Wi-Fi Has Become a Basic Amenity at U.S. RV Parks
Ever since wireless Internet service or Wi-Fi was invented, private park operators in America’s most remote locations thought they’d be able to avoid investing in the technology.
After all, if people want to have quality time with friends or family, why would they need Wi-Fi service?
That kind of thinking held credence for a while. Increasingly, however, private park operators in remote areas find they are obliged to provide Wi-Fi service or risk losing business from campers who will find someplace else that does.
“Primitive camping is becoming a smaller and smaller niche of the market,” said Jim Ganley, managing partner of Portland, Maine-based CheckBox Systems LLC, which is generating 20% of its sales this year from parks that have never had Wi-Fi service before.
Ganley added that for some campers, having high quality Wi-Fi service is even more important than having access to clean restrooms. “It’s gone from being a niche amenity to a mainstream amenity,” he said.
For parks that are out of cell phone range, Wi-Fi can also be a critical amenity, partly because Wi-Fi networks can be used to make voice-over-IP phone calls using Skype and other providers.
“Wi-Fi seems to be just expected these days,” said Robin Schwieterman, manager of Loon Lake Lodge & RV Resort in Reedsport, Ore., near the central Oregon coast. The park itself is out of cell phone range, Schwieterman said, but most guests are OK with that so long as they have Wi-Fi service.
“Some people can’t handle it if they don’t have an Internet connection,” said Katie Oneida, co-owner of Wishon Village RV Resort, a remote campground at the 6,700-foot level in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Northern California, which uses a Wi-Fi system provided by Napa, Calif.-based Airwave Adventures. Wishon Village installed Wi-Fi service “three or four years ago” in response to repeated requests by park guests, Oneida said.
Other parks, however, are just now installing Wi-Fi systems for the first time this year. In fact, parks that have never had Wi-Fi service before currently account for half of the business generated by Austin, Texas-based TengoInternet and Airwave Adventures, according to spokesmen for both firms.
Guests Want Wi-FI To Connect with Work
In addition to having provided a way to make Internet phone calls, guests demand Wi-Fi because their employers increasingly expect them to be accessible by email at all times. Many traveling business owners are also uncomfortable being out of touch with their employees or their clients for any length of time. In fact, some campground operators tell Woodall’s Campground Management that some of their guests could not go camping at all unless they had Internet access. At the same time, parks offering Wi-Fi also find that their guests will stay longer because they have it.
“We had a (business owner) here over Fourth of July weekend who stayed an extra day because she was able to run their payroll through our Wi-Fi system,” said Schwieterman. She added that families often will stay for longer periods of time if Mom or Dad can do their work at the campground.
Of course, the demand for Internet access isn’t limited to work-related communication. Many campers use it to keep up with their social networking, to play games, watch movies or make Internet phone calls using Skype and other voice-over-IP networks.
In fact, all of the Wi-Fi vendors contacted by WCM say that at least half of their business involves upgrading Wi-Fi systems to accommodate increasing demands that are being placed on wireless systems.
“Wi-Fi used to be primarily for communication and research and now it’s shifting to more communication and entertainment,” said Eric Stumberg, president and CEO of TengoInternet, adding that families often camp with children who want to be able to play with their Wii games, PlayStation 3s and xBoxes.
In fact, bandwidth needs required by live video streaming and voice-over-IP applications have gotten to the point where TengoInternet and other Wi-Fi providers are increasingly having to regulate the amount of bandwidth each park’s guests consume so as not to bog down the Wi-Fi networks.
To illustrate this point, Normandy Farms in Foxboro, Mass., hired TengoInternet to replace its existing Wi-Fi system and to quadruple its bandwidth earlier this year in an effort to keep up with rising guest Wi-Fi needs. But while the system provides more bandwidth than Normandy’s previous system, it also sends guests warning messages if they are engaged in activities that consume too much bandwidth. And if they fail to heed the warning, they could get bumped off the network for 24 hours.
Parks Getting Careful About Picking Vendors
But while private parks across the country are increasingly sensitive to guest demands for Wi-Fi service, they are also cautious in their selection of Wi-Fi vendors, largely because of the many growing pains park owners and the Wi-Fi industry have had during the past decade.
Indeed, while Wi-Fi companies are spending a lot of time upgrading bandwidth capabilities, they are also replacing poorly functioning or inadequate campground and RV park Wi-Fi systems installed by companies that either didn’t know what they were doing or by companies that have gone out of business and no longer provide support for their systems.
