Schmarder: A Full-Timer's Road Observations
Editor's Note: Evanne Schmarder is the principal at Roadabode Productions, a firm specializing in digital marketing strategy, consulting, and education for the outdoor recreation industry and is the co-author of “Unconventional Wisdom Works.” She’s also the host and producer of the RV Cooking Show. Evanne gets great satisfaction out of helping business owners maximize their marketing potential and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (70) 460-9863.
I'm not only an outdoor recreation industry marketer, I'm also your customer. As a full-time RVer, I've had the opportunity to sample many campgrounds and resorts – from posh private affairs to bare bones public parks and, after a dozen years, most everything in between. Chances are I've either stayed at your property, driven through to look around or have talked with another RVer about their experience at your park.
Recently, I was chatting with someone that represents private parks and when I mentioned I was staying at a city park they were taken aback. They mentioned something along the lines of my looking out for the consumer while they were more concerned with the private park owners.
That struck me as odd. No matter what position we hold in this great industry of ours, shouldn't we all be invested in the consumer experience? I'm not suggesting everyone embrace half price clubs or just lie down and accept unreasonable government regulation, certainly not. But I do believe we'd all be better served by working to understand how an individual member of our industry can influence the public's perception of an outdoor vacation, what's important to the camping public and why taking care of the camping consumer is everybody in this industry's bread and butter.
I knew where we were staying that evening, its directory ratings, and the opinion of past guests’ via RVParkReviews.com so my interest was piqued when I saw a billboard touting its status as one of the top 300 parks in the U.S. Sure enough, when we arrived there was a letter hanging on the wall congratulating them on their high-rating accomplishment. Unfortunately, this was a case of all sizzle and no steak, just as was stated in the reviews.
The front desk staff was efficient but cold, the young kid showing us to our site was sullen and uncommunicative, the surrounding rigs had seen better days, and broken down wood barriers cobbled and re-cobbled together with sharp nails outlined the site. It took quite a bit of back and forth, as our parker looked on in disinterest, to maneuver into the site without running over the exposed nails.
I tell you this not to complain but to point out the fact that a less seasoned RVer anticipating a stay at one of the country's best RV parks might leave with a less than stellar impression of what camping and RVing is all about. Once may very well be enough. Can you see the for sale sign on their rig right now?
Warm and Fuzzy
And then there was the park that was obviously past its prime, was predominantly a worker park but was easy-on, easy-off and would serve our needs for the night. Lo and behold, we were warmly welcomed and treated like long lost family, the store was brimming with useful goodies – organized, clean and inviting, and our questions about diesel fuel were intelligently answered (it kills me when the response is that they're unsure because they don't drive a diesel). Before we were shown to our site, the gal that checked us in asked for our attention, then held up a small baggie with two Andes mints and a note that said “sweet dreams.” She proceeded to tell us that while they don't offer turn-down service, they do wish us a pleasant night's sleep and to call on them if we needed anything at all.
This kind and engaging exchange turned our stay from a “grin and bear it” situation to a pleasant and positive experience. We were obviously valued customers. It was no garden spot and that couldn’t be helped, but we will be sharing my thumbs up with others when asked and will stay there again if we’re passing through … even though there's a higher rated park right next door.
Traveling on a lonely stretch of freeway, often times the park situation is minimal, you take what you can get when it's time to stop for the evening. That was the case as we drove two miles south of the freeway and turned left on a dirt road, bumping our way to a 50-ish site park. We'd called earlier in the day to hold a site and were greeted with enthusiasm and smiles. They saw the big back window on our fifth wheel and revised our site number to afford us a beautiful view. Despite several workers living in the park, it was neat as a pin. You could see the pride the owner and his mangers had in the property.
We were escorted to our site and once in place the manager took the time to tell us about the wild animals we might see and pointed out their typical path. She told us about a local outdoor museum within walking distance and suggested that since they were closed for the evening, we go up and peek in the windows to decide if we wanted to return the next day. Later, as we took our evening stroll around the park, hellos and friendly conversations were exchanged and there was an overall feeling of camaraderie, relaxation, and safety.
We added another day and may have stayed a bit longer, but the secret was out, they were full and we couldn't have been happier for them. Well deserved. This park was a terrific surprise, a classic example of a spin-free zone and a breath of fresh air. As the only game in town, it could have gone either way.
Raves and Rants
How do you know if you are making the grade with your guests? Often you'll hear the response “ask them.” On its surface that's a logical answer but in reality, is it a bit far-fetched?
You could meander around your park chatting with guests, asking about their experiences, but I wonder how many would give you an honest assessment. Handing out a written survey? Maybe, but make sure it's short and to the point – make it easy to complete, no essay questions, please. You might even experiment with an incentive for returning the survey. If this is the way you choose to go, don't do what one park I stayed at did and hand me a lightly crinkled, crooked copy. I couldn't help but wonder if this was an indication of the way the park was run (guess what, it was).
And then there are online reviews. While I know there are definite cons to public review sites – disgruntled guests and over-eager management can skew a rating either way – I find this the most frank and reliable resource for identifying a park's strengths and weaknesses. I urge you to take time each and every month to read all online reviews about your business. Set up a Google Alert to keep you posted on Internet mentions.
Expand upon the positives, the things reviewers really like about your park. Conversely, become aware of the things that don't serve you and your guests. Read reviews of other parks in your area, parks of similar size or demographics, parks that you aspire to be more like. Consider these review sites a treasure trove of business intelligence and use the information to better your product.
Touch points, each opportunity you have to either directly or indirectly communicate with the public – camping or otherwise – shape the impression of not just your park but our entire industry. Are you building confidence and breaking down barriers or contributing to a “trailer trash” stereotype?
Next time, we'll talk about media and marketing and how they play a dominant role in shaping industry perception.