September 13

Retired Park Chief Sam England Talks WV State Parks on The Park Pod

Sam England - WV State Parks

Mark Rowan: Well, look who it is. It's me, once again coming at you in the Park Pod. Today we're going to have a different Hats Off guest and Sam England, who's someone I've known since I was like eight or nine years old. He has run multiple state parks in West Virginia and back in 2019, retired from being the chief of state parks. We're going to have a conversation with him. Definitely want to check that out. He's got some great insight on camping and the industry.

Listen via Anchor.fm

We always have some news to share with you. We'll be checking that out here shortly. Of course, the effervescent marketing tip. I don't even know if that's the right word to use, but I just used it and we're going to stick with it. But it is about email marketing campaigns, so stay tuned to that part as well. We're always glad to have you tuning into the Park Pod, and if you're interested in being a part of it, reach out to us. We're always looking for great guests.

I'd love to remind you that the Part Pod is presented by Rest & Relax ROI. We provide marketing systems for RV parks to help them improve and upgrade their reputation, their resell, their reach, and retargeting activities online. Check this part out. Here we have our website, Restrelaxroi.com. Check it out. You can download our free Ultimate RV Park Marketing checklist. Have it, take it, do with it what you will hopefully learn and better yourself in your park and your marketing. What do we do with the M5 system? This is where we put all these pieces together to improve parks entire marketing operations. We start with a reputation. We move on to resell, reach, and retarget. Those are the four areas that we primarily focus on.

You can check out our blog. And while you're checking things out, this is like you're at the grocery store. You're going to check out the Instagram and our social media. Be sure to follow us if you haven't already. We'd love to connect with you. Now we're on to the next thing.

Campground News

Let's look at a couple of items that caught my attention in the news. First of all, we're over at Woodalls, and we're going to take a look at this latest business report showing camping market normalizing.

Interestingly enough, as we spoke with Sam England, in today's interview, you will see he also has observed some of the same things going on in the state park system. It says after finishing 2021 33% above the previous record grossing year, KOA shared continued growth in its Q2 business report and compared to the same period registration revenue improved 5.9% in the second quarter. Looking onward or forward, advanced deposits are ahead of where they were at the end of last year, finishing the same quarter 1.8%. This place is advanced deposits 62.9% over the same period in 2019. The strongest camping prior to the pandemic.

And they're talking about some short term and long term performance shifts. Franchise System Grows ads Industry leading Resale program and then they're also looking at their portfolio. It's continued to expand. So that's KOA giving a little snapshot of what's going on there as it relates to the last few years and what the market looks like now. Obviously you can go check out Woodalls and get all the news that they're reporting on for the month by going to Woodallscm.com.

We're also going to go take a look at Modern Campground. This article about RV owners continue to profit from RV rental boom. This is from RV Share and there is over 100,000 owners who rent their RVs since the pandemic. In their press release they have seen more than 30% utilize this rental service as a means in order to cover the cost associated with owning that RV. 60% of owners are able to cover 50% or more finance costs by renting their vehicles through RV Share, 17% say they have had the ability to pay off their vehicle completely. So that's good news. There's a good bit of good information and data on that that you can check out. Just saying that is continuing to work well for those that want to utilize this system to rent out their RVs. All right, that's going to cover the news for today and this month. Once again, you can check out more on the news from Modern Campground at moderncampground.com. Check you next time!

Hats Off to Sam England

Mark Rowan: Well, welcome here. We are delighted to have special guest here, Sam England, who is I guess retired or former chief of the West Virginia State Park System. How are you doing, Sam?

Sam England: Hey Mark, I'm very well. How about yourself?

Mark Rowan: I'm doing real good. It's been a minute. We were just talking about since the last time we saw each other, Facebook has allowed us to stay somewhat connected. But as far as conversations, well, even in person, I guess it's not technically in person, but we'll count it. It's been probably since the early 90s.

