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.
My wife and I seldom stay at a KOA, Jellystone, or “resort” style RV park. We make our own entertainment, and never use a pool. Let’s face it, most of us on this thread are older and know how to entertain ourselves. These destination parks are catering to some of the younger RV’ers that need pampering and everything given to them. I would not be surprised if these parks will sometime in the future offer breakfast served in bed. Hopefully someone will come up with a web site listing all campgrounds in a state and their amenities.
I agree with your post. “Hopefully someone will come up with a web site listing all campgrounds in a state and their amenities.” A complete list would be an excellent idea so we’ll know where not to go. Your assessment of younger RV’ers needing to be pampered is right on the money. RV’ing/camping is way to get away from the ordinary/usual daily grind. Time to disconnect, relax and re-energize yourselves and families, even for just a weekend. If you want the Disney experience, go to Disney and leave the rest of us to enjoy some simple downtime to connect with the beauty of the world around us. As kids we had bikes and other similar things to amuse us and actually talked to other kids without technology. I hope the mom and pops can ride out this latest money grabbing fad and stay true to their customers.
As a retired couple we don’t like to stay in campgrounds that cater to kids and have lots of activities. They are usually crowded and noisy, and we don’t like paying for ‘amenities’ we don’t want or use. This type of campground is our last resort.
When you get value, it’s worth it, from coach to 1st class, from small to large RVs.
Like every adventure, there are different markets and groups and where they seek to spend their hard-earned dollars. I personally am not a big Disney fan, either their parks or their entertainment division such as ESPN or ABC television. So when I read the very good article highlighting Mr. Formica’s marketing suggestion to campground owners my view is it does have some merit to the influx of new millennial campers with young children. This group of campers is looking for “babysitting” campgrounds where there is a slew of activities and amenities to occupy the junior miss and mister while mom and dad sit around their campsite with friends and get blasted.
My son used my motorhome, I set up, last summer at a Yogi Bear campground near home. They spent $139 per night for a nice FHU site plus an additional $30 site lock fee. They thought their stay was a bargain for a family of 5 plus two dogs. They neglected to include my costs of the RV and fuel to get it there and back in their totals
How bout – just continue with great Customer Service and WE’LL create Our Own Experience(s)!
Our favorite RV park remains to be a small dirt park in NV with a great owner who we’ve known for over 20 years now. There is endless access to open areas abounding with ghost towns, petroglyphs, mountain tops, endless wonderful scenery, and all accessible to 4wd vehicles of all types. There are several off-road “poker runs” both in town and in nearby towns. No fancy amenities. Just power, water, and showers (if you need them). Relaxation at its best. Mickey will not rear his ‘ugly’ head here.
When we checked into a KOA at the end of November this year we were told that they were going to site-lock fees at most campgrounds. We usually reserve a site for the winter when we leave in the Spring. So guess we will see if that is what happens.
If you want glitz, go on a cruise!
For many people, a Disney trip is a once in a lifetime experience. They’ll pay for that.
Often, camping is more frequent than that. And also often selected because it’s low-cost and a more primitive experience.
Glitz and amenities will turn off many campers, as will higher prices.
Many RVers don’t want fake, they want real, simple and cheap.
In 2006 the Buffalo NY KOA marketed itself as a “destination” and it was a fine one for 1 adult, a teenager and an elementary age child. There were shuttle/touring experiences for Niagara Falls very conveniently bundled for purchase, there were trampolines, pools and night time family movies on an inflatable screen, a fine playground, and a selection of restaurants that would deliver. Plus the washeteria and rest rooms with showers, it was everything we needed for 4 days and 5 nights. If campground owners look carefully at what non-cg amenities exist locally, mutually advantageous agreements can be made and the cg owner can concentrate on developing programs that they will be sole supplier for. In the Poconos in 2017, Thursday night thru Sunday got gradually more crowded and noisy, but it was the sound of happy campers with childrens movies, playgrounds, farm animals, a weekend “summer camp” that hosts staffed for kids- treasure hunts, making parental gifts, ice cream bars, of course
bounce pillows and pools. While DH and I had to put in earplugs at 9 pm Saturday, Sunday morning was quieter than Friday or Saturday and Monday thru Wednesday nights were wonderful for sleeping for older people. I am hopeful that campgrounds will continue to reach out for customer groups of different ages and interests.
The biggest problem, I see, is not the “Disney” experience smoke and mirrors stuff the “industry” is trying to sell but the “buy out” of mom and pop campgrounds, that have served their camping customers needs for decades, by faceless corporations. I don’t believe that the “camping industrial complex” has actually surveyed folks at all. If folks want to take their kids to Disney then they will go but for the majority of us who would like an inexpensive weekend/week long vacation just enjoying the outdoors, with a pool for the kids, and a fire pit for smores and other family fun, we don’t need or want to pay for spas, tennis courts etc. I only hope that the mom and pop family campgrounds can survive being steamrolled out of existence. Electric cars are not a normal reality yet and probably won’t be for another 10 years or so and their is nothing wrong with the present good “customer service” versus some corporate dream of a “customer experience”.
Exactly. Maddox Family Campground on Chincoteague Island, VA was bought out by KOA a few years back and is now ~$150/night. My wife and I spent our first real camping trip at Maddox back in the 70’s, I think it was about $8 night for a tent site.
Even the campground we stay at on Chincoteague now is $60/night. May have to give it up because it’s just not worth it anymore.
The first time we stayed at Disney’s Campground we had a 27 foot trailer. I reserved the medium price site. It was tight! We could not open our awning and the picnic table was behind the rv. However, the amenities were great and the grandchildren loved it!