When the Ott family purchased a dilapidated, failing campground near Orlando, Fla., in 2008, the first changes they made were brick and mortar: new paved roads, concrete pads, all-new electrical, cable and Wi-Fi, new shower and restroom facilities, as well as a 9,000 square foot clubhouse. And, of course, those improvements were the most critical in making Wekiva Falls RV Resort the successful business that it has become.
More recently, however, as Wekiva Falls left its partnership with Kampgrounds of America Inc. (KOA) in 2013, they faced the significant challenge of reinventing their brand and starting from the ground up on a website as the centerpiece of a new marketing campaign. With some out-of-the-box thinking and solid goals for the website, Wekiva Falls marketing director and co-owner Heidi (Ott) Runels told Woodall’s Campground Management that they’re extremely satisfied with the results and happy to share their experience with others.
“The new website has definitely brought in a lot of new business,” Runels said. “I think it has to be a major part of any marketing effort. It’s the first impression that 90 percent of your customers are going to get.”
In her case, after shopping around and doing a lot of research, Runels decided to hire California-based Big Rig Media to not only build the new website but to help create a seamless marketing campaign, including a new logo, print ads and brochures.
That decision was initiated by a recommendation from an existing partner, but ultimately it came down to the Big Rig portfolio. “Everything they had on their website looked extremely professional, and was very much in line with what we were looking for,” Runels said. “We wanted to make a big splash and felt like they could help with that.”
Inspired by the Wekiva Falls experience, WCM asked several experts in the field to chime-in for a discussion of outdoor hospitality websites and the pitfalls and best practices in the industry.
Start By Analyzing: What’s Going On At Your Site?
When it comes to rebuilding or retooling, several of the professionals we spoke with recommended analysis as a first step. That was certainly the case for David Strait, proprietor of Strait Answers, a marketing company based in Antioch, Calif., that specializes in RV campgrounds and resorts. Strait said that he doesn’t often suggest complete website rebuilds like they took on at Wekiva Falls.
“Typically I’m inheriting a website that someone else created and I have to go in and see where the bodies are buried,” he said. “It’s pretty common that the web designers aren’t steeped in the RV industry, the vocabulary of it, what the buying cycle is or the most important features of a park. So I’m often filling that role, among many.”
One of the first things he does, and something Strait suggests for anyone taking on a website redesign, is to install Google Analytics onto the existing site, which then allows a detailed look at traffic flow and user behavior.
For example, Strait said, it allows you to see what type of keyword combinations users are typing into their browser that brings them to the website, the number of visitors coming to your site from places like Good Sam, how long visitors stay on your homepage, the percentage of users who book online, and the percentage of users who click on each tab within your page, among many other data sets.
“So the analysis will inform the design,” he said. “Why would you start a whole new website from the ground up until you’ve spent six months looking at those reports?”
While Strait says that it should be relatively inexpensive for a park owner to hire a consultant like him to simply install Google Analytics, it’s also something that a tech-savvy park staff member could manage.
“Campground owners can install it themselves with a little technical knowledge or have their web designer do it, or hire someone to do it,” he said. “Then they can get monthly reports to really broaden the understanding of what they need to do with the website.”
For her part, Nevada-based Roadabode Productions Principal Evanne Schmarder agrees that analysis can be a solid starting point. As an outdoor recreation communications consultant offering similar services to what Strait does, Schmarder says that she finds Google Analytics a bit complicated for most owners to install and navigate alone. She also feels that there are several steps that should be paired with analysis, which leads us to the next tip.
Know Your Customers, Develop Goals
To better understand the data they mine from analytical tools and to make better use of it moving forward, Schmarder says it’s critical that owners do two things: Know why existing customers are choosing their park and develop goals for what they want their website to accomplish. For those who choose full-service companies like Big Rig Media or Texas Advertising, this step will likely be incorporated into the process, but it’s something that some owners may want to do in-house or with the help of a consultant.
“If park owners don’t know what their goals are for the website and what they should be shooting for, then they don’t see the benefit of a website,” Schmarder said. “The specific goals that people come up with are going to be dependent on the unique qualities of their business, but what’s really important is that they have a way to create those goals and a path forward. I think that’s the most difficult part.”
Schmarder cited the example of how a park with 1,000 winter snowbird sites might have very different goals than a 100-site urban park.
“Maybe the 100-site park is full all the time and they’re just trying to build top-of-mind future business and customer loyalty,” Schmarder said. “Whereas the 1,000-site park might be much more focused on reaching new audiences or generating online booking with a focused call to action.”
As for the best way to know your customers — essential for creating goals and having a direction for your website — the experts recommended going straight to the source. “Talk to your customers, find out why they picked you,” Strait said. “Find out why people are coming to your park and emphasize that.”
Schmarder agreed. “If they need to, they can single out a few of their better customers and do a quick three-question survey,” she said. “Have the manager drive around the grounds and ask people those questions. Give them a bundle of firewood for participating. Ask different demographics. Get a nice cross section. See what people are thinking.”
