Fresh Tips for Running a Better Summer Camp Business — Sales and Marketing

by Daniel Zenkel

Like it or not, every summer camp — for-profit or nonprofit — is a business. A camp that does not respect and abide the most fundamental of business commandments, that the monies coming into the camp must equal or exceed those flowing out, will eventually fail. There are two sides to the equation, revenue — the money coming in, and expense — the money flowing out. This article focuses on the primary revenue driver — marketing. The following twelve tips are intended to help every camp improve its marketing, and thereby generate more revenue.

1. Exceed the Expectations of Current Campers and Camp Families
As Gary Forster, former YMCA of the USA camping specialist, has pointed out, "Camps are "inside-out marketers," i.e., suppliers of relationship-oriented experiences and personal services for which the most credible advertisements are personal endorsements from satisfied members." To create raving fans, who will give you those endorsements, you can't just meet expectations — you need to exceed them with the quality of your service, communication, and attention to every detail. Here are a couple of examples to illustrate how this can easily be done. On the first or second night of camp, telephone parents of first-time campers, and let them know that their child arrived safely and is doing well. Another example would be to call parents unexpectedly to let them know when their child has done something noteworthy. The good will generated by exceeding expectations
is well worth the time expended.

2. Know Your Competition
Identify the three to six camps with whom you most frequently compete. Objectively compare them to your own — comparing every aspect of your camp with each competitor. What makes your camp unique? Where do you offer advanced or enhanced programming? Knowing where your strengths are can assist you when you meet a prospect who is also considering one of your competitors. Without referencing the competitor, highlight the areas in which you surpass that competitor. For example, if your day camp offers air-conditioned buses, and the competition does not, highlight your air-conditioned buses. Emphasize the favorable comparisons in all aspects of your marketing, including your brochures and Web site.

3. Plan Camp Tours From Start to Finish
When it comes to tours, leave nothing to chance. Plan the greeting, the tour guide's appearance, subjects to be addressed proactively, camper and staff interactions, and, of course, the route. Every tour guide should be trained to follow the plan. Be sure that the plan addresses the following:

  • First Impressions — Control first impressions. Be sure that the initial contact or greeter for camp tours provides prospective families with a sense of security and professionalism. Make sure the greeter is easily identified as camp staff by a uniform or camp shirt. Have him or her competently check names and confirm arrivals and tour times. Make families feel warmly welcomed, while at the same time, make them feel as though this is an acceptable place to leave their children. This message needs to be consistently conveyed throughout the greeting area. For example, if you provide refreshments (recommended), be sure that healthy options and not junk food and high-calorie sodas are available.
  • Preempt "Hot Button" Issues — Certain topics are always on a family's mind, whether verbalized or not. Don't wait for these "hot button" topics to surface. Address them head-on. For example, most prospective day camp families are concerned about transportation. Raise the issue by saying something like, "Let's talk about transportation." Most overnight camp families are concerned about separation issues. Discuss how the camp handles homesickness and related issues.
  • Show Off Your Camp — The tour route should show off busy areas that always look great. If you want to show a bunk, show the newest one or one that wins inspection every week. Of course, don't hide anything. If a family asks to see something, show it to them. But don't ever purposefully show off an eyesore.
  • Let the Camp Speak for Itself — Today's families want to observe and form their own opinions. Let them. Once you've determined what they will see, don't tell them what they should be thinking or feed them conclusions such as, "We are the best at ___." Let them observe how you, your campers, and staff interact. Augment their observations with information that they cannot gather on their own.
  • Encourage Interaction With Campers and Staff — Stop and talk to campers and staff, particularly those who request your attention. This communicates that your campers take precedence over your marketing efforts. Also, encourage your visitors to interact with, and question, campers and staff. Don't worry about the answers. Camper and staff members will not purposely embarrass a tour guide.
     
  • Follow Up — Send every tour participant a handwritten, thank-you note expressing your delight at meeting them and offering to answer any additional questions or concerns.
     
  • Measure and Adjust — Track each tour guide's enrollment rate and adjust your tours accordingly. If one tour guide converts 75 percent of his or her tours, and another converts 25 percent, assign the former as many tours as possible. Check enrollment percentages on various tour dates. Determine if you are more likely to enroll campers who toured on weekends or weekdays, on regular program days or special days. Adjust accordingly.

4. Embrace Parent Visitation as a Great Marketing Opportunity
Most camps have some form of parent visitation, whether a drop-off or pick-up day, an end-of-session or evening interactive program, or a mid-session "visiting day." Some camp directors consider visiting day a chore and can't wait for it to end, anticipating parent complaints and fearing an inability to remember names. While certainly stressful, parent visitation is also the single best opportunity for positive, face-to-face contact with camp families. Apart from a pre-enrollment tour or an in-home visit, parent visitation is the camp's only opportunity to see parents, and can be one of your best marketing tools — impressing camp families and fostering positive word-of-mouth. Here are some ways to make the most of this marketing opportunity.