But I wanted to let you well, first of all, let me tell my little few things that stick out in my mind about memories of Sam. Number one is campfire songs. You were the king of those. And I remember "one blue bat blew into the breeze. Another blue bat blew out." At least that part of it. I'm sure you might know the rest of it. Number two is night hikes with wintergreen lifesavers.

And another great memory is you starting to fire with what you thought was diesel fuel, and it was gas, and about blew your eyebrows off. So they have indelible memories from my elementary, middle school days. So tell your side of how we met back in the day.

Sam England: Well, that's interesting that you have those memories. My early career in parks, I was an interpreter. So being a naturalist, being an interpreter and doing multiple camp fires a summer, basically, for all the folks who are camping and staying with us, I did have a pretty good collection of campfire songs that I'd gotten through the years. So that worked out.

Our connection, actually, because I had worked as a naturalist and wanted to be a park ranger, was when I moved to Monroe County, West Virginia, where your family had farm. I was at Moncove Lake State Park, and when I came there, I was actually looking for a church and looking for some people that I could connect with who had same like interests. And I was somewhat of an outsider, obviously, coming to a place. Even though I was from West Virginia, I never lived in Monroe County. So your dad and I connected back in those days and found out that we shared a lot of the same interests. And being at Moncove Lake my summers were fairly busy. But since we shared similar interests and we had the very same desire to do some really cool stuff.

I started helping him especially in the wintertime because Moncove Lake is not one of those busy places. And there's not a lot of things that you've got to do past your normal shift of helping. Getting your staff and doing the things that are going on. So in my days off and evenings and things, we began working on a project called Psalm 23 Camp that was on a working sheep farm that you grew up on.

Mark Rowan: That's right. I remember those days. It was interesting. Like I said, I was 8, 9 years old at the time, back in the mid 80s. I was just experiencing what you guys were planning, and so I wasn't in on the meeting. I don't know why you wouldn't have a third grader as part of that.

You're at Moncove Lake at that time, but like you said, you weren't immediately a park ranger, but what kind of inspired you to take this path into working in the state park system?

Sam England: Well, that's a good question. I grew up in Wyoming County, West Virginia. Mullins, a little, small, coal camp community in southern West Virginia. Our playground, once we were able to get a ride to get out there, and once we started driving, was Twin Falls State Park. Twin Falls is a beautiful little jewel of a state park that actually has a lodge and cabins and had a golf course and a swimming pool. It was actually part of an environmental development project from the 1960s. And that's a story in itself about the reason for that being there. And to make a long story short, it was a result of economic development for diversity. Because at the time that it was thought of in southern West Virginia, there were some parks that were developed because coal mining had become the mechanization of coal mining had put a lot of coal miners out of work. At that point in the they begin to see this and realize, hey, we've got to diversify our economy so that we can continue to move forward. So Twin falls was built out of that, and it was our playground. And I also had a very good scout master, so I became an Eagle Scout, and we spent a lot of time there.

So my interest in parks started early. My dad and my brothers spent a lot of time with me and the outdoors, so that sent me on a trajectory. And when I started working, my very first job in 1977 was at Twin Falls resort on the golf course maintenance crew. And I just knew that's what I wanted to do. And even though my brother went to coal mines, my dad was a coal miner. I was told I wasn't going to be a coal miner. So that was my pursuit. And when I got out immediately when I got out of college, I immediately got full time right in the state park system.

Mark Rowan: Nice. So you got into it the year I was born. So there you go.

Sam England: Yep, 45 years worth. I was able to and I give you a little bit of my path. I was a line employee working on the golf course maintenance crew, working in the pro shop at Twin falls through my college career, and then I became a summer naturalist through my college career, and then I became a full time naturalist, and we moved to Rich County in North Bend State Park. From that point, I wanted to become a park ranger. So that's when I went to Moncove Blake. And then I moved up in the park system and moved to Greenbrier State Forest, which was a higher level park. And then I went to Stonewall Resort, which is the story itself. The things I experienced in those 16 years, that was from 1998 to 2014. But then my dream of being able to run all the State Parks, being the Chief of West Virginia State Park system in 2014 became a reality. So for six years, I was in the Charleston office and was in charge of all state parks.

