.

Given an advance peek at what is coming, I can tell readers that there will also be tools that will allow campground owners to access their statistics at the RV Park Reviews website, keeping track of reviews, page views and more. They will also be able to directly update their seasonal dates, hours of operation, amenities and other campground information, keeping up-to-date and helping potential visitors. The amenities listing will include information that may be vital to some visitors in their decision-making process. For example, whether or not the park has cellular phone service, and if so, which cellular service providers have a signal available; whether or not the park offers wi-fi, listing the fee if applicable; and whether or not the park has showers, again listing whether or not there is an associated fee for that service.

To get started, go to the RV Park Reviews website at http://rvparkreviews.com, find your park by choosing your state and city from the alphabetical listing to the left of the map or by using the search box at the top of the page. When you find your park’s listing, click on the “View Campground Details” link. On the next page, click on the “Own this Campground? / Claim it and Unlock Features” link. Enter your name, e-mail address, phone number, and whether you are the campground’s owner, manager or employee, and you will be notified prior to the rollout of the new features.

When it comes to technology, early adopters usually benefit the most. The RV Park Reviews website is already sending you significant volumes of traffic. Make it work to your park’s maximum advantage. My recommendation is to get on board!

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Shining the Light on New Facebook Premier Ads

November 6th, 2015

When I first started using Facebook, I hated it and “hate” is a strong word that I don’t throw around very lightly. One of the biggest problems I had with the social media giant was the whole privacy thing. Remember, posting is forever and what you put online will be there for the world to see for an eternity.

Don’t worry, Facebook and I kissed and made up. It’s just the way that I was raised I suppose. My ultra-conservative Dad was one of those “big brother is watching you” type of people and the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.


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The problem wasn’t with Facebook, it was with me, since I was essentially using it the wrong way. We all know that you can adjust the privacy settings so that only your “friends” can see you, but the concept that they owned everything that I posted rubbed me the wrong way. Now that I am looking at it from a marketing perspective, my view has completely changed.

 With over a billion users, you can’t deny the tremendous exposure that a post or advertisement can reach and that Facebook is “open” twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. What other marketing strategy can boast all of those features?

 The benefits don’t end there since premier ads offer other amenities and choices, such as:

 

  • Page Like Ads – that allow users to give you the old “thumbs up” directly from the ad
  • Page Post Ads – increasing traffic directly to your site
  • App Ads – driving app installs, engagement and conversion
  • Domain Ads – taking users to the page of your choice at your website
  • Event Ads – inviting them to join your event
  • Offer Ads – enticing users to purchase your product at a great price

 

Facebook has been recently shifting its advertising and marketing attention to a paid-only format, so why should be “pay to play” on their site? Mostly it is because they have very effective audience targeting features that give your advertising more bang for the buck. Before you say it, Google, Twitter and a thousand other sites will target your prospective customers, but Facebook’s targeting strategies are a little more unique.

Since most users craft a fairly comprehensive profile about themselves, Facebook can hone in on many different areas rather than concentrating on just one bullseye, like women or men, they can aim more precisely according to:

 

  • Location
  • Age
  • Gender
  • Interest
  • Education
  • Employment
  • Life events
  • Apps
  • Groups
  • Device usage
  • Travels
  • Purchasing behavior

 

And those are just a few examples. Arguably, no other social media site uses this combination of  comprehensive data to reach their specific audience. This is what makes Facebook such an effective way for businesses and specific industries to find the consumer best suited according to their wants and needs. This type of marketing strategy also takes little time and effort from the advertiser.

 

This post was written by Peter Pelland

If a Contest on Facebook Sounds Too Good to be True …

September 2nd, 2015

You probably know how that sentence ends. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true. In this case, there have been a number of hoaxes that have circulated on Facebook, and it is amazing how many thousands of people unwittingly think these “contests” are authentic before the pages get reported and eventually get taken down.

