Last night we had old friends over for shish kebab and Armenian lamb pizza called Lahmajoon. The conversation was lively and after we caught up on general goings-on and ever-developing hobbies, business and marketing dominated the rest of the evening. Sam and Bea’s son owns a car rental business here in Sarasota, Florida (http://www.bnm.com/practical.htm). Practical Car Rental faces the same issues we do in the marketing arena…how does a small business get a place in the spotlight when the advertising world is controlled by the “Big Boys”? For us that’s KOA and CampAmerica, for them it’s Hertz and Avis.
We spend hours every week trying to put ourselves in your shoes. How do you identify your vacation destination? How do you choose a campground? If you’re going to rent a car once you get there, how do you choose the company? What makes your experience so good that you keep the brochure and share it with friends and family? What are the one or two features that make all of the difference in the world? To paraphrase the comments we often receive, the difference between an OK vacation and a fabulous one is well-deserved trust. Both you and I need a clear understanding of what is expected and there must be considerate of each others efforts and obligations.
Like every small business, our marketing dollars are limited and the advertising opportunities are limitless. Every winter we decide where to invest our energy and money. A few years back, we made a decision to buck the trends of marketing by investing in the guest experience rather than in advertising. Actually, my mother started it after an argument that ensued over popsicles. On hot days, she’d greet guests as they drove in with a cold treat…I protested because she was giving away “my” store profit. She was right and I was wrong. A decade later, guests still remember my mother’s gesture, long after they’ve forgotten my advertising efforts.
By not advertising in the big camping books and restaurant placemats, we lose a percentage of summer business that would make us very profitable in the short term. Deciding not to put all of our national ratings on our billboard causes many people drive right past our driveway on their way to Bar Harbor. As a family, we made a decision. We can best weather the typical tourist season ups and downs by choosing our guests carefully, treating them as we would like to be treated and understanding that we cannot be an ideal park for everyone.
Does it strike you as funny when I say that we “choose our guests?” At first glance this is an odd position to take because when you drive into our park, only 2/3’s of the sites might be full. I know that some campers think this is a sign that we’re not doing as well as other places they’ve stayed. A long time ago, we realized that blanket marketing may work for campgrounds looking for the one-time visitors but we want to attract guests who will return anytime they find themselves on the Maine coast.
For Searsport Shores, the almighty marketing question s “where did you hear about us?” Usually we hear, word of mouth or internet posted guest reviews. After tracking the response for 14 years, more than 70% of our guests are returning for another visit or have been sent by friends and family. Does this typify your experience? When you recommend a destination to family and friends, what made it memorable?
The March 2007 edition of Family Fun Magazine hit the newsstands this week. After the writers visited 250 campgrounds around the country, they narrowed their favorites to a field of nine…and we were among the best in the country for a family vacation. Our “stunning views of the shoreline” and endless beach caused this Disney magazine to call us “a gem.”
At Searsport Shores we’ve addressed family camping from our family’s perspective. My mother always loved the energy of young children and delighted in their imagination. For them she created a recreation hall that is complete with a grandmother’s attic. In her corner there are dresses and accessories fit for a debutante, masks and props for role playing and fantasy creatures and a dedicated space for teddy bear teas. Steven took control of the playground. When he’s not at the campground, he teaches 7th graders at the Troy Howard Middle School. Our playground is equipped with a wide array of climbing and team building activities that push experiential learning to its limits. In another posting I’ll tell you about the nature trails, sensory gardens, self guided kayak tours and other activities.
Family fun at the Shores is meant to be that…families playing together. I know that there are wonderful parks who propose to entertain your children from morning until night…that’s not us. We cater to families who want to spend time with their children and explore our coastal world. Our park is not a place where kids run wild and screaming is par for the course…respect and civility are a requirement of both guests and hosts. During July and August we run an activity each day, generally geared to 7-70 year olds. Every year the activities change but some of the favorites have been Mermaid wand tapestries, felted treasure pouches, pounded flowers, bag pipes at the beach and wild science experiments. Of course, our Saturday night lobsterbakes are legendary and we try and schedule a bonfire for every full moon with music, entertainment or snacks.
Whether you visit with children or not, you can expect quiet evenings, laughter rippling through the park and friendly people. I can’t explain why, but more than anything else we hear from our guests, we hear that we live in a magical place. It was best summed up by Gary Kitchen when he said that pulling into the park is like entering a time warp…he goes back to the 60’s when people sat on their front porch, strangers had time for conversations, and children were captivated by their friends and surroundings…not by the electronics that are stowed in the car. If this sounds too perfect, think again.
