Reservations and Military Campgrounds

[Editors Note: This article was written and submitted by a website user.]

It’s raining today, the dog has been walked, I’m tired of watching TV or playing Spider Solitaire, I’m caught-up on my reading, and it’s my 75th birthday.  Those are the perfect ingredients to become a nuisance and stir-up a little “hate and discontent” about a subject that had a major impact to our summer travel plans this year.

The core issue is: not being able to make a reservation at a MCG.  It festered under my skin for several weeks.  I just couldn’t shake loose from my anger or disappointment.  Finally, I took a reality check of my state-of-mind and could not distinguish which was greater; my anger or disappointment. Then I realized that being angry and disappointed accomplished nothing productive.  But, I needed to do something, this thing destroyed our dreams was just not going away.

I had to choose one of three actions:  I could just accept “that’s the way it is” situation and then move on with my life (I doubt this would ever happen, the good old eagle, globe, and anchor military service instilled in me a “never give up” persona); secondly, I could go on a rampage to show my anger by whining and complaining; and the final choice would be to take an assertive approach to try to influence change that may lead to a beneficial resolution for all MCG recreational users.

I choose the third action, the assertive approach.  The second action usually falls on deaf ears (shoveling sand against the tide syndrome), discredits the victim, as well as, completely negating the complaint.  Let me add another point as to why the complaining approach sometimes doesn’t produce the desired results.  A technique used in some establishments is to listen to the complaint, agree with the customer, kind of want to make the customer feel “warm and cozy”, give the impression that the customer is important and their issue is important to the business.  In some case’s the establishment will attempt to explain why the certain conditions exists, I must agree that some conditions are valid while others are not.  In any case, the complainer becomes the possible recipient of a useless excuse.  The establishment’s original goal was to make the complainer feel that he(she) helped to identify and solve a problem and then get that customer to move on.  I guess we all know what happens after that: nothing – business back to normal.

If you have read up to this point in the article, you may be developing a sense of confusion and/or question “where is nit-wit going with this?”.  Now you have a choice.  You can either quit reading or continue with me while suffering through my attempts at wit, humor, facts and poor grammar with imbedded, fabricated or misspelled words, all in an effort bring forth my perceived “room for improvement” impression of the MCG reservation systems.  In the beginning of the article I will be building the groundwork and planting seeds so we will all on the same page, knowledge base.  As you may have or will notice, I have been known to ramble-on (AKA: bloviating) and wander off a little into a philosophical direction – suck it up and expect it in the article.  I can also be a little arrogant (little? Did I say little?) and plant a few more seeds.  As you may have noticed in my brief description of the third action, I used the word assertive.  If my interpretation of meaning of the word is correct, then it is essential that I set and keep that tone if I am to expect the desired outcome.  It is not my intent to “cross swords” or twist arms with anyone regarding the core issue.  The approach that I have chosen for the third action is to identify the core issue, MCG reservations not accepted policy, and present it as a subject for consideration for developing a business case.

Hopefully, along the way my recommendations will percolate up the corporate ladder (military and civilian chain of command) and perhaps (wishful thinking) current policies service-wide will become a candidate for review and possible change.  I thought about the topic and how can I effectively communicate my views.  I hit a blank wall.  It’s a terrible thing to say but over the years I have encountered people that will go to extremes to increase their power and financial rewards by doing deceitful things to protect their jobs and reputations. Therefore, I did not want to address the topic directly to an individual or organization.  The worst scenario would be the document would be deep-sixed or buried and then forgotten.  Of course, there’s the possibility that someone will hijack my thoughts and claim them as their own, in which case, I really don’t care as-long-as something gets done.  Social media is not an option.
The mention of a “business case” proposal may have raised a few eyebrows.  I have often heard that a private sector business process does not work in a government related organization.  Maybe there is some truth in that belief, but it is a defensive posture which contains a lot of weaknesses.

