One of the key features of major campground-sector gatherings is the amount of education and training available for attendees, on a wide variety of topics from a host of experts.
While there’s no substitute for actually being there, Woodall’s Campground Management chose some key sessions to distill from the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC) Outdoor Hospitality Conference and Expo, the Kampgrounds of America (KOA) 2015 Convention — both at the Ocean Center in Daytona Beach, Fla. — the Leisure Systems Inc. Symposium in Covington, Ky., as well as state gatherings in Pennsylvania and New York.
What you’ll find here is a look at Wi-Fi, multigenerational parks, attracting new guests, risk management and landing the reservation.
Dealing with Wi-Fi — And Guest Expectations
Pat Hittmeier, president and CEO of KOA, summed up the frustrations of a lot of campground owners when it comes to the touchy topic of Wi-Fi. “We’ve talked about Wi-Fi until we’re blue in the face. It’s a big deal, it’s a big problem. Campgrounds don’t provide the kind of Wi-Fi the guest is expecting and anytime they try to make changes the technology changes.
“It’s expensive,” he added, “it’s hard to keep up with and it’s a real challenge for us in the outdoor environment, but it is important. It’s a driving factor of people’s choices.
“Forty percent of our campers recently surveyed said that Wi-Fi was a critical aspect of their choice of location, so it’s a very important attribute that needs to be part of our camping experience, and frankly we’re struggling to provide what they’re looking for. And as you can imagine, everybody’s different. Somebody just wants to check their email, somebody else wants to stream Netflix, and it just makes all the difference — and we can’t keep up.”
Exacerbating the pace of media consumption and technology is the simple fact that many campgrounds don’t have access to sufficient Internet service.
“The only solution in this case, in my mind anyway, is we need to set expectations,” Hittmeier suggested. “There needs to be a standard that describes the type of Wi-Fi experience that you’re going to get. We can’t just say ‘Wi-Fi’ and then expect people to come in and know what’s up.
“So I see us putting together some type of three- or four-tier type of Wi-Fi experience and then quantify our campgrounds as a result of those particular experiences. If you can’t deliver the 100% that everybody wants then the next best thing is to at least tell them what it is that you have so that’s where we plan to go with it.”
That meshes with what speakers at the conferences had to say.
“It’s an ongoing battle to meet customers’ expectations and keep them happy,” said Jim Ganley, CEO of Checkbox Systems of Gray, Maine. “The bottom line is you can’t give them what you don’t have.”
Ganley and Eric Stumberg, CEO of TengoInternet, provided a joint session at KOA’s gathering, where Stumberg said, “Technology is important to people just like camping’s important. Only 15-20% of campgrounds are in a position to meet customer expectations.”
And those expectations are changing. In 2011, 80% of Wi-Fi access came via computer; in 2015, 80% was by phone or tablet, Stumberg said. “If you designed a network in 2010 or 2011 that laptops could connect to, iPads and iPhones are not going to be able to connect to it.”
“I educate customers, ‘This is not you sitting at home,’” said Pete Hagen of Pride of America Camping Resort, who led a seminar at the ARVC convention. “Fifty percent of my bandwidth last year was YouTube videos.”
A worse offender, he said, is Netflix, which he plans to block in his park. “They chew up my entire park’s bandwidth watching one TV show.”
Ganley, though, pointed out that while throttling data or blocking sites can be a good short-term measure, it’s not going to satisfy the user, your guests, in the end.
Stumberg noted that parks with good Internet access are starting to trend toward tiers of access, with a free level and the a paid, premium level.
Ganley cautioned park owners, though, “Make sure premium really is premium.”
And, of course, there are the technical aspects, both of providing sufficient Wi-Fi signal within a park as well as Internet access from the grounds. In providing the signal, “it’s all about signal strength. If you’ve got lots of trees, you’re going to need radios closer together,” Hagen pointed out.
On the plus side, “There’s a lot more outdoor Wi-Fi equipment now than there was two years ago,” Stumberg said.
Ganley offered a rule of thumb for expectations on the life of a Wi-Fi system: “If your system is built properly, expect to update it — not completely replace it — every three to five years.”
In rural locations there typically aren’t good options for campgrounds to connect to the Internet, even with top-of-the-line Wi-Fi, Hagen said. For instance, while satellite has decent bandwidth, the sheer distance of sending a signal from the park to a satellite in geosynchronous orbit, then to the ground where the Internet is then accessed — some 44,000 miles — slows things way down. “Satellite is brutal,” he said.
