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Alternative Businesses for Camps: Promoting and Testing on the Web
The Web continues to make it faster, easier, and cheaper to test out new offerings. Your core business may seem secure for now, and your camp may have valuable assets accrued over time, but it is imperative to examine your mission. Make sure you are offering all the complementary and tangential programs your community needs and wants . . . or someone else might. Utilizing tools available to you on the Web allows you to continuously play defense and offense.
The missions of many summer camps are not widely or wildly different from one another; they probably focus on something akin to “delivering the highest quality experiences for children in a safe, nurturing environment.” Frequently, ten months are spent preparing for up to two months of delivering these experiences.
Many camps build up assets over time that lead to other major programming beyond summer camp, such as operating schools or community centers. (Yes, the school or community center may operate the camp, but it doesn’t change the equation here.) In those cases, the leadership team may view camp as a summer offering and part of a grander, year-round mission. Camps who view themselves only as summer entities will be vulnerable in a world of proliferating summer choices — and the Web turbo charges this effect.
Possible Camp Assets
- Brand — Many camps are well known and re¬spected in both their geographic and larger communities. They enjoy a unique status as highly trusted providers of programming to children and community assets.
- Property — In many cases, camps’ physical sites have provided a meaningful competitive advantage over time because of zoning, land appreciation, and scarcity.
- Community — These are present clients and alumni who you maintain a conversation with through e-mail database, social media, and your Web site. This group has a high degree of engagement and trust (i.e. they don’t automatically delete your e-mail because they have “bought in”). Community can also mean those who live near your facility. At all times, our goal is to grow our community of “bought in” folks who we hope are out in the world evangelizing for us.
- People — Adults from your organization with unique experience and skills that are at your disposal to run programs. They are also trusted because you are standing behind them. They may have great talents that you, as principal, need to figure out how to monetize.
- Programming expertise — Years of recognized experience delivering well-regarded programs in the community that keep up with parents’ needs.
Camp professionals will benefit from continuously examining and inventorying their assets to consider the ongoing relevancy of their mission (i.e., “Am I solely in the summer camp business?”).
Here are a few, but by no means all, issues to assess:
- What business are we in? What else can we and should we provide to our community that is complementary and sup¬portive of this business?
- Are we constantly evaluating a spectrum of business opportunities available to us?
- Does our community — online and those living in our immediate geographic area — have unmet needs we can readily ascertain? Are we in a unique position to discern and serve those needs?
- What kinds of off-season activities can most easily occur on our property? Are there others with whom we might partner to best provide these? What are the pros and cons of each of these opportunities?
- Can we get the right kind of folks onto our property in the off-season who could become summer clients? If so, profitability of off-season programs becomes less paramount.
- Is anything we are contemplating at risk to affect our brand negatively because it is too off-target, unrealistic, or a nuisance by diverting attention from our core business?
Evaluating Community Needs
Our focus now gravitates from understanding the world camps face to changing it. How do we institutionalize ongoing evaluation of a suite of business/programming options in the ever-changing context of consumers’ needs and wants? Just because some venture didn’t fly three years ago doesn’t mean its time hasn’t come — perhaps we now possess or have mastered the tools or environment to succeed.
Here’s where our Web site deploys easily, cheaply, and quickly. Want to run birthday parties at your facility, or even corporate picnics or retreats? Table 1 shows a set of action steps that could add up to little out-of-pocket expense depending on the choices you make, how ambitious you are, and the time you choose to work this until it proves out.
What was not included in Table 1:
- No hiring of additional employees.
- No printing of brochures.
- No mass mailing costs — if you mail a newsletter, this can be included at negligible cost.
- No print ads, which require lead time and inability to change/cancel copy on an existing ad.
- No capital investment to support running new programs until activity is a “go.”
Let’s examine a few of these steps in a bit more detail so you can put them into action. They also apply to your core camp business, too, so they are skills you will want to develop or buy.
Add Page to Web Site
Just as you would add a new page to your Web site to highlight new programming at camp, each discrete business initiative undertaken needs its own Web page. (If it becomes a “no-go,” you remove it). If it’s new and material, this is nonnegotiable; otherwise you end up with a catchall page cluttered with disparate offerings that only obfuscates.
All marketing initiatives need to send Web site visitors directly to the page in question on your Web site from an e-mail, Facebook, search marketing (Google, Yahoo, Bing), or other source. If our Web site visitor has to navigate her way there, we will lose many visitors to fatigue and confusion. Our goal is to get a Web site visitor to take an action we want (conversion) that advances toward purchase. The more impediments the more prospects drop off.
If you want to run a birthday party business, you could advertise all sorts of equipment/capabilities you may not even yet possess — if the decision is a no-go, you haven’t purchased it; if it’s a go, you can invest having removed much of the risk, maybe even with a stream of firm bookings.
E-mail Info / Flyer with Link
Your community trusts you and likely opens your e-mail at a much higher rate than widespread e-mail marketing rates of about 19.7 percent in 2012 (Silverpop, 2013). Top-performing companies have rates twice as high. For almost any offering, this is a wonderful, free place to start. The beauty of building up your community is this free platform just grows. You might be done after this step insofar as getting enough data for your birthday party business decision.
