RECREATION: Improving Campgrounds with User Surveys

Tacoma Power offers outdoor recreation opportunities, including camping, at its seven hydroelectric plants. To gather feedback from campers, the utility uses an online survey tool. Information from the survey is used to improve campground service and increase customer loyalty.

By Patrick D. McCarty

The foundation for knowing how to improve customers’ experiences at your campgrounds is the ability to receive timely and well-defined feedback — and making changes based on what you learn. For many years, Tacoma Power used printed surveys handed out at its campgrounds to gather feedback from its customers. However, these surveys did not provide enough data to verify perceptions of customer satisfaction. Consequently, we developed an online survey tool in order to gather the kind of detailed feedback needed to help us successfully improve service and increase customer loyalty.

Ask, but you may not receive…

In the early 1990s, we developed a half-sheet, self-addressed, postage-paid survey asking questions about customers’ experiences. When the survey was first put into use, the returns were substantial, and results helped direct our improvement. However, as time passed, the number of paper surveys returned decreased to a trickle, with as few as 30 returns from the 175,000 people that visited our parks annually. We were no longer receiving the critical customer feedback needed to assess our performance.

In 2005, we decided to get serious about understanding what we were doing well and what things we could improve. In order to gain that understanding, we needed to develop a new tool and a different method for gathering feedback.

We had recently joined Washington State Parks’ reservation system, which provided a lot of information about customers who use our parks. When customers register online, we have access to their e-mail addresses. We knew that we could use e-mail as a quick and simple way of reaching out to them.

But before we could do that, we needed to know what we needed to know. We started by discussing the paper survey with the park supervisors. We found out what information would help them and then added questions that would help us assess customer satisfaction levels.

Once we finalized the questions, we built an electronic survey using the online company Survey Monkey. For less than $20 a month, we can create as many surveys as we like and send them to an unlimited number of people.

Reach out and survey someone

Now that we had a solid list of questions and a good method for distributing them, we needed to send them to our customers. We had no idea how many responses we would get, and we didn’t know if we risked the chance of offending our customers by sending them e-mails. To encourage campers to respond to the survey, we entered each respondent into a drawing for an embroidered shirt and hat.

We e-mailed our first batch of surveys in July 2005 to about 500 customers. Within a few hours, more than 10 percent responded. Within a week, we had received responses from nearly 30 percent of the customers. Quite a few people thanked us for giving them the opportunity to provide feedback about the parks. That year, we received nearly 800 surveys responses. So far, so good.

In 2006, we revised the survey based on feedback in the responses and our ability to manage the data. The original survey allowed for more open-ended answers, which are much harder to compare than multiple choice answers. The questions in the survey are listed on page 29. We also began to send the surveys each week on Monday mornings. Using this strategy, we often catch people at the end of a camping trip, so the feedback is fresh and more accurate. We experienced a 36 percent response rate. In 2007, the trend continued, with a 39 percent response rate.

Data overload?

At first, we were a little intimidated by the amount of information received and wondered how we could manage it. Thankfully, our survey tool allowed us to see a snapshot of the questions, in the form of graphs that tracked the multiple choice answers. We could sort the responses and look at each of the four parks individually.

The first year, we ended the survey with a question asking if customers wanted a response from us. We hoped that this question would reveal customers who had experienced poor service, and we would be able to respond and hopefully retain them as customers. About a third of the customers asked for a response, and their requests were not necessarily based on a bad experience. We spent a significant amount of time replying to extra questions and concerns, even from customers who were very satisfied. We changed the survey the following year and asked customers who had specific questions or concerns to e-mail us. The number of customers expecting responses decreased dramatically, to approximately 5 percent.

You get what you measure

We incorporated the survey results into Tacoma Power’s incentive program that gives employees up to four paid days off if they meet goals set at the beginning of the year. For several years, one of our goals has been that 98 percent of the customers who filled out surveys would say that the park employees were helpful. Tough goal, but I knew the employees had the capability of reaching it. Sure enough, in 2005, 98.3 percent of our customers returning a survey said our park employees were helpful. That number jumped to 99.2 percent in 2007.

Tying the survey to incentives is a good tool for creating some good-natured competition between the parks. The first year we conducted the online survey, one of the parks had a 100 percent positive response rate for helpfulness of employees, so we created the “Superior Service” award. We presented a trophy engraved with the park name to the park supervisors at Tacoma Power’s semi-annual employee meeting. Another park with a 100 percent positive response rate won it in 2006. In 2007, the winner received the award because of the positive comments about the customer-focused activities at the park. The winning park keeps the trophy until it’s given to the top park the following year.

We ACED it

The survey responses also help us recognize individual park supervisors and employees. Each Monday, we send an “A.C.E. Report” (Astounding Customer Experience) that includes some of the responses from the “What are we doing right that you’d like us to keep doing?” question. This weekly feedback from customers is an easy way to keep employees motivated and remind them that they’re doing a great job. We’ve found that Mondays are a great day to send the A.C.E. report because the employees have worked long weekend hours taking care of our campgrounds and customers.

Examples of comments we’ve received:

— “Your park is a credit to everyone who works or helps there! I can say without a single doubt it was one of the best parks we have been to in five years of camping.”

— “Park employees were very hard-working, friendly, eager to please, and very helpful. You are employing good people who care about our needs. Please relay to them how pleased we were with them.”

