Pelland Blog

COVID-19: Your Response

March 21st, 2020

There is no question that our world has been turned upside down within the last few weeks. Just when some people were concerned that the spring allergy season was about to begin, we have been faced with a worldwide pandemic of an entirely new and highly deadly virus called COVID-19. One impacted state after another has responded in rather serious fashion, starting with the states that were hit with the earliest concentrations of outbreaks, eventually leading to a nationwide response at the federal level.

Here where I live, in Massachusetts, we have been one of the most highly impacted states after Washington, New York and California. As I am writing, most of our schools and colleges are closed, restaurants and bars are closed, state and municipal offices are closed, shopping malls and most retail stores are closed, and hospitals and nursing homes are closed to visitors. Gatherings of 25 or more people have been prohibited, including concerts, sporting events, theaters, conferences (including at least one campground conference), and even church services and faith-based gatherings. The terms “social distancing”, “self-quarantine”, and “sheltering in place” have been added to our everyday vocabularies.

The Campground Industry

The impacts upon private campgrounds are evolving on a daily basis. Let us start by looking at the positive side of the situation. First of all, Americans are coming together like we have not in years, sharing a common determination to overcome the current crisis. Secondly, we will continue to find a healthy refuge in outdoor environments. If nearby public parks and campgrounds are closed as a result of the pandemic, you may be able to fill a new demand. Thirdly, campgrounds are not being hit nearly as hard as businesses in many other industries, including airlines, cruise lines, travel agencies, hotels, tourist attractions, and restaurants. In that sense, we can count our blessings. On the other hand, many campground owners have told me that their cancellations have exceeded their reservations in recent weeks. Fear and uncertainty do not drive consumer confidence and spending, and families who are facing layoffs at work no longer have discretionary income to spend on vacations.

Your Response

Keeping in mind that we are all in this together, it is time to waive your usual cancellation policies for the time being. Do not even ask questions. The tide will turn, and people will return to the businesses that treated them honorably and respectfully. Next, go out of your way to let your customer base know that you care about their health and well-being and that you are introducing new measures to ensure their safety. It is time for every business to introduce a personalized Coronavirus Statement. This statement should be thoughtfully written and personalized for your own unique situation. Outline any of your recreational amenities or services that will be temporarily closed, curtailed or limited, stressing how those actions have been taken in the interest of your guests and employees. Outline the measures that you have taken to maintain cleanliness in your facilities that remain open, including your store, restrooms, snack bar, playground, fitness room, and rental accommodations.

When you have carefully drafted your statement (and run it by other sets of eyes for proofreading!), share it on social media and post it to the Home page of your website, updating the statement as necessary, as the crisis evolves and hopefully subsides. To post this statement to your website, you can include it as text near the top of your Home page; however, you may want to consider the alternative of providing a prominent link to a PDF file that people may download, particularly if your statement is somewhat lengthy. Another advantage to the PDF option is that it will avoid having text related to the Coronavirus be what search engine robots are indexing, rather than text that outlines the features of your park. One word of caution is to ensure that your PDF file is tagged and ADA compliant. (Remember when ADA compliance was one of your biggest concerns a few months ago?)

The Impact Varies

Some campgrounds will be impacted more than others. If your park’s primary selling point is that it offers a remote natural setting, you might be offering the type of escape that will be sought by an even wider group of people. If your campground has proximity to local, state or federal parks that remain open and offer recreational opportunities, try to capitalize upon that positive situation. On the other hand, if your guests primarily stay at your park due to its proximity to one or more major tourist attractions that have been closed as a result of the pandemic, you will need to improvise a more creative approach. Similarly, if people have historically flocked to your campground to partake in a well-organized activity program, you may need to find alternatives that will involve smaller gatherings and greater opportunities for social distancing. You may want to even rethink or rename certain events. Just this morning, I found myself updating the activity schedule on a campground website, and the annual “Hooray! School’s Out for the Summer” weekend suddenly took on a different and less jovial connotation, at a time when most schools are closed for either the next two weeks or the entire semester. Prepare to adapt and modify your schedule.

Another impact will involve international travelers who would normally vacation in the United States. Many campgrounds have seen a steadily increasing volume of traffic from overseas, and many campgrounds in the Northeast rely upon an annual influx of guests from Canada. Travel from Europe is currently banned, as is traffic in both directions at the border crossings between the United States and Canada. It almost makes one long for the days when the greatest impediment to Canadian visitors was an unfavorable currency exchange rate! On the flip side, gasoline prices are currently at historic lows, which will help to encourage domestic travel.

The bottom line, as I sit here in mid-March, is that we have no idea where the chips will have fallen come Memorial Day and beyond. This may be the summer when people more than anything need to escape to the outdoors and experience a natural setting. It could even be that simply sitting around a campfire could be exactly the cure that the doctor has ordered.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

ADA Compliance and Your Website: A One Year Update

January 10th, 2020

I first addressed the issue of ADA compliance and its impacts upon campground websites in early 2019. In the year since, it has become a recurring nightmare and just about everyone has been made aware of the ongoing problem. Campground owners and website developers have reacted, some have overreacted, and we have all learned a great deal in the process. Rather than rehashing the background of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, its implementation, and the case law history that has encouraged the proliferation of lawsuits against campgrounds and other small businesses, I would like to share some of what we have learned over the past year, offering advice on what you need to do to protect your business.

As the title of a seminar that I recently presented before the Pennsylvania Campground Owners Association (PCOA) would suggest, it is important to separate the myths and rumors from the facts and solutions. Right from the start, let me explain that I am not an attorney and, in most instances, neither are you. If you are the target of what might be considered a frivolous lawsuit introduced by a serial plaintiff and an opportunistic attorney, you need serious legal representation, hiring a defense attorney with specific expertise in these matters. Far from small claims in a district court, these are class action lawsuits entered in federal courts, where the apparent objectives are costly out-of-court settlements.

Lawsuits Have Addressed Both Title II and Title III Complaints

A recent wave of lawsuits randomly targeted campgrounds in the state of New York. The complaints allege violations of both ADA Title II (which includes website construction, including reservation components) and Title III (compliant facilities, such as accessible facilities and rental accommodations.) In fact, one of the most significant website complaints is a failure to adequately outline, in detail, the accessible features within a park. Of course, this in itself presents a Catch-22, where you do not want your website to present an admission of a failure to comply.

The lawsuits that I have seen reference the need for compliance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0), even though these were replaced by WCAG 2.1 guidelines back in June of 2018. It is important to understand that these are only guidelines, since actual regulations were never released, as planned, in 2018. The lawsuits also reference the availability of “several screen reading software programs” for use by the blind and visually impaired, but then specifically references the expensive Job Access With Speech (“JAWS”) screen reader. Free screen reader software can be easily installed on any computer, and will demonstrate that the text is fully readable on almost all websites.