Add to Facebook Page
If this is a spot that is a hangout for your community, then it is a logical place to share the news, as you would with any program, to try to create some buzz. There are ways to broadcast this on Facebook that involve some out-of-pocket expense to reach your community and beyond more aggressively, but there are other actions to take before incurring costs.
Add to e-Newsletter
This is likely a place where you are used to disseminating information and also where you are habitually looking for something to headline your communication to reduce redundancy. Over time, this database increases, and as it does, this is a great free resource (if you do not overdo it). This database is an asset with great value as long as you work on delivering engaging content and don’t turn this into a place for carnival barking.
Here you look to expand your community and reach Web searchers who are actively looking for services you offer. Unlike those in your community who may/may not have interest, these searchers, by virtue of keywords they use to search for your service, have demonstrated interest and are likely further along on the buying curve. They may not know you as well, but their behavior demonstrates interest. If they are searching for “birthday party,” they likely have a child with a birthday, whereas specific folks in your community may not even have children. Here you can reach new folks, and if they hold a birthday party at your day camp, twenty brand-new friends of camp age might walk in the door. (For more on search marketing, see my November/December 2012 Camping Magazine article, “Search Marketing on the Web — Drive New Camper Enrollment and Alternative Businesses.”)
Looking at your analytics tells you where your Web site visitors came from. It also tells you if they have been to your site in the last thirty days, their location, what pages on your site they looked at, and everything else up to the privacy line. Without analytics, you are left to guess and simply ask folks who contact you how they found you as opposed to seeing hard data on most every visit to your Web site. If people are searching based on keywords relevant to your new initiative and entering your Web site, you can see activity, analyze it for the quality of engagement, and add this to actual calls, e-mails, leads, and purchases for the fullest picture.
Making the go/no-go decision involves assessing:
- Web site data broken down to discern interest in specific content.
- Quantity and quality of calls, e-mails, leads (anecdotal).
We need to zero in on where interest is coming from and what marketing levers seem to be succeeding and failing. Synthesizing all this allows you to make an informed go/no-go decision. A decision might be to continue to test by altering the approach and/or variables, or simply accumulating more data if your data set is inconclusive.
All new programs could be subject to seasonality, so it may be that a spring campaign might succeed while a fall one fails. There are also other ways to promote that go beyond the more Web-based approaches here; they tend to be more offline. Offline, boots-on-the-ground types of endeavors, or even a good old-fashioned postcard mailing, can still work. But anything that bypasses your ability to track on the Web site via analytics could leave you searching for the breadcrumb trail — and that works against fast, easy, cheap, and continuous, which characterizes the model we are building.
The following case studies provide examples of how camps are using the Web to test and promote new camp ventures.
Marissa Goodman Alliben, the second-generation associate director of Rolling River Day Camp in Oceanside, New York, has begun to leverage her staff’s skills and the camp’s facilities in running programs (such as birthday parties) for children to bring more folks onto the camp’s physical site, thereby cross-pollinating (more off-season children can become summer campers and more of those campers can engage in off-season programming). She has also been working to carve out niches for the next generation of owners that provide some autonomy and com¬mensurate income. The successful foundation laid by the first generation provided the assets and capital to test and build on extensions.
Science Camps of America, operated by Mike Richards, a retired software entrepreneur from Oahu, Hawaii, completed its first summer and realized in order to thrive as a summer camp, it needed to expand its mission to provide year-round science education programming to children across the Hawaiian Islands. It actively strives to provide science experiences to children that might last from an hour a week to several weeks during the summer with many stops in between. Richards is working to build alliances and develop programs for clients with some capacity to pay. The camp may or may not be the sun around which the new programming rotates or vice versa. Using the camp’s Web site, Richards is able to quickly provide highly customized content to support the rapid testing and deployment of most every program. This means Science Camps of America has the freedom to evolve into what best serves its community.
Both Rolling River and Science Camps use their Web sites and appropriate Web tools to deliver content quickly to introduce and test programming. Rolling River has a strong database of more than 4,000 families to broadcast its mes-sage. Science Camps is building its database.
Both camps use search marketing selectively to augment their efforts. This is an out-of-pocket expense — mostly to Google and Facebook — but it puts them in the game very quickly and gets the key data for faster and more robust decision making. Importantly, it allows them to broadcast beyond their communities.
Silverpop. (2013). 2013 email marketing benchmark study: An analysis of messages sent Q1–Q2 2012. Retrieved from www.btobonline.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20130508/EMAIL13/305089998/email-open-rates-average-19-7-last-year#sthash.M6sqb2qb.dpuf
Eric Stein is the founder and president of Eswebmarketing, a provider of Internet marketing services focusing on paid search to small businesses. The company works with over ten day, sleep-away, and specialty camps nationwide, some of which do year-round retreats as well. Eric is also a regular speaker at ACA’s National and Tri-State Conferences. He grew up at a summer camp in the Adirondacks started by his grandparents and currently run by his family. He can be found at www.Eswebmarketing.com or reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published in the 2013 November/December Camping Magazine.