Over the weekend, one of my friends on Facebook shared a link and commented how she hoped she would be one of the lucky monthly winners of $5,000.00 in travel money being given away by Qantas Airlines. The page looked very authentic but I immediately detected a scam. The page had relatively few posts for a big corporation, all of which dealt with the contest, and I noticed that it had a total of only 14,190 “likes”. That low number of likes is a dead giveaway that you are not at a legitimate page. A quick search brought me to the real Qantas page, with 715,496 likes and, of course, no such contest.

It turns out that this is not the first time that Qantas has had to deal with the public relations nightmare that can result when people think that a business is somehow responsible for a scam in disguise. In an earlier instance this year, a fake page announced that the airline would be offering free upgrades to first class for all passengers through the end of 2015. That bogus page accumulated some 130,000 likes and over 150,000 shares in the first 24 hours of its existence. Yes, people can be very naïve.

Another friend not long ago shared a link to another Facebook page that captured his excitement. It alleged to be Chevrolet and was encouraging people to enter a contest to win a free Chevy Camaro. I noticed that all of its posts involved the fake contest, most extending the entry deadline in order to get more people to “enter”. Once again, I noticed that the page had relatively few “likes”, and I provided my friend with a link to the real Chevrolet Camaro page on Facebook, not surprisingly with 4,407,269 likes as of this writing. Until somebody reports a page that mimics the identity of a legitimate page and violates its legal trademark, scams like this will perpetuate indefinitely.

One way to quickly confirm the authenticity of a Facebook page is to look for the blue checkmark icon next to the page’s name, confirming that the page of a global brand or business, celebrity or public figure, or media outlet has been verified to be legitimate. Unfortunately, Facebook does not offer this authentication option to small businesses like yours and mine.

If you encounter one of these fake pages, you may be wondering why somebody has taken the time to create it. Typically, the pages are built by individuals who are engaged in the practice of “like farming”, hoping that their page will not be reported and taken down before they will be able to increase its value and profit from it in a black market engaged in the buying and selling of this type of content. Visitors to these pages are usually encouraged to “like” and “share” the pages, whether the incentive is a bogus contest, a chain letter, or simply a photo of a cute puppy or kitten. If a page has more “likes”, it will sell for more money to subsequent scammers who can then engage in more nefarious cons. Many of those are engaged in the collection of personal information that only begins with e-mail addresses and Facebook profiles but could very well end in full scale identity theft.

We all know people who have gotten their personal profiles compromised on Facebook. It can be a nightmare, but for a business, this type of violation can be far more damaging. As a business owner yourself, probably with a Facebook page of its own, you need to be vigilant about protecting your company’s online identity. There can be very real costs in crisis communications and the loss of consumer confidence in your brand. Back in 2012, another airline – Jetstar – suffered tremendous corporate damage when a scammer set up a bogus Facebook page and began posting highly offensive responses to customers posting questions to what they thought was its official page. Instances like this are nothing less than corporate sabotage.

Thinking hypothetically, what would be the direct – and indirect – impact of hundreds or thousands of people being led to believe that you were giving away free merchandise to anybody who showed up at your business next Saturday? It has been sometimes said that all publicity is good publicity, but it does not take much imagination to realize that this adage can be far from true.

Sadly, it is extremely easy to build an official-looking page with very little skill or talent. A con artist copies and pastes a few graphics and trademarks, registers a deceptively similar page name, then posts something that sounds so good to the unwitting that it goes viral faster than it can be taken down. If your business ever finds itself in this unenviable situation, it is imperative that you immediately report the bogus site and that no time is wasted before engaging in damage control and exposing the hoax as broadly as possible.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Learn from the Examples of Successful Businesses

August 12th, 2014

This post was originally written in December of 2013, but was unintentionally not posted online. I was sharing my thoughts on my return flight from Orlando and the IAAPA Attractions Expo, the last and largest of my company’s fall trade shows. I took that opportunity to pause and reflect upon my recent experiences … and how they can be applied to your business.

Out of the fall events, the Pennsylvania Campground Owners Association convention and trade show was held at the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort, a first class operation in the Laurel Highlands of Southeastern Pennsylvania. From a business marketing perspective, there is much to be learned from these conventions, and much of that knowledge may be gained by observing the operations and management of the host facilities. We are all working within the broader tourism and outdoor recreation industries – where customer service is the key component of our businesses, but many of us tend to learn only from our peers, in this case fellow campground owners.