Among the industry veterans we surveyed, there was one unanimous recommendation: Unless a park owner or staff member has been professionally trained in design, they should seek experienced, professional help when it comes to site layout and design. It may seem self-serving for marketing professionals to warn against the do-it-yourself route, but they all insisted that it isn’t about getting more business for themselves but about helping to create thriving businesses for others.
Peter Pelland, owner of Pelland Advertising based in Hayden, Mass., put it this way: “We do occasionally run into owners who have built their websites themselves, or they’ve had their son or daughter do it, or even a camper,” he said. “But these are formulas for disaster. Turning web design over to a friend or relative just because they are more comfortable using computers, that’s probably going to end up costing way more than any amount saved on web design.”
Runels at Wekiva Falls echoed that sentiment. “Hands down the best choice we made was to go with Big Rig Media,” she said. “I think it’s important to look at professional web design as an investment that will pay for itself, because if it’s done right, it will.”
Braden Walker, web director at Texas Advertising, said that while there are legitimate free website building programs out there (such as Wix and Weebly) they tend to be very basic with limited options. “If you really just can’t afford to pay for one, then I’d rather see you build one with something like Wix, rather than giving your grandson’s friend $100 to do one,” he said. “Even though I personally don’t like it, at least there will be some level of customer service if things don’t work.”
Make Sure Your Site Is Up-to-Date with Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
Search Engine Optimization, or SEO, is one acronym that’s worth knowing even if you plan to fully outsource all of your marketing including your web design. It’s very likely that the term will come up, and because it’s so commonly used in site design and marketing circles, it may not come with an explanation. SEO plays an important role in how visible your business is online and it’s worth understanding even for the most delegation-minded owner or manager.
The term itself isn’t so difficult to understand. Search engine optimization at its core is simply the practice of making your website as visible as possible to search engines (like Google, Bing, etc.), and ensuring that it is ranked as high as possible in those search engines when it comes to all pertinent descriptions of your business.
For example, if you have a park outside of Auburn, Calif., then having solid SEO will ensure that you’re ranked high with search terms like “RV Park near Auburn, CA.” You’ll also want to shoot for high rankings when any combination of “RV Park,” “campground” and nearby major attractions are entered, such as Sacramento, Lake Tahoe and Eldorado National Forest.
But there can be some subtleties to SEO as Strait pointed out. To stay with our example, Strait said he had a friend with a park in the area, which is commonly referred to as California’s Gold Country.
“I did back-of-house scanning to see which words show up on the page and what words Google used to index site,” Strait said. “Well he didn’t have gold country anywhere on his site. He had the city name, he had gold panning, and he had prospecting, but he didn’t have gold country.”
One of the fundamental methods for good SEO, Strait said, is to “make sure that you include on your website all the activities that people do on your grounds or in your local area, as well as the reasons that people come visit you. You can even just make a bullet list.”
Another common SEO technique that worked for Runels at Wekiva Falls was to include a topical and relevant blog on the website. “In my SEO research, I kept coming across the importance of pushing content,” Runels said. “ So one of the things that was important to me was the WordPress platform so I could create a blog. And it’s not just me rambling about what’s going on at the park, it’s specific to pertinent events and detailed information. So I can make sure that each post is relevant and going somewhere and related to the content that we have.”
One unique feature of SEO is that the algorithms that Google and others use to rank search returns are constantly changing, so a trick that worked five years ago may not work now. “SEO is a moving target,” Pelland said. “So you really have to make sure that whoever you hire is on top of it and versed in the latest technology.”
While all of our experts agreed that there are methods for SEO that work very well, because the topic is somewhat murky for those outside of the field, they caution owners to be wary of scammers in the field, often in the form of companies that don’t do web design, but just bill themselves as SEO specialists.
“One company we found was charging up to $2,500 a month for SEO and when we looked at it, they were doing virtually nothing,” Pelland said. “It’s important to do your research, ask to talk to existing clients and get some input from other companies when it comes to SEO. There is a lot of snake oil out there.”
Stay Simple and Focused
One thing that kept coming up over and over in our discussions was the importance of staying focused and relatively simple with your website. As the Internet gained momentum in the late ‘90s, many sites (even professional ones) featured a dizzying array of tabs and drop-down menus, as well as animation and often music. Web design researchers are finding, however, that most users quickly click away from these types of audiovisual assaults, thus the trend has been to simplify and clarify in professional design.
“Usually there are only a couple things users want to know,” Strait said. “Is this an RV Park? Does it look like I would go there? What do they charge? Where the heck is it? If you don’t answer those questions right away with your website, then they’re going to move away quickly.”
“We do know the qualities of a successful website,” Schmarder agreed. “It should be easy to navigate, have large, compelling photos that demonstrate the best features, the tabs should be clear, and the fewer clicks to get to information the better. You don’t really want a very deep site.”
