Category Archives: 2013 InSites Archives

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.

Good Sam faces competition from new RVer club AmeriGO

This This Should Be Interesting……and Exciting

In this corner…a newcomer with a highly touted team backing it up – it’s AmeriGO RV Club.

In the other corner…the time tested and unbeaten champion – The Good Sam Club.

In case you missed the announcement on September 16th, the former executive management team of the Affinity Group announced the formation of the new RVer club AmeriGO RV Club.  The press release named former AGI CEO and Chairman Joe McAdams as holding that role in the new AmeriGO club and named Joe Daquino, former Publisher of the Trailer Life Directory and a Senior Vice President at AGI as the President of AmeriGo.  Affinity Group was the owner of the Good Sam Club and Camping World,  both companies now owned by Good Sam Enterprises.

Although the press release does not name other AmeriGO executives, it may be safe to assume that several other former Affinity Group executives might be also be associated with AmeriGO.

As most people know who follow the RV and RV park businesses, Good Sam Enterprises and Camping World is headed by Marcus Lamonis, an aggressive and obviously talented businessman who has in the last couple of years moved to raise Good Sam’s image and Camping World’s image and footprint on national television and on the NASCAR racing circuit as well as in 100 or so communities across America.

The press release description of the AmeriGO member programs and benefits sure seems to mirror the programs and benefits available to Good Sam members (insurance options, RV extended warranties, road service plans, RV financing options, and campground discounts).   Encore RV Resorts and Thousand Trails owned by Equity Lifestyle Properties (a company where McAdams served as President for several years after he left Affinity Group) and Carefree RV Resorts have signed on to offer AmeriGO members a 10% discount on camping. 

Competition is a good thing, we’re told.  Let the battle for the RVer begin.  With an estimated 10 million RVers in the US and with an estimated 1 million Good Sam members, there should be ample room for both Good Sam and AmeriGO.  And with about 9000 commercial campgrounds in the US and about 1300+ Good Sam Parks, it’s likely that there’s ample room for AmeriGO in the park market as well.

Can AmeriGO capture the newer, younger RVer market?  Are those folks joiners?  Can Good Sam come up with a way to overcome it’s image as the older, less affluent RV owners club and reach into the younger market?

Will park owners be besieged with new opportunities to partner with or market to these clubs of RVers?  How will the parks be impacted by the new comer and by their long time relationship with Good Sam?

What surprises do Joe McAdams and  Marcus Lamonis have in store for RV dealers, park owners and RVers?   Given past history of both executives, we can expect some dramatic actions as McAdams tries to pilot the new AmeriGO to success and as Lamonis works to protect and grow the Good Sam club in the face of this new competition. Stand by. 

It should be interesting to see how all of this develops in the coming months.   For sure, the competition is going to be good for RVers.  Any time the consumer has two or more companies going after them, it usually works to their advantage.

Work Campers: are we complicating our park owner lives?

This question popped on a Linked In discussion group recently:

Here is our scenario: We have “unpaid” part time workers who are provided expense allowance stipends up to $1,200 per month. They receive free lot rent, housing, cable TV, all utilities, and are reimbursed for gasoline expense. They purchase supplies and materials with corporate credit cards. They are not required to work a regular schedule with the exception of the first 5 days of each month (5 hours per day.) They do not wish to be sent a 1099 form as an independent contractor. #1: Are they independent contractors?; and #2 If they are not, are we OK not to have them on the payroll? Please offer any thoughts you may have. Thanks.

Questions like this come up all the time at park owner meetings, conventions and in publications.  There are as many interpretations of how to treat work campers as there are campgrounds.  There are three important principles to keep in mind when dealing with this group of part-time workers.

Principal 1:  Don’t mess with the IRS.  Among the most stressful things a small business owner can come up against (after death of a spouse and a divorce) is a window envelope addressed to you from the IRS.  Rarely does this envelope contain good news.

Principal 2:  There are very few ways (I actually cannot think of any ways) to compensate a non-family member who works for you that do not involve some tax obligation to the payee or the recipient, or both.  In the scenario above, seems to me to be hard to call these folks “unpaid” workers.