I have always been a firm believer that campground owners can learn a great deal from the operators of cruise lines, airlines, theme parks, and resorts like Nemacolin. The things that these businesses do to satisfy their customers – or the things that they do to alienate and annoy their customers – easily translate to the family camping industry. Regardless of your particular business, your customers want to be treated with respect and to be provided with exceptional service.

We are all human, and mistakes are inevitably made. One of our goals should be to minimize those mistakes, whether made directly ourselves or by one of our staff members. When a mistake has been made, damage control is time-critical.

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Nemacolin Woodlands Resort

At the PCOA Convention, a mistake was made by the kitchen staff of Nemacolin Woodlands Resort. One of the meal functions was a pasta buffet and, almost incomprehensibly, the facility ran out of pasta before everyone had been served. In fact, they ran out of pasta before perhaps half of the people in the dining room had been served. The situation made the resort look bad and made its guests unhappy – regardless of the quality of their prior experience. The barometer had suddenly changed.

Here is where there are lessons to be learned. A mistake had been made, and it was impossible for it to be unmade; however, the immediacy and the extent of the management response saved the day, maintained the reputation of the resort, and prevented PCOA from looking bad by association.

As soon as it had been confirmed that it was impossible to prepare additional servings of food for this many people in a timely manner, the cash bar became an open bar. This response in itself probably satisfied many of the inconvenienced guests, but management took a further step to insure everyone’s satisfaction. In the trade show hall the following morning, a member of the resort’s management staff took to the microphone to personally apologize for what should not have occurred the evening before. He then directed anyone who had been inconvenienced to see one of the several staff members at his side for a certificate that could be redeemed for a free night’s stay over the course of the following year. Each of these vouchers had a potential value of as much as $489.00. The resort had recovered from an awkward and embarrassing situation, and any lingering dissatisfaction from the previous night had been totally reversed in grand style.

What can your campground learn from this management response?

If someone complains that your restrooms are less than spotless, if a family’s sleep was interrupted by noise from an adjoining site, if a scheduled performer cancels out at the last minute, what is your response? If your response is simply that “stuff happens”, or if you assign the blame to somebody else, you are failing to provide exemplary service. We are all willing – perhaps even anxious – to pardon mistakes, but few people are willing to tolerate a business that demonstrates that it does not care.

Going back to the restroom example, do you ever profile a guest as a “complainer” and dismiss his concerns? Worse yet, do you ever take the attitude that everything is fine because 95% of your guests are content with the status quo? If a guest tells you that your restroom facilities require attention, it is time for you to drop what you are doing and personally look into the issue. Ask the guess to show you the problem that you might have been missing all along but that is capable of creating an indelible impression upon a new set of eyes. Empathize with your guest, apologize if necessary, then take immediate measure to rectify the situation. Your guest will no longer be displeased.

Particularly given the power and the persuasiveness of the social media and online review sites, you cannot simply hope that time heals all wounds. The fact is that time actually compounds those wounds. A lack of response – or an inadequate response – has the capability of harming your business both immeasurably and indefinitely. Think of yourself as the guest – and how you would expect to be treated under the circumstances. When mistakes are inevitably made, go out of your way to overcompensate as rapidly as possible. Never wait for a complaint to be aired online before responding. Worse yet, never assume that most of your guests are content and that you can simply pretend that nothing bad ever happened. The guests who have been left unhappy will have a bitter taste for your business. If they happen to have been first-time campers, you may have just poisoned them toward the entire camping experience. The weight of an industry is on your shoulders. Do your business and the industry a favor by treating your guests with respect. Respect is contagious, and the world will be a happier place.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Is Facebook Today’s Milton Berle?

May 1st, 2014

Like a TV star at the peak of his prime, with ratings going through the roof, only to face cancellation two seasons later, the popularity of Facebook may very well be in decline. Think of Facebook in terms of Milton Berle’s career in the early days of television.

