Without a doubt, providing Wi-Fi service to guests is one of the most troublesome issues a park operator has to face. Aside from the cost, the confusing details of an ever-evolving technology is enough to send anyone over a cliff.
Fortunately, businesses exist that can relieve most of the pain. One of those, TengoInternet, is one of the more familiar names in the campground industry. Based in Austin and San Antonio, Texas, TengoInternet has installed 1,500-plus Wi-Fi networks for RV resorts, campgrounds and lodging operators throughout North America. In addition to network design, installation, support and monitoring, TengoInternet’s Wi-Fi lifecycle solutions include ISP management, consumer liability services, and branded options.
Recently, Kevin Lloyd, TengoInternet’s director of sales and marketing, sat down to answer a few questions from Woodall’s Campground Management.
WCM: It perhaps might have started out as a marketing campaign, but in all honesty a campground owner should really view their Internet service as no longer an amenity but as a utility, much like sewer, water and electric. Are you finding that park owners now recognize this as well?
Lloyd: What we do is driven almost entirely by what consumers are asking for. It’s not that the park or TengoInternet came along one day and said, ‘Wi-Fi needs to be the fourth utility.’ It’s that modern travelers today, by virtue of their lives outside of RV parks and campgrounds, are so much more connected. As they travel, they feel like they need that Internet connection just as much as they feel they need electricity, water and gas.
What we see is if a park puts in really great Wi-Fi — and the emphasis there is on “really great Wi-Fi” — a couple of things happen. First, their guests are willing to stay an extra day or two because they don’t feel the urgency to get back to ‘the real world.’ Second, those consumers are actually willing to pay extra for that service.
It is a utility and, if you think about it, the expense of that utility is passed along in one form or another to the consumer. We use the word utility specifically because it has to work right. And, because of that expectation of working right, parks can and should now charge for providing that utility. The days of 100% free Wi-Fi are coming to an end because free Wi-Fi was for ‘best-efforts’ Wi-Fi. Most consumers today are going to be willing to pay if they know that it is going to be excellent Wi-Fi, and that puts it into the category of being called a utility.
WCM: What is the freemium model of Wi-Fi service?
Lloyd: Freemium stands for ‘free’ plus ‘premium.’ So you can have a free level and a premium level, but if you’re going to have a premium level it has to be worth paying for.
How it works is somebody would log in and they would be presented with two options. They would see ‘free basic Wi-Fi for the duration of your stay at the park’ or ‘paid high speed Wi-Fi.’ Right then and there they would put in their credit card information and when they click the ‘Go’ button on the premium plan, then they would automatically get the higher speed Wi-Fi service. By the way, this is just like you do in most hotels today; this model has been around for a decade in the hotel industry. And the best part is that this revenue belongs to the park, not TengoInternet.
Some consumers will still want free Wi-Fi and that could be high speed for a free hour of service, or free basic speed for unlimited amount of time – the options are customizable by the park. But that doesn’t mean everyone has the expectation of free Wi-Fi. For those who don’t expect free Wi-Fi and are comfortable with paying for higher speed, that option needs to be available.
WCM: What level of Wi-Fi service would be considered a premium?
Lloyd: The short answer is that each park is different, and that no campground alone should just take a guess at it. We’ve been doing this for 15 years for a thousand parks, so it’s taken a long time for us to be able to look at an 800-site RV park and say, based on your demographics, your average occupancy, your seasonality, the average number of people you have per RV — all of those factors go into answering that question — that we would recommend you to have 400 or 500 megabytes per second – whatever it happens to be.
One thing we know is that the very first question to ask is always, ‘What kind of experience do you want to provide?’ And every RV Park needs to answer that question for themselves because there are definitely different tiers of Wi-Fi quality out there, and consumers today know the difference. Park operators could say, ‘Well, I want a basic experience where people can just check email’ or, ‘I want to provide the at home experience where people can stream movies all day long.’ Those two different experiences require different network architecture, require different bandwidth, and require different levels of investment. But the park needs to be the one that answers that question.
The key to remember is that the bandwidth a park needs is likely going to increase year over year.