Hi everyone. It was a perfect weather day in Florida but I wanted you to know that I still thought about Searsport Shores and our guests…it was just easier to do it on a beach under the palm trees instead of on skis along the Maine shore…a change of pace is always good but I admit that I’m sorry to miss our first real snowstorm of the season…I’ll just have to hope for another when I get home next week.
One of the ways I justify leaving the campground in the winter is that consumer trends travel from West to East. In order to fill our gift area of the campground store, I spend a lot of time looking in gift shops and scoping out boutique windows to see what people are buying while I’m in Florida. I’m happy to report that retail is strong in St. Armand’s Circle, Sarasota. Clearly the most popular gift items are about “feel good, be happy” merchandise with a heavy emphasis on retro with a sarcastic twist. Colors are similar to those of seaglass and everything appeals to multiple senses.
You may not realize it but a top-notch campground cannot survive on site revenues alone. In our world, when we discuss the viability of a campground, we talk about the profit centers: store sales, laundry, activities, video arcade, etc. Each source of revenue is essential to our goal of providing the best possible vacation experience for your family. The gift shop is one of the necessary profit centers and I think it’s one of the most difficult tasks to manage properly.
At Searsport Shores, our reception room is divided into three essential areas: the check-in/accommodation desk, RV and camping supplies and gift items. RV supplies are easy because Dad owned a successful RV dealership for 35 years before he bought the campground. Steven tent camped since he was a toddler so the tenting supplies are no problem either. But the gift store is different. Gifts should delight and inspire. Shopping should be fun and affordable. Just like your campsite, you want to feel that you’re receiving good value for your purchase. The gifts you choose should reflect your vacation and it’s important to know that if you’ve bought something for a friend, she won’t find the same item in her local store. If the item is unique to Maine, fun or practical, and affordable I’ve hit a homerun. Finally, since the great majority of our guests are returning from a previous visit, it’s important that I always having something new to offer.
Every year we stock our campground store with things I believe our guests will want to take home. But imagine buying thousands of dollars of gifts for people you only know see on special occasions. It’s scary. Here’s what I know about my typical guest: she has disposable income, prefers to shop in places that are very different from those she finds at home and she is generally practical…she wants to offer gifts that make her friends, family and colleagues happy or improve their lives in some way.
Today I found a press pot masquerading as an insulated travel mug. It’s well made, functional and is perfect for life on the road (for a night, the week or a season). For those who don’t know me well, at 8 AM and 3 PM, good coffee and high-quality sugar treats are very important to me. I’ve personally blended the coffee we serve at the Shores and it’s locally roasted every week from shade grown, fair traded beans. We serve the Searsport Shores Blend created by Rock City coffee…you can check them out at http://www.rockcitycoffee.com. Anyway, this new travel mug allows you to put two tablespoons of freshly ground coffee into the mug, cover it with boiling water and after 5 minutes, press the grounds down and enjoy your coffee…the results are wonderful and as an added bonus, there’s a hidden storage pod in the bottom of the mug that allows for another cup of coffee later in the day. I saw it in a gourmet shop in St. Armand’s Circle so tomorrow’s job is to track down the wholesale distributor and see what we need to have them on the shelves in May.
Saturday I flew down to Sarasota to spend a few days with Dad. I’ve been here so many times that it feels like home but I always suffer a bit of culture shock for the first few days. In Maine, in February, we drive dirty cars and trucks and because of the ice, usually they’re 4 wheel drive. This morning I slipped out for a bit of Starbuck’s (something else we don’t do in Searsport) and was amazed when I backed into my parking space. I was sandwiched between a Lexus, two Jags, too many Mercedes to count and a red Beamer…and all of them were shiny. In my real world, the only thing people check out in the parking lot is your tires~ do they have good treads?
This is high season on Florida’s Gulf coast. It’s disconcerting to see that there are vacancy signs on every property. Are people traveling less? Do they have less vacation time? Is Florida just boring compared to more exotic destinations? Or more simply, are they all snowed in up in Northern New York? With no desire to hurt Southern states’ tourism, my personal hope is that travellers are saving alot of money this winter by staying home and then they’ll head up the North bound highway to our rocky paradise.
