Leisure Interactive Stays on the Cutting Edge
One of the pioneers in providing real-time, online reservations for the campground industry, Leisure Interactive has been shaping the way campgrounds, RV parks and resorts process and manage their reservations since 2003. Originally founded as Friend Communications Inc., the company changed its name to Leisure Interactive three years ago following the redesign of its online reservations software into a cloud-based front desk management system called Hercules. The Orange, Calif.-based company has also diversified its business base to include public parks and marinas, the latest of which are the South Dakota state park system and the Santa Catalina Island Co., which provides both campground and marina reservations for the vacation resort located 15 miles off the coast of Los Angeles. Woodall’s Campground Management’s Jeff Crider recently caught up with Leisure Interactive President and CEO Gary Pace, who spoke with WCM from his corporate headquarters in Southern California. Following are highlights of their conversation:
WCM: How did your company evolve from its focus on online reservations to providing parks with a complete front desk management system?
Pace: Our vision was always to build integrated software that allowed businesses to service the full experience of the consumer. But the technology was not available at the beginning. So we really couldn’t build an efficient property management system that was totally cloud based because the technology wasn’t mature. When the technology finally evolved, we completely rewrote our entire system from scratch to take advantage of cloud architecture. Then we migrated all of our customer data for them so they would not have to experience the pain of setting up a new system.
WCM: In the early days, parks used to have to allocate however many sites they wanted to make available for reservation online. Now, with your Hercules system, park operators no longer have to allocate sites for online reservations.
Pace: Absolutely. Our system is integrated so whether a booking is coming from a remote portal, the website or the front desk, the site is immediately placed on hold for 20 minutes and you can’t sell it (through another channel). So if a guest is standing at the front desk and you’re trying to book a site and tell the consumer, “I’ve got this site available,” nobody online can take it out from under you. You don’t want to go through that whole process with a guest over the phone and then say, “Sorry. Someone online has just reserved that site.” So I guess you can say reservations are sold first come first serve through all channels based on whoever starts the process first.
WCM: Your marketing materials say that your system is “cloud-based.” What does that mean?
Pace: You hear a lot of people talking about “the cloud.” A cloud environment means a lot of different things to different people. For Leisure Interactive it means there is no software to install locally – we manage and maintain the servers, backups, software updates, PCI compliance and many other issues. The biggest differences in cloud-based solutions for the RV park and campground industry is the number of installations the supplier has to manage and whether the cloud is scalable for short bursts of high demand. The more software installations you support, the harder it is to keep all versions patched and secure. Hercules was designed to take advantage of the cloud, so it is not a reworked version of locally installed software running on a central server.
WCM: Are there any updates or new versions of Hercules that your customers have to obtain to stay current as the technology evolves?
Pace: No. Hercules is updated continually. That’s one of the big differences (between locally installed reservation management software and true cloud-based systems). Software companies typically produce new versions that have to be installed and managed for each installation of the software. But because Hercules operates as a single large installation in a cloud environment, we don’t have to deliver ongoing upgrade versions. Our clients just log in and they can immediately take advantage of the new features without having to run any updates. Everyone is upgraded at the same time. We can install security patches and our clients don’t even know that we just improved their security.
WCM: So you don’t have customers working on different versions or different iterations of the same reservation system?
Pace: Our customers are always on the same version of the software. Hercules is one giant installation where updates and security patches can be installed once and they are effective for the entire client base. It makes it so much more efficient and secure to support our customers this way. We take a tremendous amount of pride in the customer support we provide and having everyone on the same version makes it much easier for us to provide world-class support. Everything is current.
WCM: We understand that Hercules is being used by marinas as well as campgrounds.
Pace: Yes, the Santa Catalina Island Co., which manages moorings all over the island, is using Hercules to manage its moorings just like a campground manages RV spaces. They use small boats with Wi-Fi connections to direct the larger yachts to the appropriate moorings and check them in right on the water. Catalina also has dry camping facilities and they are using Hercules to manage their reservations and equipment rentals.
WCM: What other kinds of features does Hercules have?
