Pelland Blog

Thinking Small Is More Important Than Ever

April 24th, 2024

The idea to “think small” worked remarkably well for Volkswagen, in its famous advertising campaign from the Doyle Dane Bernbach advertising agency that started in 1959, cited by Advertising Age magazine as the best ad campaign of the twentieth century. Today, Volkswagen of America is commemorating its 75th anniversary of selling cars in the United States, where it all started with an enterprising businessman who imported two Volkswagen Type 1 vehicles that proved quite difficult to sell in the city of New York.

The Type 1, due to its shape, became informally known as the Beetle, and it was followed by the even more quirky Type 2, which had a variety of informal names that included the Transporter, Camper, Station Wagon, Bus, Microbus, and (in Germany) the Bulli. Eventually, these quirky vehicles caught on with a segment of the public that was attracted to the unconventional appearances, air-cooled engines, and counterculture appeal. The VW Microbus became the semi-official vehicle of Woodstock, Haight-Ashbury, and Arlo Guthrie and the Alice’s Restaurant Massacree.

Americans have always had an inherent desire to support the little guy or the underdog. We see it in sports, and we see it with increasing frequency in our day-to-day buying decisions. Even online, I prefer to buy from small merchants on Etsy or eBay, rather than putting more money into the billionaire pockets of Jeff Bezos. With so-called dollar stores notoriously hammering the nails into the coffins of local merchants in small towns across America in recent years, I was highly encouraged to read the news this week (in March 2024) that the Dollar Tree chain would be closing nearly 1,000 of its stores, mostly those operating under the Family Dollar name, in 2024. This may not bring back the merchants who were forced to close due competitive Goliaths moving into their neighborhoods, but it may be a sign of a turnaround in consumer behavior.

Many people today make a concerted effort to buy local and support small businesses. This new consciousness is behind the resurgence in family farming, farmers markets, and the purchase of farm shares throughout much of the country. I am a craft beer afficionado, and I have not purchased or consumed a brew from any of the international beer conglomerates in decades, but I regularly support at least a couple dozen local microbreweries. Even when purchasing general merchandise, unless I have no choice, I will only purchase goods made in the United States or Canada. If I need lumber, rather than going to a big box lumber yard, I go to the sawmill operation down at the corner of my road.

It’s Story Time

If you are following my train of thought, and if you have your eyes wide open regarding the rapidly conglomerating ownership in the campground industry today, you may realize that there are opportunities for small, individually owned parks to prosper. Sort of like “show and tell” back in kindergarten, telling your story is the best way to introduce yourself to people. Guess what? If they like what they hear or read, you may have set the foundation for a multi-generational relationship. To get started, it would probably be a productive exercise to take the time to put your story down on paper. What is the history of your campground, and what is your story as its owner? Tell people why you bought your park, and what you are seeking to accomplish. Are you a new owner, or are you the fifth generation of Smiths to run Peaceful Acres? We are not talking about a business plan or formal mission statement. We are talking about personalizing the differences between your business and your bigger, less personal competitors.

Here are a few tips for what might be included in your story, but above all else, make it personal and from the heart:

  • Why did you decide to buy (or build) your park? What is it that you are seeking to offer your guests or that differentiates your park?
  • What did you do in life that took you to this point in time? Did you work in customer service, the public sector, or did you perhaps work in a big company that downsized or moved its production offshore? What lessons did you learn that you will bring to your business, and how do you plan on doing things differently? Many people will directly identify with your prior experience.
  • Talk about your family and what it means to you. Are there family values that are now part of your business ethics? Is your park the kind of place where you want your own children to grow? In fact, are your children working with you as the next generation?
  • What are your long-term goals for your park? It is amazing how people will be willing to help you to attain your dreams and will want to be a part of seeing them materialize, but they need to know what those goals might be. Share your dreams, and get your customers emotionally involved.
  • What are you doing – personally – that makes your park different from many others? If your life includes some sort of Eureka moment or epiphany, tell the story.

Word Association

Ask a few of your campers for the first word that comes to their minds when they hear the name of your campground. Ask first-time arrivals why they chose your park. If the answers are price, a color or a mascot, you may need to be putting greater effort into telling your story. If the answer is a word that conveys an emotion or a concept – anything from enjoyment to security to a friendly environment – you are probably on the right track. Use those same words in your marketing, recognizing that the qualities that are drawing guests to your park today are the same qualities that will allow you to widen your markets.

Tell your story, and try to personalize every aspect in a coordinated marketing campaign. Add either a personalized “About Us” page to your website or place that content front and center on your site’s Home page, put your photo (or a family photo) in your advertising, and tell the story in the first person. Speak directly to your customers, in a friendly manner, telling them what “we” can do for “you”. Your message will strike a resounding chord, and receptive consumers will respond.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Small Businesses Are Special

June 12th, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post was written by Peter Pelland

If You’re David, Don’t Be Afraid of Goliath

September 11th, 2008

I was recently part of a discussion in LinkedIn’s Guerrilla Marketing Tips for Small Businesses group to which I belong. The question involved how to compete in a David vs Goliath scenario where a large national chain opens a location in your local service area. In this instance, the discussion was started by the owner of a small computer repair company (let’s call it “HKR Computer Repair”) who had a big computer repair franchise (let’s call them “Nerds R Us”) open in his backyard. He expected to prevail in the long run but was afraid of the short-term impact upon his business. He wanted to know how to compensate for such a large presence and not lose cash flow. The following was my response:

You are likely to experience some short-term loss as a result of the money that they will spend to launch their new location. In the long run, nothing is easier than competing against Goliaths. You’ve already identified some of the weaknesses in the instance of “Nerds R Us”. In general, you should have a major competitive advantage against a big outfit with high overhead and a “one size fits all” business concept. You know your market. Do your customers want to communicate directly with the knowledgeable owner of a business or some kid who’s just finished 48 hours of training the week after he quit his job at Starbucks?

The vast majority of my company’s clients are successfully competing against the Wal-Marts of their industries. Sometimes it requires the redefinition of a business in order to better capitalize upon the Goliath’s weaknesses or market segments where the Goliath cannot possible compete. Although not one of my clients, I like to relate the success story of a family hardware store that has found its niche while most similar businesses simply roll over and die as soon as a Home Depot or Lowes rolls into town. South Fork Hardware has been in business in South Fork, Pennsylvania for 60 years, and they have transformed themselves into the tire chain specialists of North America. Home Depot or Wal-Mart can’t afford to sell tire chains. They couldn’t possibly maintain the inventory of all of the necessary variations and sizes in their thousands of retail locations. South Fork Hardware, on the other hand, through one centralized location, can supply any set of tire chains imaginable and ship the same day. Admittedly, there is not an enormous market for tire chains these days; however, when you own the market, the lion’s share of a specialized market can be extremely profitable. Do a Google search for “tire chains”, and you will see that (South Fork Hardware’s URL and new business persona) comes up at #1. Alternately, do a “type-in” of or , and you will see how they have come to “own” their market.

As a side note, I have purchased three sets of tire chains from South Fork Hardware over the last 10 years. Do you see how I am unintentionally promoting their business? Your customers will do the same. Particularly when people are dissatisfied with a product or service, they spread the word. It should be easy for you to weather what is certain to be a fast-moving storm. Your business should continue to thrive long after Nerds R Us has moved out of town (perhaps because they couldn’t face your competition).

Did you ever think that maybe they hadn’t performed the proper market research before opening their new location? They could be in for a big surprise when they discover that they have to try to compete against a well-established competitor, HKR Computer Repair!

This post was written by Peter Pelland