Pelland Blog

Long Term Success

January 27th, 2017

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

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

WarrenMillerPromo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Start a Disruption

January 18th, 2017

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

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

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

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

I recently heard about a business in New Jersey that was founded in 2015, has apparently been successful, and is one of those “who wudda thunk it?” head-scratcher concepts. Stumpy’s Hatchet House is difficult to explain, but if falls under the umbrella category of the adult fun industry. It is the first indoor hatchet-throwing facility in the United States, probably a lot more fun than either bowling or darts. Customers pay $40.00 per person for a two-hour session that includes safety training, a lesson, hatchet rental, and use of a hatchet pit. A separate party room can be rented by groups for $100.00 for a two-hour session, or the entire venue can be rented for $1,000.00 per hour. Spectators (referred to as “non-throwers”) pay a cover charge of $15.00 each. When I visited their website in December, Stumpy’s was taking reservations for a New Year’s Eve hatchet-throwing buffet and seeking out inquiries from prospective franchisees.

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

A park that embraces concepts on the cutting edge (no hatchet-throwing pun intended) will profit in the short run and tremendously increase its value in the long run. Give this thinking a new level of commitment as we head into a new year.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

It’s All About Customer Service

December 11th, 2016

Returning from a recent vacation in Ecuador, I had time to pause and reflect upon the extraordinary customer service that my wife and I consistently experienced in our travels in a country that is doing everything imaginable to brand itself as the next major tourism destination. Far from being random instances where we were lucky enough to encounter that rare employee who cared, we found that customer service that extended far beyond all reasonable expectations was the rule rather than the exception. Let me outline a few specific examples. Then ask yourself if you and your staff are doing everything possible to make your guests feel special. It is my belief that the businesses that we encountered in Ecuador represent the new standard that will separate the winners from the losers in the hospitality industry. It is no longer about price. I believe that your next wave of guests will make their decisions based upon the customer service extended.

Casa Divina Lodge

During one leg of our trip, we rented an SUV and drove from the coastal city of Guayaquil through the Andes Mountains to the capital city of Quito. Along the way, one of our stays was at Casa Divina Lodge, high in the cloud forest of Mindo. On our way, we had the misfortune to find ourselves in a very awkward situation with the Transito police near Santa Domingo, thanks to an expired registration certificate on the vehicle that we rented from Thrifty Car Rental. The police did not speak English, we did not speak Spanish, and they were demanding a bribe. We called Casa Divina Lodge, and the manager intervened on our behalf, reducing the bribe that we were forced to pay and allowing us to continue our journey.

Upon our arrival in Mindo, Efrain Toapanta, the owner of Casa Divina met us in the center of town and escorted us to the eco-resort that he had built himself. Otherwise impossible to find, the resort is hidden in the forest some 5 kilometers from the center, and its owner trucked our suitcases in a wheelbarrow from the parking area to our second-level lodging. Meals were catered to our special dietary needs, and Efrain arranged for a local ornithologist to take us out for a lengthy session of birding where, with his assistance, we identified 74 species of birds in one day.

Molino San Juan

Our next stay was at Molino San Juan, in the shadow of Cayambe Volcano and on the outskirts of the city of Cayambe. The hospitality that was extended to us here, part of the family owned and operated Hacienda La Copañia, was truly remarkable. During our off-season stay, we were the only guests at what is considered the “hotel” of the hacienda, but Jaime Pallares, its owner/manager (who had previously worked with Hilton Hotels) gave us more undivided attention that one might expect to be afforded to a full house. For example, during the first night of our stay, just in case we needed anything, he slept in an upstairs guestroom rather than going home for the night!

Heated living spaces are not the norm in Ecuador, and our desire for greater warmth in our room was met with additional blankets, a space heater in our room, and hot water bottles in our bed. As part of our visit, we were given a personal tour of the Hacienda’s rose showroom. (The region is the world’s third largest producers of roses.) Displaying dozens of artistic arrangements, the roses are replaced every three days, ensuring that the blossoms are always nothing less than perfect – even if they are only to be seen by two guests. In addition to our personal tour of the hacienda grounds, museum, historic Jesuit chapel, and rose showroom, Jaime researched and arranged the finest possible guide service for our visit to Cayambe Volcano.

