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Taking the Mystery Out of Mystery Shoppers

March 30th, 2016

Over the years, I have heard campground owners consistently complain about ratings that are generated by independent, third-party inspectors from organizations ranging from AAA and Trailer Life to Wheelers and Woodall’s. With the demise of the “big books,” the consolidation of Trailer Life and Woodall’s into Good Sam ratings, and the explosive growth and credibility of online consumer review sites such as RV Park Reviews and TripAdvisor, ratings are as important – if not more important – than ever. What remains consistent is the question as to why a campground owner would be surprised by ratings or consumer reviews, as if he was unfamiliar with the shortcomings of his own park.

Perhaps it would make sense for the industry to be a bit more proactive with regard to the types of third-party assessments that would identify problems and nip them in the bud. Other industries – most notably the hotel, restaurant, cruise line, retailing, banking, and automotive industries – have routinely employed what are referred to as “mystery shoppers”. It is important to know that both your business and your employees are up to par and providing exceptional customer service. At my local bank, I noticed last week how one of the tellers had been awarded for having successfully passed 5 out of 5 such test situations during the previous year.

To make these inspections work, they must be carried out in an anonymous and seemingly random fashion. Think of the popular CBS reality TV series, Undercover Boss, where even Jim Rogers, the former CEO of KOA, went undercover to gain an inside perspective on various employee issues at three parks within the KOA franchise system. Another popular reality TV show is Food Network’s Restaurant Impossible, where host Robert Irvine helps to turn restaurants around by identifying problems with everything from their menus and décor to their staffs and the attitude of their owners. We all need to see our businesses sometimes with the objectivity of another set of eyes.

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In the hotel industry, which is so closely related to the campground industry, there is a wide range of companies that provide independent inspection services. The companies include Secret Hotel Inspector, Coyle Hospitality Group, and Guest Check. There is also a network of independent contractors that provide similar services, in some instances on a smaller scale and meeting the needs of businesses with more limited budgets. These services are so important that there is actually an association of service providers, the Mystery Shopping Provider Association of North America. According to MSPA-NA statistics, 70% of shoppers (yes, that includes campers!) state that they are willing to spend up to 13% more with companies they believe provide excellent customer service. Perhaps more importantly, 78% of customers have opted to cancel a transaction or did not complete an intended purchase because of a poor customer experience. Think of how that latter statistic relates to the usability of your website or the user experience during your online reservation process.

Some companies even recruit and hire their own secret inspectors, one example being Small Luxury Hotels of the World, an affiliation of 520 luxury hotels located worldwide.

What these companies share in common is the proven statistic that the fees for their services are more than offset by the increased profitability that results from the improvements in customer loyalty, customer satisfaction, staff training, and morale that are realized after implementing their study recommendations. More than simply running a white glove along a windowsill, these companies identify weaknesses and waste, and then recommend solutions and remedial actions.

It is important to have access to this type of information prior to the time of interaction with your paying guests. Why not make now the time for a new beginning? My suggestion is for some of the larger, more progressive state associations to explore an affiliation with a mystery shopping organization, and then offer this as a paid add-on service for members who are striving for excellence. Not only would the member campgrounds benefit greatly from their participation, this would also be a service that would add significant value to the member benefits package of any such state associations themselves.

As always, it is always wise to think outside the box, learn from other industries, and emulate the various formulae that have contributed to their success.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Big Things Are Happening at RV Park Reviews

January 10th, 2016

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

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

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

The Campground Industry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PLP: What will be some additional features?

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

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

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

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

This post was written by Peter Pelland

The Fine Art of Handling Negative Reviews

July 16th, 2014

Not all reviews are negative. The negative reviews are simply the ones that most deserve your attention. Some negative reviews are worse than others, but the worst negative review is the one that was left unanswered.

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

In other instances, a negative review might provide insight into a situation that requires urgent action; however, if you are unaware of the review, the situation is likely to continue and the viral power of the online review will only multiply. Let me share an example.

I recently did a search of Google for the name of a business, hoping to find its correct mailing address. At the absolute top of the search results (#1 on page #1) was the following review that has been online since January of 2012. I have changed the names and any other identifying information, but the point is clear.

“While driving on Eastern Avenue (near Spring Street) today (01-11-12) at 2:05 PM I was tailgated by someone driving a truck (license plate RVJ-524) from Acme Enterprises. I was forced to pull over because the driver was driving too close. When I pulled over I was given the finger and when I continued driving the driver doubled-back to actually chase me! I’m a member of the [a local business association] and I will certainly be sending an email blast to my fellow members to ensure they avoid this organization. I took a picture of the driver and have it on file.”

Wow! Can you imagine this being at the top of the search results for your business for 2½ years, and not knowing about it? Can you imagine having an employee acting in this manner while driving a clearly identified company vehicle? I presume that any business owner would take immediate corrective measures if he knew about this situation. Without any such knowledge, this type of behavior on the part of an employee is only likely to continue.

Yes, this is an extreme example, but it is totally true. How about the employee who is short with one of your guests, or the employee who did not perform a maintenance task up to the expected standards? Those are often the foundation of a negative review. Even if a review site does not give you, as the business owner, an opportunity to directly respond online, it is still providing you with valuable information that should probably be incorporated into your next company meeting, job description, or employee performance review. The reputation of your business is at stake.