  • According to Dale Carnegie's seminal work, How to Win Friends and Influence People, a person's name is, to that person, the most beautiful sound in the world. Unfortunately, not even the greatest memory wiz can remember every parent's name. Make this a non-issue by having your staff hand out nametags or badges showing each visitor's first and last name, their child's name, and the child's group.
  • Organize camp or group-wide activities to avoid the most common visiting day complaint — too much downtime. Schedule camper performances, a campfire, a camp meeting, or camp sing. Determine how you can put your best foot forward. Then do it.
  • Plan creatively. The old "visiting day" plan was to run a regular schedule and require parents to follow their child from activity to activity. This had two unintended results — bored parents and kids who skipped classes, leaving them sparsely attended and unimpressive. Try something different. Treat visiting day like a new special event. Think out of the box and come up with ways to impress your parents not simply tolerate them. For example, plan fun events that encourage parents to participate, such as relay races or lip synching contests.
  • Park the cars out of view. Camps with limited parking often stuff cars into every available nook and cranny making the campus look like a giant tailgate party. Park cars in an out-of-the-way spot or off-site so that your families experience the same scenery as their children. If necessary, provide a shuttle to and from the campus.
  • Don't let parents or grandparents come and go as they please. Open visitation has two consequences. First, the camp loses control over the experience. Second, the frequent visiting interferes with the camp program.

5. The Bus to Camp Is Your First Impression; Make It Good
Marketing professionals agree that first and last impressions are the most impactful. The first bus ride to camp, whether to day or overnight camp, is hugely important, particularly for first-time campers. Here are some tips for improving the quality of the bus ride to resident camp, some of which also apply to the initial day camp bus ride.

  • Communicate with parents before the summer introducing the bus leader.
     
  • Choose bus counselors who are friendly and outgoing. Make sure your bus counselors wear name tags and introduce themselves to every camp family.
     
  • Provide the bus leader with a list of new campers and make sure they receive special attention.
     
  • Assign seats. The most common, precamp fear of both first-time and long-time campers is being without a seat mate. Don't let that be an option.
     
  • All camp buses should have at least one sign displaying the camp's name. The signs should be professional (not scrawled by hand) and should include the camp name and logo.
     
  • Bring umbrellas if the weather forecast shows a chance of rain.
     
  • Camp staff should wear camp logoed clothing and nametags. They should tuck in their shirts and wear proper footwear — sneakers or shoes,
    no flip flops.
     
  • Give every camper a name tag when she arrives. Name tags can be used to check in campers.
     
  • Don't assign a nurse to collect meds and oversee the bus. One person can't do both.
     
  • Depart on time. Camp families should be rewarded for arriving on time, not punished because stragglers arrive late. If you are uncomfortable leaving stragglers to make their own way up to camp, send an extra van.

Let parents know before camp that you will follow these protocols. This will ease their anxiety and increase their confidence in your camp.

6. The Bus Ride Home
Apart from a safe arrival, the most important aspect of the bus ride home is the timing of the arrival. Imagine a parent's frustration upon arriving at the specified time only to learn that the bus arrived thirty minutes earlier or will be forty-five minutes late. Camps can avoid this scenario by maintaining ongoing contact with drivers, and periodically updating camp families, via e-mail, text message, and cell phone. Not only will parents arrive on time, they will perceive the camp to be "on top" of things.

7. Give Camp Families Something to Talk About
"How are the kids?" is one of the most common conversation starters. Unfortunately, beyond the fact that "[name of child] is ‘doing great' at Camp in [name of state]," parents have little information with which to formulate a response. They hear little or nothing from their kids, most of whom abhor letter writing. Camps are left to fill the void and should do so using every means at their disposal to communicate with parents about all the great happenings at camp. Day camps should send home daily or weekly newsletters. Overnight camps should post frequent, online newsletters using the tools available through the online camp management software or photo posting services.

8. Cultivate Your Alumni
It is difficult to convince today's parents to value the "relationship skills," "healthy risk taking," and "life lessons" that are at the core of the traditional summer camp experience. Most parents today prefer that their children use the summer to achieve some concrete benefit by focusing on a favored sport or area of special interest. While ACA works to adjust these perceptions,
camps with empty beds should focus their recruiting efforts on the one constituency already sold on the merits of their camp — the camp's alumni. Most nonprofit camps already cultivate their alumni for fund-raising purposes; however, too many others, of all types, either ignore their alumni or pay them little heed. A strong alumni outreach program generates new campers. Find your alumni, reach out to them, and cultivate them.

Alumni outreach should follow a simple, logical progression. First, identify a diligent, persistent and meticulous person to spearhead the effort. Most camps have a twenty-something "lifer" who wants to be involved with camp year-round. Hire him or her, or someone else, at a modest, part-time wage and empower them to gather information, write alumni newsletters, moderate alumni chat rooms on Facebook or other social networking sites, and act as the main alumni contact.

