Do you ever get caught with your camp director “blinders” on? It can be easy to get stuck working in the day-to-day of camp and forget to work on the business of actually growing your camp.
Camp directors have 1,0o1 things to do throughout the year, and once camp lets out the duties don't stop. From marketing to operations, early-bird registrations to running the gauntlet of enrollment...before you can blink, camp is back in full swing. The endless to-do list, unfortunately, can prevent directors from seeing (and learning) from neighbors in the camp industry. And over time, it can result in being left behind.
When it comes to the camp industry, a rising tide carries all ships - and our camp-contemporaries can teach us a lot.
So every once in a while, take those blinders off. An afternoon of market research can produce fruitful aha! moments, giving you new strategies to approach marketing, programming, and camp management.
Which strategies are we noticing that you simply shouldn’t ignore? Read on.
1. Carve Out Your Unique Niche
Are you a sports camp? Adventure camp? Traditional sleepaway camp? What makes your camp different? Whether you’re launching a new camp or brainstorming new programming ideas, you need to find a way to differentiate yourself, because in today's world there’s a camp for just about everything. Heck, kids can even learn to be Hollywood stuntpeople these days.
By finding a niche that’s underserved, your camp can build excitement, create unique experiences, and truly differentiate itself.
Look at Plantation Farm Camp in Sonoma, CA. Here, campers are encouraged to get back to the land, unplug, and play a part in tending a working farm throughout the summer. That’s right - they spend summer learning to care for livestock, grow vegetables, and manage soil and water. And every morning, campers wake up and do their morning camp chores. Of course, Farm Camp offers many traditional camp activities, but they certainly offer a uniqueness that can’t be replicated.
2. Cultivate Community Partnerships
Strategic partnerships can help you grow your reach, expand your programming opportunities, and share resources with other camps and community organizations. And partnership forming is something many rec management professionals are doing; according to a survey from Rec Management magazine, 87 percent say they seek out partnerships.
Here’s an example: Dexter Southfield, a campus of 10 camps in Brookline, MA, partners with Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. The partnership allows the camp to offer unique programming and learning opportunities. For example, Dexter Southfield campers can participate in a student docent program at the museum, learning from museum pros about the arts. Plus, the partnership allows campers and staff to take field trips throughout the summer and explore.
Forming strategic partnerships can instantly help your camp to grow its offerings – and work with local companies and nonprofits to create unique opportunities for your campers.
3. Empower Campers with Service Learning
Great camps inspire campers to get involved in their communities and give back. Camp service learning projects are the perfect spark.
A community service project can help campers cultivate positivity and empathy while making a lasting impact. Projects like food drives, community beautification works, or fundraisers can all help you grow your camp’s sense of philanthropy.
For example, the TLC Family of Camps, which runs three day camps and three residential camps in NY and PA, encourages campers to give back during camper-organized swim-a-thons. These events raise funds and awareness for Project Morry, an organization that provides camp scholarships to underprivileged youth.
4. Help Your Campers Unplug with Mindfulness
Camp is all about unplugging and unwinding -- and that’s why activities like meditation and yoga make the perfect camp companion.
Not only can they help campers relax, but campers can learn how to use these skills for the rest of their lives.
Many camps today are making mindfulness a key part of their programming and camp culture. For instance, Camp Louise for Girls, in Cascade, MD, brings a children’s yoga instructor on-site to help campers learn how to tame their anxiety and really let go at camp.
5. Get Campers Excited About Healthy Eating
“What’s the food like?” You hear a variation of this question probably a million times each year. Many camps have focused on their menus to ensure the answer is “Healthy and kid-approved.”
These days, camps across the country aren’t just settling for standard camp fare. Goodbye bug juice – and hello fresh squeezed apple juice. But the best camps aren’t just putting healthier fare on the menu; they’re using the mess hall to teach nutrition.
A few ideas: Incorporate nutrition into your camp’s culture. Show your counselors how they can model healthy eating and explain to campers the importance of fueling up with the right foods.