I don’t want to go into all the possible weaknesses, but I do want to talk about something that government agencies and private sector businesses have in common – money.  Both entities need money to provide their respective products or services.  Both entities have established sources and methods to create revenue.  Probably the biggest differences between the financial management of a private sector business or a government related entity is the accounting process.  The private sector has accounting options and incentives available to them that are not available to government related entities.  We need to put all of that gobly-gook aside and focus on a solid, time-proven financial management part that is common in both entities – Cost Benefit Analysis (CBA).

Regardless of the method being used to tweak the dollar figures, the CBA is a tool that will tell management what are the ongoing or projected financial impacts of the element being analyzed.  In this case, a CBA of the MCG reservation systems, current and/or future, may provide some interesting results that may have been overlooked.  I just watered the seeds I planted and I can feel the sprouting of new growth for some readers and a business acumen refresher course for others.

Thank you for your patience.  Please bear with me for two more side trips before I bore down into the core subject. I want to provide some background information about our RV lifestyle and how we plan our travels.  The purpose of providing the information is not to bore you or invoke our bragging rights about our travels – the intent is to describe a planning process and the issues, as well as solutions, we encountered during that process.  We are full-time RV’ers that travel throughout the USA during the spring, summer and fall.  During the winter month’s we cross-over that homesteader line and hunker down for a few months at a warm climate MCG or private RV park that allows extended stays.

Our future trip planning starts one or two years prior to beginning that adventure.  First, we pick an area in the country (USA) to visit (i.e. Northeast, Pacific Northwest, Deep South, etc.).  Selecting an area is only a starting point in the development the trip plan.  There are a lot of research and decision activities that must be undertaken before the completed trip plan is finalized.  Making advance campground reservations for our visit to an area is a critical part of the plan.  Staying at MCG’s is always our preference for various reasons.  We can live with the MCG restrictions that controls how far in advance you can make a reservation.  At least we will have the time and option to consider alternative CG’s or locations.

We normally plan our trips, along with estimated expenses, well in advance of our travels and then make needed reservations.  This year (2017) we had to keep our powder dry and refrain from locking into any specific dates after July 13th because of three possible events that would require us to cancel or change our plans.  I believe I have provided enough background information and want to move onto the scenario that prompted me to write this article.
Tangent (sic) time: I will take the liberty to assume that most people traveling in an RV go through a similar planning process and face many challenges that must be resolved before they begin their trip.  Sometimes I wonder how many non RV’ers are in positions the affect the operation of a MCG.  They may be very competent and charming in the performance of their duties in other types of hospitality and lodging settings but can be somewhat naïve about what it takes for that RV’er to show up at their check-in counter.  RVing involves more than just throwing your toothbrush and some clothes into a suitcase, travel to your destination, and then check-in with suitcase in hand.  For gosh sakes, the RV’er are bringing most of their homes, including the kitchen sink, with them.  That’s not to mention the requirement for hooking up the utilities: electric, water and sewer, etc.

Everything is planted and the groundwork is complete.  Next comes the real-life scenario about our experience, lessons learned and decisions made when we varied from our normal trip-planning process. Prior to July 13th we had a great time playing tourist for two weeks in the Washington, DC area while staying at the Ft. Meade RV Park.  We had confirmed reservations at Ft. Meade and enjoyed the no-hassle, no-stress situation during check-in and our planned stay – that’s the way it should always be.

Our next destination was NYC where we stayed a week at a private RV park ($$$$) in Jersey City.  After putting our two college student guests on a plane at the Newark Airport, we had intentions of heading to the Boston area and other places in New England for the remainder of the summer.  We were looking forward to that part of our plan and then ending our summer by following the changing foliage colors as we slowly traveled back to Florida in the fall.  Sounds like a lot of fun – right?  Not so, when it comes to the trip planning part.

The first challenging dilemma we struggled with is how to get out of the NYC area and get safely to our new destinations without destroying the vacation budget.  We try to avoid traveling on the Interstates unless we have no alternative or we need to get somewhere quickly. Researching various secondary roads presented a variety of unexpected and some show-stopper challenges, for example: low overpasses, RV’s not allowed, heavy traffic congestion, narrow streets, tolls, etc...