Carlota

The Carlota is a new boutique hotel in the historic district of Quito. From the moment that we arrived, we were greeted by name and made to feel right at home. Operations Manager Nydia Vargas did everything possible to ensure that we enjoyed our stay, even modifying her work schedule so she could be on desk when we might require her assistance. When we were unfamiliar with the area and needed to visit a nearby ATM, she had an employee escort us. When the weather was rainy, she reserved two umbrellas for our use. When we had two large bags of clothing to be laundered, she negotiated a significant discount with the hotel’s laundry service provider.

When we were checking out, we asked if the hotel could provide us with water in plastic bottles that we could take to the airport. (Their usual water is served in glass bottles.) Without hesitation, Nydia asked the waiter to get us two bottles of water (after first asking us if we needed more than two.) It was not until he reappeared a minute or two later that we realized that he had been sent to a nearby store to purchase the water bottles on our behalf. Are you beginning to get a feeling for the exceptional level of service at this hotel? The Carlota was once the home of a former President of Ecuador, and we were made to feel presidential!

What Is Your Park Doing that Makes It Special?

I have far more stories that I could relate, if space allowed, not the least of which would be our experience spending a week on a the M/Y Grace, a small yacht in the Galapagos Islands, where a dozen passengers were outnumbered by thirteen crew members. I think I have made my point, and I have already related my experiences in TripAdvisor reviews, where I now have 110,000 readers. Ask yourself what you can do that goes the extra mile for your guests, offering a service that would never be made available by your contemporaries. Standards and expectations in the world have changed, as baby boomers and subsequent generations finds themselves with disposable incomes but limited amounts of leisure time. Travel yourself, if necessary, and I think you will soon recognize that customer service has become mission-critical to your park’s success.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Use Activities to Promote Your Park

November 20th, 2016

Activities at your park are capable of capturing the public’s attention, as I noticed recently when National Public Radio picked up a story about what used to be called Hebron Maine’s Redneck Olympics. It seems that the U.S. Olympic Committee caught wind of the long-running event and made the organizers drop the word “Olympics” from the name of the event, which they are now calling the “Redneck Blank.” If you believe in the adage that “all publicity is good publicity,” the Hebron event just got a major boost.

Without entering into the realm of trademark infringement, there are probably events at your park that are just as newsworthy. No, I am not talking about how you have celebrated Christmas in July for almost as long as Santa Claus has been alive; however, events that are either topical or unique constitute the material for press releases.

Take a look at your park’s activities schedule, and keep opportunities for publicity in mind when planning next year’s events. Here are just a few categories that might be of interest to your local newspapers, radio, and television stations:

  • An anniversary celebration. Is it your 20th year of ownership? Promote it!
  • Charitable events and fundraisers.
  • Unique or unusual events, such as the “Redneck Blank.”
  • Events where you involve other local businesses, such as wineries, craft breweries, and wildlife demonstrations.
  • Groups or clubs rallying at your park.
  • A park-wide “yard sale” that is open to the public.
  • Noteworthy entertainers booked to perform at your park.
  • Halloween events such as haunted houses.

By definition, local news media reach out to a local audience. Considering how 50% of a typical park’s demographics might include guests who live within the local market, local publicity can go a long way to generate short-term business and long-term awareness.

Partially due to laziness and partially due to staff cutbacks, the news media love to be spoon-fed stories with even an indirect news angle. On a national scale, we are bombarded with what is reported as “news” but is often little more than carefully crafted press releases. These include everything from stories about new products (such as the latest iPhone or the latest pharmaceutical drug) to stories about the candidates in the upcoming election that come directly from the campaigns themselves. On the local level, the news media love to promote “feel good” stories with a local angle, particularly on weekends (when your events are more likely to take place), which are otherwise considered “slow news days” when major businesses are closed.