— “The upkeep of the park is fantastic. The employees were more than helpful, and the presence of employees made us feel safer all around. Anything we needed was right there.”

— “I could not believe that there were fresh flowers in the ladies room. It was such a nice surprise. And the complimentary newspaper was great too. It’s those little touches that made me feel pampered! Thank you!”

Tacoma Power has made many improvements and enhancements at its campgrounds and parks based on customer feedback from surveys. As a result of these changes, the utility sees an increase in customer loyalty.


Outdoor recreation, including camping, is a featured benefit at Tacoma Power’s seven hydroelectric plants.

The weekly A.C.E. Report sparked an encouraging response from park supervisors. Instead of being discouraged by the criticisms, they seem motivated by the many positive responses and they hope to get even better. Park staff members look forward to the report — the timely and positive feedback from customers is a highlight on Monday mornings.

Actions speak louder than words

To ensure customer satisfaction remains high, Tacoma Power provides all park employees customer service training at the beginning of the camping season each year. While many of our long-time employees have a good grasp of how to provide excellent customer service, we also count on seasonal employees to keep our customers happy.

Conducting the training at the parks creates campground-focused examples and allows the employees to hear the same messages at the same time. It’s an opportunity to help them get to know each other, hear the challenges that other employees face, and share solutions to similar problems. The training also provides management an opportunity to explain customer service expectations.

During the training, created by Elys Brewda of A.C.E. Learning and Performance Solutions, we focus on: traits of an ideal park employee; understanding customer behavior; skills to create Astounding Customer Experiences (A.C.E.); and communication tools for excelling in challenging customer situations.

Customer service on customers’ terms

Some of the most basic elements of a campground make the biggest impressions on customers. They want clean bathrooms and polite employees. They want the garbage cans emptied regularly and warm water for their showers. They want sturdy picnic tables and level pads to place their RVs and tents.

Once we’ve met the basic customer service elements, we’ve tried to improve service by providing an unexpected twist on customer expectations.

In 2006, one of the park supervisors should have made headlines with his great idea: He started delivering a newspaper to each campsite on Saturday mornings. He struck a deal with the newspaper and received a discount on the price. For 15 cents per customer, the supervisor made many people’s days. Many people who fill out the survey express how pleasantly surprised they were by this simple, but extraordinary, touch.

In 2007, customers found another unexpected twist on a campground basic: Fresh flowers in the women’s bathroom. One of the parks decided to posh up the pamper room — and the investment paid off. We’ve received countless positive responses from customers.

Putting it all together

Once you’ve designed your customer feedback tool, set goals and learned what customers want, you can fine-tune your campgrounds. Knowing what customers think only provides value if you are willing to take action based on the feedback. Tacoma Power has made many changes because our customers were able to communicate with us after their camping trip. We’ve updated our online campsite information, including photos of the individual campsites, with help from customers. We’ve combined small campsites to make larger sites because campers said they felt cramped. We’ve passed on glowing comments to employees whose names have been included in a customer’s statement.

Acting on customer feedback is not only a great way to provide personalized customer service; it creates a cache of positive customer feedback that rewards employees for a job well done. Those employees are the key to ensuring that customers want to come back year after year.

We have always known that we have loyal customers because they keep coming back. One of the best measures of loyalty is if customers recommend products or services to a friend. In 2005, 95 percent of our customers said they would recommend our parks to a friend. In 2007, that number increased to 96.2 percent.

Providing recreation at the reservoirs created by the dams at our hydroelectric projects is one of the many requirements of our Federal Energy Regulatory Commission operating licenses. Because these parks and recreational opportunities are a reflection of Tacoma Power, we decided to “do it right.” Tacoma Power takes great pride in its parks, and it shows. Just ask our campers!


Tacoma Power’s Survey Questions


  1. Which of Tacoma Power’s parks did you recently visit?
  2. How did you hear about the park?
  3. How easy was the reservation process?
  4. How helpful were the park employees?
  5. Please mark your level of satisfaction with these park features.
      a. Bathroom cleanliness
      b. Campsites
      c. Park upkeep
      d. Play equipment
      e. Swimming area
  6. Would you recommend the park to a friend? Why or why not?
  7. If you or someone you camped with has a disability, did our park meet your accessibility needs? Why or why not?
  8. What is your zip code?
  9. What are we doing right that you’d like us to keep doing?
  10. Do you have suggestions for improving our parks?


About Tacoma Power’s Parks


We offer classic tent camping, luxury RV sites with full hookups, and everything in between. All four of our parks include year-round day-use areas, boat launches, swimming areas, group camp areas, and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)-accessible campsites and facilities.

Alder Lake Park, located near the 50-MW Alder Dam hydro plant, features year-round camping at 173 individual campsites.

Mayfield Lake Park, located upstream of the 162-MW Mayfield Dam hydro plant, has 55 individual campsites open for camping each year from April 15 to October 15.

On Riffe Lake near Mossyrock Dam and the associated 300-MW hydro plant, Mossyrock Park offers year-round camping at 152 individual campsites. A private concessionaire operates a seasonal store and fast-food concession stand.

Taidnapam Park, located at the upper end of Riffe Lake 23 miles upriver from Mossyrock Dam, currently offers year-round camping at 68 individual campsites; 100 additional sites are under construction.

Pat McCarty is generation manager at Tacoma Power. He is responsible for Tacoma Power’s seven hydroelectric plants and the associated fish, wildlife, and recreational activities, including four campgrounds.

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