The company that won the contract to create a new reservation system for Minnesota's state parks made big promises, including "vastly improved functionality" at lower cost, and insisted it didn't have any dissatisfied customers.
But the new system from US eDirect Inc. crashed when it went live March 1, overwhelmed by more visitors in its first hour than it had been designed to handle in a full day. The failure frustrated Minnesotans looking to book their summer getaways and required a month to put right.
"It was like we were on the fast train to hell," recalled Courtland Nelson, director of the Parks and Trails Division of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Yet despite the early headaches, Nelson said the system has been working well since a beefed-up version became fully operational April 2. And the state is more likely to recoup some money from the vendor than lose any money from the rough launch.
Documents reviewed by The Associated Press under the state's Data Practices Act show US eDirect will earn almost all its money from fees charged to system users. That's projected to approach $600,000 this year.
Its contract was structured to minimize costs to the state, so the vendor has had to bear most of the costs of getting the system working. The DNR pays at most $175,000 for the three-year contract, which Nelson expects the state's share of fees to more than cover.
The state's contract allows it to withhold up to 10 percent of fee revenue pending a performance review at the end of each year. Nelson wouldn't predict how much the state might keep for its trouble.
"We have some things to work through," he said.
US eDirect outbid the previous reservation system provider in part by promising a system that would do more for less money, and the new system is clearly better. It offers campers much more information, whether they want to pitch a tent, park a trailer or rent a rustic cabin.
Users simply select a park, punch in the dates and type of site they want, and the system returns a chart of what's available on and around those dates. The user can also summon a map to perform a similar search.
When the user points the cursor at a specific campsite, a window pops up with a picture and a wealth of other information: the nightly rate, whether it's shady, how close it is to the water, even the exact number of feet to the nearest restroom. Click on the site and the reservation process begins.
The new system has taken more than 20,000 reservations online and by phone since it launched last month, a bit more than the old system took during the first four months of last year.
Nelson said publicity from the troubled launch may turn out to be good for business in the end, though the pleasant early spring has certainly contributed.
"We're a third ahead of where we were a year ago. My goodness, how did this happen with all we've been through?" Nelson said.
The system shows that many of the most popular state parks are almost fully booked for the Memorial Day weekend, but it's still relatively easy to find campsites around the Fourth of July and Labor Day. Most parks are still wide open for midweek dates all summer.
The DNR also holds back up to 30 percent of its campsites, renting them first-come, first-served for spur-of-the-moment trips.
When the reservation system contract came up for bids, Roslyn Heights, N.Y.-based US eDirect assured the DNR it could deliver on its promises for a better system, claiming more than 200 satisfied customers since the company started in 1999. It highlighted contracts with the U.S. Forest Service for the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area in Kentucky, and the parks departments in Suffolk County in New York, Miami-Dade County in Florida and the city of Los Angeles.
The three-year Minnesota contract has an option for a two-year renewal.
For campers, the new site has one more benefit that was just about worth waiting for: Booking a site or cabin online is $7, down from $8.50 under the previous vendor.
Reservations by phone still cost $8.50.