Whether you love them or hate them, online reviews of RV parks and campgrounds are here — and, like the travel industry at large and commerce in general, more and more consumers are turning to online reviews when they make decisions about where to visit.

As you know, it’s the “new normal.”

While reservations giants like Booking.com and Expedia are turning their attention to the campground market — bringing into the market the possibility of even more online-savvy travelers who rely on reviews — another major player in the travel business, TripAdvisor, is also turning its attention, and that of guests, to North America’s RV parks and campgrounds.

Of course, guest reviews aren’t new. Comment cards have been around for decades, almost as long as campers have had something to say about the parks where they stay.

Bob MacKinnon

Bob MacKinnon

But comments have evolved in this on-demand world to a remarkable extent, according to Bob MacKinnon, president of GuestReviews, the leading provider of reviews focused on the campground market. “The review process has really changed over the past few years,” MacKinnon told Woodall’s Campground Management. “When people used to think about reviews, bot the consumer and the business owner, they used to think of reviews as the old comment-card system, a feedback tool for management for business improvement and service improvement. It still is that”

But it’s become much more. “In general, for all of online commerce, 84% or 85% of buying decisions for online purchase were driven by reviews,” MacKinnon added. “People sought reviews as part of their buying decision. That change has translated into the camping industry. Camping consumers are actively seeking information from their peers to make their buying decisions.”

“The last time I looked at it, incorporating the word ‘reviews’ into a search term has just gone off the charts,” noted MacKinnon, who’s based in Murrieta, Calif. “People used to go in and only search, say, ‘Indiana campgrounds.’ Now they go and maybe start with the same search, but from there they find three or four they’re interested in and search ‘ABC Campground reviews. That’s a change not many in our industry have caught onto.”

GuestReviews and TripAdvisor take very different approaches to reviews, and provide different venues for campground and RV park operators, but both serve as channels for guest feedback — and for potential guests to get a feel for the service levels and general nature and quality of your facilities.

Mark McCullough

Mark McCullough

Mark McCullough, senior territory manager for TripAdvisor, said, “As the campground space adopts more online bookings, we see more correlation why reviews are important. It drives bookings in a positive way for campgrounds. It’s something that’s been adopted by the hotel industry.”

According to TripAdvisor statistics provided by McCullough, properties with management members responding to reviews are 21% more likely to receive a booking inquiry through TripAdvisor than those without management responses.

Properties that respond to more than half of reviews increase their likelihood of a booking inquiry by 24% — and they get higher ratings.

Specifically, properties whose managers don’t respond to reviews get an average review rating of 3.1 out of 5 on TripAdvisor, while those who respond to 65% of reviews or more get an average review rating of 4.15 out of 5. “Those responding at a high rate have higher review scores on TripAdvisor,” McCullough told WCM, “and the reason we believe that’s so is that they’re engated and working to make a better experience. People who come to TripAdvisor see that those owners and managers are taking the time to respond, and that generates trust and professionalism.”

Jayne Cohen

Jayne Cohen

Jayne Cohen, a New Hampshire-based campground consultant who offers a service of responding to online reviews for RV parks, said she’s always approached reviews as quality control for clients. Now, though, “review sites are just another form of social media. People who read reviews are much more sophisticated now. People who read reviews and use them to make decisions — which is 90% of travelers — they’re savvy about reviews. They know if it’s someone who just got kicked out,” she said.

MacKinnon agreed. “People are really smart about doing their research online. They can see a complaint from an irate customer, read between the lines and see, ‘This guy was a jerk.’”

MacKinnon, who’s owned and operated campgrounds, said the RV park business is all about return visits, and reviews play a pivotal role in fostering return traffic as well as new traffic. “I want to have so much return business that I don’t have to advertise to get new business,” MacKinnon explained.

McCullough, for his part, said, “I look at TripAdvisor as a two-way communication between the traveler community and the lodging/campground community in general. It should be a two-way dialogue so that when a traveler posts a review, the campground manager or owner should try and respond to those reviews — either positive or negative — to thank guests for leaving a positive experience and highlight those positives and thank them for the feedback, or, conversely, if the feedback is negative, thank them for the feedback and use it to fine-tune operations.”

So how much is too much when you respond to feedback?

