Campground Management Myths Debunked – Part 2

Campground Management Myths
David Gorin

Last month’s column featured 5 popular campground management myths and this month we continue that conversation with 5 other myths that seem to be particularly popular these days.  And once again, my thanks to colleague Evanne Schmarder for sharing some of her campground management myths.

As always, reader contributions are encouraged.  Are there other campground management myths you’ve come across that you would like to share?  Leave a reply below so we can share them with our colleagues.

Myth 6 (we left off last month at Myth 5)

 Work Campers are Free Help. Or at least they are inexpensive help.

 Nothing could be further from the truth but it’s this campground  management myth that makes the concept of having RVers work in a park so attractive to many park owners.  Everyone who works in a park carries some cost equal to at least the federal or state minimum wage.  Federal law requires businesses to pay their employees and generally volunteers are not permitted.  Every worker must be compensated in some form, either cash or a combination of cash, living expenses and other benefits to which a cost is clearly assigned (electricity, use of a company car, etc.).

As an aside here, if you are hiring minimum wage staff, there’s a good chance you’re getting minimum quality people.

Myth 7

 ADA compliance isn’t terribly important; in all the years I’ve owned this park, I’ve had only one or two persons with disabilities as guests.

 Assuring that your park is compliant (or working towards compliance) with the various provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act is important for several reasons.  First, the ADA is a federal law and your business must be complying with federal laws.  Failure to comply can open you up to federal lawsuits brought by the US Department of Justice if a guest files a complaint with the Justice Department.  Second, parks that offer ADA compliant facilities and services and welcome persons with disabilities will find that niche market to be a profitable addition to their business.  Approximately 8% of all Americans have a disability that is covered by the ADA – and that’s a market that is as large as the RV market – about 8% of all American households own an RV.

Compliance with ADA not only makes your park accessible to people with disabilities, it also makes your park more attractive to senior citizens and to families with young children, both of whom share the benefits of ADA compliant facilities and amenities.

Myth 8

 A large majority of my guests come from more than 50-75 miles away.  There’s really no reason for me to advertise locally or be very involved or concerned about my community.

 When they review the geographic distribution of their guests, many park owners are quite surprised to see how many guests come from 25 miles or less from their park.  Local folks who own RVs are always looking for places to go and even just 25 miles from home can feel like a real vacation – even for just a day or two.

Being known locally, being involved in local civic, business and other groups will surely lead to referrals from people in your community who may have friends, relatives, friends of friends and so on.  Just 25 camper nights resulting from local referrals at $40/night is an extra $1000 in revenue this year and over the next 10 years as fees rise and your reputation grows locally you could be looking at way more than $10,000 in revenue as a result of local involvement.

One other thing.  You never know when you will have an emergency need that someone locally can help address.  People help people they know and like and that will help them when needed.  Buying locally, supporting community and being an active player in addressing community needs will put you in a position to where others will want to help you in times of need or trouble.

Myth 9

 I’ve owned and run many successful small businesses – a restaurant, a HVAC company, and a self storage facility.  And I own some rental vacation properties.  Running a campground is a piece of cake and I really don’t need to go to industry meetings and conventions.  Not much more I can learn.

 Like any business, while running a campground may not be rocket science, an RV park or campground has many unique characteristics and aspects not found in most other businesses.

There are very few businesses where the customer is in the “store” for 24 hours at a time, where you have to provide for their basic needs like water and heat or a/c, and take care of their hygienic and bodily needs.

There are very few businesses where the customers are in such close quarters with each other for long periods of time, where they are sleeping, eating and doing whatever else they do in a small box maybe just 15 feet from their neighbor, where they often share bathrooms with strangers, and where their conversation, music, television, and kids can be heard by surrounding neighbors.

And how many businesses are there where the owner or manager has to be a store keeper, a utility operator, a recreation director, a swimming pool operator, a social worker (to deal with difficult people and seasonal campers), personnel specialist, maintenance expert, and do all of this not just with the guest looking over their shoulder, but often their spouse and kids watching and commenting on every move.

Fortunately, there are numerous ways for the new park owner to gain the knowledge necessary to transfer from former businesses to owning and operating a campground.  Trying to build a successful campground business based on your previous business experience could be a fatal mistake.

Myth 10

Walmart is killing my site nights and taking my business.

 If you are simply providing amenity-free, no hook up, parking lot camping and charging for it, yes, you may be losing site nights to Walmart to those campers looking for that type of overnight camping.    Walmart (and other parking lots) offer amenity-free, no hook up, parking lot camping for free so if you are offering a similar experience and charging for it, you will probably lose some business.