Second, select and activate an alumni database. Use the alumni module in your camp's software package or license a standalone program. Next, create an alumni page on your Web site and link that page to your alumni database. Then, find every alumni name you can. Check cabin graffiti, old yearbooks, prior owners or directors, old photos, and any other source you can identify. Enter the names and any other person-specific information you've gathered in your database. Send out periodic mailings and e-mails inviting alumni to register in your alumni database. Entice them with interesting news and notes. Every outreach effort will generate activity on your alumni Web site, so make the contacts frequent. Celebrate anniversaries, new buildings, dedications, retirements, anything of significance to alumni. Once you've established a large contact list, start organizing reunions, gatherings, and an alumni scholarship fund. Alumni and their friends will eventually begin to contact you to discuss enrolling their children in your camp.

9. Attend to, Maintain, Optimize, and Advertise Your Web Site
Apart from the quality of the camp experience you provide, and the positive buzz that generates, your Web site is your most important marketing tool. Almost every prospect visits your Web site at some point during the sales process. It's the first place a parent will go after hearing raves from a friend or co-worker. If your Web site is disappointing, you've jeopardized a sales opportunity. For guidance on the look and feel of your Web site, hire a designer, read the many excellent publications on camp Web site design, or do both. In addition, make sure to keep your Web content current. Avoid the embarrassment of showing last year's dates, tuition rates, and information.

Once you have a current, well-designed site, it's important to drive traffic and prospective families to the site. Do this in several ways. First, make your Web address part of your identity. Put it on your letterhead, newsletters, e-mails, office door, and, especially, in your advertising.

Second, analyze the paid directories (KidsCamps, mysummercamps, camppage, etc.) and advertise on the ones that best meet your needs. List the ten or twenty search queries that prospects use to find your camp and enter the queries on the Google search engine. For example, if you run a Christian-based sports camp for boys in Oklahoma, type "Christian boys sports camp Oklahoma" in the Google search bar. Print out the top ten search results for each query. Determine which directories appear most frequently at the top of the Google search results. Only advertise on the highest rated directories and search engines — i.e., Google. More than 80 percent of all camp-related searches are done via Google.

Third, analyze your own Web site's Google search rankings for the same, commonly used terms. Determine your rank for terms likely to bring you qualified prospects. Focus on narrow, targeted terms and not broad, general terms like "summer camp" or "camp." Then, optimize your Web site for the terms that are likely to bring you strong prospects. If you can afford to, hire a Web optimization firm to get your camp onto the first page of your preferred free searches. Purchase the appropriate Google AdWords. If you are unfamiliar with AdWords, speak with a Google sales representative.

10. Measure and Analyze the Effectiveness of Your Marketing Efforts
Always ask prospective camp families how they found you — and track their answers. Calculate how many leads and enrolled campers generated from each source. Adjust your marketing accordingly. For example, if one Internet ad costs $850 and generates twenty leads and no campers, and another costs $250 and generates fifty leads and five campers, eliminate the costlier ad, and purchase a larger ad on the other site.

11. Use the Funnel Approach
Great organizations, including camps, differentiate with whom they work. Analyze prospects on a variety of criteria — home state, referral source, and alumni connections, family composition (e.g., all boys, boys and girls) — and determine which are more likely to enroll. Treat all prospects well, but give priority to the highest rated. For example, your best tour guide should accompany your highest rated prospects on tour.

12. Eliminate Fracture Points from the Sales Process
The sales process "fractures" when you lose touch with a prospective customer after a contact. Strive to maintain continuous contact with every prospect until they either enroll or go elsewhere. Highlighted below are several, common fracture points and ways to eliminate them.

  • The sales process fractures when a prospect first calls and reaches an answering machine. Eliminate this fracture point by answering the phone. If you leave your office, transfer your calls to a cell phone. If you go on vacation, transfer your calls to your assistant. Answer calls at night. If you are not able to talk, take a number and arrange for a call-back time. The same goes for your e-mails. Check them and respond promptly.
     
  • Quick follow-up is essential. Don't wait more than a day or two to call after sending a brochure. Avoid appearing nonresponsive, particularly when others call right away and try to take the prospect off the market. Likewise, follow up quickly after the camp tour. Don't wait for summer to end and let the prospect sign on at another camp in the interim.
     
  • The re-enrollment application can also fracture the sales process. Returning families often "sit on" the application because they don't want to take the time to complete it. Eliminate this fracture point by offering online registration, which enables a returning family to re-enroll using a pre-populated, online form.

Editor's Note: Tips for Running a Better Camp Business appeared in the 2006 September/October Camping Magazine. Additional tips from Zenkel will be featured in the 2010 March/April Camping Magazine. Archived issues of Camping Magazine and subsequent articles may be found on ACA's Web site at www.ACAcamps.org/campmag/.

Originally published in the 2009 November/December issue of Camping Magazine.

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