Martinborough campground turns browsers into bookings

This is the second of four case studies on business internet use conducted by Internet NZ and Google.
Martinborough Top 10 Holiday Park co-owner Lisa Cornellissen.
Martinborough Top 10 Holiday Park co-owner Lisa Cornellissen.

The Internet may or may not be made of cats, but for Martinborough Top 10 Holiday Park co-owner Lisa Cornellissen, her cat has been a surprising ingredient in the business's online success.

"Getting the content right is a big part of building a presence online," says Lisa. "And there are lots of theories about what kind of images work and what don't. For us, it's about trying different things to see what people engage with, and sometimes that's nothing more than a picture of the campground cat."

Of course there's more to it than that, and as a former senior marketer at Unilever UK (where she oversaw the global rollout of the current Unilever corporate brand) Lisa isn't short of business smarts. Moving to New Zealand in 2005, she and her husband Frank bought a campervan to explore the country with and look for the right business opportunity.

When they rolled into Martinborough, they realised they'd found it. In the last 7 years the couple have transformed their operation from a simple council campground to a professionally run mix of cabins, tent sites and campervan sites in the heart of one of New Zealand's hottest wine districts.

Making the most of cloud-based services has been key, and Lisa says inventory management is at the heart of that. "We use a property management system called Seekom Ibex. It's built by a Wellington startup and it means our own website, plus online travel agents like Wotif and Booking.com are displaying the cabins and sites we have available in real time." Online booking saves time, too. Making it easy for customers to check availability, then book and pay for sites and cabins themselves, saves Lisa and Frank an (average) 15-minute phone call for every booking.

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Even everyday campground tasks like emptying the rubbish and cleaning the toilets are managed via the cloud. "Remember the Milk is our online maintenance planning system, so we just enter recurring tasks, and anything else that pops up, into the system so everyone knows what needs doing." With campground operations shared between Lisa and Frank and two part-timers, using an online system means less need for face to face briefings. "The jobs just get done, and whoever does them ticks them off."

Not surprisingly, the Internet plays a big part in the way Lisa and Frank market the business too. With 60 per cent of online bookings coming directly via the campground's website, search and Google AdWords are an important focus. Lisa is also a fan of free service newzealand.com and recommends it to any tourism operator. Facebook has also been a successful channel for the business, especially with the big proportion of its guests who come from just over the hill in Wellington. Facebook's ability to target by geography, age, family status and interests has been a hit. "We recently ran a very targeted co-promotion with Mt Bruce Wildlife Reserve that saw our October revenue jump 27%," says Lisa. And how much did that cost to run? "About $150!"

With many Wellingtonians returning to the campground again and again, Facebook has also become a way for regular customers to keep in touch with the business. Lisa and Frank reward Facebook fans with a discount when they book on the page, and 10% of bookings now come directly via Facebook.

Twitter forms part of the mix too, with Lisa using it to talk about Martinborough and the district in general, rather than just the campground. "So if we hear about a concert happening at a vineyard, or that the Rimutaka Hill road is closed, we tweet about that. We try to be useful and relevant, not just talk about the business." As a business owner, Lisa also relies on Twitter to know what's going on at other campgrounds and accommodation providers, as well as in the tourism industry in general.

Maintaining an online presence takes time, of course, and Lisa estimates she and Frank each spend half a day per week updating content on their own site and social media platforms. Hardware-wise, the business uses laptops plus Android-powered tablets and smartphones to keep things humming. "We can be on holiday or anywhere in the world, and if we want to change a rate, or run some new content, it's as easy as if we were in the office," says Lisa.

The Internet isn't everything, of course, since even with a good online system lots of customers prefer to research the campground online, then book by phone or just show up. And, of course, all these Internet services mean that the business is more reliant on Internet than it used to be. "I can run without electricity for a while, but not without the Internet", Lisa says.

So other from having a background in global marketing and owning a very photogenic cat, what advice would Lisa give to other tourism operators wanting to make the most of the net?

Start with inventory. Choose a good online inventory platform to make managing the core part of your business as easy as possible.

Get your site in order. Online travel agents are great, but they all charge a commission. Having an attractive, easy to use site of your own that connects to your online inventory platform is crucial.

Start with just one marketing channel. Having too many channels makes it hard to do all of them well, says Lisa. Leading with Facebook, learning how it works and constantly experimenting has been a recipe for success.

Plan your content. Lisa posts to Facebook two or three times a week, and she avoids "poster's block" by planning as much content as she can ahead of time. "The last thing you want is to be sitting there on the first of January with no idea what to posts when people are knocking on the office door that the toilet is blocked."

- NZ Herald

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