Monty Speaks with Campground Consultant Bob MacKinnon

Picture of Bob MacKinnonBob MacKinnon is the principal of MacKinnon Campground Consulting based in Murrieta, California. He has extensive leadership experience in the Hospitality Industry including 30 years of experience with the Walt Disney Company. He founded MacKinnon Campground Consulting in 1996.

Monty: Hi Bob; thank you for speaking with us today. Would you please start by telling us a little bit about your background. We know you started with Disney…

Bob: Sure. Actually I started with the Disney Company while I was still going to college, working part time at Disneyland. It was just prior to all of the Walt Disney World development in the early 70s. I had an opportunity to go through their management training program and be part of the Walt Disney World Development and be there on the ground floor. I spent most of my time in operating divisions whether it was in the Magic Kingdom Park, which is like Disneyland, or in hotel operations which I got into a little bit later on. That’s really where the majority of my career was. Actually probably the last half of the 31 years that I was with Disney was in hotel/resort management.

Really that’s how I got involved with the campground industry. I was involved, had some exposure to our Fort Wilderness campground in Florida. I was transferred back to California in the late ’80s from Florida to the Disneyland area, to be a part of the transition team when the Disney Company acquired the Disneyland hotel from a company that was leasing the name from us. There I became responsible not only for hotel operations but also for an RV resort that Disney owned and operated as part of that acquisition.

Over the next 10 years or so I got interested in the RV park/camping industry from a business standpoint. I had always been a camper ever since my early Boy Scout days and continued camping as an adult through college and with my family. So it was interesting to be involved with that from a business standpoint.

Over a few years, one thing led to another, and I had an opportunity to retire from Disney and start my own consulting business in the RV park and campground consulting field. It had been a thing that I was interested in for some time – starting my own business – but not sure where, so it has been very serendipitous to have that opportunity present itself.

Monty: When did you start your business?

Bob: It was back in 1996, actually, so it’s been about 16 years. I’ve done over 300 different projects as a consultant – some small and some quite large. I’ve worked throughout the U.S., I’ve worked with Canadian companies, I’ve worked internationally – gone over to Australia and had some contact and work there. Most recently, in the last couple of years, I’ve been to China. So it really has been quite interesting. I do all sorts of consulting work from doing feasibility studies and business plans for developing new campgrounds to working with owners who have been in the business for a number of years who kind of need a fresh look of where to take their campground business. I do work for buyers of campgrounds who are not familiar with the industry and help them sort out whether buying the campground is really a good deal for them and is going to meet their needs and expectations. I do a line of training work. Part of my Disney history was with the Disney University for a number of years and I was the head of the resort division/hotel division training at Walt Disney World. Because of that I’ve gotten involved with teaching a number of seminars, writing articles, helping people in the RV park and camping industry understand how to improve their businesses. For about the last 10 years I have been an instructor and a board member at National School of RV Park and Campground Management that is sponsored by our trade association which is the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds. That school is held in February of every year back in Wheeling, West Virginia.

It has been an interesting career from the standpoint of consulting work helping owners and developers maximize the value of their efforts and doing a lot of training to help people to understand how they can use best practices in the guest services and hospitality industry to make their lives better and their businesses better.

Monty: Do you own an RV yourself?

Bob: I have. I don’t currently own one, but it’s on my bucket list.

Another thing that I do, for about the last seven or eight years, I provided customer feedback tools for individual campgrounds in the RV park and campground industry. They can survey their customers and get a guest satisfaction score. That’s evolved into a pretty big endeavor that is kind of co-sponsored with the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds under the brand name GuestReviews. What I do is I have a contract with the National Association to provide an online guest satisfaction measurement tool for their 3,800 members and it’s an online survey and it gives them access to data as far as customer sentiments and satisfaction as well as giving the camping public an opportunity to review their experiences at an individual campground and post their comments and that sort of thing. In a way it is kind of a TripAdvisor for the campground industry.

It’s really two sides. It’s a consumer facing tool that we branded as GuestRated.com, and a customer satisfaction quality control measurement tool available to campgrounds that we branded as guestreviews.com. So two brands, two purposes, but all driven off of obtaining feedback from customers in a way that you can measure and search upon data and improve your business as well as allow consumers to make their decisions on where they want to stay.

Monty: Explain again the difference between guestrated.com and guestrevies.com?

Bob: It’s really the audience that we service. I think probably for the purposes of your interview, guestrated.com is the brand because that is the public facing brand. We will probably be blending them together in the next year but for now from the public standpoint GuestRated is the brand and it is positioned as an opportunity for campers to give feedback to the campground owner as well as to share their reviews and ratings with other campers.

Monty: What are some of the things that a camper should look for in a campground?