Trust the Competency of Your Website Developer

Regardless of which company you may be using, it is fair to say that if you are working with any of the major website developers serving the family campground industry, you can trust their competence. The greatest risks are when your webmaster is the man in the mirror, your nephew, a local computer shop, or the boy down the road. Remember that it is your business that is at stake. Your website must meet WCAG 2.0 (or 2.1) guidelines. There are online tests that may be run, including the Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool (WAVE) and the PowerMapper SortSite Desktop website testing tool. Though highly inaccurate and full of false positives, they can represent a starting point for evaluation. They use different heuristics for essentially guessing whether or not a site is accessible. For example, some checkers do not know the difference between a missing alt attribute (a very important factor with screen reader software) and one that is intentionally specified as blank. Your webmaster knows the difference.

Presuming that you are taking a proactive approach and have not yet been sued, the following is a list of some of the most important factors to check on your website.

  • Does your website include an “accessibility statement” that outlines how you are making a good faith effort toward being compliant (but NOT admitting a failure to comply)?
  • Do you have “alt” tags (text alternatives) for every non-text element, not just images?
  • There should be no text on your site that is scanned from a document and presented as a JPEG or other graphic file. Is there any text that cannot be selected by dragging your cursor?
  • Are you identifying the site’s language (typically “en-us” to indicate “English” with the “United States” subtag), allowing text readers to more easily identify the language used?
  • Does each page on your website have a unique and adequately descriptive title?
  • Can the text on your site be resized up to 200% and maintain its clarity?
  • Are all forms properly tabbed for easy keyboard navigation?
  • Do your forms (including third-party reservation forms) offer alternatives and suggestions for input errors?
  • Do your text and background colors maintain a high contrast ratio, avoiding text that overprints images?
  • If videos on your site include any spoken words, are the videos captioned?
  • Does your website allow users to pause and stop any moving content?
  • Does your website avoid content that changes upon visual interaction, such as so-called “mouse-over” or “hover” content?
  • Are PDF documents on your website tagged and compliant with PDF/UA (ISO 14289) and WCAG 2.0 standards?

Many of these standards have been long followed by website designers for a variety of reasons. For example, “alt” tags that are used by text readers are also read by search engine robots, and tabbed forms enhance usability for all users.

Talk with Your Insurance Agent

I am hoping that most people reading this article have not yet been victimized by an ADA compliance lawsuit. If you have not been sued, it is safe to say that it could happen at any time. It is not a matter of “if” but a matter of “when” it is your turn. Fortunately, every commercial insurance carrier serving the campground industry offers what is known as cyber insurance coverage that will provide coverage under these and a variety of other computer-related circumstances. Consider this a necessary cost of doing business, and contact your insurance agent without delay.

Final Warnings

You should also be aware that, although frequently evaluated in visual terms that impact the blind and visually impaired, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 also prohibits barriers to the deaf, dyslexic, or people with cognitive issues or learning disabilities. We are currently only seeing the tip of the iceberg.

Many people are trying to capitalize upon the current fears and hysteria. Keep in mind that no website developer can build you a website that is guaranteed to be 100% ADA compliant (short of a site that consists of nothing but bold black text on a white background.) Avoid the temptation to believe that a compliance widget will solve your problems, even though it might help you and your webmaster to feel good. If you would like your website to include a tool such as the Userway Web Accessibility Widget, that is fine but keep in mind that it is not a substitute for proper coding and that it does not perform any functions that a handicapped person cannot already perform without the use of the widget. On the other hand, it might serve as one step toward potentially persuading a judge or jury that you are making a good faith effort at compliance.

Above all else, do not panic and overreact. Some people have gone to the extreme of taking down their websites or redirecting their URL to their Facebook page. Even temporarily, that will inflict major harm upon the search engine ranking that you have worked so hard to build over the years. You may as well disconnect your telephone or take down the sign at your entrance. We are living in a complicated world, where it is important to adapt to changing circumstances, not retreat into a cave.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Sounding an Alarm on Tick-Borne Illnesses

November 28th, 2019

I would like to share the knowledge that I have acquired as a result of my first-hand expertise on a very important and widely misunderstood topic. Tick-borne illnesses represent a broad spectrum of bacteriological infections, one of which is broadly recognized as “Lyme disease.” Ever since a cluster of families in Lyme, Connecticut first suffered varying but unexplained symptoms back in 1975, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) has been in denial about either the existence or the number of people infected, citing peer-reviewed medical studies conducted by physicians and scientists on the payrolls of the pharmaceutical and managed health (insurance) industries.

Family physicians have widely misdiagnosed tick-borne illnesses or depended upon the highly unreliable ELISA and Western Blot blood tests that the CDC endorses. Unless a patient was “lucky” enough to display an erythema migrans (the bull’s eye rash that does not always appear, does not always look like a bull’s eye, and does not necessarily appear at the location of a tick bite) that the CDC accepts as a definitive sign of infection, physicians tended to treat the symptoms rather than the underlying causes.

Since the early days, doctors who specialize in trying to help Lyme disease patients have frequently been subjected to formal complaints, typically initiated by the health insurance providers who do not want to pay for treatment and who have the CDC’s denial on their side, often leading to the suspension or revocation of their licenses to practice medicine. Often out of fear, as well as the lack of information, general practitioners generally throw up their arms or grasp at any diagnosis that might explain away the classic symptoms, uselessly prescribing painkillers, steroids, or perhaps a short dose of antibiotics.

My Journey

In my case, over the course of decades of occasional tick bites, primary care physicians repeatedly told me that I tested negative (the nearly useless ELISA tests) and explained away my symptoms. Pain in my hands was written off as rheumatoid arthritis, being continually tired was written off as chronic fatigue syndrome (an imaginary illness) and spending too much time in front of a computer screen, pain in my joints was written off as “tennis elbow” and too much exercise, and pain in my neck was written off as sleeping on a bad pillow. Due to a combination of a very strong immune system and a high tolerance for pain, my symptoms were generally manageable. On two occasions, when the fleeting pain in my limbs became overwhelming enough for hospital emergency room visits, the puzzle pieces were not assembled and there was no diagnosis.

It was not until early in the summer of 2019 that I experienced a flare-up of most of the classic symptoms of Lyme disease – including the definitive rash – after being aware of another tick bite. Fortunately, it was a Sunday, so I went to a nearby urgent care clinic, where the physician’s assistant on duty immediately recognized the rash and symptoms, prescribing three weeks of antibiotics. I called my (former) primary care physician’s office afterward, asking to be tested for co-infections, and the office never returned my call.

On that first round of antibiotics, after an initially violent immune system reaction, many of my symptoms subsided, and I started an odyssey of reading everything I could find on the subject of tick-borne diseases. Certain that I was suffering from co-infections, I searched out a nearby specialist who ordered what are probably the only blood tests that are truly effective at flagging antibodies to the various diseases. The results indicated that I am infected with two active strains of borreliosis (Lyme disease) and six serious co-infections, some of which have been present and undiagnosed for decades. I am now on a long-term treatment program that includes multiple antibiotics, probiotics, powerful herbal regimens, and herbal compounds to support my immune system. (It turns out that the roots of the invasive Japanese knotweed plant – highly revered in Japan, Korea, and parts of China – are a miracle herb, higher in resveratrol than anything else on the planet.)