Principal 3:  The tax issues and needs of work campers are their problem, not yours.  No matter how good they may be, or how good you think they will be, meeting your business needs and protecting your business and family always comes first.

As a small business person for many years in retail, campground and campground consulting businesses, one key objective I most want is to avoid any state or federal audits by the IRS, the state employment commissions, state tax authorities, etc.

I’ve found the best way to avoid these unpleasant and time consuming experiences is to avoid, minimize and understand any gray areas such as are associated with independent contractor rules, insurance and workers comp liabilities and issues, undocumented workers, sales tax collections and disbursements, tourism taxes, volunteer workers, etc.

When it comes to staffing an RV park or campground, the process I’ve used with some success is to first establish a personnel plan and realistic budget that will enable me to staff which is best park properly and adequately and provide the level of service, standards and experiences I want my guest to have.

The second step is to then consult with human resources and tax and insurance experts as to how best to implement the plan. The primary objective should always be to legally hire the absolute best people to do the jobs that need doing and not to finagle  around with dubious schemes that may lead to unnecessary problems and hiring based on the wrong criteria. The individual tax avoidance or reduction issues of potential employees is there problem, not yours or mine. Let’s not make our lives any more complicated than they already are.

The cost of strict compliance with tax and related laws is far less then the cost of the stress and legal fees associated with trying to defend oneself in a fight with a federal, state or local government entity.

Another Thought on Temporary Workers

In today’s business world, so much is being said and written about the experience the business provides to the customer and how customers are seeking superior experiences in all of their life activities. A JD Power survey recently found that customers will pay up to 20% more for outstanding experiences (and outstanding products) than for a lesser product or experience.  That’s a pretty compelling reason to focus on the guest experience.

For the most part, in my experience temporary workers and/or work campers are not usually capable of providing the level of service and the type of experience that can be provided by a regular employee – whether full or part time. The temp is not often familiar with the area in which the park is located. The temp or work camper has too many conflicting interests, business or things to do that distracts them from truly learning how to best serve the parks’ guests. Adequately serving guest needs and interests and providing the level of experience that makes the visit to the park truly outstanding is simply more difficult for the temp worker.

As we’ve heard from many sources over the years, hire or engage the best possible people to represent and be the face of your park. And that’s incredibly hard to do when interviewing and hiring over the phone or via Skype and the individual you’re trying to interview is only going to be with you for a limited period and for limited hours during that period.  Hard to get a temp or work camper to “invest” in your business when they know they’ll be moving on and that the “camper” part is more important than the “worker” part.

Park Industry Could Use Some Real New Product

Just about every industry, product or service I can think of, from the mundane like breakfast cereals to the most sophisticated technology products like mobile phones and tablet computers, go through regular innovation and new product introductions from brand new products to a “new and improved” version of their reliable long term products.

The RV industry thrives on introducing new products ranging from totally new RV models to new and improved versions of old reliable rigs that have sold well for years.  The recent recession sparked innovation among RV manufacturers to make their product lines more in sync with the new market emerging from the ashes of the recession.  Smaller RVs.  Lighter RVs.  New floor plans.   Island kitchen counters.  More aerodynamic shapes, A renewed emphasis on travel trailers.  An emphasis on rigs designed for long term camping in a single location.   Engines with greater energy efficiency.  And on and on.

For every RV manufacturer that fell victim to the recession, a new one emerged with new product for new times.

The RV industry lives in two worlds.  World one is the world where the manufacturers try to grow the market and get more Americans to go camping and buy RVs.   Thus, we have Go RVing.

World two is the world of innovation that drives committed RVers to purchasing new and improved rigs to meet new needs and wants and to entice the RVers to upgrade or buy that new rig with the latest design, efficiency, floorplan, technology or whatever.

The key is product innovation to keep the rigs in sync with the various markets and to keep consumers interest in the newest and best….we all want the latest and greatest whether its cell phones, televisions, cars, fashion, kitchen, home appliances, RVs and so on.