 
…all campers appreciate service above anything else…

 

Bob: I know that this is going to sound kind of trite, but all campers appreciate service above anything else. There is such diversity in facilities and services out there… I don’t know if you are a camper or been camping, but I am sure that you can appreciate that there are camping experiences all the way from hiking in the woods and sleeping under the stars to driving a million dollar bus into a luxury resort with having spa treatments, and gourmet restaurant experiences. So with an industry that diverse to say that there is any one thing that people are looking for is not really accurate because even that camper who is going to sleep under the stars might also travel in a trailer or a motor home and want a more luxurious camping experience. So the real equalizer is how they’re treated once they decide what kind of an experience they want – if they want rustic or middle of the road or a luxury experience – they choose that upfront and they have expectations that they will get certain facilities and services. The truth of the matter or the proof of the pudding is how that experience is delivered and it is all about how they are treated.

The analogy that I give when I teach Customer Service classes is the TV show Cheers. It may not have been the fanciest, neatest, nicest, most luxurious facility in the world but they have created special relationships with their customers. Making each customer feel special by creating a place “where everybody knows your name”. When you visit Cheers, you become part of that family. So that’s really what hospitality is all about and that’s really what the biggest differentiator is in the campground industry like any other hospitality operation.

Monty: What are some of the innovative things that you see campgrounds doing that stand out in your mind?

Bob: Well, I think the most effective innovation is a campground trying to understand and provide features and services designed to meet their customer’s expectations. In any venue that I discuss from luxury to rustic camping, success is in understanding what your customer wants and then satisfying those expectations. The customer doesn’t expect a spa treatment when they’re sleeping under the stars.

Monty: What are some of the things that a camper should look for in a campground?

 
…many more camping resorts are developing around the country to cater to higher expectations that more affluent campers and RVers have…

 

But if you want to talk innovation on high-end stuff, many more camping resorts are developing around the country to cater to higher expectations that more affluent campers and RVers have. Among those are recreational facilities, activities – I mentioned spa treatments, there are a number of luxury RV resorts that provide spa treatments and gourmet restaurants or banquet facilities.

But the true middle-of-the-road facilities – WiFi and connectivity with the Internet is kind of a basic expectation for anyone who is not doing rustic camping. I think that mainstream of campers today are looking for a way to connect with nature under their own terms but still having all of the conveniences of home. So even if they are camping in a tent in a campground, a lot of them still want to have their mobile device whether it is a cell phone or a tablet or a laptop. Many want to stay connected with their social circle or loved ones and some campers need to stay connected with their business. That’s been probably the biggest change in the industry over the last five years.

Monty: People are not just going to get away from it all any more…

 
…[Staying connected] is probably the biggest change in the industry in the last five years…

 

Bob: Yes. Even if you are in a tent in a campground, they may be sitting in that tent or at the outdoor picnic table surfing the web, answering e-mails… A lot more people are flexible in their business arrangements so they stay in touch and stay connected while they travel no matter whether they are staying at a campground, RV resort, or hotel. That is probably the biggest change in the industry in the last five years, in addition to what I call rentable units.

Not everybody wants to sleep on the ground. Not everybody can afford to purchase a recreational vehicle whether it is a trailer or a motor home. Yet they want to get outdoors, and one way to do that is through renting a cabin or a platform tent or a more luxurious cottage, or something like that. Again, in the last seven to ten years that segment of the camping industry has really grown tremendously. Many of the destination camping resorts not only offer campsites for tents, trailers, or motorhomes, but they do offer some type of rental unit and are attracting and servicing a segment of the camping market that might not otherwise go camping.

Monty: Do campgrounds also sometimes rent trailers and things like that?

Bob: They do. The whole rental market is very diverse also. At the basic service level there are campgrounds that rent a platform tent – a wooden platform with a tent on it with cots or bunk beds in it – rustic kind of log cabins with not a lot of luxuries – no internal bathroom but basic power and light and a door that locks at night. Other campgrounds rent a variety of different types of trailers. Some of them rent pretty much the same commercial trailer that you could buy and tow yourself without any modifications to it, and other trailers that are built specifically for rental units that are somewhat semi-permanently located in a park. They may even look like a miniature mobile home. There are conventionally built cottages whether they are framed out or log cabins.

Some parks really get into the kind of unique and fanciful accommodations. There are parks that rent out teepees, there are parks that rent out a teepee type of product called a yurt, which is a circular structure that is kind of a combination between a teepee and a platform tent. I’ve seen some that have renovated railroad cabooses. There are all sorts of different kind of accommodations in that rental unit area. The campground determines what they think will be attractive to their market and will complement their existing facilities. There’s quite a variety out there.