I am probably one of the fortunate few who are now on what is nonetheless a long road to recovery. Tick-borne illnesses usually have a much more debilitating effect upon infected children and the elderly, where symptoms are quite often misdiagnosed (and mistreated) as Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Multiple sclerosis (MS), Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease. Part of the problem is that different people have different symptoms, co-infections require different treatments, and chronic (long-term) infections are much more difficult to treat than acute (recent) infections.

A Few Facts

  • Although usually referred to as insects, adult ticks have 8 legs and are actually arachnids, more closely related to spiders.
  • All types of ticks are infected, not just one as was originally believed. This includes hard-bodied ticks, soft-bodied ticks, deer ticks, dog ticks, and every other type of tick.
  • Most ticks carry a laundry list of infectious bacteria, not just the Borrelia burgdorferi that cause Lyme disease.
  • The same diseases can also be carried and transmitted (though less commonly) by mosquitoes, biting flies and fleas.
  • Infected ticks are endemic throughout the United States (and most of the world), not limited to New England, the Mid-Atlantic, Upper Midwest, and West Coast as is often believed.
  • A tick can transmit the disease spirochetes into your bloodstream within 10 minutes, not the 24-36 hours that is commonly believed.
  • The Borrelia bacteria are spirochetes, highly adaptive organisms that respond to antibiotics by evolving into resistant cysts and forming biofilms.
  • The bacteria spend little time in the bloodstream, finding their way into ligaments (hence the common joint pains) and tissues, favoring the knees, brain and heart.
  • You can be infected by a tick in any stage of its development – larval, nymph, or adult.
  • Ticks most commonly feed on mice and deer; however, they are known to feed on well over 100 host types, including lizards and birds. Migratory birds have helped to make the diseases endemic. Check your dogs and cats when they come in from the outdoors!
  • Lyme disease is not new. Remember the 5,300 year old ice mummy found in the Austrian Alps back in 1991? That corpse contained Lyme disease DNA.
  • Ignore the conspiracy theories and quack cures found on the Internet.

Sounding the Alarm

If you run a campground, you are probably spending a significant amount of time outdoors doing things like raking leaves, cutting brush, and cleaning sites. Perhaps you hunt, fish, hike, golf, or pursue other outdoor activities in your leisure time. Ticks prefer moist woodland environments, tall weeds and grasses, edge zones (such as the roughs on a golf course), and places such as stone walls and wood piles. If you are spending time in any of these environments, it is recommended that you treat your outer clothing, footwear, and camping gear with permethrin solution which will kill ticks within 10-20 seconds. It is also recommended that you use an effective tick repellent when outdoors. DEET is commonly recommended, but there are equally effective herbal compounds that are safer to use. Whether or not you are aware of having been bitten by a tick, if you are experiencing flu-like symptoms, pain in your joints (particularly knees and elbows), pain that seems to migrate from one part of your body to another, headaches, a stiff neck, swelling in your knees or other joints, a feeling of always being tired, or memory problems that are often described as “brain fog,” seek out a Lyme disease specialist. Lyme-related diseases represent one of the fastest growing epidemics in the United States today, and they are not to be taken lightly.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Analyzing Analytics

September 12th, 2019

I recently wrote how one of the biggest mistakes was to have a website without the advantage of running Google Analytics. It is a free tool, it is easy to install, and it provides a wealth of extremely valuable information regarding a website, its traffic sources, and much more. I have also learned over the years that most people never take the time to actually review the data now at their fingertips, or they get lost in the sheer volume of all that is available. I have often spent 20 minutes on the phone with a client when both of us are logged into their Google Analytics account, walking them through the process of what to look for and where to find it. Let me attempt to take a similar approach to guide readers through the process.

Is it Installed?

Prior to proceeding any further, you need to confirm that Google Analytics is actually installed and running on your website and that you have been set up with user access. Ask your webmaster. If either you or your webmaster are uncertain (and it is not a good sign if your webmaster is uncertain!), view the source code on the Home page of your site by right-clicking on the page and choosing “View page source”. Then search the page’s source code for a string of text that begins with “UA-”. This will show you the Google Analytics tracking code and script if it is installed, usually near the top or the bottom of the page.

Presuming that Google Analytics is installed and running on your site, you also need to be set up as a user with access to the account. By only being accessible to authorized users, you are prevented from allowing just anybody to access this data, particularly your competitors. Once you have confirmed that Google Analytics is installed and that you have been set up with user access, it is now time to log into your account to sort through the mountains of data.

Changing the Default View

When you reach your Google Analytics Home page, you will be shown a snapshot that includes active users (the number of people who are on your site right now) and a summary of some of the basic data compiled over the past 30 days. Although it is fun to see the number of active users on your site, along with which pages they are visiting, this information is generally not as useful as cumulative data. To get into the detailed data, click on the “audience overview” link. By default, this is going to show you a graph with daily traffic counts over the last 30 days; however, I think that it is generally more useful to chart the previous year’s traffic. In the upper right of the page, click on the down arrow to the right of the date range, then choose “custom”. There will be two date boxes, with the one on the right showing yesterday’s date. Change the date in the box on the left to show today’s date last year. While you are there, check the box that says “Compare to previous period”, then click “Apply”. I suggest that you continue to graph your data on a daily rather than weekly or monthly basis.

Sort the Wheat from the Chaff

Because most campgrounds are seasonal businesses, the annual graph is likely to look like a rocky roller coaster ride. For parks in northern states, the lowest traffic volumes will probably occur in December, after your park has closed for the season, people are more concerned with holiday shopping than where to camp next August, and the winter camping shows have not started to spur new interest in camping for the following year. You are also likely to see occasional spikes in traffic that may coincide with marketing efforts such as camping shows, investments in advertising campaigns, or links that appear in social media or review sites. The overview data will display the number of users, new users (people who had not previously visited your site during this time frame), sessions (which accounts for users who visit your site more than once and which is directly related to the number of sessions per user), pageviews (a cumulative number), pages per session (where you want people to visit enough of your site’s content to progress to your reservations page), the average session duration (where more time is more likely to persuade), and bounce rate (worthless traffic, generally bots that visit a single page on your site for a total of 0 seconds.) Because you have elected to compare data to the previous period, every set of number will be accompanied by a percentage showing an increase or decrease from the previous year, a useful demonstration of overall trends.

