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Recently, a new camp director asked me for some thoughts on marketing a shiny, new summer camp.  I started writing a paragraph and wound up with a novel.  So, I did what any self-respecting camp director and blogger would do – I broke it into 3 parts.  For you, dear reader, this means you can eat the elephant one bite at a time.  For me, it means I get three posts for the price of one!

Tomorrow we’ll begin the series with Part 1:  Marketing Summer Camp Without (a lot of) Money.  Before we launch, I wanted to share a few disclaimers.

Disclaimers:

  1. No amount of marketing can fix a broken program, run-down facility, or poor customer service.  Fix these things first.
  2. Use high touch as well as high tech.  Commit to getting out of camp and meeting people.  Whenever feasible, bring people to your site to interact with you and your staff.  Use high tech marketing to promote your appearances and camp events (e-blasts, FB Ads or Invites, online ads and listings).
  3. Know your camp’s strengths and what makes your program unique.  Being able to distinguish yourself from the pack is critical.
  4. Know your target market and the demographics of your current campers.  This will guide you as you decide how to spend your precious marketing dollars.
  5. Every camping guru will tell you that word of mouth is the holy grail of marketing.  Your task is to determine how to nurture and encourage this form of camper recruitment.  Again, knowing the demographics of your camper family populations is crucial.
  6. No one has ever decided to be a camping or recreation professional because they were great at marketing.  When you’re putting together your program’s marketing calendar, ask for a second opinion, and then get a third.  Make sure these opinions come from someone with some expertise in sales or marketing.
  7. I am not a marketing guru, graphic designer, web developer, or sales genius.  I am just a camp guy.  I’m not sayin’ – I’m just sayin’ . . . .

Don’t Gamble!  In my experience, marketing is both an art and a science.  More often than not, we lean on the art rather than the science.  As Jim Collins made clear in Great By Choice, great efforts in business were rarely a moment of pure insight or innovation.  Rather, successful enterprises used empirical research to guide them to that success.  Another good point by Mr. Collins involved the notion of firing bullets before cannonballs.  In marketing, this might mean you try a particular promotion in a limited launch to determine its efficacy before committing all your resources to it.  Move quickly.  Be innovative.  But more importantly, be smart.

Finally, I’d like to share my favorite quote of the week.  “Do something. If it works, do more of it. If it doesn’t, do something else.”  This advice comes from Franklin D. Roosevelt and it has served me well in marketing.

We’ll see you at Camp!

Nathan

For more information on Nathan’s programs, YMCA Camp Conrad Weiser and Bynden Wood, visit the South Mountain YMCA Camps’ website at www.smymca.org.

Unlike many of my posts, this one is not for parents – this one is for summer camp professionals.  If you are a camp professional (or just a parent who wants a look behind the curtain), read on!

Last week, I wrote about a balanced approach to summer camp recruitment.  This week we’re going to look at summer camper retention.  As such, it’s time to share my retention mantra with you –  in rank order of importance:

  • Run a good summer camp program, one that engages a camper’s interest and provides a progression he or she can build upon in future summers.
  • Hire a good summer camp staff with young people that campers can look up to and that parents hope their children grow up to be like.
  • Ensure that every camper leaves having formed at least 1 friendship.

“But wait!” you say, “Summer is over.  Do you mean we can’t do anything about retention until next year.”  Don’t fret.    I gave you the most important factors in summer camp retention first.  The list rolls on:

  • Make a pledge to contact every camp family at least once a month.  If you haven’t done it already, send out summer camp evaluations to kids and parents.  Send birthday and holiday cards.  Utilize an email service like Constant Contact each month to update campers and families about happenings at Camp.  Use Facebook.  Use Twitter.  Use the social networking sites and methods you and your organization are most comfortable with.
  • Run year-round programs intended to keep the camp community strong.  Hold a summer camp reunion – at your site or a location that is central for your campers.  If you’re a camp that utilizes campfairs throughout the winter for camper recruitment, combine those camp appearances with reunion events.  Do the same thing for your camp staff and alumni!
  • Personally call every camp family once during the winter.  I am willing to bet you think of your campers and their parents as family.  Well, treat them like family!  Drop them a line every once and while to see how things are going.  This is easily the most intimidating of the potential retention efforts you could employ – but it has the greatest potential pay-off.  Just like a donor begins to resent the fundraiser who only calls when they are asking for money, a camp family can begin to doubt the sincerity of your “camp family” if you only call them to remind them to register.
  • Develop a strategy for returning summer camp counselors to reach out to their campers and invite them to return.  Who is the best person to remind your campers about the fun they had last summer?  I am going to go out on a limb and say that it is the their camp counselors.  Have you summer camp counselors sign the holiday cards.  Have your summer camp counselors man the phones and encourage last year’s campers to re-register.