After we decided on the travel route we began looking for conveniently located, affordable RV parks in Massachusetts.  We had planned to stop at several POI’s along the way but could not find RV Parks located close to our travel route.  At this point we decided it was time to create a Plan B.  Our Plan B consisted of using an alternate route to travel across CT to Hartford on I-84 and then north on I-91.

Two military campgrounds in Massachusetts, Westover and Hanscom, were part of our Plans A and B.  Neither of those MCG’s accept reservations which presented a risk factor that required a Plan C - private RV parks in MA. Once again, we faced new challenges.  First, we were not sure if we could get a reservation at private RV parks with such short notice during the peak travel season in the Boston area.  Have you checked out the peak season rates at the RV parks in New England?  If you wear a pacemaker, kick it up a notch or have a certified CPR person available when you see the rates.  You bet, the RV park cost factor carried a lot of weight and influenced our decision.

Several years ago, we were in the Boston area and did not allow ourselves enough time to visit all the POI’s we wanted to visit. This time we decided to be more flexible and stay in the area until we did the things we wanted to do before moving into other New England states.  Stays at Westover and Hanscom were important parts of our plan.  The frustrations and challenges that present themselves, for example: reservations at MCG’s, during the planning process have a big influence on decisions that must be made prior to setting off on what should be a great adventure.  Not being able to get a reservation at Westover or Hanscom lite the fuse on my anger management powder keg.  As much as we would have liked to stick with our original plan in New England, we decided to go in the opposite direction.  We are finally at a point in this article where we can talk about the core issue: Reservations at Military Campgrounds.

Perspectives:

End-User (or whatever the PC title is for a person entitled to use military campgrounds):  We decided when and where we wanted to go after leaving the NYC area.  Precursor: Call Round Pond RV Park (West Point, NY) and cancel MCG reservation.  No problem – refunded deposit minus $5.  Fair transaction for both parties.  Sounds to me like we just encountered a MCG reservation system at work.  Yep, we’re happy campers.

First stop:  Aberdeen Proving Grounds Shore RV Park, MD.  Called APG/MWR Outdoor Recreation, spoke to a real pleasant human being, made a reservation for 7-days.  Great no-stress experience during check-in and stay.  
Next stop:  Cherry Point, NC., Pelican Point RV Park.  Called Pelican Point Office, spoke to another real pleasant human being, made a reservation for 7-days.  Oops, had a brain short circuit.  Made the reservation for the same day we were to leave APG.  That’s a big no-no for us – we needed two days for travel.  Called Pelican Point Office, spoke to the same pleasant person again and changed the arrival date.  No problem changing the reservation arrival date and we experienced no-stress check-in on a Sunday when the office was closed.  The CG Host had our reservation and the needed information about our site assignment.  Great overall experience.  And yes, we did make a reservation at a private RV on our travel route to Cherry Point.  Glad we did, saw several RV’s come in then leave because the RV park was full.  What do you think?  Maybe they didn’t have a reservation for the evening.

Our planned third stop has all the makings for a spike in your blood pressure and stress level.  The third stop is one of our favorite RV Parks; JB Charleston, SC – unfortunately, they do not accept reservations.  We have stayed at Charleston many times, have never been turned away, and always have a great time.  We are confident that we will be able to get a FHU site as soon as one is available.  Staying in overflow or partial hookups for a couple of days is acceptable.  The point I believe I am trying to bring out is the end-result of not having a reservation would not automatically eliminate our consideration from staying at a “reservations not-accepted” MCG, but how that policy adversely affects us as potential end-users. In the case of JB Charleston, we know the area quite well and alternate CG’s should not be a problem.

Once again, we need to look back to the trip planning process where all the dots need to connect.  What are your alternatives if you cannot get a MCG reservation in an area you wish to visit?  Are you willing to take the risk of being refused a site and then look for another place to pitch your tent?  Are you willing and/or able to drive additional miles to find a place to stay?  Sometimes finding another place to stay is a horrible experience and sometimes you have no other choice but to stay overnight at a roadside rest area, truck fueling stations, or Wally’s World parking lot.