Refer to the “Reports” in the left-hand column, then scroll down to Audience > Geo > Location, and you will reach a world map and summary of demographic information. Your primary source country for traffic will undoubtedly be the United States, but it is also useful to know if you have significant amounts of traffic from beyond our shores. Click on “United States” (or the U.S. on the map) to open or zoom into a sequential list of the states that are sending you traffic. You can also click on any state to see the clusters of cities and towns within the state that are sending you traffic. With Google Analytics, you can click on almost anything to open a more detailed breakdown. Do you want to know if your participation in a camping show or advertising in a local newspaper provided you with a return on investment? This is one place to look.

Scroll down again to Audience > Mobile > Overview, and you might be surprised by the increase in traffic from users of mobile devices, generally coming at the expense of users of desktop (including laptop) computers, with tablets generally never gaining a significant amount of traction. If your site is not mobile-friendly, here is proof that it is losing you income.

Traffic Sources

When you are driving down the highway, the last thing you want is to encounter traffic; however, when you have a website, traffic is mission critical. Scroll down to Acquisition > All Traffic > Channels, and it will not be surprising if your primary source of traffic is organic search on Google. Although the results will show a list of the most important search phrases that have been used to actually reach your site (and which should influence the keywords in use on your site or chosen for any paid advertising campaign), the highest number will probably be “(not provided)”, which represents tracking data that Google was unable to gather, generally because the user was logged into Gmail or another Google Account while performing their Google search. When this occurs, the search is conducted over SSL and the search query data is hidden. Hopefully enough actual keyword numbers are shown to still provide you with the useful information you need.

Pennies from Heaven

Scroll down again to Acquisition > All Traffic > Referrals to see the other sources of traffic to your site. The top of the list will probably include your state association website, various campground review sites, Good Sam, state and local tourism websites, Facebook, Yelp, and local businesses with reciprocal links to your site. Once again, these numbers will help to justify your involvement with any paid advertising programs on referring sites. Although there may be costs involved in Good Sam advertising, your state association membership, and your membership in your local chamber of commerce or tourism association, their websites are targeting your market demographics and are likely to send you significant amounts of traffic that far outweigh your out-of-pocket costs.

These are only a few tips in the process of discovering what Google Analytics can do for you. There are hidden treasures to be found with many other clicks, but you will never discover them if you do not log into your account and put it to work.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Ten Common Website Mistakes to Avoid

July 29th, 2019

The biggest mistake that many small business owners might make would be to build and maintain their own website. Sure, companies like GoDaddy, Wix, Weebly, and Vistaprint make it look like an easy task that anybody can handle, but do you simply want a website or do you want a website that can effectively compete online? Playing part-time webmaster when your business is at stake is clearly an example of being penny wise and pound foolish.

The next temptation is to hire one of the thousands of amateurs who hang out a “webmaster” shingle simply because they can navigate their way around the basic use of a CMS website building platform. That might be the computer repair shop in town that is trying to keep itself busy or even a family member or that “nice kid who knows a lot about computers” down the road. Inevitably, these people know very little about how to generate effective online buying decisions, and they absolutely understand zero about your particular business and its competitive environment.

Whether you insist on building your own site, or whether you simply want to keep an eye on your webmaster, there are a few common mistakes that you will want to avoid. Usually these mistakes are errors of omission, but they can also be reflections of careless work habits.

  1. Ignoring Mobile Devices: Checking the Google Analytics of two client websites in recent days, I was astounded to see that over two-thirds of traffic was now coming from users of smartphones, with conventional desktop and laptop computers coming in third to tablets. If your site is not mobile-friendly, you are turning away a tremendous portion of your market. Do not be deceived by the fact that almost any website may be viewed on a smartphone. There is a big difference between being able to view a site and actually engaging in a non-frustrating experience. Has your site abandoned the use of Flash (a popular way to present dynamic website content until support was dropped by iOS and Android devices), is content scaling down to the size of the display, does the navigation work with pudgy fingers, and can users tap a phone number displayed on your site to initiate a phone call?
  2. Google Analytics: Yes, that comes next on the list. One of the biggest mistakes that can be made is to have a website without the advantage of running Google Analytics. It is a free tool, it is easy to install, and it provides a wealth of extremely valuable information regarding the visitors to your site, traffic sources, and much more.
  3. Using Templates and Ignoring META Content: I am amazed at how many website titles display as “Just another WordPress site” because the webmaster did not take the minimal time and effort (or perhaps did not have the knowledge) to substitute an appropriate keyword-based title for the default template setting. A site’s title tag is critically important in organic search, and nobody is ever going to search for the term “just another WordPress site campground”, so it should be clear that having that as your site’s title will put your park at a severe disadvantage. Without naming names, I just found campgrounds suffering from exactly this failure located in Wisconsin Dells, WI; Marcellus, MI; Crossville, TN; Antonito, CO; Fletcher, NC; and Calvert City, KY.
  4. ADA Compliance: Many of the factors that determine whether or not a website is ADA compliant involve the same META content that search engine robots love. These include image ‘alt’ tags and a site’s language tag. Other factors are part of a site’s mobile-friendliness, including scalable text. Your site should also maintain a proper contrast ratio between text and background colors, the site should be navigable by keyboard, and videos should be captioned. Very importantly, let people know about any accessible accommodations and facilities at your park.
  5. Orphans: I am not talking about Mickey Rooney and Boys Town. I am talking about pages on a website that fail to link back to the other pages of the site. Sort of like a dead end in a corn maze or a hall of mirrors, orphan pages are very frustrating to site visitors.
  6. Broken Links: Formula 409 is a well-known cleaning and degreasing product that has been around since the 1950’s, but 404 error messages on a website are about as popular as a “door-buster” item at Walmart that is out of stock the moment the store opens and the sale begins. People see these frustrating messages when they click on a broken link, typically because a page has been deleted without updating its incoming links.
  7. Unencrypted E-Mail Links: You would not display your credit card number on a poster in Times Square, and you would certainly not hand out keys to your home or automobile to total strangers, so why would you display an unencrypted e-mail address on your website? Without encryption, the message to e-mail address harvesting spam robots is “Here I am. Come get me!”
  8. Broken Graphics: One of the telltale signs of a beginning webmaster is broken graphics. If graphics are linked to files on a local computer, they will appear normally, but only on that computer. Anybody accessing the page from any other device anywhere in the world will see a broken graphic link.
  9. Slow Loading Images: Have you ever visited a website, only to watch images slowly loading, as if they were being slowly painted onto your screen? Almost inevitably, it is because the person maintaining the site has used enormous photos on the pages then has those images being scaled down to size by the browsers of end users. The enormous files are being needlessly downloaded, then resized, when properly sized and optimized images would have loaded immediately.
  10. Out of Date Content: You would not buy a gallon of milk that was past its expiration date, would you? Well, why would you expect people to “buy” what you are selling on your website if its content looks like it is way past its “best used by” date? Specifically, rates and schedules should show the current year. Particularly when it involves pricing, nobody wants to make a buying decision when there is pricing uncertainty.