If I could offer you one travel tip based on my 15 years of managing the campground and greeting thousands of guests, it would be to choose a destination that allows you to feel settled for at least a week. Spend part of your time exploring the back streets and the tiny restaurants that don’t get promoted in the glossy fliers. Choose a place to camp where you don’t have to be on the go all of the time…it should be beautiful enough that some days you’ll just want to stay put…read a book and daydream. The saddest vacationners of summer are those frantic city people who are trying to pack a maximum number of sights into each day…they miss the really good parts of being in Maine where life truly is slower and tends to follow the rhythm of the tides.
If you are looking for a good campground guide, the best on the shelves is the Unofficial Guide to Campgrounds by Frommers. In another posting, I’ll tell you more about how these guides usually work but for now, suffice it to say that these guys have been the best. If you’re looking for the best advice for local attactions, talk to the people in the sites beside you and to the shop owner down the street…in our part of the world, the advice they give you will be the best because frequently the owners of the smaller destinations don’t have the money or the time to spend on advertising or don’t get the support of the State’s marketing mechanism. Tell me, where do you get your best touring advice?
The rain has stopped for a bit so I think I’ll I’m head to the local greenhouse to buy Dad some annuals to brighten his patio. Bye for now, Astrig
By 6:45 this morning, the Bay was pink, purple and ice cold blue. Before I was dressed, the color and light show gave way to the bands of silvery ice floating on the water and the only colors left in the world are blues and pine-tree greens. By the time the dog and I got to the beach, the tide was receding and the most amazing thing happens…the sea foam freezes and clings to the rockweed. Picture a science fiction movie where life is frozen in an instant…the bubbles look absolutely perfect…but wouldn’t be popping until the sun melts them later in the day. When you walk on the frozen seaweed it cracks and squeaks under your feet and where the stream runs into the bay, the difference in salinity makes the water look thick like a gel. As soon as I buy a new digital camera, I’ll try and capture it so that you know what I’m talking about.
After a strong cup of coffee it was time to sit down and work. This week’s project has been designing a new logo…and I think that I have a good first draft. Our first and only logo was designed on a bar napkin, over a beer on the drive between Arizona and Maine. It worked but it’s time for something new. In a graphic design that fits on a business card I want to convey the ocean, a casual and fun atmosphere, an up-to-date attitude (but not too trendy), all the relevant contact information and I want it to attract the traveller looking to spend time exploring our corner of paradise…oh and the logo must appeal equally to folks camping in a tiny tent or a 40′ motor home complete with washer and dryer. Is this too much to ask? Look at my current draft and tell me what you think…it’s nice to have input.
Once Dad and Steven have had their say, I’ll start working on the second draft. We need to re-design the brochures too and have them ready for the tourist information centers before Memorial Day.
Each time we do a printing we order 20000 copies but this year I’m wondering, should we print rack cards or brochures? They both cost the same but rack cards seem more modern. Do you agree? By next week I’ll need answers to these questions so that there’s time to decide what the finished product should look like.
But now I need to go across the street to Abbracci’s, the Italian cappuccino bar and meet Steven and chat with proprietors Assunta and Chris. They make the most amazing cannolis and last week they baked 50 burnt sugar cupcakes for Steven’s surprise birthday party. Assunta is an aspiring writer and accomplished photographer. A native of New Jersey, her insight is always a surprise take on the world…and her heart reminds us all to cherish the life we’re leading.
My life oscillates between simple and frazzled but never seems to hover in the middle. If you’ve ever thought you might like to own a campground or work closely with your family…here’s a chance to peek through the windows and see what it’s like. I pledge to post to this blog at least 3 days each week and if I keep to my resolution you’ll ride through the jitters of Springtime reservations, see the gardens as they sprout and mature, live through Fiber College in September and close down the park with us in October. Along the way I’ll introduce you to the interesting characters who stay with us for a day, a week or the entire summer. Life is never boring at Searsport Shores Ocean Camping and I hope that you enjoy the ride. I’ll try to include photos to fill in the blanks and of course the best thing in the world would be if you stopped by and said hello if you happened to be in Searsport.
This is our 15th summer on these 40 acres and we’ve finally reached the point that when something goes wrong, we know the world won’t come crashing down. Our home is set in the middle of a 125 site campground complete with beach, boardwalk, a playground to make any child bubble, recreation hall for potluck suppers, a supply store and lots of flowers. My husband does the hardscaping and I choose the plants. Dad takes care of the financials and the books and I run the front office. We all tend to the needs of our guests and our roles become very blurry during the summer. We all love to cook and eat so every Saturday night there’s a big lobsterbake on the beach…I’ll tell you more about that when July rolls around.
This time of year we work on marketing, planning, resting and now blogging…so welcome to my world!