An online booking system for some Alaska State Park campgrounds and most of its cabins is getting an upgrade Jan. 1, decreasing most booking fees, making it easier to use on mobile phones and opening up a new assistance call center.
Currently the online booking system, hosted on Reserve America, allows users to book in advance the state’s public use cabins, including 20 in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, and reserve campsites at four campgrounds across the state — Finger Lake and K’esugi Ken in the Mat-Su, as well as Chena River near Fairbanks and Johnson Lake on the Kenai. Reservations can be made up to seven months in advance. Campsite reservations currently carry a $2 per-night booking fee, up to $8 per visit, while cabin reservations carry a flat booking fee of $8.05.
Now the reservation system is getting a functionality makeover, said Wendy Sailors, a state parks spokeswoman. State officials put out a request for proposals over the summer, a competitive process governed by state law that matches need with price point. The contract was ultimately again awarded to Aspira, which owns Reserve America.
“They met our request and came up with solutions for some of the things we had been working on for a while,” Sailors said.
Among the changes that kick-in Jan. 1, she said, are two upgrades addressing problems with the current system: customer support and cost.
Operated under a clearly labeled “Alaska brand” website, the contract provides a new customer support line and live-chat featured staffed by Alaskans employed by Aspira from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day, Sailors said. Right now users often turn to the state park’s already short-staffed for help. But the call center will give users a specific expert source for reservation problems or bookings, she said.
“The call center is going to take the place of needing to call the public information center and the offices, and hopefully take some of the heat off that,” she said.
The new system also comes with a price adjustment, knocking down the booking fee for cabin users, with an increase for those who book campsites. Rather than the $8.05 cabin and $2 per-night campsite fees currently in use, all reservations will carry a flat $5 booking fee.
When the online booking system was originally introduced for campsites in 2018, then-state parks director Ethan Tyler speculated that the campsite booking system would be especially popular with long haul RV users who didn’t want to chance not getting a day-of site at a state park campground.
Instead, Sailors said, between 80% and 90% of bookings are made by Alaskans even before the COVID-19 pandemic put a virtual stop to visitors from the lower-48 over last summer.
With that in mind, the system has a special focus on Alaskan users, she said, from both a branding and operability stand point. The new site will be easier to navigate, easier to find the Alaska state park offerings and even include a gift card option.
But just what can be booked on the site isn’t changing much for now, Sailors said. The online system is adding the multi-user popular Serenity Falls Hut near Eklutna Lake, currently only available through a paper application that can be emailed, faxed or mailed. But that’s it for new locations. Instead, the state will roll-in new campgrounds over the next four years, with just what is added dependent on buy-in from the region superintendents, she said.
The new system also does not fix a system compatibility issue that blocks the online program from syncing with the electronic reservation kiosks at the campgrounds. If the volunteer camp host has not manually placed reservation placards at sites reserved online or those placeholders are ignored or misunderstood, individual campsites can be easily double booked. That is unlikely to be addressed until after the contract operating those kiosks has ended in the next few years, Sailors said.