These are only 10 common mistakes that webmasters frequently make. The overall best advice is to avoid working with that webmaster in your mirror (or that clever kid down the road) and to choose one of several professional companies that understand the campground industry and with reputations you can trust. You have better things to do than look for mistakes on your website … or to deal with the consequences of those mistakes.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Small Businesses Are Special

June 12th, 2019

I have always had an affinity for small family-owned businesses. I was raised in a small business environment, I own and operate a small business, and most campgrounds are small businesses. My favorite clients are probably otherwise known as Mom and Pop. What we have in common is a willingness to work endless hours and the ability to wear a variety of hats during the course of the day.

My small business experience began during my early childhood. My father’s business was located on the same parcel of property as our home, and I was fortunate enough to be able to appreciate the continuous overlap between our family life and business. Sometimes it’s just in your blood to control your own destiny and be your own boss, although you quickly understand that you are actually working for your customers. My father was one of 10 children of French-Canadian immigrants who built their lives out of virtually nothing, and most of his siblings were also small business owners.

In my father’s instance, his destiny was in the wholesale produce business, leaving high school in his junior year when he was offered a partnership in an existing business that he grew into that home-based business and a warehouse that was built the year I was born. When I was in grade school, I could not wait to return home in the afternoon to see what chores I could be assigned in the warehouse, even though most of the activity took place much earlier in the day. When I was a 16-year-old high school student, I remember getting my driver’s license one morning and being sent off by myself in a truck to pick up a load of butternut squash that afternoon at a farm in the next county.

What I learned from my father I also see when observing my clients at work and fellow vendors at trade shows. In addition to the aforementioned commitment to long hours, I find that the key ingredients to success are a commitment to quality, a willingness to take risks, and the ability to innovate. Above all else, it involves a total dedication to the needs of your clientele.

My father’s customer base consisted of a combination of small businesses and larger commercial enterprises. Those customers included corner grocery stores (and later convenience stores), supermarkets, restaurants, caterers, schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and the commissary at the nearby air force base. At an earlier time, before I was born, truckloads of produce would be driven non-stop to be unloaded into the backs of transport planes that were part of the Berlin Airlift.

As times changed, my father’s customer base changed. In 1958, the “Chef” potatoes that were peeled and prepared by hand in virtually every food service operation in the country were suddenly replaced by the frozen French fry. Three railroad carloads of Maine potatoes sat and rotted in a new warehouse expansion that had been built specifically for their short-term storage. The crystal ball was not always crystal-clear, and the risks involved in the perishable food industry have always been enormous. It was important to explore new product offerings and to respond to new customer demands. Exotic fruits were introduced, and ethnic Asian and Hispanic businesses had demands for produce that had been previously somewhat “foreign”. Soon thereafter, organic produce became a major product line rather than merely a niche.

In every instance, it was important to not only respond to customer demands but to attempt to forecast that demand, influencing it through marketing that was based upon inventory of a highly perishable product line. It was also important to source produce as locally as possible, at least on a seasonal basis. Although primary sources of supply were large regional distribution centers (in our instance, Boston) with railroad sidings and easy highway access, every effort was made to buy directly from local farms during their harvest seasons. Freshness was mission-critical, along with same-day delivery – usually within two to three hours.

In the years since my family business experience, the produce industry – like the campground industry – has changed dramatically. Large buying groups were designed to eliminate the middleman, with large supermarket chains and food distribution networks like Wal-Mart, Whole Foods and Costco having the power to buy direct, providing their own transportation, warehousing, and distribution network. For the smaller buying organizations, the integral role that was played by wholesalers such as my father’s business was replaced by much larger food distribution companies such as Sysco, U.S. Foodservice, Performance Food Group, and Gordon Food Service – each of which maintains dozens of distribution centers throughout the United States.

With all of this background in my blood, it is easy to understand how I have an appreciation for smaller small businesses, and campgrounds provide a very natural fit. Fortunately for campgrounds, the vendors within the industry provide a myriad of opportunities to work with businesses that are similarly sized – or even smaller than most campgrounds themselves. I would encourage you to maintain loyalties with vendors that have proven their reliability and commitment, thinking “small” or more “local” whenever it makes practical sense. As I walked the halls of industry trade shows in recent months, it was easy to spot not only new vendors within established product and service categories, but also several startup companies with new approaches to old ideas, as well as some with entirely new ideas that might benefit your business. Be open to considering what they have to offer, understanding that they may or may not offer any advantages whatsoever over working with proven performers. Ask them to share their visions, explaining the problems their businesses are designed to solve, and giving them an opportunity to listen to you. Generally speaking, vendors who take more time listening and getting to learn about your business, rather than telling you about their products, are the ones whose trust you want to establish and maintain for years to come.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Liability Releases: Better Safe than Sorry

January 25th, 2019

Liability can take many forms, and it is important for every business to take reasonable precautions to protect its interests in the event of either physical or emotional injury claims on the part of guests. Injuries of either type may often lead to claims for compensation and damages, even when the injuries are the result of reckless behavior on the part of a guest or the failure to follow posted rules and regulations. Businesses with greater inherent risks of injury must take greater precautions to protect themselves from the threat of lawsuits.

Campgrounds with greater inherent risks might include parks with ziplines, shooting ranges, river rafting, paintball fields, mountain biking, mechanical bulls, and climbing walls; however, every park has liabilities, and there are probably more personal injury attorneys within a 50-mile radius of your park than there are churches, schools, and hospitals combined.

Many campgrounds utilize blanket release forms known as crowd releases. Crowd release forms are generalized notifications that your guests are surrendering their reasonable rights to sue pursuant to their use and enjoyment of your park and its facilities, and they typically apply to the taking of photographs or videos. A crowd release will warn people that photography and filming may be ongoing at any time, that the images may be used in any and all media, in perpetuity, and that the guest consents to the use of his or her image without compensation by nature of entry; however, crowd releases rarely cross the line and attempt to cover the issues of physical liability. Crowd release forms also constitute rather weak defenses in a court of law.

If your park offers recreational amenities or activities with greater inherent risk, you will want to incorporate some very specifically detailed liability releases. There is no question that risky activities offer a great deal of appeal, particularly among younger guests, and can go a long way toward expanding a park’s customer base; however, it is necessary for your business to take reasonable measures to ensure the safety of its guests and to take measures to protect itself against lawsuits that may result if injuries are inflicted during the pursuit of those activities. Needless to say, the incorporation of these precautions should go hand-in-hand with the purchase of suitable liability insurance.

Downhill skiing and snowboarding are activities where participants assume a degree of risk. For years, the National Ski Areas Association has promoted a Responsibility Code that has attempted to shift responsibility for injuries upon skiers and snowboarders, not the ski area operators. The code advised users to ski in control, be able to stop at all times, avoid those downhill, yield to those uphill, not stop where they would obstruct a trail, utilize retention devices, observe signage, keep off closed terrain, and know in advance how to use lifts.

