Pelland Blog

Learn from the Best, Then Learn from the Worst

January 23rd, 2014

For years, I have been advising campground owners to look beyond the campground industry for inspiration and ideas on how to more effectively run their businesses. What your competitor down the highway is doing is far less important than what cruise lines, theme parks, ski resorts and boutique hotels are doing to not only meet evolving consumer expectations but to essentially raise the bar and redefine those very expectations. Companies like Viking River Cruises, Disney, Snowbird, and Marriott’s Renaissance and new Edition hotel groups are game-changers, not only within their industries but within the broader travel and leisure industries. With an emphasis on customer service, industry leaders rarely – if ever – need to compete on the basis of price. They have established themselves in a league of their own.

There are certainly campgrounds that have embraced this management philosophy, and they have been recognized as the leaders within their field. Particularly with the growing emphasis on luxury cabins and the overall concept of “glamping” (glamour camping, something that was certainly considered an oxymoron less than a generation ago), they are rebranding the camping experience as a superior alternative to the typical resort or hotel. As leaders within the industry, they set both the pricing thresholds and the consumer expectations for all parks, and they are profitable operations as a result.

There are certainly some infrastructural investments that help to differentiate the leading camping resorts from the rest of the pack. These include things like heated swimming pools, paved roadways, modern playgrounds, reliable wi-fi, 50-amp electric service, spacious pull-thru sites, and dog parks; however, most of what differentiates industry leaders has little to do with infrastructure and everything to do with attitude. Let me be clear that not every campground is destined to meet these new levels of consumer expectations, and not every camper is seeking out this type of experience. It is all about choices, and let’s be honest: have you ever worried about raising your rates by $1.00 per night, even though there are parks charging $20.00 or $30.00 more for a similar site?

It is easy to learn what sets certain businesses apart from others, and I encourage you to take the time – probably in your off-season – to personally investigate. Put your financial concerns aside for a weekend, and book a stay in a leading boutique hotel in a major American city. Take notes. Everything that you experience can be translated into an equivalent experience at your campground, from the doorman who welcomes you, to the valet parking attendant who parks your car, to the front desk clerk who puts you in a room with a view, to the concierge who gets the dinner reservations that you could not get on your own, to the front desk clerk again who calls to confirm that everything in the room meets your expectations, to the housekeeping staff member who knows when you are away and turns down the sheets and leaves a rose and chocolate (or the hand towel equivalent of a balloon animal) on your pillow. What they all have in common is friendly, personalized service that exceeds common expectations.

Yes, it is easy to learn from the examples of businesses that are setting themselves apart by doing things right. It is also possible to learn from businesses that consistently seem to be doing things wrong. Let me relate my recent personal experience with United Airlines, when returning from a family vacation in Mexico on a one-stop flight to Boston.

When we arrived at Guanajuato International Airport for the first leg of our flight, we were told that our departure would be delayed by about 45 minutes, leaving us plenty of time to make our connecting flight in Houston. We were told that the incoming flight had returned to Houston with some sort of mechanical trouble. Shortly afterward, we were told the delay would be three and a half hours, because the plane was being replaced with another aircraft. Nobody wants to argue with delays that are based upon mechanical issues, true or untrue, and we had no choice but to wait. In the meantime, the United Airlines ticket agent hand-wrote new connecting flight numbers on our tickets from Houston to Boston. Yes, that seemed a bit unusual. About two hours later, I returned to the ticket counter (of course, going through airport security checks each time) to ask for the assurance of real, printed tickets. Another desk clerk at that time admitted that the hand-written ticket revisions did not even represent an actual flight number! The new printed tickets contained the actual flight number and terminal but, suspiciously enough, no seat assignments. The connection time was tight, and our flight would arrive in Boston around midnight.