Savvy park owners and operators in the campground and RV park business introduce new products – activities, services, sites, cabins or whatever each year to keep and excite past guests to come back regularly and to entice new guests by assuring them that the resort is keeping up with the times.  New park products and services – premium and upgraded sites, site food service delivery, water play features of various kinds, new cabins, new and more entertainment, golf cart and other rental recreational amenities, new and enlarged RV sites, introduction of accessible sites, new and upgraded restrooms – are some examples of new products and services featured in many parks under the heading of “new for this year!”

And, of course, in the RV industry and in the park industry, new product often allows increasing fees and prices.

One thing savvy business people also realize is that innovation and new product introductions always entail some level of risk.   Regardless of the innovation, there is always a cost and there is always some uncertainty of how the innovation will be received in the market.   Risk and innovation go hand in hand in every situation.  Risk can be minimized but every time something new is tried there is a risk associated with it.     By the time 6 or 8 RV models had slide outs in them, the market data reduced the risk of the next RV introduction with a slide out.  After a dozen or so RV parks introduced water slides and other park owners could visit the parks and talk with the owners, the next water park built was less risky than the first.

Risk and innovation are what keep industries alive and growing.  No risk takers, little or no innovation and little if any growth.

In the park industry, the ultimate innovation and risk is the development of a new RV park.  Totally new.  Built on land where none previously existed.

In my view, the RV park and campground business needs new RV park products.  Not just older parks with new restrooms or a new clubhouse, not one upgraded with band aides, water slides or other adjustments.  Brand new.

In June, I surveyed state campground associations to find out how many new parks have come on line between 2003 and 2008 and since 2008.   18 states responded to t he survey and the results are interesting.   And this period included the peak years of new RV sales culminating in 2006 with a 25 year record of 390,000 sales.

Between 2003 and 2008, only 1 state indicated that 3 new park were built, opened and are operating during that period.  6 states indicated that they could locate just 2 new parks during that period and the other 11 states reported either 0 or 1 new park.

Since 2008, the picture is pretty much the same except that only 1 state reported 2 parks and the others reported either 0 or 1.   Now, again, remember that this period included the recession years where RV sales plummeted to the 165,000 level, the financial markets busted and funding for construction generally dried up.

Why so little new park construction prior to the recession and post-recession?

I think the answer lies in what RV park owners consider to be the extreme risk in new construction and business development.  Park owners (and many other business people) want immediate cash flow to cover loans and generate immediate NOI.  They are unwilling to take the risk associated with development and opening of a new business and potential for larger profits or bankruptcy.

Development requires zoning and permitting, site planning, construction budgeting and funding and a business plan based on opening a successful new business that will develop revenue sufficient to pay back the construction loans, carry a mortgage going forward and develop a stable and superior income within a reasonable period of time.   And provide an opportunity to refinance in a reasonable period of time so the investors can recover their investment.

And construction and development require a set of skills developed through years of experience and trial and error.

Prior to the recession, the best new parks that came into the market came in as condominium resorts where sites could be sold for prices high enough to pay back loans as sales were made and where the immediate income was sufficient to allow the park to be built to a high standard that surpassed almost anything on the open to the public market.

The biggest players in the park business – Equity Lifestyle Properties (Encore or ELS), Carefree RV Resorts, KOA and Sun Communities, for example – grow their business by acquiring existing parks.  Not one of these companies has introduced innovation and new products into the industry in the form of new parks built to a modern standard.   They tend to buy, band aid, raise rents and occupancy, refinance and repeat the process – more band aids, higher rents and occupancy, etc.

Given the successes of these companies, it’s certainly hard to take issue with their model.

In the survey noted above, I asked what the primary obstacles to building a new park were.  The responses were pretty much as expected.  Access to funding was mentioned more frequently than any other reason.  This was followed by regulatory issues, especially water and waste water concerns, and the length of time to gain regulatory approval for a project.

As an industry, I think several issues need to be addressed.

First, can we agree that the park industry needs new product in the form of new, modern RV parks and campgrounds that can attract the new, younger outdoor enthusiasts, new RV owners, families and empty nesters?

Second, there is a need for very clear and accurate operational and cost of doing business data on which sound business plans can be built that will provide developers and bankers with reliable information on which to base decisions.

