Marketing Matters: Deciding Who Decides

by Steve Cony

A resident camp recently conducted research to learn how families approached the process of selecting a camp. Specifically, the camp wanted to know more about how their prospects considered the materials the camp had sent to their homes and how the final decisions were made. The result is another strong confirmation of how important it is for camps to respond to the realities of the marketplace.

When asked who in the family had more than half of the total influence on the decision for a first-time resident camp experience, the majority said it was the child. Only one out of eighteen parents took total responsibility for the choice, explaining to her child that, “Mom understands the importance of this and wants to make the best decision possible for you.”

In many cases, the parent was willing to admit — sometimes with not a small amount of shame — that the child made the entire decision all by himself or herself. One parent responded, “I sent my child into the other room with a stack of videos and told her to decide which one she liked best. That was how we did it.” When asked whether she agreed with her son’s choice, based upon her own viewing of the videos, one mother divulged that she had not even bothered to look at them.

Lessons Learned

Camp professionals can learn much from these findings:

  • The camp decision process continues to be complex, with many different factors converging on both parents and children.
  • Families receive various configurations of print materials and videos, plus they occasionally visit Web sites, but videos are still the most important factors in their decisions.
  • When Web sites are visited, it is usually by a parent alone or a child alone. They seldom view the site together.
  • Home visits by camp owners or directors are appreciated, but phone calls with those same people are considered equally helpful.
  • When families receive packages from several camps and then visit Web sites, the overall effect is often one of confusion.
  • Sometimes the confusion even causes parents to beat a hasty retreat by forestalling the decision and not sending the child to camp in the intended year. (“I just couldn’t deal with it all, so we’ve just put it all off until next year.”)

Responding Effectively

Camps can respond effectively to these situation by carefully considering the following:

  • Make your message memorable by finding your unique point of difference versus competitors, and you will serve the information needs of many families who are looking for ways to cope with the reported “sameness” of camp marketing materials.
  • Place primary emphasis on developing a video that looks different from other camp video presentations.
    n Spend as much time as you can afford on the phone with parents, answering all their questions, listening to them, and assisting them with this often daunting process.
  • When on the phone or when making home visits, do all you can to establish yourself as a memorable personality.
  • Incorporate ACA’s “World of Good” message into your discussion, reassuring parents that the camp experience has significant value and should not be put off simply because this important decision may seem temporarily overwhelming.

All this having been said, consider the possibility of mildly challenging the parent who admits to turning the decision over to the child. You may feel comfortable asking a parent whether they allowed their child to make other serious decisions, such as choice of vacation destination or nursery school. Did the parents abdicate these decisions? A collective concern here should be that parents might not take the summer camp decision as seriously as they should. Parents need to realize that a summer camp decision is often not a two-week or four-week decision, but a choice that may very well begin a major multiple-year commitment.

From a Child’s Perspective

At the same time, you must take the role of the child seriously and consider how your marketing message will be received by these young consumers. Some suggestions:

  • Make sure that children know you have prepared some part of your marketing message specifically for them. If this can be a totally separate piece, such as a brochure insert, activity booklet, separate page on your Web site, or even a separate video, so much the better.
  • Be cool. This is a serious point. Children don’t understand concepts like “generations of tradition.” They do not care that a camp may have been in continuous operation since the 1930s. They want to spend the summer enjoying themselves, and you need to understand how to communicate on their terms.
  • Consider cartoons and comic books when developing new print messages, and remember that your Web site is basically a print message.
  • Find ways to add texture to videos; include interviews, characters, and just plain fun.
  • By all means, answer children’s curiosity by showing them the mysteries of what life is like sleeping in a bunk. Time and time again, children say that while they know all about most sports and arts activities, they have never before slept with six, eight, or ten others. Make them feel comfortable about it by using photos and well-edited video sequences about bunk life.
  • If you make home visits, be certain that your time with the family is not perceived as “time with the parents, talking about the child.” Instead, keep the child involved throughout the session.

Let’s look at the glass as half full, at a minimum. When parents become confused, fragmented, and even detached during the camp decision process, it gives the well-prepared camp an opportunity to step in, become constructively supportive, and likely close the sale.

Steve Cony is a marketing consultant who assists children's camps with the development of strategic plans and the execution of marketing materials. Camp directors may contact him at 914-271-8482.

Originally published in the 2001 July/August issue of Camping Magazine.

Tags: marketing