The Responsibility Code was a start, but the extensive text printed on the backs of most lift tickets these days is now designated as a “Ski Ticket Contract and Express Assumption of Risk”. The following text is typical and taken from the back of a recently issued lift ticket: “I accept and understand that skiing, snowboarding, and other forms of winter mountain sports are hazardous, with many inherent risks and resulting injuries or death. By my purchase and use of this ticket, I freely and willingly accept and voluntarily assume all risk of property damage, personal injury or death which results from my participation in winter sports activities and the inherent risks of such activities as they are defined herein.” This statement is followed by an extensive paragraph that itemizes those inherent risks, both natural and man-made.

One might think that this broad wording would release the business operator from almost all liability; however, the ski industry takes added measures to reduce the risks of injury, including the use of ski patrollers to open and close trails during the course of the day, sweep trails at the end of the day, and evacuate injured skiers from the slopes. Grooming, signage, the increased use of helmets, and improvements in the safety of equipment also help to reduce the likelihood of injuries. Despite all of these efforts to reduce liability, enforceability is never ironclad. In December 2014, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that a season pass waiver was unenforceable, opening the way to a $21.5 million personal injury lawsuit, and this ruling has since been used to chip away at the overall validity of waivers and releases.

Bearing in mind the potential legal issues of enforceability, parks that provide higher risk amenities should follow the lead of not only the ski industry but also the amusement park industry, which routinely enforces height, weight and age restrictions, along with providing a long list of health conditions that should preclude participation. Those conditions typically include, but are not limited to, pulmonary problems, high blood pressure, cardiac disease, pregnancy, obesity, seizures, prior injuries, fear of heights, and psychological or psychiatric problems. Yes, that list covers just about everything. Health issues require a separate signed waiver.

When I enjoyed the use of a high ropes and zipline course recently, I signed both a written liability release and a health waiver. I was provided with copies of each, I was provided assistance in properly suiting up for the activity, and I was provided with basic instruction in the use of the equipment. In another recent outing, I visited a resort that operates mountain biking trails and a mountain coaster. At this facility, guests are directed to a row of computer kiosks where liability releases and health waivers are digitally signed before tickets may be purchased.

There are a number of companies that provide reasonably priced digital release services that work with either computer kiosks or mobile apps. These services save time, avoid the generation of a mountain of paperwork, are secure, offer cloud storage, provide analytical information, and can even integrate with email marketing programs as a means of generating return visits. Some services even allow seasonal businesses to adjust their subscription services between their peak season and off season. A few of the companies that you may want to look into include:

Whether your park uses crowd releases, liability releases, health waivers, or a combination of all three, it is important to make every effort to protect its interests and to avoid the many catastrophic impacts of personal injury lawsuits.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Help Wanted, Apply Today!

March 21st, 2018

One of the perennial challenges facing campground owners is the struggle to find high caliber seasonal employees. Particularly when unemployment is as low as it is these days, it is not easy to find people who are anxious to clean toilets, mow lawns under the mid-August sun, or rake pieces of broken glass out of campfire rings. You understand because these are the types of jobs that you do yourself whenever necessary.

There is no question that those of us who run our own businesses think it is entirely normal to work 60+ hour weeks, to be on call when we are not working, and to grow accustomed to income uncertainty. I doubt that there has ever been a campground owner who has not at least occasionally been able to divide income earned by hours worked to find that his compensation calculated out to a fraction of minimum wage.

With that perspective as a backdrop, campground owners must nonetheless face the challenges of recruiting a qualified workforce. Larger parks that need to hire a hundred employees clearly face a more formidable task than smaller parks that get by with a half dozen multi-tasking workers. Complicating recruitment is the fact that most campground jobs are temporary and seasonal, forcing parks to compete against theme parks, golf courses, landscaping firms, farms, and any other businesses that are concentrated within the same limited tourist season.

Students on summer vacation and recent college graduates quite naturally come first to mind; however, many of them are still fantasizing that they should be earning six-figure incomes while doing nothing but sitting behind a desk. Then, there is the problem of schools resuming their fall sessions, often even before Labor Day, while your business is still at its peak. It is no wonder that I noticed the local Six Flags theme park holding recruitment days as early as January, hoping to fill up to 1,000 jobs prior to the park’s soft opening in April. I have also noticed over the last several years that the majority of lift attendants at U.S. ski resorts are South American college students who were recruited from the southern hemisphere to work in the cold during their summer vacations.

There are plenty of other businesses that face seasonal workforce challenges. Perhaps the most well-known is Amazon, a company that must recruit armies of warehouse workers to meet the demands of the spike in business that occurs during the holidays each year. In fact, Amazon has set up its own recruitment organization, called Amazon CamperForce, a name that has its origin in the fact that most of those workers are full-time RV’ers who have traded in their home mortgage payments for the freedom of the open road. Some the victims of corporate downsizing or plant closures, some former professionals who have grown restless with retirement, and others simply natural-born nomads, these mostly older folks tend to supplement their retirement incomes with seasonal employment.

When the holiday season is over at Amazon, that at-will workforce hits the road and heads in the direction of its next seasonal jobs, often found through advertisements in publications like Workamper News and Workers on Wheels or booths at camper rallies and outdoor festivals. Amazon CamperForce itself has partnered with campgrounds in 27 states – from Alaska to Florida – that help to provide a degree of employment continuity for those warehouse workers who are no longer needed after December 23rd.

When it comes to temporary seasonal employment, most businesses have a strong preference for the work ethics of older employees, and the job at your campground is much more appealing than running the concrete floors of a regional Amazon warehouse or harvesting crops under the sweltering sun, according to “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century”, a 2017 book by author Jessica Bruder that paints a somewhat biased and less than flattering picture of the “work-camper” movement.

Seeking practical advice from campground owners with long histories of hiring experience, I asked several to share a few of their recruitment secrets. Those owners were Jack Robinson, the second generation owner of Four Seasons Family Campground, a New Jersey campground that celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2017; Leslie Baum, a second generation owner of Otter Lake Camp Resort, a larger park in the Poconos of Pennsylvania; Beth Ryan, the owner of both Lake Huron Campground in Michigan and the Keystone Lake Jellystone Park in Oklahoma; and Cathy Reinard, who has owned several parks, most recently New York’s Copake KOA.

The common thread among most of these park owners is probably Workamper News, a service that has been providing frameworks for connecting RVers with employers throughout North America since 1987. Workamper News is a bi-monthly printed publication, and Workamper.com is its online companion, each offering a wide range of free listing services and paid advertising options. Reinard says that Workamper News works best when her park is looking for employees at least six months in advance. The primary market here consists of older folks, often retired professionals who could be real assets to their employers, but the employee who you want to start working in April could be committed to another position thousands of miles away until then. Both Reinard and Ryan mention how providing a free full hookup site and free electric are real incentives for employees who are living out of their RVs and would otherwise have to pay to stay elsewhere. Ryan also offers an end-of-season bonus as incentive for workers who stay for the intended full term of their employment. On the other hand, Reinard points out that she still prefers local hires, where she does not have to lose the income that a seasonal site would otherwise generate, while gaining a greater likelihood of continuity of employment from year to year.