However, if you are a full service RV park and are priced appropriately for your market you will attract those RVers who seek a full service RV park experience.  You and Walmart are competition with each other the way a Motel 6 is in competition with a Hilton. Both levels of accommodations will attract a specific market each night.  Motel 6 customers will always go to a Motel 6; Hilton customers will go to Hiltons.  Only rarely will a Hilton customer go to Motel 6 or a Motel 6 customer go to a Hilton.

Yes, sometime Hilton guests will stay at a Motel 6, but that’s generally when no Hilton is nearby.  And yes, some campers will stay some nights at Walmart, but generally that’s when there is either no full service campground nearby, or it is difficult to get to, or the price is out of the ballpark.

How to compete with Walmart for campers?

Here are some ideas:   Add value to your overnight experience – offer a complimentary continental breakfast each morning; provide a discount coupon for use in your park on a return trip; charge non-overnight RVers full price to use your dump station; offer a travel rate for arrivals after 7 pm and departure by 8 am; offer complimentary shuttle service from your park to Walmart for guest shopping, etc.

I don’t mean to minimize the damage a Walmart parking lot can cause to a nearby campground.  But Walmart’s focus is on retail sales.  Your focus is on overnight camping.  Walmart knows more about retail then you do – and you know more about RV parks and RVers than Walmart.  Focus on your strengths and think out of the box.  Rather than wasting time and energy on Walmart, put that time and energy into attracting more guests to your park.  It’s not always about the money.

Campground Management Myths – We Want to Hear from You!

Comments?  Criticisms? Suggestions?  Weigh in on the campground management myths discussion by leaving a reply below.

People of the Park Business: An Interview with Mark Douglass

Mark Douglass, President & CEO of the RVing Accessibility Group
Mark Douglass, President & CEO of the RVing Accessibility Group

People Who Make Things Happen in the Park Business

The plan is to each month share the thoughts, ideas and wisdom of people who influence RVers, manufacturers, RV dealers, park owners and others with active interests in the park business. I hope you find these interviews interesting and invite your feedback and suggestions to improve the value of this space.

 Introducing Mark Douglass, President & CEO of the RVing Accessibility Group

With all of the angst and exasperation among park owners over the need to install swimming pool lifts and other ADA modifications, I thought it would be good to introduce Mark who is a disabled RVer with 17 years of RVing experience.  Mark was born with mobility disablement and experienced numerous surgeries in his first 18 years to where he could be mobile without depending on his parents or a wheelchair.  Later in life, Mark has experienced more mobility disabilities, and has been permanently disabled since 2001.  Mark has managed an RV campground and has experience dealing with disabled RV travelers from various backgrounds and with various disabilities. Having experienced the challenges of being a traveler with a physical disability, Mark has a passion to help the outdoor recreation industry, specifically campgrounds and RV parks, learn how to be ADA compliant, providing accessibility to their customers with disabilities.  Mark also provides like travelers and their caregivers with relevant and accurate information about campgrounds and RV parks that are accessible.

Mark is a graduate of Oklahoma State University with a Degree in Marketing and a Degree in Business Management, as well as a minor in Business Psychology.  Mark has over 35 years of sales and marketing consulting, quality assurance, and technical specification writing.

Mark spoke at the recent meeting of the Virginia Campground Association and is interested in speaking at state meetings in the coming year.  Mark also consults with park owners to help them evaluate and correct ADA dificiencies in their parks.

DG How did the RV Accessibility Group come about and what are the primary objectives of the organization?

Mark::  RVing Accessibility Group (RVAG) evolved from years of traveling while experiencing serious mobility issues (difficulty walking), requiring the use of a wheelchair during our RV trips.    As a result of my own physical disability and the caregiving by my wife, who experienced as much frustration as I when it came to enjoying the campgrounds, we decided to keep track of campgrounds we would return to for future travel.    Camping and RVing is often harder for the caregiver than the person with the disability.  We never knew if I would ever walk again.  After going through nearly 16 surgeries ending with a total ankle replacement in 2010, I regained most of my mobility, in and of itself a miracle.  We searched the internet for organizations that published wheelchair accessible RV parks, only to find none that were up to date.  It was shortly thereafter that we decided to use our own experience in an effort to help others who are where I have been and help them find ways to enjoy the RV lifestyle and all the outdoors has to offer, regardless of disability.  Our primary objectives are two-fold; 1) to identify and publish RV parks and campgrounds that provide a level of wheelchair accessibility that would provide an overall environment conducive to one’s dignity and independence, and 2) to educate the RV and campground industry on accessibility standards and awareness to help them come into ADA compliance by providing accessibility assessments to identify barriers for removal and developing a transition plan for implementation of ADA compliant standards and features.

DG:   When you speak before campground owner groups, what are you hoping to achieve with these presentations?