Mark Rowan: Very good. So thanks for that overview of where you've been. So for those that don't know, Moncove Lake was in the county, like I said, I grew up in. Greenbrier was the next county over, so it didn't go too far away from where we first crossed paths. But like I said, for us, our path started diverting at that point. But it's really fun that we've been able to reconnect here.

Give us an idea of what like the park ranger type of position that you held there. At those I think it was three different parks. What's that like versus running the whole system? How do those juxtapose?

Sam England: Well, moving through those areas was instrumental to understand the parks. And since Moncove Lake was a day use area with a campground, and I had a lake. When you're in a facility like that and a lot of people go there and they spend their career there, and I understand why. You have a small staff. We had one truck for the entire operation, and people have that. And so it's the truck that you pick the garbage up in the morning, and it's the same truck you're doing law enforcement in that night. And so you have a small staff and you're actually on the ground working a lot in the maintenance and upkeep of the facility during the day to day, checking in campers, making sure the garbage is picked up, or picking it up yourself, and working and dealing with whatever office administrative work you have to do. And then when the sewage plant breaks down, you're down there in the middle of the sewer plant, because in all these areas and that's a function that people need to understand about being a park ranger. It is a great job, but in most places like West Virginia, as a State Park system, you're running basically a whole town.

You're doing what all the needs are of that facility, whether, again, it is as simple as picking up trash. But also someone has to take care of the sewage, and somebody has to be the water treatment plant operator, and somebody has to be the law enforcement officer, and somebody's got to take care of the finances. And on a smaller area, all of those things fall onto the park superintendent to take care of himself. So I was a sewage plant operator or certified water treatment plan operator. And then when I went to Greenbrier State Forest, I moved up. And so at that facility, I had cabins and I have smaller campgrounds, so it was less complicated, so to speak. But I had more staff and more maintenance staff and more full time staff and more responsibilities. And because I had cabins, they generate quite a bit more revenue, so I had a good bit more revenue. And then you have staff that take care of some of those day to day things that you would normally be doing. But at greenbrier in the summertime when we were busy and cabins were open and swimming pools functioning and all those things, you're more of an administrative role.

And then in the wintertime, you become kind of the chief maintenance guy, because your cabins are closed, the pool is closed in the cabin, and you get projects done. Now compare that to the responsibilities of going to Stonewall, which were incredibly diverse, because Stonewall, when I went there, it was a camping park, but I had a very large marina. And we were in the process of putting a development program together. And so I was able to walk through the contractual services of a development of about $50 million on Stonewall, where we constructed cabins, a four diamond resort golf course. And then through those years, we did that contractual work with a developer, and then we handed the entire operation over to the developer and a management company. So that was very important to understanding many aspects of state parks and how that kind of operation can happen.

Mark Rowan: I believe my sister's journeyed to Stonewall for some kind of, I has this vague memory that they were there for some kind of, like, dance competition, something, I don't know. They were a few years older than me. So once again, I was just that little kid running around on the farm. But I think dad, too, of course, dad was very involved in, like, 4H and all that, and I know they did a lot of and I think Stonewall was another one. There was different places they went, I know, as a kid in the park system, I'm sure that they seem like Stonewall was one of those memories that I have of that.

So, yeah, superintendent, then you're the chief. There's one chief in the kitchen, I guess if you're going to go that way. That's a little bit of everything, I guess, that you just talked about and beyond.

Sam England: I think it was and it's a good career path for those people that are looking at that, because I had a full understanding and knowledge of operations and what it took to make a park run. And it was to my advantage because when I became parks chief, I was essentially the director of state parks system for the state, and my boss was the director of the division of natural resources, who was responsible for wildlife law enforcement and state parks programs in the state. So it was an important piece to understand all the parks.