To find these local hires, three out of these four park owners turn to the guidance departments of local high schools and community colleges, even posting flyers on campus bulletin boards when permitted. Bulletin boards in general can be highly effective. There is a bulletin board outside of the pharmacy in my small town that is widely read. Reinard relates how she posted a job opening on the bulletin board in a local laundromat, leading to the hire of a new member of her housekeeping staff. The park owners say that they have also posted classified ads in local shopping guides (controlled circulation newspapers that are found in many local markets), Craigslist (where employment adds incur a $15.00 fee but typically generate many qualified responses), and Indeed (where employers can post jobs for free or pay per click for premium listings.)

Although many parks have a habit of posting job openings on their Facebook pages, Reinard cautions against this practice. She very succinctly states, “You do not want to appear to be one of those parks that are always looking for help (sending a wrong message to your guests who follow you on Facebook). If you are one of those parks, you need to take a hard look at your business and figure out why you have a problem.”

Some park owners also implement their own personal recruitment efforts that are loosely based upon the CamperForce model, except without the wheels. For example, Baum’s son is working a winter job at a nearby ski area, where the park is hoping he will be able to recruit a seasonal employee for the upcoming summer. She also mentions that her park pays higher wages than most other seasonal employers in the area, which also helps to encourage employees to return from year to year. Although the park owners also mentioned that they sometimes hire seasonal campers as employees, Reinard makes the point that she would rather avoid “mixing customers with employees”, preferring that they be one or the other but not both.

In addition to recruiting prior season employees for return engagements, Robinson summarizes employee recruitment at Four Seasons as “being visible in and interacting with the community” as the secret to his park’s success. The Robinson family has a strong presence in the Grange, the local fire company, the church, and the community in general. Their interactions with the families in these organizations spreads the word that they are in the market to hire young adults (primarily high school and college students.) According to Robinson, “There are families having three or four children, where all the children end up working for us – for many years.” This is a classic example where word of mouth has proven to be the most effective form of advertising.

With these peer insights as guidance; let’s hope that your park’s next recruitment effort will be its most effective ever!

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Keep Your Passwords Secure

November 26th, 2017

If you attended my “10 Steps for Securing Your Digital Identity” seminar at the 2017 Outdoor Hospitality Conference & Expo, you learned that my lead segment involved the importance of keeping your passwords secure. Passwords have been around since ancient times, when the first sentry asked “Who goes there?”, becoming essential for admission to a speakeasy during Prohibition, and playing a vital role in military security during World War II.

When I was growing up in the 1960s, the doors to our house had old mortise locks and keys that gave our family a sense of security. I recall that the logic when the doors were locked at night was to keep the key turned 90 degrees in the keyhole on the inside of the lock, under the presumption that this would prevent a thief from inserting a key into the outside of the lock and gaining entry. Of course, if somebody got locked inside, we knew that it would only take a couple of minutes to jimmy the key out of the lock. When we were away from home, the key came with us, leaving the lock even more vulnerable.

If a key got lost or broken, we simply walked to the neighborhood hardware store (yes, they existed back then!) and bought a skeleton key for 50¢ that would probably open every lock in our house, including the outside entry doors, as well as the locks on most every other house in the neighborhood. It is no wonder that we relied on neighbors to keep an eye on our houses back then. Sadly, many people today do not even know the names of their neighbors.

Nowadays, passwords are almost exclusively associated with computers and Internet security, and a lame password is essentially the equivalent of a skeleton key. Like those families sleeping soundly behind the security of a mortise lock, a majority of computer users think that their passwords are securely protecting their accounts from getting hacked.

Before I go any further, I would like you to test one of your passwords. Go to this URL and enter your password: https://howsecureismypassword.net/. As an example, I just tested “JBDayton62”, which is exactly the type of password that many people use, so falsely confident in its security that they use it on every account that requires a password. According to the test, a computer could crack this 10-digit password in only 8 months; however, anybody who researched the Internet and social media and already knew that John Brown was born in Dayton, Ohio in 1962 could crack this password in no time flat. If a password is convenient to remember, it is easy to crack!

What Constitutes a Secure Password?

Quite simply, for a password to be secure it should consist of a minimum of 16 characters; never contain a word or a combination of words found in the dictionary; never contain the names of family members, friends, pets, sports teams, and the like; and be made up of a random combination of uppercase letters, lowercase letters, numbers, and special characters. You can also often use spaces in passwords, although it is unfortunate that many websites still prevent users from choosing truly secure passwords, by precluding the use of special characters, for example.

The next rule is to always use a unique password for each and every site, and then to change each password on a routine and frequent basis. Apply even stricter standards for sites that provide access to highly secure information, such as your online banking or the IRS’s Electronic Federal Tax Payment System (EFTPS) website. The time to change your old, reused, vulnerable, weak, or compromised passwords is now, not next week or “when you get around to it.”

Before you naively presume that nobody is out there trying to crack your password, consider the fact that password cracking software is readily available online for use by hackers (and occasionally by companies that are on the lookout for weak passwords being used by employees.) Those programs include L0phtCrack, Cain, and John the Ripper … all designed to crack passwords (and sometimes credit card numbers) using brute force, dictionary attacks, rainbow tables, and other means.

How to Create a Secure Password

Never trust yourself to generate your own secure password. Our brains are simply not programmed to think randomly, and any password that makes sense to you is easy to crack. Some people even think that including a foreign-language word in their password will make it secure, perhaps presuming that hackers only reference English language dictionaries (even though English may be far from their native languages.) My recommendation is to use a secure online password generator such as the Secure Password Generator: https://passwordsgenerator.net/

The Secure Password Generator will allow you to choose any length of characters (from 6 to 2,048) and choose the types of characters that will be allowed (or excluded, if a site does not permit certain characters), then generate it on your own computer.

How to Store Your Passwords

Once you generate a highly secure password, keeping it written down on a sheet of paper or in a Word document on your computer is like leaving the keys for Fort Knox at a lost and found counter. You need a way to store and access your passwords safely, relatively easily, and securely. I recommend the use of a password safe. Three of the best are LastPass, Dashlane, and Keeper.

LastPass – https://www.lastpass.com/
Dashlane – https://www.dashlane.com/
Keeper – https://keepersecurity.com/

All three work with Windows, Mac, iOS, and Android operating systems; have plugins for popular browsers; include two-factor authentication; include form-filling; offer fingerprint login on mobile devices; and have free versions.

The idea with a password safe is that you have only one highly secure master password to remember. Thanks to geolocation, if you login to your account from an unfamiliar IP address, the two-factor authentication will kick in, requiring you to confirm your identity before being allowed access. In my own instance, 12 attempts to login to my account over the last 6 months have been thwarted – 3 from Vietnam, 2 from China, 2 from Brazil, and one each from Argentina, Georgia, Ukraine, The Philippines, and the United States (North Carolina). Do not think for a moment that there are not people out there actively trying to hack into your accounts. They are out there and they are everywhere.