Phone companies can offer DSL, but its speeds are typically anemic for even a few users, he pointed out, and completely insufficient for many. The alternative of a T-1 line is much better, but far more expensive.
The good news is that there’s new technology coming — Ethernet-over-copper — that provides triple the speed of a pair of T-1 lines for about the same price, and should be rolled out to any place that gets phone lines, according to Hagen.
Managing Multiple Generations of Park Ownership
While there are many family owned campgrounds across North America with generations operating them, there aren’t many that are on farmland that’s been in the same family for a quarter of a millennium.
Award-winning Normandy Farms Family Campground in Foxboro, Mass., has that rare distinction, and three generations of the Daniels, Galvin and Harrison family opened up to other campground owners during what turned out to be a very engaged workshop at the ARVC conference.
The session was led by Jill Harrison, a member of the third generation of the family operating the top-notch campground, though plenty of the questions went to her mom and to her grandparents.
While the campground has been recognized for excellence, it’s run by a family, and sometimes that makes it difficult. “If you can’t work it out yourself, family counseling or bringing in different consulting teams can work as a mediator,” Harrison said.
At Normandy Farms, they’ve developed a tradition of having periodic direct, face-to-face meetings in a room among senior leaders, said Al Daniels, Harrison’s grandfather who started the campground with his siblings on their family farm.
Over the years they’ve stepped back. Daniels suggested park owners mentor their children for five to 10 years, then allow them to take over. “Let them make changes, which means letting go. They run the show now,” he said.
Harrison said it’s important for younger generations to learn all the jobs at the campground and come up through the ranks, not start in a position of entitlement.
Marcia Galvin, Harrison’s mom and Daniels’ daughter, said it’s important for family members to work outside the campground, too, at least for a while. That helps remind them that the campground is more than just money. “This is a family business.”
Harrison suggested these tips for the older generation:
- Start the conversation with the younger generation early.
- Include them in the big picture.
- Be a coach.
- Relinquish control as time goes on.
She also offered these tips for the younger generation:
- Think about your future and decide what you want.
- Experience all aspects of the job.
- Take on an active role.
- Take on full responsibility.
Attracting New Campground Guests
While KOA enjoys a major marketing engine, relying on national marketing is only part of the picture, according to a panel of speakers at the KOA convention. Local marketing can help bring in more campers, too. And that, of course, applies to all campgrounds, not just KOA.
Whitney Hepp, KOA director of local marketing, said there’s a huge opportunity out there for campgrounds. “There’s 104 million eligible households in the U.S. and Canada, and 44% of those are active campers. That’s 46 million households. There is a whole lot of opportunity out there.”
That opportunity can be overwhelming, though, so Hepp recommends targeting your marketing.
A campground’s website is just as important as a friendly front-desk staff and having the lights on, said Nanette Bell of campground-oriented firm Orange Tent Marketing and Campground Enterprises, which operates four campgrounds. “We need to make sure that extension of our front desk answers guests’ questions, that all the photos are there. We don’t want a missing-lightbulb look. We want it to be professional.”
Pauline Wood, co-owner of the San Francisco North/Petaluma KOA, suggested local networking with nearby chambers of commerce, convention and visitors bureaus and other tourism organizations. “We changed our identity in our own heads. We’re not ‘just a campground.’ Make yourself present,” she said. “Become a leader in the associations. Make people notice you. You represent a huge industry and a really powerful location. You are the experience where they spend their family time,” she said.
In fact, referrals are one of the biggest sources of new traffic for KOA, Hepp said.
Wood suggested not just working your local network to talk about what you have to offer. She recommends opening up a new avenue of bringing people in by converting rec halls — “Totally outdated. They have better games on their phones.” — to meeting space.
Be active on Facebook, commenting on local events, not just your own campground events, to help raise visibility, she added.
Billboards with a simple message are important for raising visibility, Hepp and Bell said.
Key to any marketing — billboard, Facebook, website, newspaper — is good-quality photographs, Wood said. “There’s nothing more important than photographs. Great pictures are the most valuable thing you can do.”