Here are a few tips on how to craft
an effective press release and how to send it.

First of all, follow a conventional press release format. You will find templates in Microsoft Word. Edit your release so that it fits onto a single page, with your full contact information at the top of the page. Next follows bold text reading “FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE”. (Yes, you can prepare and submit a release in advance, indicating a future release date, but immediacy and news go hand-in-hand.) Follow this with a brief yet comprehensive title, followed by your location, the date, and the body of your release.

The body of your release should be carefully crafted, written in the third person, and cover the 5 W’s: who, what, where, why and when. A quotation or two is always a plus, and you will significantly increase the odds of your release being picked up if you include one or two high-quality photos (perhaps taken at the previous year’s event.)

Send your release via e-mail to the local news editor of each media outlet. You can generally find that information online; however, until you have compiled your list of contacts, you may need to make a phone call to obtain the name and e-mail address of the proper person. Your release should be in the body of your e-mail, with copies of the release attached to the e-mail in both PDF and Microsoft Word format, along with your accompanying photo(s). Do not call afterward to see if your release was received or, worse yet, to ask for an explanation, in the event that it was not used.

Keep in mind that your release should be presented in a manner that makes it easy to use. If essential information is missing, you will have seriously limited the likelihood of usage. A reporter is unlikely to have the time to track you down to obtain missing details on a borderline news story. On the other hand, if a reporter asks for more information or offers to attend your event, be prepared with answers and be ready to make a positive impression. Particularly if one of your local TV stations is willing to cover your event, be sure that everything involved will look its best.

Once you establish a relationship with your local media – as well as establishing a reputation for reliability – your first media coverage is unlikely to be your last.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Tourism in a Small World

November 4th, 2016

My wife and I recently returned from a vacation in Ecuador, a country that is aggressively attempting to position itself as an international tourism destination. It has much going in its favor, not the least of which are the country’s distinctive natural beauty, its remarkably friendly people, the U.S dollar as its official currency, and the fact that a non-stop flight from Miami to Guayaquil takes only 4 hours and 20 minutes and costs only about $500.00.

The country’s major economic strengths are oil (currently in a depressed market), agriculture (it is the world’s largest producer of bananas, but is also a major producer of cocoa, corn, sugar cane and coffee, among other crops), flowers (it is the world’s third largest producer of cut flowers and poised to become the world’s largest producer of roses), and eco-tourism (from the Galapagos Islands to the Amazon Basin.)

Over the course of nearly three weeks, we spent time visiting several of the country’s national parks, exploring the coastal region (still recovering from the deadly earthquake of April 2016), driving through the Andes Mountains to the capital city of Quito, visiting the cloud forest near Mindo, reaching 15,000 ft. elevations in the volcanic region around Cayambe, gaining an appreciation for the cultural heritage of Quito itself, and spending a “Bucket List” week communing with endemic and endangered species in the Galapagos Islands.

The Ecuadorian cloud forest at Mindo.

 

Wherever we roamed, everybody seemed to be searching for that magic bullet that would turn Ecuador into one of the world’s leading tourism destinations. What everyone also seemed to recognize was that the country was caught in a Catch-22 scenario, where it needed tourism dollars to help to develop its infrastructure (in fact, there is currently a 2% national sales tax surcharge that is designated toward earthquake recovery efforts) but it also needed to have an improved infrastructure in place in order to attract international tourists. Not coincidentally, I saw my first television commercial to promote tourism in Ecuador on CNN just last week, following up on the $3.8 million that it spent to advertise in the Super Bowl back in 2015.
https://youtu.be/JCtl3qCdBiM

What I consistently witnessed were grassroots groups of local businesses, banding together to formulate plans where there is strength in numbers and where “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” I could not help but think of the strengths within campground associations, tourism offices and chambers of commerce that are all too often taken for granted by both their members and those who choose not to be involved.

