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State parks online campground reservations system is live

By DAVID RAINER

Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural

Resources (ADCNR)

Ready for a camping trip to one – or several – of the beautiful Alabama State Parks? Ensuring you’ll have a site for your RV, travel trailer or tent just became much easier recently when the new online campground reservation system (www.reservealapark.com) went live.

When ADCNR Commissioner Chris Blankenship was appointed by Governor Kay Ivey in 2017, one of his first initiatives was to connect all Alabama State Parks to broadband internet service and to implement an online reservation system for Alabama State Parks.  Parks officials spent months integrating the technology into the 17 parks the system will serve, and the new online tool will include a variety of features that park visitors have requested.

“One of the things we were intentional about providing to the customer was to look at a site’s availability for the whole year instead of one specific date range,” said Emily Vanderford, Natural Resources Planner with the State Parks Division. “This new system gives them a longer date range. If they have a favorite campsite, they can look at availability and book it. That is something customers asked for – being able to look at that site’s availability across the year.”

Another feature of the new reservations system is the ability to book at multiple parks during one online visit.

“If someone is making a road trip and they want to book several parks along the journey, they can do that in one booking,” Vanderford said. “There are some specific features that people have wanted, like saving their bookings into their account to know which sites they’ve stayed on in the past. Also, now you can purchase a gift card and use a gift card in that same system.”

Vanderford thinks people are really going to appreciate this tool with the  user-friendly online system.

“But we also want people to know that if they have questions, they can call us, and we will be happy to help,” she said.

State Parks Assistant Director Rob Grant started the work on the new online system with a Request for Proposals (RFP) last fall. After Parks officials selected a vendor, Vanderford took the lead.

“We really appreciate the hard work Emily has done since she took on the role,” Grant said. “After the RFP was finally issued, Emily joined in and ran with it. And our staff has been fantastic in navigating the new system.”

Prior to the new system, nine parks had campground reservations on an online system, but that system linked to each park separately and did not include many features.

“Before, all our parks on the online system, ran their own system,” Vanderford said. “So, if you wanted to make a booking at Cheaha, you had to go to a Cheaha-specific booking link. If you wanted to make a reservation at Lake Lurleen, you had to call that park.

“With the new system, we have all of the parks we operate on the online reservation system. There were multiple pieces to the puzzle. One was to transfer the old reservation system into the new system. Then we had to prepare all of the campgrounds that had been in the old system for the new system. The challenging part was to do that in a way that provided some uniformity. With this system, everything comes into one centralized source that can make a booking for any and all of our camping parks. That was one of the bigger challenges, making sure we could bring everything into one system and make it work so the customers could pull up the sites and see all of our parks.”

With the new campground reservation tool, campers can go online and find numerous options to plan a trip to Alabama’s most scenic destinations, from the Appalachian Mountains to Mobile Bay.

“Visitors may not know which park they want to go to,” Vanderford said. “With the new system, they might want to camp in central Alabama. They could type in Birmingham, and the system will pull up a list of parks in the area. Then they can book any or all of those parks from the same place.

“Starting last fall, there was a lot of detailed setup work for pricing and availability. All of those things have to be ready to go so the customers can book online and avoid issues for them or Parks operations. We don’t want customers showing up to campgrounds they’ve made a booking for and the site not be available.”

The 17 parks included in the online booking system had to have upgrades to internet service to ensure the parks’ offices had the computing power to integrate into the new system.

Vanderford said now that parks’ offices have upgraded internet service, the plan is to add more internet access for park users as soon as possible.

“High-speed internet is definitely something we are working towards for the campers, but it may not be distributed throughout the parks for the campers at this time,” she said. “That’s a totally different challenge – making sure there is secure Wi-Fi. We had park offices that did not have enough internet service to run the system, so we had to upgrade those first.”

Grant added, “We have been redoubling our efforts to expand the Wi-Fi access now that we have fiber to each park and the online booking system launched.  This continues to be one of Commissioner Blankenship’s top priorities.”

The new campground reservations system has been online since August 19, and it appears there are many happy campers.

“A lot of bookings have been made since the system went live,” Vanderford said. “When you launch a system of this magnitude, there are always some things you have to work out. I’m invested in making sure the customers have the best experience they can.

“All in all, I think it has gone really smoothly. Customers have been asking for some features for a long time that we can now provide. We have staff all across the state who have done a great job of learning the new system. We will be able to answer questions people may have.”

Grant said the feedback he’s received has been positive.

“We have had some rave reviews from guests who have accessed the new system,” Grant said. “They’ve had some great comments and some suggestions. We’re still tweaking it and making adjustments. We’re adding in more and more functionality, but we’re pleased with the system and the progress we’ve made.”

Currently, the new online system includes campsites and camping cabins. Chalets, cabins and hotel rooms at the parks will remain in the legacy system for the time being.

“We are working to put everything in one system,” Vanderford said. “That’s something we will be working on this fall.”

State Parks Director Greg Lein said that this has truly been a team effort to improve services to park guests, and that the project especially benefitted from the dedication of two Parks employees over the last year. 

“Rob Grant spent countless hours in 2019 researching companies and reservations systems to prepare our agency for the formal Request for Proposals and to develop the eventual contract,” Lein said. “Emily Vanderford led our efforts to review proposals and implement the transition process from the old system to the new system over the last 9 months. She has literally lived and breathed reservations over the summer to the point where they are probably part of her dreams. This work could have never been accomplished were it not for Rob and Emily’s leadership and commitment to the project and our park guests, and the support we received from Commissioner (Chris) Blankenship, Deputy Commissioner (Ed) Poolos, and our Information Technology staff.”

To look at the new online booking options, go to www.reservealapark.com. For more information on reservations, please visit www.alapark.com/reservations.