Have you tried to go on a spontaneous weekend camping trip lately? So you went online to reserve a campsite only to find that all “reservable” sites have been taken. But some sites are held in reserve for people like you that make last-minute decisions. Except there are several hundred more just like you who have arrived first, so your chances are nil of getting a site.
Booking a campsite in the summer of 2018 sucks. Most of us assume it has to be this way – we’re dealing with government, after all. But here’s the thing: While federal and state campgrounds all exist on public land, their online operations are run by private businesses – a fact few people would guess, given that booking websites are linked directly to Recreation.gov or state park pages and have official-sounding names like ReserveAmerica, writes Marc Peruzzi for Outside Magazine.
For more than 20 years, a small number of companies have held long-term contracts that grant them exclusive control over reservations at publicly owned campsites, and their websites make you feel like you’re stuck in 1995 because they haven’t progressed much since then.
Fortunately, help is on the way – for federal campsites, anyway. In October, a new contractor, Booz Allen Hamilton, a management-consulting giant, will take over operations from ReserveAmerica, getting the keys to some 100,000 campsites managed by the Forest Service, the BLM, and the National Park Service.
Unlike its predecessor, Booz Allen must adhere to two important requirements. First, it has to provide real-time updates on campsite availability through something known as an application programming interface, or API. This is tech lingo for the same kind of software that powers Google Transit, Hotels.com, and Kayak, which have made it delightfully easy to do everything from plan your commute to make a restaurant reservation. Second, the company has to make good-faith efforts to negotiate business relationships with third parties that create campsite-reservation applications.
This latter obligation incentivizes a wave of tech businesses to transform the booking experience – which is a big deal. Imagine an app that would notify you of openings at nearby campgrounds … and then let you book it on the spot. This won’t happen overnight, but the efficiencies of modern e-commerce are at last coming to camping.