This month our customer spotlight is on John Pratte, a wildlife biologist who manages one of the most unique campgrounds in the country. The Swan Island Wildlife Management Area campground in Maine is a hidden gem that won’t remain hidden for long. John uses his extensive knowledge of the area and dedication to customer experience to make sure of it.
Where is your business located?
“We’re located on Swan Island which is on the Kennebec river near Richmond, Maine. It’s actually Perkins Township. So the island is its own town and it’s at the North end of Merrymeeting Bay.”
How long has your business been open?
“The camping and hiking have been open since the 60’s but we started acquiring the property back in the 40’s.”
How long have you been a part of the business yourself?
“I’ve been involved in it for about 9 years now but I’ve been managing it and working out here full time for 4 years.”
What led you to become a part of the Campground Industry?
“I started my career in Forestry and Wildlife and the road I went down professionally just led me here. It was a good fit for me - I enjoy being out in the field. What I like about it is that this is not an ordinary campground. This is a lot like a management area that happens to have hiking, camping, and educational programs. So as a wildlife biologist I get to do a lot of the work that we do on our wildlife management areas and then share that with our visitors.
We let them see some of the work that we do and at the same time help them have an enjoyable stay out here. For me, it’s just a great mix - wildlife, or if you want to do some forestry, rent some equipment and maybe spend as much time fixing it and all the public interaction we get to have.”
Can you describe or outline your typical day?
“Well, out here, we don’t have a typical day. It’s myself and two summer staff that take care of all the operations out here. We’re a little unique from your typical campground because we’re on an island so we use a ferry to bring our visitors back and forth from the island.
Typically the ferry runs four times a day, with reservations, and it’s a couple minute ferry ride across the river. Then we load everybody up onto a tour truck and drive the mile and a half to the campground. From there, they can explore the island.
There’s one person dedicated to getting people on and off the island for the day. In between that, the campground is quite large, so there’s probably about eight hours of mowing a week. We squeeze that in and maintenance of our equipment, some work on the staff house, some of the wildlife stuff we do out here, and we have a bunch of events we do through the season so there’s a lot of prep work to make all those happen.
This week I’m going to be prepping for some manual road work for the season. We kind of have stages as the season progresses for the things we focus on. Early on we did a prescribed burn out here and some herbicide spraying for invasive plants and shrubs that we have on the island. We mow some of our fields the first week of September, so usually, a week or two prior to that is when I do some more spraying for the invasives in the field to get those under control before mowing. So there’s a just a variety of things that we focus on and work on through the season.”
What are the main challenges you have faced and how did you overcome them?
“For us, it’s been promoting, advertising and making people aware that our facility exists and that it’s a place for them to come camp and hike. We also want to make more teachers and schools aware of our educational programs that we have available. For the last four years, my focus has been on improving the infrastructure and amenities that we have to make our visitors stays more enjoyable. Now I’m going to be shifting into the advertising and promotion to try to build up our visitor rates.
That’s one of the reasons that I put in the online reservation system and ended up selecting Bonfire - to capture those potential visitors, the folks that are looking online for something to do on the weekend. And if they can click and make their reservation right then, I think there's a percentage of the population that’s more likely to make that reservation. I think we were losing customers before because they didn’t make the call or send an email and found another website in between that had the online reservation.
We have seen our visitor rates increase this year and part of it is a result of having the online reservations with Bonfire.”
What has been your most satisfying moment in business?
“I think it’s the positive feedback we get. We put a lot of work, effort and thought into the things that we do out here to appeal to the public and the wildlife work we do. And when we hear back from the public how much they appreciate those things we do, or our repeat visitors that notice those improvements, that makes it worthwhile. We’ve had some visitors that just discovered it by chance and made their reservation to come out here and now they’ve been back several times the same season. It’s great and shows that we’re doing something right.”
If you could offer any last piece advice to others in the industry, what would that be?
“Focus on your customer service and providing a facility that’s going to be comfortable and enjoyable for them and everything else will fall into place for you.”
For John, managing this one-of-a kind campground is a perfect fit. From making it easy to make a reservation with Bonfire, to keeping the fields mowed, John provides an outstanding experience for every visitor. If you’re in Maine, canoe, kayak or ferry your way to Swan Island to see for yourself!