Happy campers: fun-filled programs as management intervention in family camping

Stuart Cottrell

Why do families choose to spend their vacations in family campgrounds? Is it because of an overpowering love and appreciation for the great outdoors? Is a primordial instinct still active that calls the human species back to its origins? The reasons are no doubt multifaceted and complex, but there may be a simple explanation. In 1998, we published an article in this magazine in which we gave our opinion of the state of outdoor recreation at that time. The passage of time hasn’t dimmed our enthusiasm about a phenomenon–fun-filled programming in campgrounds–that we consider relatively simple, yet complex in its wide appeal and practice. We believe one crucial reason that families spend time in campgrounds is that they want to have fun.

Family camping allows outdoor recreation professionals the opportunity to interact with families. Managing campgrounds and outdoor recreation areas involve recognizing existing or anticipated leisure needs and desires, and devising specific steps to fulfill those needs. Moreover, public enjoyment of parks must be defined through understanding the visitor experience, which research suggests may sometimes be at odds with the viewpoint of park managers. The diversity of sites and services within park systems and the diversity of visitors further complicate this issue.

For the most part, activities and programs available in federal and state campgrounds are devoted to education about the natural environment. Visitor centers, interpretive displays, nature trails and guided nature walks farm the bulk of” the educational and interpretive services provided in many park settings. These types of activities and services fit well within the primary mission of agencies such as the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service. But do campground recreationists want more?. If so, should that “more” be provided?

Family Campgrounds as Community Centers

An important but often overlooked social element is that many family campers come from an urban setting, where general knowledge and experience of ecology and nature may be limited. (In a 1990 Indiana State Park campground study that we repeated in 2001, more than 60 percent of the campers came from cities.) Because many of these campers from an urban setting are accustomed to an assortment of recreational activities, providing visitor opportunities mainly as interpretation may not be enough. Activities at the municipal level include such programs as arts, crafts, dance, drama, music, sports, games, social events and some environmental activities. Many community recreation programs enrich family unity by providing activities that encourage entire family participation. In essence, many of our campgrounds today resemble temporary communities, and participation in traditional interpretive programs offered in federal parks tends to be attended by those individuals with an interest in nature and conservation.

How can members of these “temporary communities” not interested in educational programs during their recreation time best be served? For the sake of continuity, public agencies might also tailor programs in family campgrounds with a recreational and interpretative program mix to encourage more participation among family members. Recreational programming can provide familiar activities in an unknown setting, a bridge or stepping stone over the fear of the unknown for those city-bred campers who feel out of place in a wooded environment.

Repeat participation is often bred by familiarity with an activity or activities in which prior participation produced positive rewards. People tend to seek known, safe, positive experiences. Participation in outdoor activities as a youth carries over into adult leisure-time activities. The greater the involvement in a specific type of activity daring adolescence, the more frequent the participation in the same type of activity at midlife. In support of this argument, the social psychologist Jack Kelly implies that leisure patterns of adults are augmented from childhood leisure-time activities and experiences. Recreational programs have been one means for managers to serve campground visitors to enhance the visitor experience to encourage repeat visitation while enhancing visitor knowledge about the outdoors and satisfaction with their camping experience.

In a 1996 study by Roper Starch Worldwide, the leading reason given by respondents for spending leisure time outdoors was to have fun (76 percent). This was followed by relaxation (71 percent), health and exercise (70 percent), family togetherness (68 percent), stress reduction (66 percent), teaching kids values (64 percent) and experiencing nature (64 percent). The to-have-fun statistic is further supported in a recent study of motivations among scuba divers; in that study, “to have fun” was given as the most important reason for diving among 28 motivational questions asked in that survey.

Fundamental Understanding of Human Nature (FUN)

So it appears we may have discovered a common element that creates a temporary bond in a diverse group–people respond to having tim as a socio-psychological phenomenon. Fun-filled environments generate laughter, which in turn reduces stress or serves as a means to release stress.

Fun can break down participation barriers that commonly occur among people in a first-time encounter situation. Fun can generate repeat visitation–an important consideration for the Indiana state park mentioned above, and for any recreation facility, for that matter. Having fun can enhance or increase interest in education, which is a technique employed in outdoor adventure activities and environmental education programs. However, fun as a concept is considered a nonacademic and unsophisticated construct. Second, to measure fun as a scientific construct is a difficult task. Is it a level of enjoyment, or a level of met expectation? As researchers, this is our challenge. Meanwhile, we believe that recreation programming (fun-filled) in family campgrounds is a useful management intervention to help curb problems that campground managers’ face (e.g., vandalism, insufficient revenue, nonuse in off-peak times).