The infrastructural challenges in Ecuador are significant to say the least. Tourism-related businesses need to embrace the English language at a faster pace, and the highway system, GPS navigation, and driving are all absolute nightmares. (Ask me to tell you our story about being stopped at a police roadblock and being forced to pay a bribe in order to proceed!) Over the course of driving some 1,000 kilometers, it is no surprise that we did not encounter a single RV or a single campground, although we easily encountered 1,000 speed bumps. On the other hand, what campground owner, RV dealer, or camper here in the United States would not be ecstatic to see a government-regulated price of regular gasoline at $1.480 per gallon? (Yes, per gallon, not per liter!)

Countries like Ecuador are on the rise in the growth of their tourism industries, and tourism should always be viewed in a small world perspective, lest we find ourselves resting on our laurels and suddenly left behind in the dust. It is a fact that fully half of the country’s tourism dollars are currently spent in the Galapagos Islands; however, the rest of the country is actively seeking growth in its regional market shares, where there is nowhere to go but up. Perhaps the single greatest strength is the dedication and resourcefulness of its people, and the extraordinary efforts that they are willing to put into customer service.

In the end, it is those differences in customer service that will separate business winners from losers, both locally and on an international scale.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Effective Direct Mail Techniques

September 14th, 2016

A direct mail piece that was addressed to my wife recently caught my attention when I was sorting through the day’s mail and deciding what made its way into the house to be potentially opened and what would not make it past the blue recycling bins in our garage. This window envelope, printed with what appears to be a $10.00 bill sticking out of the upper left corner where you would expect the return address to appear, really intrigued me. Although we did not “fall” for the gimmick and open the letter, it was sent by one of the large wholesale buying clubs, offering a $10.00 temporary membership.

tendollarenvelope

This got me thinking about direct mail advertising campaigns and how challenging it could be to send out an advertising campaign that would intrigue your recipients enough to persuade them to open the envelope and read your message. I am not including three-dimensional advertising pieces that are expensive to produce, rather limiting this discussion to conventional mailings that any small business can afford to produce and mail. The 8 tips that I am offering for your consideration have proven to be effective. You will not use all of them in one mailing; however, several of these could potentially be combined within a single mailing.

  1. Use an envelope. Postcards are your least expensive mailing option, and guarantee that they will be at least minimally perused, due to the fact that there is no envelope to open. That said, postcards should be reserved for mailings to existing customers who recognize your business name and are likely to welcome your message. When reaching out to new customers, it is always preferable to use an envelope, adding an element of intrigue; however, there are ways to improve upon that level of intrigue that will, in turn, determine the effectiveness of your campaign.
  2. Use a stamp. Stamps simply look more personal than a mailing indicia or metered mail. Better than using just one stamp, you can really catch the eye of the recipient by using multiple stamps that total the correct first class mail rate.
  3. Add personalization. Nothing says “junk mail” more than an envelope that is addressed to “Current Resident” or “Office Manager.” If you do not have the name of a contact – spelled correctly, I might add – do not waste your time, effort and money because you will have truly limited the chances of your message getting read.
  4. Look Official. This tip can cross the line between tacky and deceptive, but many mailers have found success in printing envelopes that mimic the look of telegrams or Express Mail or Priority Mail graphics. (Be careful not to mimic the latter too closely, or your mailing could be rejected by the postal service!)
  5. No return address. If you include your return address on the envelope, you will seriously limit the chances of your message getting considered by recipients who might already be predisposed against your business. The lack of return address also adds an element of curiosity that will encourage many people to look further.
  6. Use a handwriting font. There are quite a few fonts available that mimic handwriting while still remaining readable by automated postal service sorting equipment. Click here for a link to free handwriting fonts on Google. Needless to say, an envelope that appears to be hand-addressed (at least to some people) looks more personal than the more conventionally used mailing fonts. Of course, if your mailing is small enough, real handwriting (keep it legible!) is even better.
  7. Lumpy mail. Although you have to be careful that your mailing will not get jammed and damaged in automated sorting equipment, and also avoid the surcharge for letters that exceed a maximum one-quarter inch thickness, studies have proven that envelopes clearly containing something are more likely to be opened, particularly if the envelope has a lumpy texture. Ideally, that item should relate to your mailing, in order to take a step beyond simple gimmickry. For example, a teabag with a message that invites the reader to “sit back and relax with a cup of tea, while taking a minute to consider our offer.”
  8. A yellow repositionable note. These are yellow adhesive notes that are designed specifically for this purpose, with double the adhesive strip (so they stay attached in transit.) These are specialty items that are custom printed by companies on a list of vendors provided by the postal service.