Monty: I imagine over the years you have seen quite a number of campgrounds and we were wondering what are some of the more unique things you have come across as you have visited various campgrounds?

Bob: Well, in the rental accommodations area I visited one campground that was very creative in what they did. In fact they had one little section that they developed into a little miniature street in a western town with false fronts, you know, a saloon, and a general store, and a jail etcetera. And behind each one of those structures was a little cabin with sleeping accommodation. They were the one that had the railroad caboose. They had a Conestoga wagon. They had a stage coach. So they really took in this theming. Each one of those had sleeping accommodations. It was pretty unique. I’ve seen many locations but I have only seen one location that got that creative.

Some of them now have large cabin type of facilities that can accommodate multiple families. I think that is a market that has a significant demand and is going to continue to grow. A lot of family reunions would like to have multiple families to share accommodations under one roof and still connect with nature rather than going to a hotel and using their conference center for their family reunion. They look at where they can get accommodations at a camping resort. That’s unique as far as the accommodations.

A lot of destination resorts, especially family oriented developments, are opening lots of new recreation facilities. There are some that have extensive water park facilities. Some of them are linked in with amusement parks either adjacent to them where they have access to them. A lot of them have full scale activity programs where you can go and have an extended stay with an activity program lined up for every member of the family. There are a lot of unique things out there besides the folks that just want to go and have a natural outdoor experience – pitch a tent and cook over an open fire and just enjoy the outdoors.

The real key is that there is a lot of diversity and it’s a matter of identifying from a campground owner’s standpoint what your market is and getting that feedback from them as to what their expectations and needs are so that you can provide the right combination. And again, there are times when I would go camping with my kids and we would pack a tent and sleep on the ground and other times where wanted a much more comfortable experience.

Monty: If you could look into your crystal ball where do you see this industry headed?

Bob: I think that camping has always been a family-oriented activity. It is one of those activities that provides quality time among families and I think that is at the core of why people enjoy it and why people continue doing it. It is outdoors in nature and you can buy into that as much as you want. You can have an adventure experience or you can have a low key take short hikes experience.

 
…camping is very affordable…

 

The key is that camping is very affordable and because of that it is a very solid industry. I think that the biggest challenge going forward, even though this industry has weathered the economic storm over the past few years – it’s weathered it very well because it has been affordable and people who cannot afford to go on an extended or expensive vacation or cruise or whatever – they can still afford to go camping with their family. And so, I will not say that it is completely recession proof, but the occupancy statistics have shown it’s been a pretty solid industry over the past few years and it has not been impacted nearly to the extent that the other travel industry segments have.

However, that being said, there has been a gap in developing new campers – growing new campers, families camping, kids camping – over the past ten years or so. And so as an industry I think that there is a concern about finding ways to get new campers involved, and younger campers involved in that camping experience to continue the strength of the industry. In general, twenty-something year olds don’t wake up one day and say I want to go camping. They were introduced to it at an earlier age. They were introduced to nature and the outdoors and then they evolved into it and then they pass that along to their children. So that’s a challenge that is recognized both by private campgrounds and by public agencies – there is a need to acquaint younger people today who may not have had a camping experience and to acquaint them with the benefits, the excitement, and the fun of being outdoors and being outside and having an overnight experience and what kind of recreation things they can do and have them begin to accept that as a lifestyle that they also enjoy. I think that is the biggest challenge going forward.

 
The rental RV gives them some flexibility to go from location to location and not have to unpack and repack…

 

One of the segments of the industry that I left out so far is that rental RVs, like rental accommodations at the site, offer people who are not in the RV camping lifestyle an ease of entry to that and many people get involved with camping through the rental of an RV. They can travel around and experience camping in different locations and sometimes that’s what leads them to an RV purchase later on. It’s an easy way to kind of test drive a camping experience where you are going to multiple locations whereas the rental unit is usually set up on site – whether it’s a cabin, a cottage or a teepee. The rental RV gives them some flexibility to go from location to location and not have to unpack and repack every time they wanted to stop and stay.

Monty: Try before you buy…

Bob: Absolutely.

Monty: Or you are never going to buy it just appreciate the mobility and not having to unpack.

Bob: Actually, in some cases it makes better financial sense to rent one than to buy one. Just like any vehicle, the minute you drive that thing off of the dealer’s lot, the depreciation of that RV takes a major hit. So a lot of people are smart about their camping experiences and they buy an RV for a week or whatever the period of time is and let someone else worry about insuring it, maintaining it, and eating the depreciation on it.

Monty: And storing it…

Bob: Absolutely. In fact in many urban areas that’s a huge problem these days and a very costly part of having an RV.

Monty: Thank you very much for speaking with us.

Bob: Thanks so much. I appreciate the opportunity to talk with you.

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