In three campground program-monitoring studies, we found a relationship between satisfaction with the overall camping experience and satisfaction with programming. Could this mean that if people enjoyed programs they participated in, and that if this aspect is related to overall satisfaction with their experience at the park, they will return? We think so, and our research seems to support this proposition. Our next question is, “Are those people who participate in programs more satisfied with their camping experience than those who did not?” Although we don’t claim cause-effect relationships, program participants tend to be more satisfied with the overall camping experience than non-program participants in the studies we conducted. Likewise, these campers more readily indicate they plan to return in the future.

Interpretations Role

Recognizing the role of interpretation in outdoor recreation has been fundamental to park management in federal agencies for decades. Freeman Tilden, the godfather of interpretation in the public outdoor recreation sector, defined interpretation as “an educational activity, which aims to reveal meaning and relationships through the use of original objectives, by first-hand experience, and by illustrative media, rather than simply to communicate factual information.” However, this first idealistic view of interpretation has somehow been lost, according to an article in a recent World Leisure journal. The authors claim that interpretive practice has become more of a means to control visitor behavior and their impacts versus facilitating and promoting an exchange between the visitor and the outdoor environment.

This notion links back to the work of co-author Richard Cottrell at Land Between the Lakes in the mid to late 1970s, and that of our friends at an Indiana state and county campground. Cottrell promoted recreational programming in family campgrounds as a means to balance the exchange between visitors and the environment; this approach received much criticism and debate among traditional interpreters, environmentalists and colleagues in the federal parks sector during the late 1970s through the 1990s.

We think that interpretative educational programming isn’t enough in our federal and state parks. Why not offer a blend of tim-filled programming with interpretation? In a recent study of a state forest in the Netherlands, a pancake restaurant was the most important aspect for all visitors across a visitor typology, ranging from the casual recreationist to nature and culture seekers. The forest preserve manager wanted to revoke the concessionaire license because, philosophically, he thought that visitors should be there to enjoy the wonders of nature rather than to dine at the pancake restaurant. By imposing his philosophy of what’s acceptable in an outdoor environment on his users, could this park manager be killing the goose that laid the golden egg? (His preserve is among those with the highest use in The Netherlands.)

Management methods are either direct or indirect when dealing with park abuse. Indirect methods (e.g., information, education and people having fun) are preferable in terms of better relations with the user than direct law-enforcement tactics. The traditional indirect method used has been interpretation, which proposes to develop among users an appreciation and general understanding of their surroundings.

Some recreation professionals imply that interpretation addresses the needs of the few, not the many. Interpretation as an indirect management solution to depreciative behavior hasn’t had satisfactory results, partially because it doesn’t reach the users who are the cause of depreciative actions. Interpretative program participants are more likely to be on the same side as resource managers–i.e., they already appreciate and will try to preserve the outdoor environment. The challenge is to deliver the message to the people who are the cause of the outdoor resource problems, as well as to visitors who have no interest in educational programs while in pursuit of rest, relaxation, fun and social interaction.

Research on Teenage Camping Participation

Previous recreation program research in family campgrounds is rather limited (and co-author Richard Cottrell stimulated the few studies that do exist). In 1975, Sandra Winn examined camper characteristics, background and program preferences at Land Between The Lakes in Georgia. At that time, campground occupancy rates had increased 8 percent over 1974, and Richard Cottrell wanted to know why. Interestingly, 90 percent of the families had teenagers with them in the campgrounds. Winn speculated that this high rate of teenagers camping with their families was attributable to there being plenty to do in the campgrounds. A typical summer week at that time featured more than 75 activities.

Winn implied that recreational “fun” programs might help to increase campground occupancy rates, camper satisfaction and teenage camping participation. In 1977, John Hultsman conducted an applied study examining teenage program preferences. Of the 96 respondents, 86 percent had participated in campground programs. This finding implies that teenagers, typically a difficult group to program for, were participating in programs of interest to them.

In 1990, co-author Stuart Cottrell followed up the Winn and Hultsman studies with a focus on camper satisfaction in relationship to campground programs at a state recreation area in Indiana that had adopted a recreational programming approach five years earlier. In that study, 69 percent of the teenage campers were with their parents. Likewise, many of them had participated in some of the programs offered. This was interesting, because teens hadn’t camped there in the years before fun programming was added to the activity list, according to the campground manager. Ninety-six percent of the campers said they intended to return, and of these, 45 percent indicated they planned to return that year. The campground manager, Don Albietz, said, “Recreational programs in the campground solved many of our management problems in the park.” Those problems, typically associated with insufficient generation of revenues, were identified as excessive vandalism and poor visitation rates during the week and on non-holiday weekends. Before the 1986 season, campground programming was primarily interpretation, with low camper participation. In 1986, Albietz minimized interpretation and began to incorporate recreational programming into the overall management scheme of the park.