If you will be turning to a mailing house for assistance, they will add the advantages of taking your mailing database and both removing duplicates and running it through the National Change of Address data registry. Mailing services pay enormous fees to the U.S. Postal Service in order to utilize this service, charging end-users a very reasonable service fee that is far less than the money that would otherwise be wasted on mailing to bad addresses.

According to the postal service, approximately 40 million Americans move their place of residence and/or business each year, estimating that at least 8% of all mail is undeliverable due to incorrect addresses. We all know how difficult it is to reach new customers. When direct mail is part of your efforts, do everything possible to make it work, starting with the design of your advertising campaign itself.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Clarify Your Cancellation and Refund Policies

August 26th, 2016

If you are selling a product on eBay, you are required to clearly define your return policy, and if your website is involved in any type of e-commerce or online payments, payment gateway service providers such as Authorize.net will require that your site defines its refund policies. Your policy may simply be “no returns and no refunds under any circumstances”, but that policy needs to be clearly defined – both for your protection and for the protection of your customers. Misunderstandings can lead to disagreements and the need for mediation.

One of my company’s clients e-mailed me late last week, after one of her campers contacted her on Friday, asking for a refund – minus her stipulated $25.00 processing fee – for a last-minute cancellation of his weekend reservation, due to a less than perfect weather forecast. The client balked at allowing the refund, even though her website did not clearly define the terms for cancellations and refunds. Under the circumstances, this first-time guest at her park was making a totally reasonable request. With this instance in mind, it may be time to take a closer look at your own park’s cancellation and refund policies, confirming that they are covering the full range of potential circumstances.

As I explained to the client last week, most of our campground clients who are booking either real-time reservations or online reservation requests have policies that are much more clearly defined than what she had instructed us to post to her site. Typically, they might say that a full refund, less a $25.00 administrative fee, will be issued if the cancellation is made 14 days or more prior to the intended date of arrival; a credit for a stay at another date will be issued if the cancellation is made between 7 and 14 days prior to the intended date of arrival; and no refunds will be issued for cancellations made less than 7 days prior to the intended date of arrival. Each park is likely to have its own timeline for cancellations, its own administrative fee (if any), its own expiration date for any credits that it may issue, and probably separate schedules for campsites and rental units. The important thing is for all of those details to be clearly defined.

Many of our more savvy campground clients (typically, campground owners who have decades of experience in dealing with people who will try to find loopholes that they can use to their advantage, in this case capitalizing upon any vagueness in a cancellation and refund policy) will also specify the following:

  • Deposit forfeited for non-arrival on scheduled arrival date.
  • Holidays, special events, monthly and seasonal reservations are non-refundable.
  • No refunds for early departure.
  • No refunds due to inclement weather.
  • No refunds for evictions due to violation of rules.

These policies should be clearly visible on your website, accompanying your rates and probably repeated on a page that lists your park’s rules and policies. You want your customers to see them, and you also want to be able to direct customers to the text should any misunderstandings arise. I also suggest that cancellation and refund policies be outlined, with a link to the full list, at the end of the reservation process, using a checkbox where the guest must indicate acceptance of those policies before the form will be processed.

I know that some people like to keep things simple, and others fear that they might scare away business by posting what might be perceived as stringent policies; however, a customer who is unwilling to accept reasonable cancellation and refund policies is probably not the ideal guest.