The Texaco Star Theatre was a popular radio show that transitioned to television in 1948, featuring a rotating series of hosts until settling upon comedian Milton Berle for the 1948-49 TV season. The show was an immediate hit with Uncle Miltie at the helm, commanding as much as 80% of the viewing audience, keeping people home on Tuesday nights, and driving the sale of televisions. Wanting to latch onto something new and extremely popular, NBC signed an unprecedented (and soon to be regretted) 30-year contract with Berle, culminating with the premier of the Milton Berle Show in 1955-56 (cancelled after that single season). The comedy shtick of “Mr. Television” had outworn the public’s patience with recycled material and failed to meet its demand for things that are “new and improved”.

Not long ago, Facebook was also at the top of its game, but I think that it is fair to say that the game is changing. According to Facebook’s own statistics from January 1, 2014, there were 1,310,000,000 active users, including 680,000,000 mobile users. They also admit to 81,000,000 fake Facebook profiles. Also according to Facebook’s own statistics, the total number of users between the ages of 13-17 has declined by 25.3% in the 3 years from January of 2011 to January of 2014. During this same period, users between the ages of 18-24 declined by 7.5%. As grandma and grandpa have opened accounts in droves, in an attempt to stay in touch with their children’s children, the same people with whom they want to connect are disconnecting at a record pace. Users currently enrolled in high school have declined by 58.9%, and users currently in college have declined by 59.1%.

According to a Pew Research Center report released in late 2013, the popularity of Facebook in the hierarchy of social media site usage by teens is in freefall, being surpassed by Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and smartphone apps like Instagram, Snapchat and Vine. Beyond that, social media applications in general are being put aside in favor of instant messaging.

As a business, does Facebook still fit into your marketing strategy?

A few years ago, Facebook usage was growing across the board, demographically speaking, and businesses were creating Pages and content in an effort to capitalize upon a new and growingly receptive market. Before the conversion of business Pages to the Timeline format, “unliked” Pages could designate custom landing page that could be designed to more actively engage visitors. The introduction of the Timeline format ended that capability. Since the introduction of the Timeline format, far more emphasis has been put on Facebook Advertising, which is now the only way to designate a custom landing page.

In the beginning, if a Facebook user “liked” your Page, they would be shown posts from your Page; however, since the introduction of the Timeline format, fewer and fewer people have been seeing a business’s organic posts. In fact, every time you post anything to your Page, you will see a link to the right of the Timeline that says “See Your Ad Here” with a link that says “Boost Post”. In addition, every post is now followed by a “Boost Post” link directly alongside of the small number of people who have already seen your post. Whereas it used to be that Facebook Advertising was an effective way to reach new people, now Facebook is using it as a means to get businesses to pay to reach even their existing followers!

With the latest version of the Timeline format, more space is being devoted to advertising and slightly less is devoted to content. For users, the updates that they want to see – including posts from your business – are far less likely to appear, having been largely replaced by advertising (with a small “Sponsored” disclaimer) disguised as real content. Although Google and other search engines have always showed clearly identified sponsored search content, the display of that advertising has not come at the expense of the organic search results that are the foundation behind usage. Facebook – a company that touts so-called “transparency” – is violating the trust of its end users and further insuring its ultimate decline. The official explanation is that their objective is to “improve the quality and relevancy of news feed content.”

The truth can be found in a recent Valleywag report quoting an anonymous source from within Facebook, disclosing that Facebook’s current strategy is to reduce the reach of organic posts to somewhere between 1% and 2%.

Creating and maintaining Facebook content for your business made infinite sense as little as a year or two ago. Today, the impact and return on the time and expense invested is questionable at best. Although my company has built well over 100 Facebook Pages, including custom content, for all types of small business clients in years past, we are no longer recommending that our clients expect a Facebook presence to create an impact that will be a significant component of their overall marketing strategy. Yes, you still want to be found on Facebook, but we can no longer recommend anything beyond the bare basics of content. Quite simply, there are far more cost-efficient ways to generate new business.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Looking for Business in All the Right Places

April 25th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Advertising Messages That Generate Immediate Response

March 28th, 2014

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

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

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

Building Your Numbers

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

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

Crafting Messages with a Sense of Urgency

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

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

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

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

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

This post was written by Peter Pelland