User and Community Preferences for Pricing Park Services: A Case Study
Keywords:Case study, pricing, public sector, parks, survey, focus groups
AbstractLike many public agencies, the Canadian Park Service faced dramatic cuts in operating budgets. Midway through the 1990s, the agency faced theloss of up to one third ofits operating resources over a three-year period. One response to these reductions was the contemplation of specific fee initiatives that were consistent with changing government policy. Before such initiatives were instituted, however, the Western region of the park service undertook an ambitious data-collection strategy to discover its clients' preferences and priorities for fees. The insights gathered from this strategy, and the agency's thoughtful response to these insights, are reported here. Though collected in the context of Canadian national parks, these insights are useful to any public agency contemplating fee changes.The agency first surveyed the general population and park users for their ideas and opinions. Their responses offer several insights regarding public perceptions offees. Though the general public generally agreed with the principle that users pay for specialized facilities, such as hiking trails or guided walks, the heaviest users were most in favor of a nominal fee charged to all users with no additional charge for specialized facilities. This finding suggests that the same pricing scheme may receive the support of some, while being rejected by others. There was general agreement, however, that fees were made more palatable when used to offset operating costs. A series of focus groups with repeat users and special interest groups was then arranged. Group members suggested that any attempt to raise fees should be predicated by efforts to rationalize costs. They also requested that promotional efforts be devoted to explaining anticipated pricing initiatives and to assisting potential users in getting the best value for their fees. Those who operate for profit operations (ie. tour operators) indicated that these promotions should be undertaken months before any changes to fees are instituted.Choice and convenience were of considerable interest to these users. They suggested that a variety of time-based passes be made available. Such passes, they suggested, should be available by the day, the week, the season, and annually. Differential fee programs also received support from the focus groups, suggesting that more popular activities might be priced at higher levels to decrease crowding (and increase revenue). Less popular sites, seasons, or activities could be priced at lower levels both to increase interest and to offer less expensive options to price-sensitive users. They indicated both a desire for and a willingness to pay extra for measures that would enhance convenience, i.e., a reliable reservation system.This case study also outlines the agency's efforts to respond to these suggestions. It was decided that all pricing initiatives would benefit from several allied measures designed to help users understand and adjust to those initiatives. In this case, measures were applied according to four guiding principles. First, it was recognized that response to fees may vary across user groups, so price options were considered an important aspect of any initiative. Second, it was decided that related communication should precede actual price increases. Depending upon the nature and extent of the fee initiative, such communication might offer justi£cation for a fee increase, outline the positive consequences of payment, or aid users in mal<ing fee-related choices.Third, staff resource levels and responsibilities were enlarged to ensure that user concerns could be solved by front-line staff. Finally, programs and procedures were to be made as "user friendly" as possible, as higher fee levels were introduced. Given these guidelines, new fee programs were planned according to several related criteria: (l) convenient and simple payment processes, (2) early notification of changes to fee programs, (3) choices/options in the type and level of price to be paid, (4) reliable delivery of promised services, and ( 5) flexibility in terms of staff response.
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