Third, we need a business model that allows a new park to develop sufficient revenue and profits to make building a new campground as attractive as building a new hotel or other rental property.    Campgrounds require considerably lower investment to develop – let’s say 50% less.  So if site fees are set at 50% of nearby mid-range newer hotel fees, and if occupancy can be built to approach hotel levels (60% or so), developing and operating a new park could be a feasible business idea.

Fourth, how can the industry help control construction costs?  This seems to be the most risky park of building a new park – uncertainty of bringing the project in on time and on budget.  The best way to achieve this is to attract experienced developers in to developing parks.

The job of a developer is to acquire land, entitle the land for a particular purpose, build the infrastructure and then perhaps sell the entitled, developed land to a builder/operator, or to build out the project for an operator who agrees to either buy or lease the new park without the development risk – a build to suit model similar to that used in commercial real estate.

It would be to the benefit of both the park and the RV industries if new 21st century parks designed and built to meet the needs and wants of today’s market can be developed.  You can’t build and grow either industry without innovation and new product.  And with the new and vibrant interest in outdoor recreation the time seems right for innovation and taking modest risk for future rewards.  No risk, no innovation, no growth.

Go RVing and Go Camping America

A little history…

In the beginning there was Go Camping America, a joint venture of the (then) National Campground Owners Association (NCOA), the RV Industry Association and the RV Dealers Association. The name Go Camping America and the original GCA logo were developed by KOA and given to NCOA sometime in the mid-1980s.

The objective of GCA was to spread the work about camping and RVing to the general public and to provide information to the media about camping in the US. As opportunities for promotion developed, each organization provided a share of the resources necessary or contributed talent, information or other in-kind support.

In the early ’90s, the RV Dealers decided to withdraw from GCA, leaving the program to RVIA and NCOA/ARVC.

Spurred on during these early years by NCOA and ARVC leaders Erv Banes, Al Daniels, Bob London, Conrad Dumke and several others, there were some significant accomplishments.

  • A partnership between GCA, Kmart and the Coleman Company led to the distribution of tens of thousands of Go Camping America Vacation Planners in over 2000 Kmart stores.
  • The Go Camping America Festival was a year long camping promotion encouraging parks across the country to reach out into their communities and market areas with special events at campgrounds. The Festival kicked off on the Today Show with RVIA President Dave Humphries, the director of the National Park Service, the NCOA President – me – and the Today Show hosts Bryant Gumbel and Debra Norville camping, canoeing and talking camping at a campground at the Delaware Water Gap on the NY/NJ border. 1-800-SUNNY, the toll free number for GCA, received over 1000 calls requesting the Camping Vacation Planner in that one day.
  • A National GCA Fishing Contest was sponsored by GCA and fishing tackle manufacturer Abu Garcia.
  • The introduction of the Go Camping America Credit Card was promoted to park owners and campers as a vehicle to fund Go Camping America. At its peak, there were over 5000 cards being used and GCA income was around $25,000 the first year of the card.
  • The introduction of the Go Camping America ATT Telephone Calling Card – remember them? Parks sold thousands of cards generating additional funding for Go Camping America.
  • And as the worldwide web and internet began to gain acceptance, ARVC created the Go Camping America on-line directory that remains today as the primary GCA vehicle for marketing ARVC members.

And then there was Go RVing….an RVIA and RVDA effort to unite the manufacturers and the dealers in a national promotion program to educate, motivate, entice and sell RVers to a larger and larger share of American consumers.

If my memory serves me correctly, the campaign to unify the RV industry around a national RV promotion program was initially spearheaded by Coachman Industries’ Tom Corson, industry executive Jim Sheldon (then with Holiday Rambler? and subsequently with Monaco), Tom Faludy of Carefree, and RVIA President Dave Humphries. Together with Bob Strawn, President of the RV Dealers Association, dealers Tom Stinnett and Rick Horsey and others, this group fashioned the Go RVing Coalition and promotion campaign into a model of industry unity that has become both a powerhouse driver of RV sales growth and the envy of many other big-ticket recreation equipment manufacturers – especially the boating industry.

Since its inception in 1994, the number of RVs owned by 35-54 year olds has grown faster than all other age groups, consumer attitudes towards RVs have improved very significantly and recall of RV advertising has grown every year. The number of likely RV buyers grows annually, driven by the Go RVing advertising and promotion.