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

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

There are literally dozens of online review sites, the most important which impact the travel and tourism industry being TripAdvisor, Yelp, and Foursquare. Other types of businesses are reviewed on sites like Angie’s List, MerchantCircle, Manta, Buzzillions, Epinions, and Insider Pages. Then don’t forget the BBB (Better Business Bureau) Online, where any consumer can file a complaint against a business.

Just as important, any comment on Twitter, Facebook, or Google+ is a de-facto review within the writer’s network. In fact, those can often do the most harm because they come from somebody whose opinion is trusted within his or her network of friends.

There are also more than a dozen of which are specific to the campground industry. These include RV Park Reviews, CampRate, Campground Report, Campsite Reports, RVparking.com, RVcampReviews.com, RV Park Finder, and of course GuestRated. Some of these sites get much more traffic than others, but keep in mind that only one person reading one negative review can translate into lost business. Do your best to try to keep that from happening.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Make the Most of Online Review Sites

July 28th, 2013

Years ago, as a business owner you were pretty much in control of how people perceived your business. You advertised to influence opinions, you went out of your way to please your customers, and you provided a quality product or service. Everybody was happy. In the rare instances where a customer was displeased, he told his friends and never returned. Things could have been worse.

Today, things are worse. Conventional advertising has lost much of its credibility and clout, and most people turn to their network of friends (including virtual friends online) for trusted opinions and recommendations. That dissatisfied customer from years past now has the means to amplify his displeasure before an audience of thousands. On the other hand, the same tools are available for your happiest of customers to share their experience and influence equally vast numbers of potential guests.

Most campground owners seem to fear review sites more than an attack of locusts. Those fears are unfounded. P.T. Barnum is often credited with coining the statement, “There is no such thing as bad publicity,” and that concept is truer today, in the age of the Internet, than ever before in history.

First of all, a successful campground will be operated in a customer-friendly manner, and reviews of that campground are likely to be overwhelmingly positive. My advice is to proactively promote those reviews and the sites that contain the reviews, rather than simply reacting in a state of panic when a negative review appears, typically written by someone with an axe to grind.

Rather than hiding from reviews, I encourage campground owners to provide links to the major review sites – and to individual reviews – on their own websites and within the social media. Quote great reviews on your Facebook page and in Tweets, and encourage your guests to post their own reviews, particularly if a review site has a less than stellar recent review of your park. Some review sites allow you to respond to reviews, while others do not. Either way, the most recent reviews and the most intelligently written reviews (and responses) carry the greatest credibility. Older reviews or those written by somebody who is obviously on a rant are generally dismissed by readers.

If you are going to encourage your happy campers to submit reviews, you need to know the review sites that count. You also need to know whenever a review of your park appears online. Use Google Alerts to stay on top of what is being posted about your business online. When guests are checking out, commenting how much they enjoyed their stays, ask them if they would like to submit a review that puts that satisfaction into words. If they agree, send them a follow-up e-mail with a direct link to the review page for your park on the review site of your choice. (Don’t ask them to submit a review on more than one site, since that would be a bit of an imposition.) The following is a list of some of the review sites that need to be on your radar.

RV Park Reviews – This site has been online since 2000 and includes nearly 200,000 reviews of every campground in North America, including yours. If you are not aware of this site and have not read its reviews of your park, you have only yourself to blame. Use this site to your advantage. If you have the highest rated park in your city or town (based upon the average of your 10 most recent reviews, rated on a 1-10 scale), promote that fact by providing a link to the reviews for your park and its competitors. Use transparency to your advantage!

Yelp – This site was started in 2004, gets over 100 million unique visitors per month, and hosts over 39 million reviews. Originally designed to rate local business service providers (like mechanics, electricians, and plumbers), it now includes reviews to lodging services, including campgrounds. As a business, you can setup a free business account that allows you to post photos and additional information that will enhance your listing on the site, as well as generating free widgets that you can use to promote your Yelp reviews on your website. Follow this link to get started: https://biz.yelp.com

TripAdvisor – This is the world’s largest travel-related website. It gets more than 200 million unique visitors per month and contains over 100 million trusted reviews covering more than 2.5 million businesses around the world. Although the site originally concentrated on hotels and similar lodging, it now includes campgrounds under the Specialty Lodging category. If your campground is not yet listed on TripAdvisor, you can submit a listing by following this link: http://www.tripadvisor.com/GetListedNew

Because of the volume of traffic, reviews on TripAdvisor carry plenty of clout. As a business owner, you can (and should!) create a free business account, allowing you to update your business details, add photos, receive e-mail notifications of new reviews, and – most importantly – respond to reviews. You can also generate free widgets that can link your website to your reviews. Follow this link to get started: http://www.tripadvisor.com/Owners

GuestRated – Campground owners are probably also familiar with the GuestRated program that was founded by industry consultant Bob MacKinnon in 2008 as the first ongoing guest satisfaction rating program relating to the private campground industry in the United States. Run in conjunction with National ARVC, this online survey program provides very useful consumer information and statistical analytics to campground owners, as well as providing an opportunity to respond to guest reviews. There are also widgets that allow campgrounds to feature reviews and ratings on their websites and that encourage visitors to initiate their own review process. Learn more about the program at: http://www.guestreviews.com

This is far from a conclusive list of review sites. There are many other campground review sites that generate less traffic and less impact upon public opinion. I would recommend not fretting over any of the more obscure review sites, particularly if any investment of your time would come at the expense of the attention that you should be devoting to these review sites that count.

This post was written by Peter Pelland