Pace: We’re rolling out a point of sale system so we will give our customers the ability to transfer charges from convenience store purchases to guest statements. The point of sale system also includes integrated permit and entry fee management in addition to a new gift card system. We have also expanded new choices for our customers in terms of credit cards and how they want to get paid. We’ve integrated GuestReviews into our system and built in the management feedback system that is integrated it into our online booking engines. We are also working on a new version of the online booking engine that includes new advanced availability features.
WCM: Do you have any idea what percentage of private parks are now using online reservations?
Pace: I think a majority of them use something, whether it’s real time online reservations or e-mail request forms or things of that sort. The majority of them are doing something because the consumers are asking for it. But the commercial segment is still growing much slower than the rest of the industry. We think it’s primarily because a large part of the industry is made up of monthly parks or combination parks or winter parks and many parks don’t put their long-term sites online.
WCM: What are the online reservations statistics like for the parks that use the Hercules system?
Pace: If you just look at our front office customers, we’re seeing about 25% to 30% of the bookings being done online with an average growth of 2% to 4% a year. Some parks are doing significantly better than that. The public agency side is doing much more in terms of online bookings. It’s in the 60% to 80% range. In some cases, they only reserve online. In others, they offer consumers a choice – online or call centers. But the consumers are still choosing to go online because it’s faster and they don’t have to wait through call center queues.
WCM: How big is your customer base?
Pace: We have a customer base of about 800 and we’re increasing volumes with some public agencies. They really like Hercules because it’s a whole integrated property management system. This year, we’ve had the busiest winter that we’ve had in a while. We took on the South Dakota state park system and they went live in the first two months of 2013.
WCM: How has Hercules been able to handle the volume of reservations produced by a state park system?
Pace: South Dakota had a history of their system bogging down on Jan. 2 because previous systems couldn’t handle the surge in volume very well. It kind of snowballs when consumers can’t get online or have long waiting times in the call center. The natural reaction is for the consumer to get more family members to go online or call, and the system gets slower and slower with increasing demand. But we took Custer State Park live on Jan. 2 and they did more reservations in the first 15 minutes than many commercial parks book online over a whole year; and the system never slowed down. One of the advantages we have is scalability. Last year, we moved the system over to Microsoft’s Azure Cloud. It is a highly scalable cloud network so we’re not paying for idle servers sitting around all year waiting for the few days of peak volume. With the Microsoft network, you pay for what you use. If we need 20 servers on one day, we can expand to 20 servers and then throttle back to four servers the next day as the volume spike settles down. That seems to be a real advantage with the seasonality of our industry.
WCM: Are park operators embracing front desk management technology more than they used to?
Pace: The industry, for a lot of people, is still about land investment. The operators that are committed to the hospitality mindset in terms of how they operate are definitely embracing this type of technology. But you still find a few people using paper or pegboards or even spreadsheets. The new people coming into the industry are embracing front desk management systems because many of the new owners want to focus on customer experience once the campers are in the park instead of focusing on task and chores like reservation processing. They’ve used Quickbooks and increasingly expect to be able to use high value front desk management systems where the online booking engine and integrated property management system do most of the work. IT professionals are also more likely to want to outsource front desk management functions because they don’t want the PCI liability.
WCM: What kinds of security issues are related to credit cards and make parks more likely to want to outsource their online reservations systems?
Pace: There are huge fines when blocks of credit card numbers are stolen – in the $20,000 to $50,000 range for the first occurrence, and larger thereafter. The initial PCI focus has been on online transactions because that is where large amounts of credit card data are stored. However, we also expect the PCI audits to expand their focus to local network security and access to hard-drives on local PCs. Older versions of software have weaker credit card encryption storage. A stolen PC with encrypted credit card information can be set up with encryption hacking software running 24/7 because the stolen hardware is no longer in control of the owner. We have also seen instances where workampers save credit card information in notes fields, which are not encrypted at all. This is a huge risk for park operators. Also, we expect the PCI audits to start focusing on paper storage where numerous documents with full credit card information are readily available. Taken as a whole, we are seeing a move to outsource credit card storage and limit the access that employees and work campers have to credit card information. Hercules provides access to card usage without access to the card information.