Funded by increasing the price of the RVIA standards certification seal that goes on every RVIA member-produced RV, the Go RVing campaign has had annual budgets as large as $18 million. The campaign generally runs in three year segments and over the years, promotional themes have ranged from Wherever You Go, You’re Always at Home, Pursue Your Passions, Go RVing: Life’s a Trip and the current Away theme.

In addition to the income generated by the RVIA standards seals, industry suppliers support the program through an annual dues assessment and through a special assessment added to the cost of exhibit space at the annual National RV Show in Louisville. All segments of the RV industry contribute to this powerful program that has worked wonders in building interest, respectability, understanding, support, and many other positive attributes for RVs, RVing and the outdoors.

I like to recall that in the mid-1980s when I first became associated with the campground and RV park industry, my somewhat over-educated and over-achieving friends wondered why anyone would want to own and travel in an RV. Over the years, these same people have expressed envy for my being associated with such a “cool” lifestyle and they’ve moved from “I would never buy one of those things” to “I’m thinking about when I can buy an RV.”

In the early years of Go RVing, the campground industry conducted a “fair share” program soliciting contributions to the Go RVing campaign be requesting a fair share contribution based on the number of sites in a park, the number of site nights or the park’s revenue. Participating parks were listed on the Go RVing website as a resource for people looking for places to go camping. For some years, ARVC’s annual support through the fair share and other fund raising techniques of Go RVing was in the $100,000 annual range. And then for some reason, the industry association dropped it support – neither soliciting support from the members nor providing direct support from the association’s budget.

So what, you might ask? What’s your point?

Several points.

  1. Every RV that’s sold represents a potential of 365 site nights for the park industry. From research I’ve seen, the average RVers uses their RV for about 25 nights a year. For every 1000 RVs sold, at about $40/night on average, that’s $1 million in potential park revenue. With 10,000 campgrounds, those 1000 RVs could mean $100 in revenue for each park. If the RV industry can successfully grow from where it is today – approximately 300,000 unit sales to where it was in 2006 – about 390,000 units – that could be maybe $90 million in park revenue. At just 50% of that, we’re looking at $45 million or maybe $4500 for every excellent, good, fair and poor park in America. Maybe a park would consider a $50 to $100 contribution to Go RVing to earn maybe an additional $4500 in revenue.
  2. With the Recreational Park Trailer Industry Association (RPTIA) now back under the RVIA umbrella, it stands to reason that the RVIA and the RV dealers are likely to take an increased interest in the RV units represented by park model manufacturers. These units are rapidly expanding as rental units in parks and as seasonal camping units of choice. RVIA has already launched a public relations effort to spread the word about park model RVs and park rental units. Soon, I’d expect that these units will be promoted more aggressively by RVIA public relations activities and may be included in future Go RVing promotions and advertising.
  3. Go Camping America needs to be re-established into a national promotion program to reach out and excite more and more people about camping. Go Camping America is a good on-line camping directory but it can and should be much, much more. Industry promotion is an important role for a national trade association and ARVC needs to step up and take on this role.
    In my view, the two key roles for an association are government affairs activities that protect the industry from unnecessary and unfair legislative and regulatory actions, and to promote and build an ever growing consumer base for the industry’s products and services.
  4. There should be a way to integrate and coordinate Go RVing and Go Camping America. Selling more steel (RVs) and putting more steel onto more sites (building more camper nights) go together. The more people own RVS, the more RV owners get out and use their vehicles, the greater the number of camper nights and the greater likelihood that they will buy another and another and another RV – and the more often they turn over their rigs, the more they use them – and the more camper nights that are developed. I urge the park owners and the leaders of ARVC to become more aggressive in figuring out how to take advantage of the great successes of Go RVing and how to ride that wave with Go Camping America. Two promotion programs have got to have a greater impact than just one.
    I recently heard that the ARVC Board of Directors voted for the association not to provide any support for Go RVing. If that’s the case, what a shame!
  5. ARVC member benefit programs to save parks money through group purchasing are valuable. But isn’t it time to now focus on how to get the parks to use their savings they’ve achieved through ARVC benefit programs to fund GCA promotion programs to expand the number of camper nights, grow the camping market and increase park revenues? How many park owners would balk at kicking in $50 to $100 for an ear-marked $200,000 to $400,000 GCA promotion fund – not to drive current campers to the GCA website, but to promote camping as an activity and to try to build new camper nights from the public. I’ve no doubt that integrating GCA with Go RVing and putting money up to make it happen would be a big win for the park industry. I can hear the cynics saying park owners won’t contribute but that’s a cop out. A professionally crafted and executed program to tell the promotion story to park owners will be well received and supported.

