Like any hospitality business, the Boston / Cape Cod KOA Holiday campground is laser-focused on the guest experience. General manager Ryan Newbrough closely tracks the site’s Net Promotor Score, a measure of customers’ likelihood to recommend the campground to others.
“We recognize that money is tight for a lot of people,” Newbrough says, “and if they’re taking some of their hard-earned money and coming out and camping with us, we better give them the best experience possible.”
That’s especially true for the site’s 18 deluxe cabins, designed as a “glamping” experience for camping novices with linens provided, two TVs, Wi-Fi, a full kitchen, and turn-down service. The cabins are pricier than a traditional campsite, and customers expect a fantastic experience.
So it was a problem when the cabins’ 19-gallon electric storage tank water heaters would run out of hot water. “By the fourth person, it runs out pretty quick, and that’s not a good guest experience at all, especially when you’re camping and you just want a nice hot shower,” Newbrough says. But by working with propane marketer JaySan Gas Service, the campground was able to implement a compelling solution that earned it recognition as 2020’s Commercial Propane Project of the Year.
Tankless retrofit provides on-demand hot water
The Project of the Year is a fitting recognition for a plan that makes the most of propane’s performance benefits to truly enhance the campground’s guest experience. The campground replaced the electric water heaters in the cabins with propane tankless water heaters that heat water on demand so they never run out. The tankless units have been a key upgrade for deluxe cabin guests while also providing significant energy bill savings.
“Using the propane is just fantastic because it reduces our electrical load, so that’s something huge for us because that’s one of our biggest expenses,” Newbrough says.
After the first season using the propane tankless units, Newbrough was delighted with the guest response. “We haven’t had any complaints of no hot water, when generally that’s a concern for us, so that was aces,” he says.
Expedited project timeline
Newbrough had actually begun converting the deluxe cabins to propane tankless water heaters several years ago. Because the compact units can be installed on the exterior — they’re winterized when the campground closes for the season in November — they’re an easy addition on the tiny house–sized cabins and even free up some space under the sink where the electric water heaters were previously housed.
With a limited capital expenditures budget, however, the conversions went slowly. The campground could only afford to convert two water heaters each year, and the tankless units were fueled by small 30-pound propane storage cylinders that the staff had to frequently move and refuel. When JaySan Gas operations manager Evan Pittsley learned about the campground’s situation while performing service on different equipment, he knew he could develop a better solution.
He began by negotiating appliance and material pricing with vendors to get competitive pricing, and then looked for time in the company’s schedule where he could offer a better rate on installation. The beginning of the COVID pandemic happened to provide ideal timing, with technicians not easily able to perform residential work. An empty campground offered plenty of space to make the upgrades.
Next, Pittsley secured incentives from the Propane Gas Association of New England and rebates from tankless manufacturer Rinnai. With the additional funding, he was able to provide a creative pricing structure that maximized the campground’s budget to expedite converting all of the water heaters to propane.
“When you do these big projects and the contractor calls, it’s usually bad news and they need more money,” Newbrough says. “It seemed like every time Evan would call me, it was good news and we were getting money back. It’s been a great relationship.” The call informing Newbrough about the $5,000 Project of the Year prize was icing on the cake.
“What impressed me most about the project was the propane supplier’s ability to go above and beyond in finding a solution to provide the entire campground with propane water heaters. It highlights the personal relationship our industry has with both their customers and suppliers — relationships that other energy providers simply don’t have. When was the last time your electric company went above and beyond?” – Brian Brooks, Propane Project of the Year judge
A flexible energy source for a large footprint
The corporate-owned Boston / Cape Cod KOA site offers tourists a quiet, rural setting less than an hour from Boston with easy access to Plymouth and the Cape. The site even has access to natural gas, but the lines only reach as far the main office building and pool, not to its 277 campsites and 40 cabins. So in addition to the tankless units in the cabins, the campground utilizes propane in a pump station that fills portable cylinders and RVs and in a laundry building with propane-fueled commercial dryers.
With a footprint of almost 50 acres, and some of the deluxe cabins situated at the far back end of the campground, using natural gas throughout the site simply isn’t feasible, Newbrough says. “To trench new lines in safely and get them out of depth where we wouldn’t run into them would just be an enormous expense to us. Just trying to time up when we could get that project done would be a nightmare.”
Instead, JaySan Gas implemented a permanent propane storage system with larger propane storage tanks supplying up to three cabins at a time — and eliminating the staff’s cumbersome task of moving and refueling cylinders several times each week. JaySan Gas uses remote tank monitoring technology to provide peace of mind and prevent runouts due to variable usage. The remote monitoring also allows the marketer to minimize the number of deliveries needed and schedule them at the least disruptive time.
“He just sends me a text and says, ‘Hey, tank number three is getting low. Do you want it filled?’” Newbrough says. “And then I’ll look for a day that works for us when we’re lower occupancy and I’ll say, ‘Yep, come on Tuesday.’ It’s been fantastic.”
The positive experience has the campground thinking about opportunities to use propane for heating, especially if the season expands further into the winter, and for outdoor living. But for hospitality businesses in remote locations, upgrading to propane tankless water heaters should be at the top of the priority list, Newbrough says.
“I’ve converted three other cabins at another location to tankless and had a pretty good experience with that, so that made me more comfortable with the idea of going all in and converting them all,” Newbrough says. “I’m a huge proponent of it. And now I tell everyone in my industry: ‘If you haven’t already, switch over.’”