Pelland Blog

Practices and Policies Need to Adapt to Changing Times

April 15th, 2020

Apprehensively but out of necessity, I had to venture to one of our local supermarkets about 10 days ago, in order to stock up on essentials prior to what was predicted to be the coming peak of the COVID-19 pandemic here in the state of Massachusetts. I headed out early, equipped with mask and gloves, in order to quickly run through our household shopping list during the store hours that are designated for those over the age of 60 or otherwise considered high risk for the virus. The fact that the store has designated these exclusive hours represents an example of adaptation to these changing times.

Within the store, my shopping habits needed to adapt as well. Once I grew accustomed to my eyeglasses fogging due to my face mask, I also had to learn to navigate the departments and aisles by following the new red one-way traffic arrows and, of course, maintaining a safe distance between myself and fellow shoppers. There were measures in place to reduce the interaction between employees and customers, such as the deli products being strictly pre-sliced and pre-packaged, as well as the large plastic shields separating customers and checkout clerks. It was not time to casually compare and select fresh produce items, and there were of course many items that either had a very limited selection or were totally unavailable.

If the usual background music was playing, designed to encourage shoppers to relax and linger, I did not notice it. I only noticed announcements about how there should be only one shopper per household, how there would be purchase limits of certain items (including toilet tissue, of course!), how you needed to maintain a six foot distance from other shoppers, and why reusable shopping bags were no longer permitted at this time. At the checkout, my gloved hand held out my loyalty card for the bar code to be scanned, rather than handing it to the clerk, and there was a new set of rules and policies posted on signs affixed to the large plastic shield. One of those new policies was that, during the course of the pandemic, all sales would be final, with no returns, exchanges or refunds. That policy makes total sense under the circumstances.

How Does This Affect Your Business?

Over the years, cancellation and refund policies were established and became the usual practice in the airline, travel, hotel, and outdoor hospitality industries. These policies protected those businesses that were reserving space that could otherwise be booked by other consumers, helping to discourage double-booking and last-minute cancellations. Although there were occasional grumblings and complaints, generally from people who would otherwise abuse the spirit and intent of those policies, most of us recognized and accepted the need for these practices to be in place. These practices were essentially part of a fundamental two-way contract. The customer was being guaranteed a room in a hotel, a seat on an airliner, or a campsite or cabin at a campground, in exchange for a guarantee of payment and a timely arrival at the reserved date and time.

During this same time, supermarkets and most retailers generally established extremely flexible return, exchange, and refund policies. Intended to keep customers happy, the primary rule at the courtesy desk was to ask no questions. The only exceptions were generally for custom-made merchandise, such as a gallon of a blended paint color at a hardware store, or merchandise where returns were prohibited by law, such as undergarments that had been worn. There were many instances when customers abused those policies, exemplified in a short play that I enjoyed not that long ago, involving a main character who predictably each January returned his recently purchased artificial Christmas tree to a department store, seeking a refund. In recent years, the desire to keep customers happy has been compounded by the desire to avoid the reputational damage that can be incurred as the result of online consumer complaints.

The COVID-19 Pandemic Is a Game-Changer

During the current pandemic, it is necessary for all businesses to reassess their policies and to accept the fact that everybody is in the same big boat where we are all hurting. If you own a campground, you know that people would like nothing better than a return to what was normal just a few short weeks ago. Your customers are not cancelling their reservations because they decided to camp elsewhere or because there is rain in the forecast for the upcoming weekend. They are cancelling their reservations either because your state has temporarily shut down your business or out of a legitimate fear that social gatherings could currently lead to either infection or death. In addition, many have lost the security of employment.

With 15 million Americans filing for unemployment claims over the past three weeks, most of us are finding it necessary to limit our expenditures to necessities for the time being. The family who paid a $300.00 deposit to reserve a campsite for July now needs to be concerned about putting food on the table and paying their rent or mortgage.

When this pandemic has passed its peak, but not until we have a proven vaccine, there is going to be an understandably cautious return to the normalcy that we once enjoyed and took for granted. Your business will return, but it is unlikely that it will return as quickly as the opening of the floodgates at a dam. When business eventually returns to normal, the businesses that will prosper will be the ones who treated their customers with respect and understanding, not the ones who pointed to their rules and refused to relax their refund and cancellation policies during this pandemic.

If you would like to offer your guests an option, you could give them the choice between a full refund or an unexpiring credit with a value of 110% of what they paid. For those guests who can afford to forego the refund, consider their deposit as a voluntary loan that will help you to weather the storm. Have confidence that you and those guests will be there when the dust settles.

Remember, we are all facing this crisis together and need to pull together as a nation. We are all hurting.

At the time of this writing, as limited and inadequate as they may be, your small business may qualify for both a COVID-19 Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) and a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, both designated to be at least partially converted into non-taxable grants. Meanwhile, your customer is hoping to qualify for an Economic Impact Payment of only $1,200.00 per adult taxpayer and $500.00 per dependent child, with the expectation that those might not even materialize until September. It is not easy, and it may be painful, but I suggest you to do the right thing regardless of what your cancellation policy has outlined prior to this crisis.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Your Small Business Short-Term Survival Guide

April 2nd, 2020

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

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

Your Small Business

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

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

You Are Entitled to Assistance

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

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

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

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

The Bottom Line

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

This post was written by Peter Pelland

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