Editor’s Note: Peter Pelland is the CEO of Pelland Advertising, a company that he founded in 1980 that has been serving the family camping industry for nearly 40 years. His company specializes in building fully responsive websites, along with producing a full range of four-color process print advertising, for clients from coast to coast. Learn more about Pelland Advertising at www.pelland.com.
If there is one thing that is certain with respect to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is that it has almost universally inflicted a negative impact upon small businesses, campgrounds included. It has been a wild and bumpy ride that is far from over as I pen this column in late June of 2020. In most instances, the timing of the pandemic could not have been worse, delaying openings and leading to a wave of cancellations at the start of the season.
Campgrounds that were forced to delay their openings longer than those in most other states, understandably upset that their ability to generate income had been severely hindered, may end up faring better in the long run compared to parks in states that jumped the gun at reopening. With several Northeastern states — particularly New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts—- representing early hot spots for the virus, some of the less densely populated states may be hitting their peaks at the height of the summer camping season — a situation that could end up being far worse than a delayed opening.
Wherever you fit in the continually evolving map, there is no question that you are going to have to get creative in order to at least partially offset an overall loss of anticipated income.
Reach Out to Non-Campers
Despite the fact that the airlines and the hotel industry are making serious attempts to persuade the public that they have made changes to safeguard the health and well-being of their passengers and guests, some of the last things that most people want to do at this time would be to take a non-essential flight and stay in a big hotel. There is even less desire to take a cruise (if the cruise lines were open) or to be a part of a large indoor event (if most of them were not canceled out of respect for both common sense and the public welfare.) The hotel industry is adapting what are called enhanced cleaning protocols to sanitize guest rooms, common areas, and key touchpoints. For the time being, guests should not expect breakfast buffets, welcome drinks or minibars, and nobody wants to ride on a crowded elevator with a man who is not wearing a mask and who just sneezed.
With all of the hesitancies that are challenging the hotel industry, campgrounds are rightly perceived as a much safer lodging alternative, particularly those that offer full-service cabins and other accommodations that appeal to people who have been non-campers. Of course, you need to practice those same enhanced cleaning protocols that apply to hotel rooms; however, you should embrace the opportunity to be able to reach out to a new category of guests who are new to the camping experience. This might mean stepping up your offerings of services and amenities that might have been expected in a more conventional setting, many of which offer new opportunities for added income. For example, just as hotel guests might rely on room service to order meals, you might offer deliveries of things like ice, firewood, and even pizza. You might also want to consider advance check-ins, express check-outs, escorting new guests to their sites, and adding branded face masks and sanitizer products to your store inventory.
Consider Extending Your Season
Although experts within the medical and infectious disease communities are currently predicting a 75% likelihood of a second wave of outbreaks in the fall (based upon previous pandemics in 1918 and 1957), should this not occur, you might want to consider extending your camping season beyond its usual closing date. This represents another means of compensating for some of your likely losses both at the start and at the height of your season. The interest in camping is less likely to wane at the end of the summer as may have been the case in past years. Schools may or may not be reopening, and spectator sports like NCAA and NFL football are likely to either be canceled or have restricted attendance. In normal years, unless your park was located in close proximity to an NCAA college campus or sports stadium, the seasonal interest in these events tended to divert a portion of your guests away from camping. Those guests might now be quite willing to continue their camping seasons, particularly after getting off to a late start.
Recruit Seasonal Campers
There has always been somewhat of a quandary between whether a park should have a greater number of seasonal or transient campers. When occupancy rates are high, there is no question that transient sites generate more income than seasonal sites. On the other hand, seasonal sites represent stable income that is as safe and secure as money in the bank. In 2020, with phased business reopenings in most states, there is no question that predominantly seasonal or all-seasonal parks fared far better than parks that cater primarily to overnight guests. In particular, parks that rely upon their proximity to major nearby attractions have been hurt badly while many of those attractions have remained closed. Hurt even worse have been parks that cater to a highly mobile clientele, located midway along a highway connecting two major attractions.
Now might be the right time to consider converting a number of your park’s overnight sites into seasonal sites. With that same desire for safety and security, many campers are showing a first-time interest in becoming seasonals. Promote the availability of these new sites on your website and social media, not only for 2021 but offering pro-rated opportunities for the current season to your existing guests. If you have transient guests who are returning for multiple stays, reach out to them personally to offer them one or more incentives to become seasonals. Sometimes it is simply a matter of asking them what it would take on your part to persuade them to make the decision.
When it is necessary to adapt to changing times, it is important to be flexible and to think of innovative ways to safeguard your income, profitability, and your ultimate business survival.