Part of what we talk to customers about is that Wi-Fi has a lifecycle, so you need someone who’s going to be there with you and have a conversation with you every single year. ‘Is this meeting your business needs?’ We talk to our customers and ask, ‘How’s your bandwidth going? Do you still have enough? Can you get more? How much is that going to cost? Do you want me to call the ISP and negotiate for you?’
That’s really important because its not a ‘set it and forget it’ type of situation. It’s not like a swimming pool. Folks should be expecting to reinvest in their Wi-Fi probably every four to five years. That’s not because the equipment is going to die, it’s because consumers in five years are going to expect something completely different then what they expect today.
WCM: Without getting too technical, what are some of the longstanding obstacles — i.e. limited bandwidth, property topography, metal-sided RVs — that campgrounds have to overcome to provide a good Wi-Fi service? Are there any technological advancements coming that would help overcome those obstacles?
Lloyd: You touched on one: limited bandwidth. The foundation of putting in great Wi-Fi is having sufficient bandwidth. You can be in the most beautiful part of the country, but your online reviews are going to get killed if you don’t have great Wi-Fi. There is a satellite provider we work very closely with who, in probably the next year or so, will be launching a satellite that will have near-cable Internet speeds and almost no data cap. That is going to be a game changer in the RV park and campground Wi-Fi space. It’s going to really change things because you’ve got folks out there who are on a T1 line and paying $600 a month for it — or a DSL line from AT&T that drops when the weather gets bad — who will now be able to offer park-wide streaming Wi-Fi.
No. 2 has to do with the type of Wi-Fi networking access points people are buying. One of the constraints today is the sheer number of Wi-Fi devices that people are bringing with them. What most folks don’t realize is older Wi-Fi access points can only handle a certain number of devices at the same time. That maximum is usually only about 20 or 25 devices, so if you’ve got 20 RV pads under a radio and each pad has two devices you’re going to max out your radio pretty quickly.
The best access points out there, the ones that we sell and like the best, can handle upwards of 90 or 100 unique devices. That is a critical factor to consider when you are putting in Wi-Fi – we call it the rainy day test: if you’ve got a rainy day and you have 30 RVs and three people per RV and everybody is screaming their Smart TV and checking their email, then the radio for those 30 RVs needs to have the capacity to handle that volume of devices. That’s a requirement for any campground that wants to be serious about their Wi-Fi.
The last point I would make as far as what’s coming up for RV parks is what we call the “Internet of Things.” This is more exciting for RV parks than it is for consumers. Everything is about to get Wi-Fi friendly. We’re talking about lockers, bathrooms doors, meters, cameras and more. There are already parks out there that are figuring out they can save a whole lot of money on staff time and a whole lot of expense by putting in devices that they can operate from the front office over their Wi-Fi network.
I’ll give you an example. Anaheim RV Resort near Disneyland has locks on its bathrooms that are triggered automatically over Wi-Fi, so they don’t have to send somebody out there everyday to lock and unlock the doors. The same thing is possible with meters; if you’ve got to 600-site RV park and you’ve got to read a meter every time somebody leaves, that’s a big job. But meters that can be read over Wi-Fi are a huge time and cost saver. The ROI you can get on automating is pretty significant.
Wi-Fi started out as a consumer service but it’s soon going to be just as important and just as beneficial for the park operator and park staff in the efficiency that they can create on the property. This is a big trend we see coming in 2016. But at the end of the day it still all comes down to guest satisfaction.
WCM: Is there anything RV manufacturers can do that can make their units more Wi-Fi friendly?
Lloyd: Yes, absolutely. There are devices that will pull Wi-Fi out of the air and rebroadcast it inside the vehicle. That is a wonderful tool to have because when you install outdoor Wi-Fi, it really is truly that — it’s outdoor Wi-Fi. It will get into the RV, but if the RV is older and it’s made out of aluminum or doesn’t have a lot of windows, then there may be trouble.
There are third-party devices — like the Wi-Fi Ranger — that manufacturers could include or at least make available as an option. That’s not to be confused with a device that broadcasts its own signal. You don’t want that because it’s going to compete with the Wi-Fi from the campground.