Conclusion

I hope I’ve given you something to think about as you plan your marketing efforts for next year.   Building the camp community doesn’t end on September 1st, it just changes the methods you use to build that community.

If you’re hungry for more, check out Dave Bell’s marketing article in Camp Business entitled “Small is the New Big.”  You can find it at http://www.camp-business.com/articles/cb/small-is-the-new-big.

We’ll see you at Camp!

Nathan

Unlike many of my posts, this one is not for parents – this one is for summer camp professionals.  If you are a camp professional (or just a parent who wants a look behind the curtain), read on!

Tis the season to start planning summer camper recruitment for next year.  As such, I want to share my recruitment mantra with you –  in rank order of importance:

  1. Bring Families to Camp (High Touch)
  2. Take Camp to Families (High Touch)
  3. Use the Vast Digital Billboard (High Tech)

Bring Families to Camp

I did not write “bring kids to camp” (they aren’t the decision-makers), and it is no accident I didn’t write “bring parents to camp,” (they won’t pay the deposit without knowing their child is very interested).  Bring Families to Camp!  I’ll bet it even fits your mission.  Throw free events like Spring and Fall Festivals!  Hold Community or Family Fun Days!  Heck, if you’re looking for revenue streams, run more Family Camp Weekends.  The point is, get families to camp.

Bringing a family to camp allows:

  • Parents to get comfortable with your facility – and the drive to reach it.
  • Parents see their kids interacting with your staff.
  • Parents interact with your staff

You can’t pay for this sort of promotion and recruitment – which is why these events should be free!  I want to stress, these are not Open Houses.  The traditional Open House Event is a tour of camp and a sales pitch.  I am suggesting you bring families to camp, let them play, and let camp sell itself.

Of course, some of our camps are too remote to make good use of all of these events, but don’t let your location be an excuse.

Take Camp to Families 

Many camps utilize Camp Fairs as their sole opportunity to personally interact with families interested in learning about summer programs.  If you have the budget to pay the registration fees, staff time, and travel – good for you.  But don’t let that be the full extent of your outreach efforts.

Where does your camp traditionally recruit well from?  Make a list of those locations.  Then, starting in September, attend “Back to School Nights,” community fairs and festivals, etc.  At each appearance, do something fun with kids – don’t just show up with brochures or dvds.

If you are an independent or private camp, you probably lack storefront locations.  So, identify places that can serve as your storefront.  Starting in December and January, ask libraries if you can hold camp information nights (and then promote those nights online).  Ask a restaurant.  Ask a  college.  Make sure there is adequate parking at whatever location you choose – and make sure families are comfortable going there.

Use the Vast Digital Billboard

If you’re reading this post, you are already using technology to better your camp and its recruitment efforts.  I bet you are placing Facebook or Google ads.  Well done.  If not, let me try and sell you on why you should be.

In the old days, we used newspaper/magazine ads, phone books, cable spots and billboards to raise the awareness of our programs.  The problem is, very few of these efforts were easily quantifiable.  Quite often, it felt like we were shelling out a lot of cash for very little return.  Online ads answer this particular concern.

With an online ad, a potential camp parent can click your ad and follow it to your website.  Try doing that with the Sunday paper.  Not only that, if you are cheap like me, you can choose to pay only when someone actually “clicks through” to your website.  A million people may see your ad before someone follows it to your site, but you only pay for that single referral.  There’s a lot to love about pay-per-click advertising.

If you’re watching your pennies, I recommend you put your money into search engine ads (ex. Google or Bing) before you invest in ads on social networking sites.  Your ad will be more effective if it is shown to people who are already searching for summer camp.

A final word about online ads.  Your first inclination will be to promote your summer camp program this way.  May I recommend using it year-round to promote your efforts to bring families to camp and to take camp to families?

Of course, all the online ads in the world will not make a difference it your website is awful or the person answering your phones is rude.  Make sure you are ready for the calls and web visits.

Conclusion

I hope I’ve given you something to think about as you plan your marketing efforts for next year.   As your looking at your calendar, give priority to those efforts that put you in front of both kids and parents.  Work to bring families to camp.  Use online marketing to promote your summer camp – but also to encourage families to come to your facility or other camp events in their region.

Stay tuned for thoughts on Camper Retention!

If you’re hungry for more, check out Dave Bell’s marketing article in Camp Business entitled “Small is the New Big.”  You can find it at http://www.camp-business.com/articles/cb/small-is-the-new-big.

We’ll see you at Camp!

Nathan