I just laid the groundwork for something called “latent demand” which I intend to stress in the RV park business-end perspective part of the article.  “Hold on there cowgirl” Should I have said “cow person”?  My bride for 53 years just interrupted this three-quarter century old mind on-a-roll and wanted to know if I am writing a book.  I told her “No, now that I am 75 years old I am entitled to wander off on unknown adventures – someone will always be there to bring me back”.  That’s all right, I’ve probably lost most of the readers by now anyway.

Now back to the seriousness of the end-user perspective. The plan for the remainder of our summer trip (August and September) was simplified and encouraged optimism because we went online to the get://dodlodging.net/ website.  We hit the mother-lode.  Wake up Army, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard – you need to pay attention.  Navy! You done right, but don’t lay back and gloat on your glory.  Navy, you slammed the lid on Pandora’s box and opened-up an opportunity with unlimited possibilities.  You are well on your way to setting the US Navy as the “gold standard” for MCG’s. Continue to think outside of the box and then bring your creative visions back into your computer technology world. I’ll share a couple of my simple pea brain visions later in this article.  Unless things have changed since I was in the Marine Corps, the DOD community has many energetic, intelligent, technology savvy, creative and forward-thinking members.  Seek them out and don’t let their talents go to waste.

The Navy-wide online reservation system is under the auspices of the DOD lodging computer network.  We logged on to the system and made several MCG reservations and then received e-mail confirmation of the reservations for the following US Navy MCG’s:  Pelican Roost (Mayport, FL), Oak Grove (NAS Pensacola), Blue Angel Recreation Area, Battleship Row (Pensacola), Aviation Arbor Park (New Orleans), and Shields RV Park (Gulfport, MS).

It is a monstrous relief to know that we have a reserved, safe, reasonable priced place to stay for the remainder of our summer trip.  We truly believe that the reservation process and experience just mentioned has tremendous value to us as the end-user.  I am not usually an advocate for centralization and always believed that you would get better results if you put most of the mechanism and empowerment down where the “rubber meets the road”.  This encounter with the Navy MCG reservations system has energized my severely limited imagination but I envisioned several opportunities to improve MCG product and services at a perceived lower costs and greater customer satisfaction.

For instance, I can go to some Mini-storage facility, walk up to a kiosk and rent a storage space.  Airline flight check-in using a kiosk system seems to be working quite well.  Why can’t a similar system be used at MCG’s?  The kiosk activity can interface with the reservation system and provide the end-user who made an online reservation, as well as a no reservation end-user, the information to setup on a site and have access to the MCG facilities.  Using a combination of technology solutions can reduce the need for personal supporting the administration of the MCG.  I can’t think of anything that I’ve done during the MCG check-in process that requires human interaction.  Having said all that, I still see a valid need for a human MCG Host to interact with end-users.  MCG Host’s should be empowered to perform certain tasks, they are more than just hosts – the are ambassadors.  In my opinion and observations, I believe many MCG Hosts are misused and are not doing the job they should, or for the fact, the job they thought they were supposed to do when they assumed the position.  The subject of MCG Host is a topic for another discussion.  It is difficult to understand why other branches of the military do not have a reservation process in place.  I would like to take the opportunity to apologize now if I was too presumptuous if the other branches of the military service are already involved with implemented a centralized MCG reservation system.  This is a perfect time for transition to the business-end perspective.

Business-end (PC? Okay, it’s close enough for me):  To begin:  I am taking a chance by stating something that I do not know if it is a fact or just a perception on my part.  Let’s assume that I am right and every organization has a mission statement or another directive that describes the framework which edicts the operation of the unit.  I believe that there is one word that will appear in the framework, that word is “recreation” or some derivative of the word.  The word alone negates any other form of the use and purpose of the MCG.  Now for the stinger:  Management could be considered derelict in the execution of their duties and responsibilities if they choose to work and establish policy outside of that stated framework.

