To get a sense of where the commercial campground industry is heading, it’s helpful to know what campground owners are hearing. Like any other business owner, they want to know how to keep up with the competition. They want to stay on top of “best practices.” Most of all, they want to know what the market wants and expects.
That’s how campground Wi-Fi became ubiquitous over the past decade, as providers like TengoInternet and CheckBox pounded their products relentlessly at conventions and in industry publications. It’s how online booking and check-in are now following the same adoption curve, for better and worse, pushed by a dozen different online reservation systems scrambling for market share with innovations like dynamic pricing and site-lock fees. And it’s why electric-car charging stations and metered electric service are on the horizon, with pedestal manufacturers just starting to gear up new product lines.
It’s instructive, therefore, to note the increasingly prominent role among campgrounds played by the Walt Disney Company – not directly, but by example. As inspiration. Camping ostensibly may be about the outdoors, while Disney is unabashedly about manufactured environments, but both claim to be in the hospitality business and both are heavily focused on families as their primary customers. But because Disney is also developmentally decades ahead of the campground industry, and because the industry’s thought leaders frequently extol Disney as the gold standard for hospitality, a growing number of campground owners are afflicted with a serious bout of mouse envy.
“Magical customer service”
The most recent case in point? November’s annual convention of the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds, which featured a “master class” led by John Formica, titled “Enhancing the Guest Experience the Disney Way.” Billing himself as the “Ex-Disney Guy” based on his 10 years of managing Disney’s top luxury resort properties, Formica makes a living these days as a motivational speaker and consultant to small businesses, “showing them how to create a Disney-like culture … and transforming any existing service level into a Magical customer service.”
That’s from Formica’s website – including the capital “M” in “Magical”. But despite these and numerous other references to “customer service,” Formica in person has a different sales pitch. “Providing customer service is not good enough – customer service is a waste of time,” he told a ballroom half full of campground owners. “Customer experience is the next competitive battleground.”
Customer service? That’s too average
Everybody’s doing customer service these days, Formica contends, so if that’s where your attention is focused, “you’re average, you’re boring.” Customer experience, on the other hand – that’s how you kick things up a notch, transforming the average and boring into the “Magical.” Businesses that understand that basic truth, Formica promised, will find that experience trumps both price and service as RVers decide where to camp next.
What’s notable about this is that customer service is most readily understood as being helpful and useful – of being responsive to someone else’s needs. Customer experience, on the other hand, turns that dynamic on its head: the customer’s needs aren’t part of the equation. Instead, all customers are presented with an identical menu of experiences and stimuli that are engaging because of how much they depart from the norm – the “wow” factor that has become the industry’s holy grail. At Disney World, that means costumed characters, thrill rides and pseudo-exotic locales. At a growing number of campgrounds, it means splash parks, climbing walls, zip lines and pseudo-exotic glamping in tree houses and Conestoga wagons.
The difference between customer service and experience
Customer experience, it should be observed, requires more from the experience provider than does mere customer service, starting with more spending for personnel and amenities. So as the emphasis shifts from service to experience, operating and capital costs start rising, which means customer prices have to be jacked up accordingly – a cycle that can be sustained only through more reinvestment in the “experience” side of things, all in a desperate effort to trump both price and service in the quest for camper loyalty.
Where does all that lead? Disney World, which celebrated its 50th anniversary just a month before John Formica addressed campground owners, provides a ready answer. When it opened, in 1971, the admission price was $3.50 for adults and $1 for children, with ride tickets sold separately, resulting in an average cost per visit of $5.75 a person – or less than $40 a head in 2021 dollars. These days, a “baseline” cost for a family of four for a typical 3–4 day Disney vacation exceeds $5,000.
It’s possible to spend much less than that, of course. A true apples-to-apples comparison, for example, might limit the visit to one day. But with single-day admission priced between $109 and $159, that family of four is already looking at a price tag approaching $600, and that’s just to get through the gate. Parking that cost 50 cents in 1971 is now $25, Cokes that sold for 35 cents now go for $3.99, and on and on. As Len Testa, president of a travel website, told MarketWatch a couple of months ago, “One day at Disney World – with a hotel and food and everything – costs either as much as or more than 80 percent of what American households spend on vacations any given year.”
Walt Disney the man died in 1966, five years before Disney World opened, so we can’t know for sure what he would have thought of his legacy. But much earlier, speaking of his first amusement park, he called it “a work of love. We didn’t go into Disneyland just with the idea of making money.” Several decades later, Disney CEO Michael Eisner had a different idea – “that once you’ve got people on the property you can charge more, because it’s difficult to leave,” as one company observer noted in the MarketWatch article.
It’s not a stretch to say that a significant number of commercial campgrounds are heading in the same direction, if not to the same degree, in part because of the veneration with which many industry leaders regard Disney. For them, customer service is so yesterday. More amenities, more glitz and more wow! – that’s tomorrow. And guess who’ll pay for that – and who will no longer be able to afford a family camping trip?
Andy Zipser is the author of Renting Dirt, the story of his family’s experiences owning and operating a Virginia RV park. The fascinating book, recently published, is available at many large bookstores and at Amazon.com.