The other piece of that is that when I was at Stonewall and at Greenbrier, I had a real advantage that I was given the opportunity to go to other places to serve, like in the absence of a park superintendent. And at Stonewall, once the contractual piece of Stonewall wall was turned over to a development company, and what I was basically doing was managing a contract and trying to interact with the company as much as I could for the interest of the state. My responsibilities significantly dropped, and so my boss put me on some special projects, and I walked into it as a parks chief with having worked full time or been assigned to more than half on special assignments, more than half of the state parks in our state.

So I had a pretty decent knowledge of what I was walking to with troubles and positives and staffing and how many of those things were functioning great.

Mark Rowan: So as part of that journey, and this is how we got connected, the technologies, the piece that you told me that you had opportunity to integrate, in I believe the early 2000s as it related to reservations. Right. And then some other things, I think you were involved with.

Sam England: Being at Stonewall again, it didn't have the same responsibilities. And so there was a management company that was operating things, and I had responsibilities there in a relationship situation that I maintained with those folks. But I was given the opportunity to work with a good friend on a project in 2002, which was to put the computerized reservation systems into our state park lodges. So that's 20 years ago, we were still paper based. We were posting lodge and cabin revenues mechanically at each one of our facilities. And so we were able to go out, search for, and find a management or a property management system that we liked. We worked with the other folks in the state to set up a network, which I'm not a network person, but you began to learn those things. We got a company to take care of our network pieces for us and manage our equipment and workstations and servers so we didn't have to be involved in that piece. But we did install at nine lodge parks the computerized reservation system for those facilities. The first they'd ever had. We put in lodge and cabin functioning pieces, and we took about a month at each park.

So we worked with the company, and that company helped us install the first two. But after that, we saw what we were doing, and we just did it ourselves after that. And so once we learned the software and saw how this thing function, then we went around and spent the next seven to eight months putting in this reservation system at these other places.

Mark Rowan: That's great. Our conversation kind of reignited because of me talking to folks over at Camp Life and roundabout way found out that you were still doing your chief job when they came on to help with the online reservation that is now, I guess, continued to be used in the state park system, correct?

Sam England: That's right. Of course, I will say that Camp Life is our campground piece, and then we have another company that's doing our lodge and cabins for those parks that have lodges. And so it's somewhat complicated when you think of it that way. But one of the things as Parks Chief that became very obvious, and it became obvious where I got there, is that we needed to go online with our camping reservations and actually management rather than continuing to do it on a paper basis. And that was in 2014. So that's eight years ago. And we experienced it a couple of times. When we did the lodge piece, we were converting from paper and processes that people have been using for a long time and converting it over to electronic. And then we functioned in that, and it was a success. It was a big success. And then when we decided that certainly we needed to do something for our campgrounds, then we began to search for a solution. And being the parks chief, I wasn't in the detail of that, but I had a team of people who are out searching for what is the best solution, and they were working also with our tourism office to determine that.

And so we came up with what we believe to be the best solution at the time, because even our parks that were cabin parks that would have had a cabin and a campground, we're still also on a paper based system. Then Camp Life is the software we're using for cabins that have cabins and camping. But if you're at a lodge park, we're using another software, which is RoomMaster by Inquest for lodges and camping, but they use Camp Life for their campground. And that's something that I've noticed first of all, there's no perfect system out there. It's not going to exist. But it is hard to combine camping, cabins and lodge into one software.

Mark Rowan: Right? Different needs. Yeah, for sure. You've been talking about your chief job, but you actually you retired, and then you just retired again because they brought you back in, I believe, to help over at Canaan Valley, right?

Sam England: Yeah, I retired as Parks Chief. I was going to enjoy some time, and I got a little antsy. So about two years ago, we went through Covid, and I was ready to go back to work. And so opportunity came up for working actually for the management company that has the contractual operations at Canaan Valley. And so I worked for the management company as the general manager of Canaan Valley Resort, which is a state park. And to let you know, we have two of our lodge parks that we have contractual operations with, and then the other eight, we operate ourselves. The state parks system operates itself operates. So the park superintendent at a place like Pipestem responsible for the operation of lodged cabins and all the recreation there.

