Ready, Set, Market: A Marketing Survey of Special Needs Camps

by Gretchen Snethen and David P. Loy, Ph.D.

Camps that serve individuals with disabilities have unique financial needs, often including greater costs due to increased personnel, training, and equipment. Additionally, these camps also serve a population that must meet other types of financial burdens requiring camps to supplement campers with scholarships. This article reviews unique marketing strategies for special needs camps, stemming from results of a recent online survey completed by twenty-seven camps that serve individuals with disabilities. This article details research application from the survey, with particular attention to the types of marketing camps that serve individuals with disabilities frequently employ.

Reaching the Camp Consumer

Camps of all types must rely on marketing techniques to reach their consumers. Marketing techniques used by camps include Web sites, print material, videos, and word of mouth. Biddle (1998) suggests that camps develop a marketing plan that identifies specific goals, pricing strategies, and advertising techniques. Furthermore, the initial marketing plan serves only as a guideline. Directors should update this plan as the needs of the camp and consumer change.

Internet marketing is a near necessity in service and product marketing alike, and Internet marketing to children is commonplace (Kurnit 2005). As more and more marketing moves to the Internet, it is important that camps keep up to date with online material (Anonymous 1999; Cony 1999b; 2002; 2006). Cony (2006) suggests that a camp director visit and update the Web site at least once a month.

More traditional types of marketing include print materials and video. While this type of marketing material may not be as technologically advanced, it serves as a tangible product that children and parents can view and share with others (Cony 2002). Photos, which are often included in print and online materials, should focus less on landscape pictures and more on campers participating in activities (Cony 2000; 2006). Additionally, a video or DVD may be one of the most important marketing tools. Parents and children view this marketing tool as the camp in action (Cony 2002).

The frequency of contact is also an important consideration. Mailings provide a tangible object that connects the family to the camp. However, one mailing often makes it to the trash, and the initial impression is lost. Cony (2006) suggests that one or two mailings should follow the initial mailing to ensure parents and children that the camp is interested in the family. Finally, word of mouth is perhaps one of the best forms of marketing. However, it is important that camp directors do not rely only on the camp experience for this. Year-round contact will help keep children and parents connected to the camp and help ensure they market the camp to others (Cony 1999).

Enrollment Trends

Youth today have busier schedules than ever before. Children are involved with Little League, family trips, and parks and recreation programs, among other activities (Biddle 1998). Because of this, camps increasingly have to re-evaluate ways to attract campers. Most recent camp trends suggest that camp enrollment is on the rise. A survey conducted by the American Camp Association (ACA) (2007) reported that nearly 53 percent of the surveyed camps had an increase in camper enrollment from the 2006 summer season. While this is promising, nearly 22 percent also reported a decrease in camper enrollment (ACA 2007). Additionally, the 2005 season study found that 70 percent of camps experienced a stable or increased enrollment (Bialeschki 2006).

The trends discussed above address camps in general. There is currently limited information on enrollment trends related to camps that specifically serve individuals with disabilities. Likewise, there is little to no information about what marketing strategies are most effective. The purpose of this study was to examine the various types of marketing techniques utilized by camps that serve individuals with disabilities.

Study Methods

Participants and Recruitment
Potential participants were identified by searching the ACA Web site for camps that served individuals with disabilities. Camps that self-identified themselves as inclusive were not included. For this study, 107 camps met the inclusionary criteria. The camps then received an e-mail inviting participation. The survey was active for one month, and two follow-up e-mails were sent encouraging participation. After the month-long survey, a total of 27 camps completed the survey. Of the 107 initial camps, 14 returned as incorrect addresses. Deducting these from the initial count, the study had a 29 percent response rate.

In the survey, camps selected various populations served. The surveyed camps served a variety of populations including: individuals with autism (78 percent); physical disabilities (70 percent); learning disabilities (67 percent); behavioral disabilities (56 percent); chronic illnesses (48 percent); diabetes (33 percent); and another category, which included developmental disabilities, visual and hearing impairments (33 percent). The percentages are greater than 100 percent, because camps tended to serve multiple populations (See Graph 1).

Camp Enrollment
The dependent variable in this study was the percentage of enrollment goal met. This was operationalized into six different categories: below 70 percent, 70 percent, 80 percent, 90 percent, 100 percent, and greater than 100 percent. While the percentage meeting enrollment was not as high as the 2007 ACA Camper Enrollment study, meeting enrollment goals was not a particular issue for the responding camps, as 44 percent were at or above their targeted goals. However, it is important to note that over half of the respondents did not meet their enrollment goals: the largest response category (26 percent) met 90 percent of their enrollment goals; 22 percent met 80 percent of their enrollment goals; and 8 percent were at or below 70 percent of the target enrollment goals (See Graph 2).

Marketing Categories
The survey completed by the participating camps contained multiple items related to marketing. For the purposes of this study, these were termed marketing categories. The marketing categories (Marketing Management, Financial, Web site, Mailing, and Other) were divided into related categories and further broken down within those categories. Marketing Management included items such as presence of marketing director, the presence of a marketing plan, and the frequency of evaluation of a marketing plan. The Financial category included the percent of operating costs spent on marketing; the availability of financial assistance to campers (camperships); the percent of campers receiving camperships, and the presence of incentives to returning campers. The Web site category included the frequency of Web site updates during the camp season and the off-season, a request information link, and password-protected access to photos. The Mailings category covered the amount of additional material sent after the initial mailing, the frequency and type of contact with past campers, the type(s) of photos included in the mailings, and the inclusion of camp videos in mailings. Finally, the Other category focused on the dissemination of information. A specific breakdown of these categories is located in Table 1.