The second point I want to mention is my interpretation of the campground/RV park business; no matter how you slice it, the campground/RV park business is in the hospitality and lodging business.  By that I mean providing facilities and services, which includes reservation services, like profitable private sector hotels, motels, resorts, and cruise ships.

Now you take those two topics, recreation and hospitality; combine them and what do you get?  Stop guessing.  You get a business model that needs to be tailored to create a profit (but in the case of a MCG, lets accept break-even), provide exceptional facilities and services. I use the word exceptional because I strongly believe that active duty military members, their families, and other authorized MCG end-users deserve the better and should not have to willfully accept less.  There is a lot more I can add to this part of the business-end but that is way beyond the scope of my original intentions.

What I want to highlight is the value of a reservation system in the management of a hospitality and lodging business (i.e. MCG).  Having said that, I want to clarify what kind of reservation system could be used.  All reservation system do not have to be a sophisticated, high tech, expensive, computer based system.  For MCG’s that are relatively small or have low percentage occupancy, a reservation system can be a low cost, low maintenance, easy to use system, such as, a simple record keeping hard copy document.  For the larger and high occupancy MCG’s, a computer based system can be the most cost-effect system to manage the MCG and provide the data (information) to make sound business decisions.

Regardless of the type of reservation system, it can be an important and useful management tool, for instance, latent demand; the desire or preference which a consumer is unable to satisfy due to lack of information about the product's availability.  Simply put, I want to give you money and in return you will provide me your product: a site in your MCG.  Without a reservation system, you will have no idea that I was out there needing your product but you could not deliver.

Let’s take it a little further into the “thin skinned – need not apply” arena.  One of the areas of disappointment that appears in many MCG reviews is the topic of homesteading at MCG’s.  I believe all of us have seen this situation in many of the MCG’s – I have no intent to debate the homesteading situation but I do want to connect the homesteading situation to latent demand and a reservation system that could be a valuable and effective tool to manage both.  To do that I will describe a simple scenario and let you draw your own conclusions and what you would do if you were managing a MCG.

I call you up and ask for a reservation for a specific date.  You apologize and tell be that the MCG is completely full and you cannot accept my request.  You hang up, and what happens?  I go drink a cold beer (and increase my profanity vocabulary) but you go about your merry way and forget all about my call (latent demand).  My request doesn’t affect you because you have a fully occupied MCG with some homesteaders and temporary guests that were lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.  At the next staff meeting you can tell your boss how great you are running the MCG – you have a high occupancy rate and are bringing in the bucks.  Now if I could only get your boss to take off his(her) rose-colored glasses to validate all aspects of your results to ensure that they are in sync with the mission statement and you are applying sound, professional business principles in the delivery of exceptional product and services to your customers.

To comply with the MCG Mission Statement, it would seem appropriate to take notice of the latent demand incident that indicates a possible recreational use and then do something about it.  I will stop going down this go-nowhere path and get back to the value of a reservation system.  The first step would be to record a request for your product – you now have a data point that can become a useful element with ongoing business operations and future expansion decisions.  The reservation system has now become an important part of your business paradigm, you have created a win-win situation if you can satisfy my request and by doing so you have added to your bottom line.  An additional benefit is the opportunity to manage the homesteading situation fairly and eliminate or reduce the negative feedback that reflect poorly upon your organization and base command.

We have covered a lot of territory in this article but I believe it was necessary to tie all the things together to get a better picture of the core issue.  I know that it is lengthy and somewhat hard to follow my chain of thought.  I also recognize that I may be wrong on some of my perceptions but they are my perceptions. I might also add; I only scratched the surface on the subject of business management, there are a lot pieces to the complicated puzzle called successful business management.

It has stopped raining and my poach just informed me that he has a latent demand situation.  I smiled and told him that I will get right on it by providing him exceptional services.  But first I must grab the necessary equipment to perform the service.  For those of you that have been around a horse stable, the service I must perform is similar to what you might know as a mucking chore, except I get to use a small bag while you must use a shovel.  With that last effort at humor, I will close.  Semper Fi.