At Texas Advertising, Walker said that the term they use for this is a “clean site,” which is something they are constantly suggesting to clients. “You may really want dancing reindeer on your home page,” he said. “But that is probably going to confuse the user and end up losing you business.”
Leverage Third Parties with Wider Audiences
Website traffic tends to build on itself. The more you get, the more visible your site becomes, which in turn leads to more traffic. To help jump start their traffic, Runels and Wekiva Falls turned to third parties, specifically popular “online coupon” sites like Groupon and Living Social.
“We created a couple different campaigns with Groupon and Living Social back in 2011,” Runels said. “We started with just regular water park admission and canoeing coupons and then expanded to the camping sphere. The amount of traffic coming to our website when we were running those campaigns was out of this world. Numbers I could never recreate. They were a powerful tool to expose our campground to people who had no idea we existed, whether they ended up getting the deal or not. Then we took the idea of package deal and do that in house. We now have them available on our website all the time and run them through Paypal Business.”
This third-party approach can also be applied in the realm of travel reviews, says Schmarder, who advocates that clients lean on heavily trafficked review sites like Trip Advisor or Yelp, rather than incorporating a review feature directly onto their company website.
“Reviews are going to happen whether you’re looking at them or not,” Schmarder said. “I’d just recommend that owners respond as much as possible to reviews on popular third-party sites. You can always put a Trip Advisor badge or Yelp badge on your site to show users that you’re not afraid of reviews.”
— Ty Adams
What to Ask Potential Web Designers
Looking for a web designer or a full-service marketing company to help launch or re-launch a website? Here is a brief list of important questions to ask that will help with selecting the right partner for the job.
- Does your company have experience creating sites for the hospitality industry or outdoor hospitality industry? How many similar projects have you completed?
- Who will be the project lead? Can we see his/her portfolio?
- Will you help develop goals for the website or will we be required to do this on our own?
- What will be the process for coming up with site content?
- Who will be maintaining and updating the site once it’s built? How will this be accomplished?
- Will there be an administrative tracking feature like Google Analytics installed on the site?
- Will basic Search Engine Optimization (SEO) be included in the cost of building the site, or is that extra? Can you explain your specific SEO techniques?
- Will the proposed site be fully functional and easy to view (responsive) on all of the current smartphones and tablets?
- What are the up-front charges and do-you tack on recurring fees?
Areas of Differing Opinion
While the experts we interviewed often agreed on most points, there were some subjects where the opinions diverged. Three of the biggest? The importance of using social media, having a website that operates on mobile devices and integrating an online booking feature. For example, at Pelland Advertising, they place a big priority on customers getting a responsive website that will function on all types of mobile devices. David Strait, however, feels that this is a feature that price-savvy owners can leave out without sweating it too much, especially if their demographic is older.
“The older folks are just not doing travel research on their cell phones,” he said. “You still have to do a website that looks good on a desktop or a laptop.”
Strait also said that his study of websites using Google Analytics has led him to see things a bit differently from his peers when it comes to online booking and social media.
“For all of the client websites I’ve done, when it comes to booking, the percentage of traffic of users who are actually completing a booking online is less than 1%” he said. “It’s very shocking. And I can tell you that social media is meaningless in web traffic for all my clients. You don’t have to worry about Facebook unless you want to do Facebook. That’s usually a relief.”
Roadabode on Common Mistakes and Best Practices
Have written goals and use analytics to measure those goals.
Change content on your site on a weekly basis.
Delegate web updating to a staff member or a staff team.
Incomplete information: No pricing, no info about the camping sites, etc.
Creating too many clicks to find information. Make it easily navigable.
Lack of visuals. Sometimes too much text or just a simple lack of images.
Strait Answers on Common Mistakes and Best Practices
Install Google Analytics or something similar to better understand traffic on your site.
Ask customers why they visit your park. Incorporate those reasons and keywords into your website.
Tailor the amount of website you need to your park size and budget. A small, seasonal, out-of-the-way park may be wasting money on a fancy $10,000 website.
Inconsistent advertising vehicles. Website should be consistent with brochures, ads, logo, etc.
Creating a confusing home page by trying to cram too many elements in.
Websites with no call to action. Effective sites use design and content to nudge users to take action, like making a reservation.
Pelland Advertising Common Mistakes and Best Practices
Responsive, responsive, responsive. Optimize websites for usability across mobile devices.
Provide a quality user experience based on what is going to appeal to your market, not just what you like.
Consistency in branding across platforms. Tie your website to your other forms of advertising through look and language.
Trying to do it yourself
Thinking the website is anything less than mission critical/compromising on quality
Investing in old technology
Texas Advertising Common Mistakes and Best Practices
Include crucial information customers need, such as rates, amenities, photos.
Create a clean-looking website that is easy to navigate.
Make sure that your site can be found easily through search engine optimization.
Lack of content. Try to fill out your page as much as possible with quality content.
Too many clicks to get to important information like rates, or leaving that content out completely.
Lack of photos or poor quality photos.