In other cases, Wi-Fi vendors are replacing or upgrading Wi-Fi systems that park operators have installed themselves, which have either proven to be insufficient or that have caused too many customer service issues.
Randy Packard, co-owner of Pine Acres Resort in Oakham, Mass., has felt the Wi-Fi sector’s growing pains first hand.
He initially hired LinkSpot Networks to provide Wi-Fi service to his 350-site park. But while the system worked well, LinkSpot ultimately went out of business, leaving Packard without anyone to provide 24-hour service for the network.
Frustrated by the experience, he installed a new system with his son, which initially worked well. But they soon found it difficult to keep up with increasing bandwidth requirements as well as guest questions. Packard said guest problems often involved their own PCs and not the park’s Wi-Fi system itself. But the calls for assistance got to be so frequent – and distracting – that Packard contacted TengoInternet to install a park-wide system, manage the bandwidth loads and provide 24-hour customer service.
“If you had a small 50- or 60-site park, you could probably do it yourself and not have too many glitches,” Packard said. “But in my park, I’m spread out and I need a lot of repeaters. So it was well worth my expense to go with Tengo to have a state-of-the-art system put in and have them take care of the management of it.”
Many Lessons Learned Along the (Wi-Fi) Way
Dennis McFarland, who co-owns Buttonwood Campground in Mexico, Pa., has had a frustrating experience with Wi-Fi as well. “I spent $6,000 on equipment that basically didn’t work,” he said. “It was through a small local company, and the guy set it up.” But the system had so many problems that McFarland saw the park’s staff time being consumed by his guests’ Wi-Fi issues.
“Quite honestly, we do not have the time to be involved with all that,” he said, adding that 50% of the problems were due to guest errors.
But McFarland found a solution to his Wi-Fi problems when he signed up with Westport, Conn.-based WiFiRV, which installed a system that has worked well. He added that after using the WiFiRV system, his Wi-Fi service grades on GuestReviews surveys went from a “D” to a “B.”
“All and all, I’m very satisfied with the whole process,” McFarland said, “If the guests have a problem and need technical support, they call WiFiRV and they talk them through the problem. It removes me from the whole discussion.”
Another park owner, Joan Skinner of the 80-site Chalk Creek Campground and RV Park in Nathrop, Colo., also had to switch Wi-Fi vendors earlier this year after her previous provider went out of business. She found a solution with CheckBox Systems, which completed a Wi-Fi installation in time for Memorial Day weekend. “We love it, and our customers say it’s a lot better than the system we had before,” Skinner said.
Wi-Fi vendors, for their part, offer a variety of business models and different price points.
Vendors Don’t Take Cookie Cutter Approaches
TengoInternet, the largest of the companies that provides service to the campground industry, sells and installs Wi-Fi systems and offers its customers the option of managing the system themselves or having TengoInternet provide the service for them.
Other companies offer a more a la carte Wi-Fi service, such as CheckBox Systems and Airwave Adventures.
WiFiRV, for its part, enters into revenue-sharing agreements with parks that contract with the company to install Wi-Fi systems. In some cases, WiFiRV will install the Wi-Fi system at little or no cost in exchange for having the ability to charge guests directly for the Wi-Fi service. The park owners receive a percentage of the revenue, depending on the details of the contract they negotiate with WiFiRV.
“Each location picks their partner in WiFi technology with a good degree of diligence and we pick them just as carefully,” said John Michael Borg II, founder and CEO of WiFiRV. “As you know, it’s a good deal of capital we have to put out there and so it has to be a win-win-for the campers, the property and WiFiRV.”
Its up to parks, however, to do their research, ask for recent and long-time references, and find the company they feel best meets their needs for an amenity that growing numbers of campers expect to find, even in the most out-of-the-way parks in the country.
“Trying to put a Wi-Fi system into a campground is a very different animal than a home or office,” said Ames of Airwave Adventures. “It takes some expertise. You need to know what you’re doing. You also have to have an open mind in terms of how to set up your system. Every campground is different. You cannot use a cookie cutter mode. You’ve got to survey the park and figure out what needs to be covered and what doesn’t need to be covered and customize it for every park.”
Ames added that guest expectations for quality Wi-Fi service are high, even in some of the nation’s more remote locations. “People expect to have the same service at the campground that they have at home,” he said.