One Other Note

In last month’s column, I suggested that the proposed ARVC designation of a Superior Quality Park as a reward for enrolling employees and staff into the new ARVC education program was inappropriate. It would appear that others in the industry felt the same way and ARVC has announced that it is changing the designation to Superior Quality Staff.

While I applaud the quick response from ARVC to recognizing the problem with the initial designation, in reviewing my comments from the last article, I find that most of the comments also apply to this new designation.

The new Outdoor Hospitality Education Program has no testing and no formal way to designate a staff as being superior. As I understand the program, participants complete tasks and submit their tasks to an evaluator who reviews the work. Who are the evaluators? What criteria do they use to measure the success of the tasks?

Changing the designation to Superior Quality Staff doesn’t really achieve anything for the consumer. If the staff changes, does the designation go way? And how does completing tasks translate into a superior staff and an improved guest experience or guest satisfaction?

Time to re-think the whole questions of designations. They can’t be frivolous and the criteria for awarding them has to be clear and have merit. Much more attention and thought needs to go into creating these designations and the ARVC board needs to involved from the outset. The Guest Reviews program is an example of a program that is clear and measurable with objective criteria that is administered evenly across the board and checked frequently. And because of that, it adds value to the park and the guest experience.

See ya in August.

Park Models for Short Term Visits

I recently had the occasion to spend a night in a park model cabin at an excellent RV park. Really nice place and a really nice cabin. While talking with the park manager, I asked about the average length of stay in the cabins. About 3 days, he responded.

I generally find park model cabins comfortable and a nice accommodation. The one thing that always occurs to me is why can’t the bedroom be a bit larger so I don’t walk in to the wall the minute I get out of bed. The second thing that occurs to me, is can’t the bathroom be a bit bigger.

As I looked around this particular cabin, it occurred to me that if the average length of stay is just 3 nights, is a full kitchen complete with a family size refrigerator, lots of cabinet space, a dishwasher, a full stove and oven and a microwave all really necessary for that type of use?

In my mind, I removed a cabinet and some counter space that was up against the bathroom wall so you could push out the wall in the bathroom and maybe add a full bathtub that would be helpful to families with small kids. I then identified kitchen modifications that could shrink the size of the space allotted to the kitchen. With just a few interior changes, the bedroom and bathroom could be enlarged a few feet and at least in my mind, make the experience a bit more comfortable.

Now, I know park model manufacturers have been at this unit design for a lot longer than I have, and that campground owners are not necessarily any more adept at interior design than I am, but what did occur to me was that perhaps the parks should be requesting some new interior design based on how the unit is primarily used. For units designed to accommodate people for less then 5 nights, perhaps a smaller kitchen and larger bedrooms and bathrooms would be appealing. For longer stays, perhaps the current space layout is fine.

I know, if your cabin serves both long and short stays, buying the one that serves both markets is generally the smarter move. But if you really look at the customer and your particular park, perhaps a mix of short stay cabins and longer stay cabins would work well and save money in acquisition cost if the short stay cabin has fewer cabinets and kitchen amenities.

ARVC

Superior Quality Park designation from ARVC needs more industry discussion

The RV park industry is very competitive and awarding competitive designations  like “Superior Quality Park” should not be done lightly.

Thumbing through the recently distributed ARVC Member Handbook I came across an interesting logo that caught my attention – “Superior Quality Park” (SQP) in the shape of a seal with 5 gold stars in the middle. ARVC Superior Quality Park program

Reading through the accompanying text it became apparent that ARVC will be awarding this designation to parks where the owners, managers or other key employees had completed certain certificates in the new Outdoor Hospitality Education Program (OHEP).