Mark Rowan: Nice. So like I said, you retired again, I believe. But when we talked the other day, it sounded like from what you said, once you're the chief, it's kind of like a lifelong responsibility. So you're still involved and helping out with different things. So what's your outlook as far as just the industry in general, like the future? Where do you see things going? And what do you think is the state of. Of course, 2020, 2021 blew up the industry, and I think we kind of settling back in. But what do you think as far as overall future?

Sam England: Well, you just hit exactly it. What the observations are is that when I came to Canaan, the general manager retired. When I walked in, outdoor recreation had blown up. It was essentially just post Covid, and things were beginning to open back up, and it was quite a phenomenon. And when I got there, I was very much amazed at the amount of outdoor recreation as far as hiking and biking, what people were attempting, enjoying. And being at Canaan, I had a perfect winter of weather, and everyone realized that skiing was outdoors and they could enjoy that and feel like they were safe.

There seemed to be a perception, Mark, that West Virginia was a safe place because people were watching Covid numbers, and so in urban areas, it seemed like being in a big city was not a safe place to be, but being in a rural area like West Virginia was. And one of our major draws at Canaan is from Washington, Pittsburgh, and even some of the urban areas in Ohio. So we had a banner winter. Now, from the observations when I left out of Canaan, and also talking with the current park leadership, it appears that things have leveled out quite a bit.

But I believe that outdoor recreation has continued to be important. Certainly physical fitness is more important now, especially to people that are 40s, 30s, 20s in their teens than it was when we were going through those phases or going through those age periods. I see physical fitness is an important thing, and I also see that being outdoors is important. It's funny how social media has changed that, and doing that selfie and an overlook, or while I'm biking or while I'm hiking is really a big thing, and state parks offer those kind of things. And right now we're building campgrounds in state parks. We just finished up a new campground at Cannes. Occupancy was through the roof. The camping piece of this has truly went through the roof as far as what we were experiencing at Canaan, and I'm not sure what other campgrounds were seen from this past summer, because around the First of July I kind of got out of it. But when I left, we were full. We weren't looking to try to do much marketing. We didn't need to at that point.

Mark Rowan: That's kind of our next discussion point. Like we said before we got on here, primarily we talk to people that are not in the state park system, but there are people running parks, and you might have had the advantage of a state budget to help you with your marketing. But as far as your experience over the years, what are some marketing things that you really saw as beneficial when you weren't slammed.

Sam England: It's interesting to say that we're on the conversation of electronic reservations and property management systems, and I got to tell you that those components are incredibly important to the marketing piece of what you're trying to do. And there's just so many levels that assists in trying to promote and market and sell the services or products that you have to sell an observation, and this is from multiple parks, and anyone who's listening to this that's around campgrounds knows that in a lot of cases, Friday afternoon and evening is a huge time. It's incredibly busy. You've got people showing up. They're wanting to know what camp sites are on. They're checking in, you're filling out the information, you're taking money, and you're doing all these pieces in that at that moment. And what everyone has experienced is that's no longer there because the site is already rented, and in most cases, the camper already knows what site you're on.

Sam England: So it's actually been an important piece of being able to relieve your staff of what they used to do. But it's become an important piece because now people are expecting that. And the thing that we realized 20 years ago when we started off in lodge and cabin reservations is, if nothing else, this is making us seem relevant.

And that's the direction we started. But then we realized that there's all these things, other benefits and other added things that happen. Now, before I go on and your question about marketing, I got to say that what I've seen and what I've observed is that the thing about marketing is essentially making yourself known. We're here and we're available. We've got this huge half off discount, or we're selling three nights and get one for free. Personally, I had not seen I mean, those things will sell some rooms and they can grab some attention. But I believe in the direction I went specifically at Canaan over the past couple of years, we wanted to have things that were happening so we could talk about and I would prefer to do marketing by being able to say, hey, good example:

On Friday nights, we started doing mountain music. We were getting the local bluegrass and mountain music folks that were in that area, and we knew that we were trying to draw folks from Washington, DC. We wanted to provide them something they couldn't get there. So we started doing these Friday night mountain music pieces at the aerial ski lift, the scenic chairlift, so that we could say every Friday night we got this going on and, oh, by the way, we have rooms, and here's the price. Or we didn't have to talk about price. We got rooms and we have cabins, and we have a campground. So awareness is the biggest piece, in my opinion. But having that piece to be able to say, touch this button, make your reservation, because in all instances I've seen, heck, it's across not only our industry, but everywhere is having enough staff to take care of those phone calls when they come, if people want to do it by phone.