Mark: :  When speaking before campground owner groups, it is my hope that campground owners would begin to look at their facility with a different set of eyes.  Not everyone has 2 good legs or perfect eyesight.  Perhaps rent a wheelchair and see just how accessible one’s park really is, starting with the RV site.

 DG As you know, over the last year or two there’s been considerable concern among park owners and other segments of the hospitality business over the swimming pool lift requirements. Compared to other accessibility issues and concerns, do you feel that pool lifts should be a high priority in providing accessible campgrounds or do you think we should be focusing on other barriers that might exist and might be more important in the near term?

Mark:  Each campground should track their amenity use frequency and establish priorities based on customer use.  For families, many times pool time is expected.  To assume that a person in a wheelchair does not want to get in the pool is a bad assumption.  Maybe they don’t, but just maybe if there was a way, they would.  A very common response we receive to this issue is that “we have never had anyone in a wheelchair ask to use the pool”.  As a former high school swimmer who not only grew up in a wheelchair, but ended up in a wheelchair in 1997, I can tell you that for me there is nothing more invigorating than a visit to the pool on a hot day.  The pool lift accessibility requirement became law January 31, 2013 while the majority of other accessibility standards have evolved beginning with the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968, followed by the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and amendments thereof, ADA/ABA Guidelines of 2004, ADAAG for recreation and play areas, including 2006 Accessibility Guidelines by the U.S. Access Board and the most recent 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design, not to mention the 2012 International Building Code.  With this much time between now and then, there really is no reason why campgrounds should not be fully compliant.

DG:   Why should park owners be concerned about full compliance with the ADA? Other than complying with federal law, are there advantages for the park owner in complying?

Mark:   Park owners should be concerned about full compliance because it is the law and not just the right thing to do.  The advantage for park owners complying with the law include attracting a large segment of the RVing population, that often times feels unwelcomed, yet has significant discretionary spending power.  Another advantage is the avoidance of severe penalties that can be assessed by the U.S. Department of Justice or litigation through the private sector.  A common response regarding this issue with campground owners is, “that’s why I have general liability insurance”, yet they fail to understand that in some instances a disability discrimination lawsuit can result in significant monetary damages (in some cases more than what insurance covers, if insurance covers the judgment at all for an ADA non-compliant element that should have been compliant), renovation mandates, and even business closures.  When properly marketed, a fully ADA compliant park can expect significant exposure through various media outlets, increased reputation, increased traffic, increased revenues, and increased repeat business.  Furthermore, there are federal tax credits available to help offset accessibility renovations each year an inaccessible element is made ADA compliant.

DG:   If your campground is fully accessible, how can a park owner market that accomplishment and what might the rewards be and what might the challenges be?

MarkThere are numerous ways to market a fully accessible park/campground.  When done effectively, the results can be truly amazing.  Few websites are dedicated to fully accessible parks.  While the RVing Accessible Group is leading the way in this endeavor, the challenge is finding a “fully” accessible park to publish.  It is like finding a needle in a haystack, if there truly is a needle to be found.  One of the challenges that many park owners face is the issue of people without disabilities co-existing with people who either exhibit disabilities or have invisible disabilities.  It is unfortunate, but with younger generations, there is still the stigma associated with being around a person with a severe disability and staring at such a person.  Disability etiquette and more education is the key to bringing all groups of people into the same world. 

DG:   What can you tell us about the issue of internet and website accessibility? Is this something that should be of concern?

Mark:  Internet and website accessibility is becoming more of an issue as more people with disabilities resume or begin their camping experience.  Many people with visual impairment have screen readers where what is written on the screen is read to the website visitor.  For those with cognitive and intellectual disabilities, some websites are designed where one can mouse over a picture and the picture will be described with the history that goes with it.  While these issues may become more of a concern over time, statistics show that the majority of people who go camping and have a disability have a physical disability.  Yet, all disabilities need be considered and accommodated.

DG:   Finally, what words of advice would you like to share with park owners about RVing and camping and accessibility? What messages do you have for our readers?

MarkI know that when I was a child born with severe clubbed feet and unable to walk that I was fortunate not to be made fun of until I reached Junior High School when the name calling began and even then it was by only a few “bullies”.  By age 18 I had more surgeries than most people have their entire life.  Later in life, after a near fatal car accident, I ended up permanently disabled, and again, endured numerous surgeries to eventually regain my freedom of mobility recently. 