Karl Littman, Chairman of the ARVC Foundation and President of the Virginia Campground Association (VCA), had reported in passing to the VCA board in early April that such a designation might be coming so I was I somewhat aware of the idea but I was unprepared for it when I saw it announced in print in the Member Handbook that had obviously been to print well prior to the ARVC Board and Foundation meetings in early April.

It seemed to me that a designation as strong and clear cut as Superior Quality Park seems to be – complete with its 5 stars in the logo –  is not something that should be introduced to the park industry  without some pretty broad discussion.

Barb Youmans, ARVC’s Senior Director of Education and Membership, responded to an inquiry about the new designation.  Here’s Barb’s take on the SQP.

Just so we are clear, this designation is not intended to be a “rating” for the park, but rather a designation that recognizes a park owner’s commitment to improved quality service and guest experiences overall through learning supported by OHEP. We believe strongly that individuals who successfully complete the criteria for an OHEP certificate will grow personally and professionally. With enough full-time (seasonal and year-round) employees receiving certificates, we also believe guest experiences will be positively impacted.

We want to recognize parks who have demonstrated their commitment to developing their employees, who are the ultimate ambassadors to the consumers, and that strive toward better delivering operational excellence and experience through those ambassadors and their participation in OHEP.

This was an internal ARVC decision that was made for the purposes of recognizing efforts in this area. The program was presented to the Board at the recent Spring Board meeting, as part of the Foundation and Education update given by Karl Littman.     

Barb’s explanation of the desire to recognize educational achievements is certainly appropriate, laudable and no one would quibble with that.

Just to be clear, if awarding the designation of “Superior Quality Park” is not offering a rating, exactly what is it? As a consumer, if you saw that seal on a park, what would be your logical conclusion?  If it’s not a rating, what is it and what information is it intended to be for the consumer?

Participation in the OHEP is one way for a park to demonstrate a commitment to developing employees. Is it the only way? I don’t think so. Is it the best way? Maybe, but the OHEP program is brand new and is essentially untried and untested at this point.

Is this a designation that signifies an educational accomplishment of an individual? What happens when the individual, maybe the owner, sells the park? Or employees leave the park. Is it no longer a Superior Quality Park? What’s the connection between the educational attainments of an individual or a group of individuals to the overall quality of an RV park? Sure, we expect that educated individuals might operate good RV parks and campgrounds and may have an understanding of quality service and facilities, but knowledge as we all know doesn’t automatically translate to a “superior quality park”. Operating a superior park involves far more than a certificate from OHEP or elsewhere.

Awarding such a rating or designation is a quantum leap into new territory for ARVC. The park industry is very competitive and awarding competitive designations should not be done lightly. Do the members feel that a decision to award such a designation should be an internal staff decision or is this move sufficiently significant that the ARVC board should be involved and that perhaps membership input might be warranted.

I could be way off base but I don’t think so. An ARVC designation of a Superior Quality Park on the Go Camping America website and then in individual park marketing could be an important competitive edge and certainly needs more careful industry discussion.

Combining ARVC’s Guest Reviews program with Superior Quality Parks designations on the GCA directory and in individual park marketing certainly seems to be moving the national trade association into the rating business.

Your thoughts?

WiFi Takes Over the Top Spot; Sewers Drops to Second Place!

My informal poll now shows that after many, many years in first place, sewers have been knocked from the top spot. WiFi has replaced sewers and sewage as the #1 topic among park owners these days. As sewer systems, treatment plants and related issues were often the bane of the park owners existence, in many cases that headache has been replaced by WiFi. RV Park WiFi Systems

In fact, I’ve even heard park folks saying they’d rather unclog a sewer line by hand than face a customer with a WiFi complaint. And it’s no longer a matter of talking about needing to have WiFi, it’s now moved into the more sophisticated areas of bandwidth, repeaters, controllers, towers and other technology issues.

And of course, is it free or do we charge for it? Best practice in the hospitality industry today calls for facilities to provide reliable high speed Internet access where the guest wants it – in the hotel business that means in the guest room, in the park business that means at the site and inside the RV (or cabin or whatever). Once that standard is accepted, then the only remaining question is who pays for the service. The park owner? The guest? A combination?

