Before You Go - April 2015
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Measuring Up
South Dakota State Parks Earn 'A' Rating

By Deborah L. Vence

Six South Dakota state parks received an "A" rating for guest satisfaction in the national consumer surveys for 2014.

"South Dakota State Parks are doing a great job in meeting guest expectations," stated Bob MacKinnon, a former Disney Company executive who founded, an online rating system for public and privately owned and operated campgrounds, in a March press release.

The parks that won the rating comprise Custer State Park, Lake Vermillion Recreation Area in Canistota, Lewis and Clark Recreation Area in Yankton and Newton Hills State Park in Canton that each received all around "A" ratings for the second year in a row; while Hartford Beach State Park in Corona and West Whitlock Recreation Area in Gettysburg each won an all around "A" rating for the first time.

Survey participants gave South Dakota State Parks a high rating because they "Loved the open spaces between sites, management was great to work with, reservations were easy to make, great stay and a great way to make memories with my family, loved the trails, great rental equipment, great fishing," noted Lynn Spomer, visitor services coordinator for South Dakota State Parks.

"We really try to listen to our customers and help to make improvements along the way. We are customer-driven and getting back to our customers is very important to us," she said.

Meanwhile, Bob Schneider, assistant director for South Dakota State Parks, added that "We're really excited about [the 'A' rating]. We think we are a good park system, and it's really neat to see that many of our properties had that high rating. When I did look at the list, it did have a good cross-section of what we offer with the park system," such as natural landmarks and water-based recreation areas.

"It's neat to see the whole spectrum appreciated. The bottom line is that any time you get an award like that, it's your staff and the people that make it happen," Schneider said. "It's a service award. But, it's all about the staff. We put a lot of focus on training people and it's nice to see the visitors recognize that.

"That's good to see people [are] excited [about] the summer coming ahead. I think that the economy is back on track and reaping some of the benefits of that in the park system," he said, adding that reservations are up this year over last year.

MacKinnon stated that only 34 out of about 4,000 campgrounds, RV parks and resorts across America received all around "A" ratings in consumer surveys completed in 2014. "If you do the math, that amounts to fewer than one in 100 campgrounds, RV parks and resorts receiving all around 'A' ratings in our consumer surveys," he said.

For South Dakota State Parks, the online survey program began as a pilot project three years ago with two of its largest parks—Custer State Park and Lewis and Clark Recreation Area.

"It's worked so well that we now send out surveys to anyone who camps at any one of our 65 South Dakota state parks," Spomer stated in a recent press release.

While the state had provided consumers with paper survey forms previously, Spomer said the state typically only received a small number of survey forms by mail, which typically arrived several weeks after each camper's visit. But, with the online surveys, campers are invited to provide their feedback right away as soon as they check out of a park. And, if a camper identifies a problem, park staff can address it right away.

"We can't fix things that we don't know about. But with these online surveys, if a camper tells us that something needs attention, like a light being broken in a bathroom or a tree limb being down on a trail, our staff can go out and fix it right away. The surveys have given us a rapid response system," Spomer said.

Besides the speed of the online surveys that state park managers find appealing, they also have discovered that people are more likely to fill out online surveys than paper survey forms. "We're getting far more feedback online through the surveys than we ever got from the paper surveys," Spomer said. "Our staff is checking the surveys daily."

But, while online surveys typically give consumers the ability to post their comments, most online survey forms ask consumers to rate only a few things, such as value, location, cleanliness and service. By contrast, solicits consumer feedback on 55 different guest satisfaction questions in addition to providing consumers the ability to post written comments and suggestions.

"We drill down to specifics with our surveys," MacKinnon stated. "For example, we ask, 'How clean were the showers compared to the toilet areas? Was the bathroom well stocked with supplies? What was the attitude of staff? Did staff have a professional appearance? Were they quick and efficient? How would you rate the safety and security of the park?'"

Ultimately, MacKinnon stated, aims not only to provide consumers with meaningful reviews that can help them identify the best campgrounds, but provide campground operators with letter grades covering every aspect of their park so that they know where to prioritize their improvements and create a better guest experience.