Despite having policies that are crystal-clear and etched in stone, you will probably still want to evaluate each instance individually, exercising a degree of discretion in resolving each request. The bottom line these days is that, if a customer demands a refund, it is a lot less expensive in the long run to keep that customer happy than to suffer the consequences of encouraging him to post negative reviews or to complain on the social media. Going out of your way to make an exception to the rule in order to accommodate a first-time guest might turn that new customer into a lifetime source of income for your park.

Remember that, at least in his or her own mind, the customer is always right. Try to make an effort to help reasonable people to understand – in advance – your business’s point of view when it comes to cancellations and refunds.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Never Burn Bridges

August 20th, 2016

There were two e-mails over the last week that got me shaking my head in wonderment. The first was forwarded to me by one of my clients. She had recently left a well-known website hosting services provider in favor of an extensive list of more personalized hosting services that my company provides. After the other company threw down as many roadblocks as possible, as well as making several attempts at trying to scare the client into cancelling her plans to move, the migration was finalized. When my client formally cancelled her services with the other company, they could not accept the loss of the account without one last word.

The e-mail that she forwarded to me included a sentence that started with the words, “When you are ready to come back to us ….” Apparently the sender either thought that she had nothing to lose or preferred not to use the phrases “When you come to your senses”, “When you realize you made a mistake”, or “When you realize that you made a stupid decision”, but her words had the same effect in insulting my client and ensuring that she would never reverse her decision.

The second e-mail arrived this afternoon. It was sent to me by a highly presumptive young salesperson for a startup Internet company that is trying to capitalize upon the consolidation of online campground reservations. I had previously written about this and similar companies after another of my clients had related his nightmare stories about trying to get his campground de-listed from one of these sites. As I wrote at the time, Campground reservations are accurately perceived as a multi-billion dollar business, and companies that would like a piece of the action are suddenly coming out of the woodwork. Funded with infusions of venture capital, the focus is on generating income from the collection of processing fees on those reservations, either in real-time (with campgrounds that get on board) or with the type of delayed booking that initially caught my client’s attention.”

These online reservation consolidators tend to compete with your own official website and your own chosen online reservation engine, a situation that can only serve to confuse consumers and dilute the effectiveness of how you run your business. In the instance this afternoon, one of our clients (with a new website that was less than a week old) was being asked to funnel traffic from his website to the startup company’s booking engine. The salesperson could not understand why I explained that it was not in my client’s interest to accept her offer and why we would not be installing her company’s “Book Now” button on the new website. Not only could she not understand why I would not matter-of-factly follow her instructions, she actually sent me two additional e-mails where she attempted to educate me in marketing basics.

What do these two e-mail stories have in common? They demonstrate the importance of never burning your bridges. As a campground owner, if a guest has a less than perfect experience and expresses his or her dissatisfaction on a review or social media website, take a deep breath before posting a thoughtful and empathetic response. There is no logical reason for the last word from you to be along the lines of “I hope that the door didn’t hit you on the way out!” or “Don’t even think of ever trying to come back here again!”

If you want your business to grow and prosper, every camper who enters your gate is your most important customer ever. To alienate only one represents not just the loss of any potential future business from that person and his family, it also likely means the exponential loss of business from every friend of that individual, as well as the friends of those friends. I am a frequent contributor to the TripAdvisor website, where statistics tell me that my reviews have influenced over 90,000 readers, many with recommendations of businesses but others with warnings to stay away. Since I have written 136 reviews, this means that my average review has been read by over 660 fellow travelers.

That is a demonstration of the power of exponential influence. Think about it the next time you might be too tired to thank a guest one more time for choosing to stay at your park … or the next time that a guest gets under your skin and you really want to serve him a piece of your mind. Always remember that bridges are for connecting, not for burning.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Tired of the Same Meal?