6. Build Community Beyond Summer
The hardest part of camp is saying goodbye. No one wants to leave after the last campfire. To address the pangs of camp withdrawal, many camps are coming up with year-round solutions.
Camps around the country have started offering off-season programming, special events, and retreats to keep alumni excited and grow camper retention numbers.
Green Family Camp, in Bruceville, TX, for instance, hosts events every single month of the year – including family fun days and parties for its high school and middle school campers.
7. Grow Your Camp’s Community with Social Media
Social media isn’t just great for advertising – it’s also a powerful tool for starting a conversation with your audience. In fact, the right use of social media can help you get people talking, build your camp community, and attract new audiences to your message.
In particular, focus on Instagram and Facebook.
Instagram is the perfect medium for camps – empowering them to broadcast vibrant photos that showcase their camp’s uniqueness. And Facebook is a powerful tool for marketing your messages. You can create groups on Facebook for alumni, staff, or camp parents which will help you reach more people.
A few ideas: Choose a hashtag for your camp. This helps parents, alumni, and campers more easily join in the conversation. Also, look to your competitors to see how they’re utilizing platforms. What type of pictures are they sharing? Besides pictures, what other types of media are they sharing?
Video, for instance, is one of the most engaging types of multimedia your camp can use. Check in with your competitors to get ideas for using video to tell your camp’s story.
8. Embrace Digital Marketing
Looking to move beyond a healthy social media presence? Digital marketing is where it's about more than posting to Facebook or Instagram.
In fact, the right digital marketing strategy can maximize your reach. So learn to embrace the entire connected digital marketing ecosystem: Email campaigns, social media, digital display, retargeting, pay-per-click, social media ads, online directory listings, and a connected infrastructure to track and manage it all (watch out for more posts explaining the details of building a connected camp-marketing infrastructure!).
What can you do right now to get some cues? Take a look at what your competitors are doing.
Do a Google search for camps as a parent might; for example, you might search “Overnight camps in New Jersey.” What do you see? Are your competitors using PPC ads to grow their reach? Check in with your competitors' social media accounts to gain ideas for the frequency of your posts, what types of content gains traction, etc.
Without the right background, digital advertising can be a challenge. So if it’s in the budget, you might want to bring on a specialist who can help you maximize your marketing spend. Let us know if so, and we're happy to make some recommendations.
9. Push Your Data into the Cloud
Technology can help your camp work smarter, be more nimble, and help you automate many menial office tasks. Take, for instance, camp management software. Most of today’s camp management platforms are cloud-based. You access the software by logging into an online account. And your data is hosted in the cloud.
That means you can access your data from anywhere, as long as you have a Wi-Fi connection. Plus, since the software developer provides cloud storage to its users, they’re responsible for data security and storage.
Each year, more and more camps are turning to cloud and online camp softwares to support registration, camper and alumni records management, fundraising support, payment processing, and health record management.
10. Integrate Academics Into Your Programming
Summer camp is supposed to be all about fun – anything but schoolwork, right? Well, it seems more and more camps are willing to break, or at least bend, this rule.
Across the country, many camps are integrating fun (albeit academic) learning into their programming. From STEM camps to coding and robotics camps – the new wave of academic camps is here to stay, pulling us into the future.
For example, 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy – a Boston area camp – provides hands-on, immersive science and technology learning throughout the summer. Campers can explore a range of learning programs including Java Programming, Video Game Design, biology, and forensics. Of course, the focus is on academics with a healthy dose of camp fun.
Offseason Brainstorming: Start with Competitor Research
After the last camper goes home each season, you can take a break to stop being in the day-to-day and start thinking about the future. And your competitors are valuable sources of information.
Remember, though - your job shouldn’t be to compare. Instead, your focus should be to learn and identify opportunities.
Take some of these cues to explore what other camps are doing. And then, use that to brainstorm ideas that fit into your camp’s budget and your staff's expertise. Plus, this research will provide deeper insights into what makes your camp unique – which you can then use to refine your marketing plan and to tell your story.
In other words, every once in a while, take those camp director blinders off and take a look around... you’ll be in a better place to see opportunities.