Outdoor Recreation Reservations for Federal Lands
Recreation.gov, a Multi-Agency Initiative
Demand for reservations for outdoor recreation on federal lands around the country soared during the coronavirus pandemic, and it remains strong.
Recreation.gov is the centralized website where people find opportunities for these activities and make their reservations. Due to the high interest over the past year, some website visitors experienced frustration when trying to book places or activities. About a third of website users surveyed reported they were unable to complete what they went to the site to do, sometimes due to lack of reservation availability.
The Recreation.gov team is prioritizing understanding the experience of new visitors to the site, who typically rate their experience less highly than returning users. In response, Recreation.gov is developing new resources targeting these new customers, such as troubleshooting articles on web pages where new users typically have questions.
The amount reservations increased between fiscal year 2019 and fiscal year 2021, highlighting the site’s popularity and a high demand for outdoor recreation.
out of 5 stars: user rating of Recreation.gov mobile app among more than 112,000 reviews.
of customers said it was not easy to complete what they wanted to do on the site, often because they could not secure a reservation due to the limited availability of bookings.
Customer Experience Insights
Improvement from last year
Room for improvement
After closing in March 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, some federal recreation sites began reopening later in spring and summer 2020. While reopening, these locations needed to balance increased interest in visiting federal lands with public health protocols such as capacity limits. In May 2020, the Recreation.gov team worked with Rocky Mountain National Park to pilot a feature enabling visitors to reserve a time to enter the park, rather than entering at any time, with the goal of spacing out visitors during the pandemic. While the timed reservation requirement was added for safety, analysis of customer reviews showed positive reactions to being able to enjoy a less crowded park, even if it might be less convenient or desirable to have to show up at a specific time. The team shared this success and worked with other national parks, including Yosemite and Denali, to implement timed reservations.
Ticketed entry and requirements for permits are improving the experience for some visitors.
Sample customer review
I really liked how easy it was to reserve my timed entry visit. I reserved it on the morning of and enjoyed that there weren’t too many cars driving through at the same time that I was…I really enjoyed the lack of crowds….I was able to take my time, go on short hikes…I highly recommend this lovely scenic drive.
However, the high demand for park access is frustrating many people who cannot get reservations. (see more below).
- The mobile app has earned 4.8 out of 5 stars from more than 112,000 ratings.1
The Recreation.gov team cites frequent user testing as critical to this success, along with fine-tuning the app in phases, adding more functionality and options over several years.
Recreation.gov had 2 million new visitors in 2020, a 25% increase from the previous year.2 Many of these new users faced challenges in setting up accounts and understanding terminology unique to the site, leading to a satisfaction score among new users that was 15 points lower than overall for the site.
Guided by customer research specifically focused on new users, the team set up a landing page that people go to immediately after creating an account, which introduces them to the recreation reservation process and terminology in more detail. They also introduced help center and troubleshooting articles on webpages that typically raised questions for new users. The added information, for example, provides users with help on setting up an account whereas previously, the assistance was located on a separate FAQ page.
While these help features provide useful resources and information for new customers, additional focus on the overall design and content of Recreation.gov could help ensure the website is more user-friendly for all customers.
Top reasons customers couldn’t complete the purpose of their visit on Recreation.gov included the limited availability of campsites (28%), technical issues (22%) and difficulty finding information (22%).
Reservations on Recreation.gov almost tripled between fiscal 2019 and fiscal 2021, as demand for outdoor activities swelled. The surge in requests led to booked-up campsites and other facilities in federal parks. And it left many visitors unable to complete the purpose of their visit, which was to make reservations at their desired destination.
The Recreation.gov team is helping to assist disappointed customers through a recommendations engine that shows availability at nearby locations. The team also aims to provide users with more information about the recreation sites they originally sought to visit, such as when there might be openings.
The website’s repository of maps and campsite photos has increased, yet many of the places open to visitors have not provided these features, which would be helpful for making an informed decision about which campsite to reserve and are frequently requested by customers. To address this issue, the Recreation.gov team focused on the federal employee experience and made it easier for park rangers to upload campsite images and maps to the website. In 2020, the team launched an app that enables facility managers to upload photos from their phone directly to the website, rather than having to go to an office to upload them via computer, as they had previously.
Leading Customer Experience Practices
The Partnership and Accenture developed the following list of practices to understand how agencies prioritize the customer experience, and steps they can take to improve. The list is based on research about effective customer experience practices in both government and the private sector, and aligns with practices in a customer experience maturity self-assessment for agencies developed by the Office of Management and Budget.
A strong commitment and plan from agency leaders to prioritize customer experience is essential for sustained progress.
1. Includes high-quality customer experience in its strategic goals.
Not assessed because this is a multi-agency program. However, customer experience is a key element in the contract and work statements that guide how Recreation.gov is managed.
2. Specifies customer feedback as a key measure of the organization’s performance.
Not assessed because this is a multi-agency program. However, customer feedback measures are used to assess performance in the contract and work statements that guide how Recreation.gov is managed.
3. Has a senior executive with the responsibility and authority to lead efforts to improve the customer experience across the organization.
Not assessed because this is a multi-agency program. However, a Recreation Management Committee, with members from each agency that contributes to Recreation.gov, helps guide improvements to the site.
Ease of Customer Interactions
Interactions with the federal government should be easy, transparent and designed around user needs.
For the most common services provided, customers can:
1. Complete common transactions using the service delivery channel of their choice.
Customers can book campsites, buy tickets and complete other common services online, over the phone and through webchat.
2. Obtain status updates through online self-service.
Customers can use webchat on Recreation.gov to check the status of refunds.
3. Receive a response to feedback or answers to questions over social media.
Recreation.gov does not frequently respond to customers comments or questions on its Facebook or Instagram pages. The service does not have a Twitter account.
4. Access online information and support in languages other than English.
Information on Recreation.gov is available only in English, other than some content about a site in Puerto Rico, which is available in Spanish.
Listening to Customers and Acting on Feedback
To understand and prioritize customer needs, agencies should collect, publish, analyze and act on feedback.
1. Collects meaningful customer experience data across interactions and service delivery channels and shares it with the public.
Recreation.gov collects and publicly shares customer experience data for its services in line with OMB guidance.
2. Collects and analyzes first-hand customer feedback to understand customers’ experiences, based on their own words.
Recreation.gov provides open-ended comment opportunities in its website and contact center surveys and uses various analytic methods to identify emerging themes and monitor trends in this feedback. Recreation.gov also monitors reviews on its mobile app, campsites and on social media.
3. Aggregates and analyzes customer feedback across channels and programs, and shares feedback with relevant staff members so they can act on it.
The Recreation.gov customer research team weekly relays findings to product teams and works with them to analyze the customer feedback and identify and implement solutions.