Ticketmaster sets up camp
By JULIE HAUSERMAN, Times Staff Writer
TALLAHASSEE -- If you want to pitch a tent at a state park, you now have to deal with Ticketmaster, the company whose business practices are under investigation by the state attorney general.
The state has hired Ticketmaster to book state park campsites, a deal worth hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to the company. Campers have new fees to pay, but the state hopes improved service will be worth the price.
State park officials say Ticketmaster will help boost attendance and free park rangers to spend more time concentrating on natural resources and less time answering phones. Sometimes, they say, campers had trouble reaching busy rangers to make a reservation.
For the first time, campers will have to pay a fee to change or cancel reservations. But they can now make one call to book campsites at all Florida parks, rather than calling each one, and they can pick the sites from new campground maps on the Internet.
Ticketmaster comes with a reputation: The company has long been criticized for its extra charges and frustrating phone waits. Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth is investigating complaints from people who say they called Ticketmaster to get tickets, paid with a credit card and later got charged for magazines they didn't order. A class-action suit is also pending.
Officials at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which runs the parks, say campers' credit card numbers will remain confidential when they reserve a spot at a state park.
"They are not allowed to sell other products when they get the customer on the phone," said John Baust, director of operational services for the state parks. "They are not allowed to sell our data or share it in any way without our expressed written consent."
The DEP had been searching for a company to handle camping reservations for nearly a decade, Baust said. This summer, the state settled on ReserveAmerica, a Canadian company that Ticketmaster bought last spring. ReserveAmerica handles campground reservations in a dozen states.
Ticketmaster will make money on the arrangement in two ways: When campers pay charges to change or cancel reservations, the money goes to Ticketmaster, not to the Florida parks. And the state will pay Ticketmaster $8.50 for every reservation. Taxpayers could end up paying Ticketmaster about $865,000 a year.
"Basically, the more reservations they make, the more money they get," said John Reynolds, who oversees the Ticketmaster contract for the DEP.
Boosting reservations also will generate more money for state parks, he said.
But if the state is forced to close parks when a hurricane looms, Ticketmaster will be paid $10 for each canceled reservation, which could total thousands of dollars, depending on how many campsites are closed and for how long.
That raised eyebrows at the DEP.
"If the east coast of Florida is impacted by a storm threat, this can result in a large financial impact on the department for payment of fees," DEP contract watchdog Gwenn Godfrey warned parks officials in an e-mail a few days before the state signed a contract with Ticketmaster.
The parks department proceeded anyway.
A day later, Godfrey wrote: "The financial risks we face still remain a concern. However, I feel that I have done everything I can to bring the potential risks to your attention for consideration. You have chosen to look beyond those risks and continue with the agreement as originally envisioned. I hope that this agreement proves to be a financial success for the Department!"
Baust said the contract was carefully reviewed. "I know of no other change in my 29 years with the state parks that was researched as much as this," he said.
The DEP didn't advertise the new Ticketmaster system much. Last month, when people called state parks to reserve a campsite, they were suddenly referred to the new number: 1-800-326-3521. Operators in Orlando (or in New York, if Orlando is too busy) answer the line and make the reservation.
Already, the state has been getting complaints.
The St. Petersburg Times made several attempts to reserve cabins and campsites this month and had problems. An operator in New York said a cabin in the Panhandle's Grayton Beach State Park was $45 a night, when the actual price is $85 a night. A Friday afternoon call to the park to get a cabin for the weekend was rebuffed. Under the new system, reservations must be made at least 48 hours in advance, and phone reservations must be made through a Ticketmaster operator. Still, you can take a chance and show up at a campsite without going through Ticketmaster.
"It looks like we have plenty of room, but we can't take reservations," Grayton Beach park volunteer Joan Barwick said. "It's kind of crazy."
The Internet listings, which are supposed to let campers know when campsites or cabins are available, are confusing. Even the parks staff in Tallahassee had a hard time explaining the codes that are supposed to show which sites are available and which are booked.
Parks officials say they hope to work out the problems during the next few months.
"Every day, it gets better and better," said Baust.
For the first time, he said, operators will be able to "cross-sell" Florida parks, referring campers to another park if their first choice campground is full. And Ticketmaster has agreed to help market the Florida parks, which suffer from low attendance. The state's contract says Ticketmaster will use its parent company, USA Networks, to promote Florida parks.
"We're running at about a 40 percent occupancy rate in camping, so we're looking at about 60 percent of our inventory unused," Baust said. "We think this is a huge step forward for citizens and campers."
But at Hillsborough River State Park in Thonotosassa, the new Ticketmaster system is the No. 1 complaint, said park volunteer George Southworth of Richmond, Va.
"There's a lot of concern around here, a lot of gnashing of teeth," Southworth said.
For Tallahassee camper Rich Templin, 33, the arrival of Ticketmaster is one more way that Florida is becoming homogenized.
"In the old days, you were able to talk to the park ranger, who could give you hints about the park and the campsites," Templin said. "Now, when you make a reservation, you're talking to some voice out there in the ether."
-- Staff writer Ryan Maldonado contributed to this report.
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From the Times state desk
From the state wire