Often heard at these discussions is that lower priced hotels are giving WiFi away free while high priced hotels are charging sometime quite high fees. The guests at the lower priced properties are assumed to be shopping price and looking to get the best deal for the money.

So with WiFi being a highly valued amenity in today’s world, lower priced facilities use it to attract guests who are price sensitive but also have indicated their desire for WiFi. At the high priced properties, guests are assumed to be making decisions based on the overall higher end facilities, amenities, location and other similar factors. While WiFi is important, it doesn’t factor into their decision-making at as high a level as it might for the traveler/vacationer who is more price driven.

RV Park WiFi Systems Scenarios

Here’s another thought. A 200 site park open year round with a 40% occupancy rate is going to pay $15,000 annually to provide high speed WiFi to their guests. That works out to just $ .51 cents per occupied site night. Add a $1 a night to your site rate and you’ve more than covered the cost.

Another way of thinking about this: it’s going to cost you $20,000 to install and operate a reliable RV park WiFi system.  At a $50/night rate, that’s 400 site night. If you have an A+ WiFi system that works basically flawlessly, will that produce 400 site nights each year? Looking at it another way, if you don’t have a flawless system, what might that cost you in lost repeat guests over the year?

There are lots of way to skin this cat but the bottom line remains the same. The best practice is to provide high quality, reliable and fast Internet connectivity at your sites. How you skin the cat will depend on your particular approach to your business and your guest experience.

Ready to explore what’s feasible at your property regarding RV park WiFi systems? Contact David Gorin.

What makes a park model a park model?

As parks across the northern tier of the US and Canada gear up for a strong summer season, here are a couple of thoughts that I’ve had recently on the ever-increasing interest in rental units in parks.

It’s hard to escape the apparent enthusiasm that seems to be enveloping the park industry over the addition of rental units in parks around the country.  Whether I’m feeling the hype being put out there by park model, cabin and yurt manufacturers, the enthusiastic reports of rental unit growth in the KOA system, or the frequent news accounts of parks expanding their rental unit inventory, there’s no doubt that the addition of rental units in campgrounds and RV parks has everyone’s attention and interest.

Having done a bit of traveling in the last month or two and having stayed in a couple of rental units in parks, and having looked into the question of the typical length of stay in the units, it seems that it’s time to consider changing the typical rental unit to better align with the consumer use.

Does every park model need a full kitchen with a full size refrigerator, stove, oven, dishwasher and cabinets?  With many parks reporting an average park model stay of 2-3 nights, perhaps a unit with a smaller kitchen would enable the manufacturer to enlarge the bedroom, maybe add a second small bedroom with bunk beds, or expand the living area.  Or maybe a smaller overall unit would lower the cost of the unit without impacting its desirability to the consumer.  Just because we’re used to the 400 square foot size, maybe a 350 square foot unit designed for short stays for couples or small families would work.

How about park models or cabins designed for different uses?  An extended stay model for stays of a week or more.  The “overnighter” edition for 2-3 night stays?  A family bunkhouse unit with extra sleeping accommodations for larger families?  A “suite” with two bedrooms/two baths and living space – but no real kitchen – for 2 adult couples traveling together?

Another thought  along these lines – interior decor.  Last fall I was fortunate enough to visit a few parks in Europe.  One of the most impressive features of the parks visited was the sleek, modern interior design of the rental units in many of the parks.  Very attractive.  Very space efficient.  Typically, Europeans are used to living on a different scale – smaller, energy efficient – and that is reflected in their park homes.  I think it’s time to experiment with new interior designs in rental units.

Also, in many, many jurisdictions, stick built or kit built cabins have become acceptable.  Is it time for the industry to begin to push more aggressively to expand the definition of a “campground” to be broader, and for cabins, cottages or whatever term is used to be acceptable within a campground?  The built on a chassis with wheels and a tongue and a 400 square foot limit is confining in terms of design – it leads to the bowling alley feel of a park model interior.  If many places have accepted yurts and many do accept stick or kit built cabins, I would hope that this will lead to new diversity and new opportunities for the rental units in parks.

Just thinking out loud on this.  Comments?