August 2nd, 2016

Even if you can no longer recall the days of school cafeterias or army mess halls, you probably can appreciate the concept of having a bit of variety to spice up your meals from day to day. How many people would want to have the same bowl of corn flakes for breakfast, a slice of pizza for lunch, and a hot dog for dinner … day after day after day? Beyond the lack of nutrition, you would probably be really turned off by somebody who offered you another hot dog.

In recent years, the menus in both academic and military settings have been tremendously improved, with food service operations subcontracted to companies that take pride in both food preparation and the nutritional value of the meals they serve. Gone are the days of cooks whose only formal training was how to prepare meals in large volumes, having been replaced by executive chefs with training in the culinary arts.

Yes, times have changed, but what about your website? Are you asking your prospective customers to get excited about a template-built site that looks just like thousands of others? Having the same menu from one fast-food restaurant to the next is desirable because those establishments are serving a clientele that is seeking consistency, not surprises. However, when planning a special occasion (like a week-long camping vacation, for example), most people are looking for something a little bit out of the ordinary. It becomes problematic when your website is conveying a message that says “boring” when your campers are looking for “spicy” or “savory” on the menu.

Just another WordPress site

I never know whether to laugh or moan when I see sites that seem to display an oh-so-distinctive templated look. I have even seen sites where the site title displays 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.

When somebody performs a basic search on Google, the words in the intuitive search term that they enter are either highlighted or made bold in the search results, and a user is more likely to click on search results that contain more of that highlighted or bold text in the site title, domain name, and site description. Nobody is going to search for the term “just another WordPress site”, so it should be clear that having that as your site’s title will put your park at a severe disadvantage. Sadly, there are hundreds of campground websites suffering this limitation. Click here to view the Google search results for campground websites with the “just another WordPress site” title. If your campground is on the list of search results, it just might be time to question the status quo and start searching for another webmaster (realizing, of course, that your existing webmaster may be that person in your mirror.)

Would You Like Arial or Times New Roman with Your Meal?

Even something as seemingly insignificant as font usage is ultimately very important. Once your site shows up in a search, if the person performing the search clicks or taps the link, is that person going to stay on your site … or does something like an overused font send them the message that you are offering the same old menu of hamburgers, cheeseburgers, and a side of fries?

In the old days of the Internet, webmasters usually chose “safe” fonts because the correct fonts would only display if they were installed on the end user’s computer (otherwise defaulting to the dreaded Courier font.) Today, there is a nearly endless selection of fonts available through the Google Fonts API, allowing your webmaster to choose distinctive fonts that are consistent with the overall branding of your business and which will render properly in all current browsers. Using CSS, your webmaster can also specify font styles and can even specify eye-catching font effects like drop shadows and outlines, all of which are supported in Chrome and Safari, and many of which are supported in other browsers.

Once again, if your website is not presenting its visitors with this type of very basic content customization, how can you expect your occupancy levels to be anything but blandly boring?

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Engage Local Businesses to Build a Competitive Edge

July 19th, 2016

The key to small business success is not a matter of cutting costs or raising prices. First and foremost, it is a matter of satisfying your customers in a manner that leaves your competitors behind. One of several highly effective ways of doing this is to engage local businesses that offer products or services that appeal to your customers.

If you run a campground, it is your responsibility to know your guests. When they leave your park for a day or an evening, where to they go? What are the types of businesses that appeal to their needs and interests? If a guest asks you for directions to the nearest supermarket or asks for a referral to a local Mexican restaurant, you are probably prepared with a recommendation and a set of directions. The important question is whether you “wing” your response each time or have a formally established referral system in place.

What Is Good for Your Customers Is Best for You

You may already be providing a rudimentary referral service of sorts if you have a bulletin board in your office area that includes local business cards, if you have a display rack of local business brochures, or if you have a site map that is supported by local advertising. Those all make sense, and they are helpful ways of generating awareness for those businesses, but it takes far more than awareness to really build a synergy between your park and nearby businesses. After all, if name awareness was all that it took, all that any business would need would be a sign at the road and a parking lot large enough to handle the endless influx of traffic. We all know that it does not work quite that simply.