Mark Rowan: Yeah. Part of what we preach and we're talking about is the reputation, and so a lot of times people think of that as simply like, do you have a good review? That's kind of the ground level, 101 of all that. It incorporates all the things you're speaking of. Do you have a system that makes it easy for people to book with you? Or is it easy to communicate with you? These are all the things that we try to tell people. Don't be scarce as far as what kind of information you can share with people and just let them know we do have these things available and communicate those in an effective way.

All right, so we're wrapping up our time together today, but we want to end with a favorite family camping story that you can share with us today.

Sam England: A favorite camping story for me? Wow. I wish something came up as quickly as I wanted it to. Well, I got to say that. I do a lot of camping, especially with my brother and some friends. And when I was old enough to where I wasn't just a punk kid, my brother would take me fishing and backpacking, and we were backpacking in the Cranberry Wilderness area. And after a while, we started putting everything in the garden. We cart and carrying it in so we could have more stuff. And then we decided, hey, let's just camp in the campground at the lower end, and we'll ride our bicycles in. And we started doing that and then ended up we were on a pop up camper. And now that camping experience has turned into this large trailer with hot shower and a generator and a monstrous tent that's as big as one of these car garages that we put over top of the picnic tables and all this stuff that we got to have. Camping, for us, has become a lot more soft than it used to be.

Mark Rowan: Glamping then, huh?

Sam England: Yeah, I would say it's glamping, but I can say it's a lot softer than the days when we were both young and we did a lot of backpacking into the Cranberry Wilderness to do our fishing.

Mark Rowan: Yeah. Times, they are changing, as they say, and that's because we are changing. I'm not nine years old, sitting around singing "Blue Bat Blew into the Breeze" anymore, but definitely enjoyed reminiscing and getting your knowledge of the industry, and maybe we'll have to do it again sometime.

But thanks for everybody tuning in. Whether you're catching this on audio or video, we appreciate you. Make sure you subscribe check out West Virginia State Parks and everything they have to offer. Like I said, Sam is still involved on some level. Really appreciate you being on with me today, and we'll catch you all next time. Until then, happy trails.

R&R ROI Marketing Tip

 Strap in, folks. You're about to experience the R&R ROI marketing tip. All right, we're looking at email campaigns for today's marketing tip, and this specifically is a welcome campaign example. Highly recommend having something like this in place with your park. And you can see here, when someone books a reservation, instead of just having like a singular email that has everything and anything, you could potentially step in there, break that up, and potentially have four or five emails that bring them all the way to the time that they're going to arrive. So, welcome, here's your information that's relevant for that first email. You could do upsell immediately for other things that you might have for sale within your park, or you could do it in another the following drip email, like whether or not they need to buy firewood or they have activities or attractions that you might be able to sell as well. So while you're here, you can do these things another drip a few days later. What to see in the area. Third email could be, we can't wait to see you. Maybe that's like a week out or two weeks out. Once again, following up, you can always be potentially having areas to resell or to upsell additional items

And then of course, you could have a it's this week and then potentially see you tomorrow. All these kind of things. You can see where that could potentially go, where you can just continue to educate and inform your guests about their stay and the other opportunities they have to enjoy while they're there, of course, giving you opportunities to increase revenue. So there's your tip. Take it and run with it.

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About the author 

Mark Rowan

Mark grew up on a campground in West Virginia. Since that time he's been guiding companies across the United States to a better online experience.

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