SEATTLE (AP) - If you waver about an overnight stay at a state park, what would it take to twist your arm? More cabins along the lake? A loyalty rewards program? An Internet special on a cottage?
Washington State Parks wants to do all that, and more, to reduce high vacancy rates at parks this time of year and help ease its budget crunch.
With a directive from the Legislature to generate more revenue and rely less on the state’s general fund, the parks agency plans to overhaul its archaic reservation system to function, in some aspects, like the commercial lodging industry - offering last-minute discounts and creating a customer database to attract repeat visitors.
The agency is already adding dozens of cabins in parks where overnight rentals were already popular, and expects to build even more around Western Washington.
To an existing inventory of 100 cabins, yurts and cottages, the agency in recent months erected 14 cabins, spread among Dash Point State Park, on South Puget Sound; Millersylvania State Park, in Thurston County; and Dosewallips State Park, on Hood Canal. Average cost of the small, manufactured units: $32,000 apiece.
Another 18 are coming this year at Hood Canal’s Belfair State Park; Deception Pass State Park on Whidbey Island; Ike Kinswa State Park in Lewis County; Twin Harbors State Park in Grays Harbor County; and more at Dash Point State Park.
“We’re trying to push the envelope on yurts and cabins for additional revenues,” said Mark O. Brown, secretary of the seven-member, governor-appointed Washington Parks & Recreation Commission. “We have a mandate from the governor to be more self-sufficient.”
The parks system, which received $94.5 million in general funds in the 2007-09 cycle, got only $21 million in the current biennium. While some of that has been backfilled by sales of the Discover Pass, which the Legislature created in 2011, park administrators said the onus still falls on them to find additional revenue.
A 23-page marketing report prepared by parks staff concluded that “the ability to be competitive in the cabin market is critical. There are several competitors to choose from when planning a cabin rental, so the ability to capture the customer, create direct and useful information and communication, and stay competitive through promotions will be the focus.”
The report suggested, among other things, a loyalty program to reward returning customers - something akin to an airline frequent-flier program - and other “retention campaigns.” It suggested offering offseason specials, last-minute deals and add-on packages.
Park administrators are studying the logistics of all that. Major changes will have to wait until 2017, when a contract expires with Camis Inc., the nationwide recreation management firm that handles the parks’ phone and Internet reservations. State Parks could then put out bids for a new contractor to run its redesigned reservation system, agency spokeswoman Virginia Painter said.
Flexible rates coming
Currently, rental fees on state park cabins, yurts and cottages are fixed, with peak summer rates of $65 to $80 for a cabin, lower rates during the offseason, and no wiggle room for variables such as bad weather and high vacancy.
“We want the flexibility so if the ranger noticed on a Tuesday and Wednesday that we have openings, then we have the flexibility to offer promotions. That’s what hotels are doing and that is where we are headed with our reservation system,” Painter said. “We want to operate in a way that is nimble, get offers out to people, do emails, mass marketing. (Discount offers) would also show up on the reservation website. That is our future.”
Through studying park operations in Texas, Wisconsin and California, park managers here concluded that a database of park users and cabin renters is needed to create promotions to help keep the state’s cabins near capacity year-round.
Currently, when a state park has a last-minute cancellation for a popular lakeside cabin, for example, park officials have no way to announce that a prime rental has opened up. Nor do rangers have the power to offer last-minute deals to get those vacancies filled, as in the private lodging industry.
That problem is more pronounced in the offseason, when the cabin-vacancy rate at some parks is as high as 90?percent.
Mild winters make it feasible
Park officials believe they can capture a larger share of the offseason lodging market, especially since Western Washington winters are mild and some parks make a good escape from drizzly Seattle. Moran State Park on Orcas Island, for example, benefits from the Olympic Mountains rain shadow, with nearly 250 sunny days a year.
In the past two years, State Parks has gradually adopted pieces of the lodging-industry model. Gone are the days when families could hoard many prime cabins and campsites by making multiple reservations because they couldn’t decide where to go, waiting until the last minute to cancel.
The cancellation penalty now is steep enough - up to half the cost of the reservation - to curb that practice, said Katie Manning, the agency’s business development program manager, in charge of overhauling the lodging system.
And after years of setting campsite charges merely based on factors such as utilities - a site with RV hookup, water and electricity cost more than a bare-bones site - the park system now charges by location, with higher rental rates for campsites by a lake, or with mountain vistas, and cheaper rates for sites near a parking lot.
At Dash Point State Park, in Federal Way, where the 138 campsites are typically heavily booked during summer, the five new cabins are already in demand, even in the offseason. A week after opening in September, all the cabins were booked on weekends for weeks in advance.
Among the early renters recently was Julianne Thompson, whose family of six lives just 25 miles south of the park.
“I just started on my dissertation, and I needed a break,” she said. “It’s reasonable. It’s not $200, just $50. We just wanted to find a place close by and get away from the daily grind - enjoy nature, enjoy some s’mores. We plan to go down to the water and let nature drive what we will do.”
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