Access to our personal data is far too important to be left to chance, and I am hoping that this article might help to open the eyes of a few disbelievers. People who are ahead of the curve when it comes to planning are already taking measures to ensure the longevity of access to their data, even as new biometric methods such as fingerprint and iris recognition are coming into play. According to a survey taken by the University of London and cited in Wikipedia, one in ten people are now including password access or recovery information in their wills. My best advice is to think toward the future, but to start changing your way of thinking today.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

The Family Farm, Reinvented

August 3rd, 2017

Years ago, farming was a much less complicated way to earn a living. Concepts like agribusiness, patented GMO seeds with resistance to herbicides, and acres planted in soybeans and inedible corn were futuristic nightmare scenarios. With the exception of tropical fruits such as bananas and pineapples, most of our food was locally grown, field ripened, and harvested in season. As economies of scale, shifting consumer preferences, and the influences of the chemical, pharmaceutical, and transportation industries came into play, more and more small farms turned fallow or were parceled off to real estate developers. It had become a pretty depressing time for family farming.

More recently, times have changed, thanks to a further evolution in consumer preferences and some innovative thinking on the part of a new generation of farmers. Gone are the days when farmers could literally put all of their eggs in one basket. When those eggs would otherwise cost more to produce than the price that they command in the marketplace, there is a significant market for people who are willing to pay a premium for colorful eggs that come from free-range hens that are raised without cages, antibiotics, or GMO-based feeds. If they are purchased in a farm share, farmers’ market, or at a farm stand, consumers are often willing to pay even more because they feel good about the farm-to-plate concept. Most importantly, if that farmer has more than eggs to offer, sales and profits will multiply. The secret ingredient has become creative diversification.

Expand the Experience

Farming today is about much more than crops, livestock and harvests. Particularly for a business that is subject to the vagaries of the weather, it is mission-critical to have more than a single product. Just think of the long list of words that can make a farmer shudder in fear: drought, flooding, hail, frost, disease, insect pests … the list goes on. Other types of businesses long ago caught on to the concept of diversifying the experience that they offer. In the beginning, cruise ships simply provided a means of trans-oceanic transportation, ski resorts had a brief winter season, and concerts and festivals were nothing more than music venues. Even movie theaters, which were once decimated by the advent of television (which has since been devastated by the Internet and live content streaming), are reinventing themselves with luxury seating and food and drink selections that are served by an on-demand wait staff.

Reinvented business concepts share one thing in common: They increase income and profits by getting consumers to stay longer, return more frequently, and buy more. There are few things that consumers today value more highly than their leisure time. We have even invented new terms like “quality time.” According to the Collins Dictionary, this term did not exist prior to 1985 but is now one of the 30,000 most commonly used phrases in the English language, with equivalents in French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Chinese, Japanese and Korean. The importance and value of quality time should not be underestimated.

Back on the Farm

That expanded, quality time experience can take many forms on a small farm operation. Anything that can turn a farm visit into an “event” will work, while a multitude of events can turn a farm into a destination. The possibilities are nearly endless and include:

  • Pick-your-own – from berries to tree fruits, your customers will pay you to bring in part of your harvest.
  • Petting zoos – ever-popular with toddlers (and their grandparents), you can even sell small bags of feed.
  • Prepared food concessions – from bakeries to restaurants to ice cream stands, people will pay a premium for freshly-prepared foods with natural ingredients.
  • Hayrides and walking trails – give visitors a chance to get to know your property better, perhaps learning of crops that they did not know you produced.
  • Music events – a singer-songwriter or acoustic duo will extend the stay of your guests throughout their sets of music, especially if you have outdoor seating with a view or an indoor seating (and dining) space.
  • Off-season offerings – from Christmas trees and accessories (where tag-your-own or cut-your-own become variations of the pick-your-own concept) to maple sugaring to scarecrow making, corn mazes and pumpkin decorating, there are a variety of ways to extend your season.
  • Breweries and wineries – expanding like wildfire, craft breweries and small wineries have the potential to draw tremendous crowds, especially when combined with other on-location activities.
  • Wedding receptions – sometimes a unique location with a terrific view can be in high demand.
  • Farm stays – if you have guest rooms available, this is another way to expand your income, whether simply a bed & breakfast (with fresh-from-the-farm products for breakfast, of course) or a work and stay opportunity. Over the years, my wife and I have enjoyed stays everywhere from an orange grove in California to a winery and vineyard in Tuscany.

Regardless of which of these options – or others – that your farm chooses to pursue, there are a few basics that will make your endeavor more consumer-friendly and successful.

Successful Marketing Basics

First of all, stop thinking that you are competing against other nearby farm operations. Your competition for consumers’ attention will now be major events and attractions, and your reach will extend far beyond the home base of your farm stand customers, most of whom are drivers who stop on impulse. If you are planning one or more events, choose your dates far in advance, allowing time for promotion and avoiding conflicts with other, more established events. Then promote your events as extensively as possible, most heavily in the 7 to 10 days beforehand.

Here are a few additional tips:

  1. Negotiate trades with local media, particularly newspapers with weekly event schedules and local TV and radio stations. Ask a local TV station to cover your event. They are often eager to cover a local human interest story, particularly on a weekend, which is an otherwise slow news period.
  2. Avoid the temptation to save money by doing it yourself. It seems that every farm family has a relative who attended art school, but leave your website and print advertising to professionals who can provide a cohesive branding.
  3. Maximize your use of social media. Promote your event on a Facebook page that is dedicated to your business. Respond to questions and reviews, and don’t neglect other social media apps.
  4. Always give something away for free. Whether a free petting zoo (again, you can sell the feed!), free parking (of course!), free hayrides, or free samples, “free” is an incentive to attend and an incentive to stay longer and spend more.
  5. Accept credit cards. There is never a rational excuse for limiting the amount of money that visitors can spend to whatever cash may be on hand in their wallets.
  6. Use every event as an opportunity to promote subsequent events. Have a calendar or other handout so that people can “save the date” and return to the venue that they are enjoying today.
  7. Partner with other businesses in the area that are marketing to the same clientele. A “tour” of businesses along a 20 or 25 mile stretch of highway helps to extend your efforts into an all-day destination event. Develop incentives for visitors to one participant to stop at the other businesses as well.
  8. Capitalize upon signage. It worked for Burma Shave and it works for Wall Drug. For a one-day event, post signs along the route to encourage travelers (who may have been otherwise unaware of your event) to stop by. Be sure to incorporate the word “free”.
  9. Have plenty of parking, along with ushers to flag drivers into available spaces.
  10. Make your event photo-friendly, encouraging guests to share photos on the social media, and be sure to take plenty of your own photos to promote the “second annual” event next year.

This post was written by Peter Pelland