Having been on both sides of the fence, serving and being served, there is one word that brings all people of all ages and disabilities together;  Love.  All living human beings have a beating heart and all have feelings, although some may not appear to care.  I encourage all park owners to treat their employees and customers as they themselves would want to be treated.  Live and exercise the Golden Rule.  I encourage those with disabilities to stand tall and be strong.  Don’t ever give up.  Quitters never win and winners never quit.  So, never quit!  I am an example of one who gave up on ever walking freely again, only to find a solution of a total ankle replacement to give me my freedom back.  The pain was unbearable at times and I told the surgeon that if the implant would not work, to amputate my foot as I would rather lose the foot than live with the pain.  By the grace of God, the implant worked and I am now committed to helping others with disabilities find ways to enjoy the great outdoors.  We all hear how much longer we are living today.  Having said that, life is still too short.  Get out, enjoy life, and enjoy all that Mother Nature has to offer.  Be grateful for what you have and not for what you don’t.  Life is a journey!  Live It!!

RV Park and Campground Management Myths Debunked

After many years (maybe too many) in the park industry there seem to be some popular beliefs held by park owners. I recently spent some time talking with Evanne Schmarder, a full time RVer, host of the RV Cooking Show, co-author of Unconventional Wisdom Works and the instructor of the Digital Workshop and digital marketing expert.  Evanne and I came up with what we think are popular campground management myths being perpetuated through the park industry.

Evanne Schmarder
Evanne Schmarder

Below are some of the campground management myths we’ve identified.  Among the readers of this article there’s likely to be some others you’ve come across.  Why not share them with us and we’ll include them in future Myths columns coming down the line.

 Myth 1

 A campground is a seasonal business.

 Yes, the doors may be open 6 months more or less but the use of the off-season period is critical to growth and success. Every park has at least two seasons – peak or prime season and planning and rejuvenating season.   During the open period the days are often packed with the day to day trials and tribulations of running a business with hundreds or even thousands of people on the property 24/7.  The off season is key to planning, strategizing, expanding, hiring, buying, marketing, educating, and installing.  And it’s time to relax – but not too much, vacation – but not too much, and otherwise energize and re-vitalize. 

 Myth 2

 During the winter people planning for summer camping  understand that we can’t always respond to calls or emails right away (or read during the summer, people planning for winter camping….).

In today’s world, campers (like most of us) want immediate gratification.  We are ready to make reservations now…we want answers to questions now.  Any obstacle to fulfilling my needs now make it very likely that I’ll go elsewhere until I find a business that meets my needs.  If they don’t respond during the winter (or summer) why would I expect they’d do any better when I’m camping there.

Meet the consumer on their terms.  Always have a system in place to meet those needs.

Myth 3

No one’s complaining, so everything must be ok.

All of my comment cards are positive and most of my on line reviews are great.  Sure, there’s the occasional disgruntled camper who takes it out by posting a nasty review on Trip Advisor or RV Park Reviews, but we really don’t get any complaints.  So things are really going well.

No one’s perfect.  Complaints are the best way to learn what needs to be improved.  Seek out complaints.  Don’t disregard any complaints – even those like the mosquitoes were really bad.  There are ways to deal with any complaint.  Use complaints to continuously improve your business.

And it’s common knowledge  that a majority of people who have real complaints won’t really voice them.  They will simply move on to another park and you may never no why.  Keep careful track of your first time guests and whether or not they repeat within a 12 month period.  For every camper who stayed at your park and never returns there may be an unresolved or unknown complaint. 

Myth 4

On the job training is sufficient for campground staff.

If you want a truly high quality staff that can offer your guests the highest standards of hospitality and service, it’s a good idea to have both a formal training program for all staff and to seek out off site opportunities (Chamber of Commerce seminars, local community college  opportunities, state and national industry meetings and education, etc.).  On the job training is one part of a training program.  Manuals, check lists, shadowing, meetings, on line webinars and training, and mentoring programs are also part of a training program.

You can never over-train.  Sending employees to off-site meetings and education opportunities both provide valuable training to the employee while reinforcing how you value the employ and want to help them do better in their jobs and qualify for bonuses or advancement.

Myth 5

We’re a rustic campground so our guests don’t expect much.

Rustic campgrounds are great and have a large market of people who love the rustic atmosphere and ambiance in many campgrounds.  However, that doesn’t mean they don’t expect your park to be the best rustic park it can be. 

Keep in mind that rustic does not equate with old and poorly maintained.  Rustic does not mean old restrooms that appear dirty no matter how clean they may be.  Rustic does not mean buildings in need of a paint job.  Rustic does not mean small, unlevel RV sites or tent sites with tree roots and rocks where the tent goes. 

The challenge to be a rustic park is to be a modern rustic park capable of providing guests with high quality facilities, amenities, services and activities in a rustic setting. 

Do you have some myths you’d like to share? I’ve got many more that I’ll share with you in the coming months but I’d love to hear from readers about the campground industry myths they see.  Post a reply below and you just might see it in the next Myths column.