Camping in the Cloud: Managing Wi-Fi's Woes
Editor's Note: The following story by Kristopher Bunker appears in the July issue of Woodall's Campground Management.
As wireless technology continues to evolve, the way people camp is changing as well. Rather than pulling out the old campground directory and guidebooks, many have now turned to the Internet for online booking for campsite reservations, trip planning and traffic/weather conditions, not to mention music, movies and overall entertainment. This newfound reliance on the Internet has actually been years in the making, but it does present an interesting dilemma for campground owners; namely, as the demand on campground Wi-Fi gets heavier every day, what steps can be taken to ensure a pleasant experience for their guests?
Beginning on the booking side, some online registration companies have been met with some resistance at first. “I hear all the time, ‘We don’t offer Internet reservations because we offer top-of-the-top customer service, and we have to talk to them to give them that service,’” says Peter Kearns, vice president and owner of Niagara Falls, Ontario-based Mission Management Information Systems Inc. (MMI) “I tell them, ‘What you want has nothing to do with it. It’s what they want. And what they want is to book between 7:30 p.m. and 3:30 a.m. And your park office isn’t open then.’” Websites such as MMI’s www.bookyoursite have recently seen increased traffic as more and more campground owners are listening to their customers. “The online demand has always been there for the public, but the parks really are just now catching up to it,” says Kearns.
But once somebody has booked their site and fulfilled their stay, what then? If they plan to continue their RVing/camping adventures elsewhere, chances are they’ll head back online to reserve a site at a different location. And that’s where the importance of a reliable Wi-Fi connection at the campground comes in. “When people launch their browser at a campsite, they just want to connect to the Internet and stay connected. If they can’t do that easily, they won’t,” says Eric Stumberg, president/CEO of Austin, Texas-based TengoInternet.
In order to facilitate that ease of use – not only for online booking but especially for more involved, larger tasks like uploading and downloading files – campground owners need to not only offer Wi-Fi at their sites, but to ensure that it’s also readily available and maintained properly. And that begins with making sure the Internet signal coming into the park is strong enough to handle the demand. “The first building block in any Wi-Fi system is the bandwidth coming in,” says Jim Ganley, managing partner at Gray, Maine-based Check Box Systems. And that can cost campground owners more money than they may be prepared to spend. “When you look at the cost of providing reliable Wi-Fi, it’s not cheap,” says Ganley. “But comparing it to other amenities, like swimming pools and athletic facilities, it’s much less expensive, and much higher on the wish list for your guests. Far more guests want Wi-Fi than want to swim laps in the pool.”
Camping purists may consider the demand for Wi-Fi a ridiculous one; you’re supposed to be spending time in the great outdoors, under clear skies, with no electronics whatsoever. But like the demand for pools, clubhouses and even golf courses, the public’s cry for staying connected has necessitated for Internet systems that can handle hundreds – if not thousands – of users in any given 24-hour period.
Others in the industry concur. “The majority of campground owners are now realizing that Wi-Fi is the number one demanded amenity,” says Jim Ames, CEO of Napa, Calif.-based Airwave Adventurers. “If you don’t have reliable Wi-Fi, most likely they’re going to go someplace else.”
Consider bandwidth (the No. 1 requirement for solid Wi-Fi) as a sprinkler system; you have a main water line that you tap into, and the more sprinkler heads you place throughout the yard, the less the pressure is going to be. That’s why all the Wi-Fi management systems that Woodall’s Campground Management (WCM) spoke to recommend getting the maximum bandwidth possible for each location, which is sometimes a rather difficult proposition. “That largely depends upon where in the country you are,” says Ganley. “If you’re in an area fortunate enough to have robust fiber or cable Internet, you can build a very fast system for your guests. But if you’re in an area with slower DSL or satellite connections, there are more hoops to jump through.”
Both geographical and monetary considerations must be taken into account when planning a park’s Internet/Wi-Fi system. In doing so, there has to be a certain amount of “give” one way or the other. “If I’m talking to a customer, the question now is ‘What is the guest experience you want to provide?’” says Stumberg. ‘Do you want a service where everybody can send e-mails and trip plan and do a few big things, or do you want to provide a service where people can Skype and download movies and be online?’”
If owners opt for the latter, they should be prepared for heavy demand; the growing reliance on Internet applications for entertainment has proven to be the biggest Wi-Fi “hog” of all, and could potentially lead to other campers leaving with a bad taste in their mouths. “The biggest challenge we face today is video. If you’re watching a two-hour Netflix HD stream, that’s the equivalent usage rate of sending about 4 million e-mails in two hours,” says Ganley. Such high bandwidth usage rate by one camper means that another may not even be able to log on to retrieve his e-mails.
In addition, the boom of mobile devices, from iPhones to tablets to connected MP3 players, has led to another challenge. “Our biggest theme last year was upgrading all our radios to the newest ones so they can better handle sensitivity for iPads, iPhones and smaller devices,” says Ames. “The greatest challenge was to be able to handle those (smaller devices) because they have such small transmitters in them.”
So, who is to blame? The campground owners or the users? Basically neither, says Ames, who has a bit of a different take.
“The ISPs (Internet service providers) are not keeping up fast enough with technology. The tech is there. We have fiber-optic technology that’s been around for quite a while.”
One thing all the providers agree upon is the importance of the relationship between the campground owners and the Wi-Fi managers. “It’s really critical for us that we are in partnership with our customers so that we’re meeting the expectations,” says Stumberg. That way, we can really set them right up front, given whatever circumstances they face locally.”
Campground Manager, which is MMIS’ top product, allows users to book their campsites online in conjunction with the vertically integrated www.bookyoursite.com, without the need to contact the campground directly. This allows them to book on their own time frame, rather than waiting on hold during their own work hours. Kearns says that 73% of RVers book during off hours, and that the campgrounds still have the opportunity through his program to approve of the reservations. “Using Campground Manager, we take their information, and then take the park’s site out of inventory. But someone (from the park) still has to touch those reservations first thing in the morning during business hours.” A Book Your Site app is now available for the iPhone and iPad and is “The only app in America where you can book a reservation from your phone,” says Kearns.
Check Box Systems
“Check Box Systems software allows properties to control who gets on their network, how much time they spend on the network and how much data they consume,” says Ganley. Once a customer associates his/her wireless device with a signal, a property welcome page greets users with general links to various property-selected sites. Users can then dive into the “real” Internet after they have entered a ticket number or password. Some properties allow a “free access” button, which allows free reign of the web for a limited time, while some properties call for a credit-card module to charge for usage. Check Box Systems monitor users’ activity to make sure they aren’t using inordinate amounts of data. For more information visit www.checkboxsystems.net.
TengoInternet is the largest high-speed Internet provider and hot-spot installer in the industry. TengoInternet designs, installs, operates and supports wired and wireless networks for outdoor hospitality venues. “We provide a guaranteed solution for the customer,” says Stumberg. “We’re spending a lot more time now helping customers identify better, faster Internet.” Stumberg points out that TengoInternet has addressed the recent mobile-device boom by “mobilizing the network,” to increase the range and effectiveness of his products. “We are constantly striving to determine more reliable systems and better ways of staying connected.” For more information visit www.tengointernet.com.
Airwave bills itself as a one-stop business for campground owners to install Wi-Fi into their campgrounds. Airwave sells the equipment, designs the system and maintains manages the program should users wish to continue that route. “We also have a program to manage the system, do all credit-card transactions and take care of technical-support needs,” says Ames. “With our Deluxe Package, we handle everything; we even find out who the local (provider) is and take care of the billing there as well. We’re the only ones who do that for our customers.” For more information visit www.airwaveadventurers.com.