Over the years, a number of companies have successfully run localized or regionalized direct mail advertising campaigns that provide offers from area businesses that are willing to offer incentives in order to reach new customers. Particularly when your business is attracting a pool of new potential customers from outside of the area, local businesses need your help to direct those people to their doors.

Offer Incentives

Although the direct mail campaigns have been successful over the years, rising postage costs and the relatively low response rates for offers that are not targeted to specific groups of likely consumers have taken their toll in favor of more cost-effective approaches. The same thing applies to local newspaper coupons, victims of declining circulation and the fact that so few people actually read newspapers today. The company that markets regional Entertainment coupon books in 41 states plus the District of Columbia and Canada gets people to pay $12.00 per annual coupon book or $19.99 per year for their mobile app. In addition, many supermarket chains now offer loyalty and rewards programs that include discounts on local businesses and services, and many local radio and television stations offer discounted gift certificates for a full range of local businesses. (In my market, the usual discount is 30% off face value.) One thing that all of these programs have in common is that they are offering some sort of discount in order to incentivize new and return customers to favor participating local businesses.

Make This Work to Your Advantage

Rather than asking local businesses to pay for the privilege of reaching your clientele, offer them a free opportunity to reach your campers in exchange for offering them some sort of monetary discount or incentive. Each offer must have real value, but may very well be the same sort of deal that they might already offer under other circumstances. In other words, it is a price that they are willing to pay in exchange for bringing in a new customer (or an entirely family of customers). Each offer should be in the form of a coupon (which visually creates the impression of real value) that is then bound together with the other offers into a booklet that you provide to each arriving guest at the time of registration. (You might also provide one booklet per month to your seasonal guests.)

The important thing to remember is not to pass these out prior to arrival (at a winter camping show, for example) because you want to be certain that they are used by your actual guests, not somebody who ultimately decides to stay at another resort on down the road. The cover of the booklet should show the total cash value of the combined offers, and you should include this discount booklet in the list of amenities that your park offers its guests. The result is not only an incentive for your campers to patronize participating businesses (in a way that those businesses can actually measure), but also an incentive for those same campers to actually stay at your park.

Identifying Your Prospects

As I mentioned earlier, it is your responsibility to know your guests. Basically, any local business offering a product or service that is of interest to your guests should be invited to participate, and any business that is already participating in another incentive program has demonstrated its interest in generating new customers. Refer to the incentive programs in your local market to find your “A List” of business to contact. That list will include – but be far from limited to – the following types of businesses:

• Restaurants • Ice Cream Stands • Supermarkets • Farm Stands • Retail Stores •
• Golf Courses • Driving Ranges • Mini Golf Courses • Indoor and Outdoor Paintball •
• Bowling Centers • Go-Kart Tracks • Skating Rinks • Batting Cages • Fishing Charters •
• Amusement & Theme Parks • Water Parks • Speedways • Tourist Attractions •
• Craft Breweries • Wineries • Factory Tours • Music Festivals •
• RV Dealerships • RV Repair Centers • Auto Repair Centers •
• Boarding Kennels • Pet Grooming • Veterinary Services •
• Movie Theaters • Museums • Historic Sites •

Why it All Works So Perfectly

Guess what? If you persuade your guests to patronize even a fraction of the local businesses who participate in your incentive program, you may have also given them a list of good reasons to extend their stay or to return for another stay at your park. Coupon redemptions will also have given you an opportunity to prove your park’s merit to your business partners in this endeavor, leading to the potential for further cooperative ventures. Wouldn’t it be nice for your park to be the “official campground” of the big nearby theme park or motor speedway? Or for your local supermarket chain to include your park in its loyalty and rewards program? Or for the local brewery and winery to run a tasting event at your park? Or for the local pet grooming facility to come to your park for on-site grooming days? The potential is only limited by your imagination, your belief in your business, and your ability to persuade fellow businesses to get on board.

This post was written by Peter Pelland