The TripAdvisor stats suggest there may not be such a thing as too much when it comes to responding to online reviews, and Cohen agrees. “Some people say you don’t have to answer good reviews. I strongly disagree with that. You should answer all reviews, good and bad,” she maintained.

In all cases, Cohen suggested, you should always answer within 48 hours, 72 hours at the most. “It’s more important to answer a bad review quickly. A bad review should get immediate attention,” she emphasized. “A lot of times a bad review will be written when someone is staying with you, and maybe you can figure out who it is and address it for them.”

For the many campground owners who’ve poured their lives into their work, it’s very hard not to take a negative review personally, Cohen said. “For any owner who’s working hard to do their best, any complaint is personal,” she observed. “You have to work very hard to be objective and say, ‘Is this true?’ Then, you’ve got two things to do: Get that person satisfied by addressing their concerns, and you’ve got to show the public how you deal with things when mistakes are made.

“You want to apologize for not meeting the guest’s expectations. You want to be real, you want to show you’re concerned,” she continued. “You show other travelers you care. The reviews are more about the people who are reading the reviews than the one person who wrote it.”

McCullough suggested showing transparency and willingness to deal with feedback, “Be completely transparent and have an open-door policy of communication where the owner or manager leaves their phone number, their e-mail address. That shows they want to make right what was wrong and show that you’re open to ongoing feedback beyond the review.”

The nature of one’s approach to positive reviews is important as well. “You don’t want to sound like you’re just answering with a canned answer,” Cohen said. “Look at each review carefully. Always thank them for sharing their experience with other travelers.”

Of course, there’s a trick to answering public reviews in a timely fashion: They usually come at the craziest times for campgrounds — after all, aren’t those summer holiday weekends typically when most guests (and potential reviewers) visit campgrounds? “The time you have to answer reviews is always when you’re busiest,” remarked Cohen. “If you can’t answer in a timely manner, you need to hire someone like me or someone on your staff who has good grammar and can spell correctly because the professionalism is important. If you know from the start you can’t do this right, you need to hire someone to do it for you.”

MacKinnon said campground owners and operators need to strike a balance in the systems to which they devote their attention, too. “Campgrounds need to be smart about not putting all their eggs in one basket,” he emphasized. “TripAdvisor is an opportunity to get exposure to a bigger market, but TripAdvisor’s not going to give them the management intelligence that GuestReviews does. You have to be smart about what you’re trying to do. If you’re using TripAdvisor as a placeholder and an advertising source but you’re not using it as your sole source of intelligence for your business, that’s a good approach.”

GuestReviews gathers much more detailed information from guests than TripAdvisor feedback offers, MacKinnon noted. In the GuestReviews/CampgroundViews email template, the company’s 1,200 campground customers “on average are getting a 20% response rate,” MacKinnon said. “I think campers, especially loyal ones, there’s this personal connection with their favorite campgrounds. Campers are very social people. I think there’s more willingness to offer a review than the average person on the street.

“We have designed the program so we can provide very specific, actionable data. We offer detailed questions on a report-card scale,” MacKinnon pointed out, drilling down into guest thought on service, facilities, restrooms, sites, staff friendliness and more.

And when GuestReviews collects reviews that campgrounds can post on their Websites, “we believe in current reviews. Your’ not going to find a review, even a comment, more than three years old,” he said, contrasting to TripAdvisor’s mammoth database of reviews — a volume owing to the site’s longevity.

Regardless of which source you use — Guest Reviews, TripAdvisor, even Google+ or Yelp — using a variety of guest feedback is a campground owner’s best way to get an objective view of his or her business, MacKinnon told WCM. “If they think they know everything about their business, they’re fooling themselves. Their guests can teach them a lot.”


For More Information

TripAdvisor offers a site just for loding owners, giving the international company’s insigbts on trends and best practices for getting the most out of a TripAdvisor listing. The free resource has training tools and is available at www.tripadvisor.com/TripAdvisorInsights.

To contact Jayne Cohen at Jayne Cohen and Associates LLC, call 603-279-6693 or go to www.campgroundlodgingconsultants.com.

For information from Bob MacKinnon of GuestReviews, send him an e-mail at Bob@GuestReviews.com or go to the company’s Website, www.guestreviews.com.