Identifying and Managing Risks
Insurance isn’t usually an exciting topic, but it’s an important one. And surprisingly, it’s a topic that has a lot of room for humor. That’s why Chris Hipple of Leavitt Recreation Insurance of Sturgis, S.D., opened his ARVC presentation on risk management by describing himself as “a boring insurance guy” and showing a humorous video of senior citizens finding creative ways to injure themselves on camera.
“Risk management is basically everything in that video,” Hipple told the campground operators. “Our job’s to take the fun out of everything. Essentially, if it can be done where you say, ‘Hold my beer and watch this,’ something bad will happen.”
In all seriousness, though, Hipple pointed out that since 2006, Philadelphia Insurance Cos., which underwrites most campgrounds in the U.S., has paid $86 million in campground claims, which drive the industry’s premiums up.
Leavitt sees about $4 million in new claims each year. The largest amount of those are slips or trips and falls, followed by structure fires and then weather-related claims.
“Even small things like uneven concrete end up being big things,” Hipple said. “A wobbly step can be a big thing.”
In fact, two people tripping and falling on a campground can cost the insurance company as much as a building burning down, he maintained.
“We can’t prevent all bad things from happening. Sometimes things are going to happen,” he acknowledged. But campground operators who do their part to help head off problems help not only themselves and their guests, but all campground operators who have insurance. “Claims happen. You can’t stop them, but you can mitigate, minimize and prepare.”
Hipple offered a variety of suggestions:
- Document places on your grounds where people can fall down.
- Make sure your playground surface complies with federal guidelines.
- Don’t allow children to drive golf carts; 70% of golf-cart-related claims involve drivers younger than 21.
- Are speeders a problem? Install well-marked speed humps, ideally the pre-fabricated kind, and adopt a zero-tolerance policy.
- Keep track of your tree maintenance and trimming.
- The single best tip? Plan and document. “Develop a maintenance log. It will save you in court and you won’t be embarrassed. That maintenance and tree log will reduce your claims.”
Maintaining the log will also create a culture where you and your staff are looking for things needing fixed and writing them down instead of ignoring them, Hipple said. “Studies have shown that if people walk by something three times and accept it, it ceases to exist for them. They don’t even notice it anymore.” That’s dangerous in day-to-day operations at a campground.
Getting the Reservation
Scott Anderson, a long-time hotelier who now heads up the Florida-based Cruise Inn RV Parks and Cabins brand network, offered ARVC attendees tips on turning inquiries into reservations.
“There are two types of reservations you’re going to get: Someone you’re going to talk to — a telephone call, a walk-in — or an electronic reservation that might come through your website, a mobile site, a third-party site or through referral sites. In some cases it’s both. People are going to do their research online and then they’re going to pick up the phone and call.
“Roughly 22% of reservations come electronically one way or another,” he said. However, there was a 10% jump in the number of RV owners using websites between 2013 to 2014, he noted.
“Fifty percent of RV owners use Google as a tool to plan trips. If you are not well listed in Google, you are missing half of your potential customers.”
When it comes to phone calls, 85% of guests still interact with parks by telephone, making phone calls a key point of contact. “When you hire someone,” he said, “and you know that they’re going to be on the phone, how many of you interview them first on the phone to hear what their phone voice sounds like and how their personality comes through?”
Accordingly, Anderson suggested doing that to make sure they’re a good listener, social, coachable, confident and enthusiastic. He advised park operators to train reservation personnel to know the property, the features, advantages and benefits of various sites.
Anderson also suggested that campground operators have a clear call process for staff members and that staff members be required to answer the telephone quickly.
Anderson also recommended keeping track of refusals — guests who decline to come — and denials, or guests who want a site on a night that’s not available. Parks should adjust prices accordingly, he maintained. He urged park operators to not drop prices for people. “It is less expensive on average to stay a night in an RV park than to rent a tuxedo. Don’t cave on price. Recommend a cheaper park.”
But as important as the telephone is today, it stands to lose prominence as time goes on, Anderson said. “If you do not have a website booking engine, it’s time to get into the 21st century. Today 70% of hotel reservations are made online, half of those through third parties — Expedia, Travelocity, etc. In 2000, that was 3%.”
Have good photos of sites and provide positive descriptions of them anywhere you have sites listed online, Anderson suggested.
“The world is changing and we as an industry must keep up. But don’t forget personal interaction is still the most important thing in getting the reservation,” he continued. “Technology is coming and it’s going to run over you like a Class A going 85 mph. Get into the 21st century, but don’t forget about that sales call.”