Further, Albietz said, “The implementation of recreational programs in the campground increased both camping and overall property revenues.” Although cause-effect relationships couldn’t be claimed in the 1990 study; campers were satisfied with their experience and returning for more, and teenagers were camping with their parents. Eleven years later, we wanted to reexamine these issues by replicating the 1990 study. Results in 2001 were remarkably similar.

Fun Programming at West Boggs Park

West Boggs Park, opened in 1972, is a county park located in Martin and Daviess counties in Indiana. The two counties jointly own the park, an arrangement that presents many challenges for operations and meeting separate governmental interests. Park Superintendent Mike Axsom, who started in 1994, decided to try to operate the park self-sufficiently by using only the revenue brought in by user fees and not accept funding from file county governments. This new approach to park management has been successful, according to Axsom, who says that the park has become completely self-sufficient and debt-free in five years. User fees currently amount to more than 100 percent of operating costs, with surplus used for renovations and improvements.

Why the sudden success? Running the park more like a business resulted in adopting a more businesslike approach to customer satisfaction. Instead of letting experts tell the public what they should do, West Boggs Park asks for feedback and suggestions from their visitors, whom they think of as customers. In 2001, the park began to offer recreational “fun programming” as a new service approach. The programming focused on organized activities that encourage visitors to jump in and participate. Activities include volleyball, sack races, beach tug-o-war, trail hikes, sand sculpting; dances, etc., as well as more passive activities like bingo, cooking contests, campfire talks and storytelling.

Because this was the first year that West Boggs offered fun-oriented programming, it seemed a good time to conduct a baseline study for future comparison to monitor actual impact of recreational programs on the camping experience and teenage participation. Obviously, campers wouldn’t be aware of changes in opportunities, and program participation rates would be low in the early going. There was, however indication that campers thought that programs were important and expected the park to offer activities. Results of the study imply that campers who participated in programs were more satisfied with the overall camping experience and with the value of the experience. The findings tend to support our claim that fun programming if diverse enough to cover numerous needs, will help to improve satisfaction with the total camping experience. Common sense implies that, if the experience is highly valued, visitors might return while encouraging others in their immediate circle of friends to do so as well.

Assessing family unity among West Boggs campers wasn’t possible in our research; the results, however, show that the greatest percentage of campers were family campers and groups of campers with family and friends. This indicates that West Boggs is succeeding in meeting a key professional goal in parks and recreation, i.e., to strengthen family/community ties. Chances are that, if targeted, more teens will camp with their families at West Boggs to extend the typical group composition from Mom and Dad and the young children.

In summary, there was a relationship between programs offered at our two study areas in Indiana and an increase in overall camper satisfaction. As program satisfaction increased, so did the overall satisfaction of campers with the camping experience. These findings present implications for using program satisfaction as a management tool for indirectly manipulating overall camper satisfaction. By focusing management action on the types of programs offered and types of activities users prefer, overall camper satisfaction should increase. For this to happen, continual effort is necessary to monitor and assess user participant patterns, program interests, trends and camper satisfaction. For simplification, individuals seek alternatives of interest to them. The availability of freedom of choice results in happy, healthy individuals–the proverbial happy camper. The notion of the happy camper transposes into return visitation, increased revenue and, ultimately, a happy management team.

Stuart Cottrell, Ph.D., is a lecturer/researcher at Wageningen University, The Netherlands. He worked as a park ranger for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Illinois and as the director of programs at the Boy Scouts of America’s Florida National High Adventure Sea Base in the Florida Keys. His principal research interests are outdoor recreation environmental behavior, travel and tourism, international travel, behavior and adventure education. Richard Cottrell spent a 25-year career in outdoor recreation with the U.S. Forest Service and Tennessee Valley Authority at Land Between the Lakes” in Georgia. After leaving federal service, he was active as a lecturer, author and consultant working with, among others, the Japanese government, the U.S. Army in Europe and the private sector. He co-authored the book Planning Parks for” People. Richard Cottrell died in May.

COPYRIGHT 2003 National Recreation and Park Association

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

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