When we finally arrived in Houston, we knew that we had to keep moving in order to get to the correct terminal, get our bags checked, and make it through security. Even with TSA Pre-Check, we were not getting anywhere quickly, with perhaps 1,000 people bottlenecked in security and trying to get to their outbound flights. We could only presume that the airlines are aware of long lines in security and are aware of passengers who have not yet arrived at the gate. Being the last departing flight to Boston, and flying non-stop, you would think that the airline might delay the flight’s departure by 10 or 15 minutes. Think again.

When we arrived at our gate, the door was closed, and we were told to go to the United Airlines customer service counter. We were far from the only passengers who had missed our flight to Boston, and the counter was severely understaffed. When we finally got to speak with the customer service agent, he explained that 2 out of the 6 of us did not even have seats on the plane that had just departed! (Remember the tickets with no seat assignments?) The attendant was very nice (and seemed highly embarrassed by the United policies), but his hands were tied. He said that our bags made it out on that flight, leaving us without changes of clothing, personal items, or medications. We were also told that the next flight would be early the following morning, and were given hotel vouchers for a nearby Holiday Inn (we passed more desirable Hilton and Hyatt properties along the way on our shuttle), along with $7.00 meal vouchers for dinner and breakfast. In the meantime, our limo driver was already halfway to Boston, because United did not post the original flight delay online and we could not contact him until we were in Houston with the bad news. That incurred an understandable $300.00 charge. Thanks, United!

At this point, there were still people in line at the United Airlines customer service counter, including a young couple with two children in tow. It was 8:30, the lights were turned out, and the customer service clerks announced, “Sorry, we are now closed for the night.” Can you imagine having guests in line at your registration desk and telling them that you are closed?


Our dinners alone (nothing fancy, at the Holiday Inn’s restaurant) exceeded twice the value of all of our dinner and breakfast vouchers. Our displeasure with United Airlines was the primary topic of conversation during our meal. Toward the end, a man who had been dining at a nearby table stopped by, identifying himself as a United Airlines pilot. He empathized with our experience and urged us to complain as loudly as possible to and about the airline.

After four hours of sleep, we caught our flight the following morning and arrived in Boston. We went directly to the United Airlines baggage counter to retrieve our bags that we were told were on the flight the night before. Guess what? Half of our bags had arrived with us on the morning flight. I had earlier picked up a copy of USA Today in the lobby of the Holiday Inn. Interestingly enough, there was a graphic that displayed a summary of results for the 2013 American Consumer Satisfaction Index airline industry benchmarks. To nobody’s surprise, United Airlines occupies last place, with a consumer satisfaction index of only 62%, well below the industry average and far below first and second place airlines, JetBlue and Southwest (our airline of choice). Note that, a week or two later, JetBlue probably took a major hit, when they cancelled hundreds of flights during the so-called “polar vortex” cold snap. Consumers have a voice, and they will share their displeasure in as many ways as possible.

In the case of United Airlines, you would think that they had learned a lesson, with the “United Breaks Guitars” video having been viewed over 13,000,000 times on YouTube over the last 4 years, or the more recent “United Airlines Almost Killed My Greyhound” video that also involved a United Airlines flight from Houston to Boston. The power of the social media cannot be overemphasized or underestimated.

In one instance after another within our ordeal, the problem was not with United Airlines employees, but with the airline’s corporate policies. Ticket agents apologized, the pilot advised us to express our anger, flight attendants could not have been more cordial, and the customer service agent seemed highly embarrassed when he was told to turn out the lights at 8:30. As far as United Airlines is concerned, they fully met their responsibilities by putting us up in inexpensive hotel rooms for the night and providing us with $7.00 meal vouchers.

As a campground owner, you need to hire and train staff members who are friendly and obsessed with customer service; however, you must not interfere with the customer satisfaction process by implementing rigid standards that will be resented by your guests and lead to frustration amongst your staff. United Airlines seems unwilling to learn, but you – as a much smaller player within the travel and leisure industry – can clearly profit from their mistakes by implementing flexible policies that will always put your customers first.

This post was written by Peter Pelland