Study Results

Because of the small sample size, little statistical support could be determined as to which marketing techniques were related to meeting enrollment goals. However, looking at the frequency of different types of marketing techniques can be beneficial to camps when developing individual marketing plans.

Within the Marketing Management category, only 14 percent of the respondents reported having a marketing director. A reported 70 percent had a marketing plan. Of those that had a marketing plan, 68 percent evaluated this plan yearly, 16 percent evaluated it bi-annually, and 16 percent evaluated it once every two to three years.

Financially, most camps (48 percent) spent 0-3 percent of their operational costs on marketing, another 41 percent spent 3 percent-5 percent, and the remaining 11 percent spent more than 5 percent of operational costs on marketing. Ninety-three percent of the camps gave financial support (camperships) to their campers. More specifically, 40 percent of the camps awarded camperships to 75 percent-100 percent of their campers, 26 percent awarded camperships to 50 percent-75 percent, 19 percent awarded camperships to 25 percent-50 percent of their campers, and 15 percent awarded camperships to 0-25 percent of their campers. Conversely, only 28 percent of the camps gave incentives to returning campers.

All of the responding camps operated a Web site. The majority (39 percent) did not update the Web site during the active camp season. Of those that did update it during the camp season, 31 percent updated weekly, 27 percent updated monthly, and 4 percent updated it daily (see Table 2). Additionally, 42 percent updated the Web site monthly during the off-season, and 39 percent updated quarterly (see Table 2). The use of password-protected photo albums was only available at 12 percent of the responding camps. Finally, 73 percent of the camp Web sites utilized a “request information” link.

The Mailings category showed that 60 percent of the camps sent only the initial requested material. Conversely, the second largest category (20 percent) in that item sent more than two additional mailings. Forty percent of the respondents contacted former campers at least quarterly, 24 percent contacted former campers bi-yearly, and 32 percent contacted them yearly. The most popular type of contact was enrollment material (92 percent); followed by newsletters (52 percent); 20 percent sent holiday cards; and an additional 20 percent sent birthday cards. Most camps (56 percent) included photos in the mailings that depicted a mix of smiling campers, campers participating in activities, and landscape photos. Additionally, only 20 percent of the camps sent out a camp video.

To circulate information about the camp, 72 percent placed materials with the school system, 48 percent utilized the doctor’s office or other health agencies, and 20 percent selfidentified placing information in various periodicals. Population specific conferences and local organizations were frequently utilized to advertise the camps (76 percent and 96 percent respectively). Finally, 72 percent opened their facilities to other revenue producing events during the off-season. Among these respondents, 83 percent made marketing material available to those consumers.


The percent of enrollment goal met among the responding camps was similar to that of the camps responding to the ACA Enrollment study (2007). Camp directors should caution citing this as a norm, as the reported percent-ages represent less than 30 percent of camps that serve individuals with disabilities.

Having a marketing director may only be possible for camps with higher operating budgets. Despite this, the high number of camps with marketing plans suggests an awareness of the importance of marketing. Of some concern was the 16 percent that updated the marketing plan once every two to three years. As the needs of consumers change almost daily, a more frequent and aggressive consideration of this plan should occur.

Financial assistance to campers continues to be an important marketing strategy. Campers who attend special needs camps will likely have financial burdens that most families do not. Camps are increasingly finding revenues by providing noncamp services during the off-season (Malinowski 2007). Opening the camp facility to revenue- producing events during the off-season may help offset the costs of camperships or other operating costs. Therefore, financial assistance that the camp can provide either through its own funds or fundraising through outside agencies will likely increase the camp’s marketing capabilities.

It is often difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of mailings, as the material sent out will always be greater than the response. However, directors must find an important balance between the cost of mailings and an effective frequency of mailings. As Cony (2006 & 1999) suggested, relying on a single contact to make an impact is likely a waste of resources. Additional contacts can be made relatively inexpensively and will help ensure that the consumer remembers the camp. Additionally, a video or DVD might be one of the more costly forms of advertising. Despite this, it is mentioned multiple times as one of the more effective marketing techniques (Cony 2006; Cony 2002; Cony 1999). Camps that do not currently market with a video should consider including it in their marketing plan.

Finally, as the Internet becomes increasingly more commonplace for both children and parents, it is important to have accurate information. This study suggests that camps are moderately aware of this. Utilizing a monthly online newsletter may encourage viewers to return, and it would provide an opportunity for directors to monitor and update the contents of the Web site (Anonymous 1999). In the future, it may benefit camps to utilize Web sites to keep campers in contact with each other. With the increasing popularity of networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace, camps have the opportunity to keep up with the technological interests of youth and provide access to a highly visible marketing tool (Charles 2006).

The results of this study demonstrate common marketing strategies used in special needs camps. While the information gathered could not statistically predict which marketing techniques were most effective, knowing frequently used strategies may help camps evaluate their current marketing strategies and update accordingly.

Special thanks are necessary to the camp directors who took the time to complete this survey. This survey was conducted in the spring, an exceptionally busy time for camp directors. Without their participation, the information in this article could not be possible.

American Camp Association (ACA). (2007). 2007 Summer Camper Enrollment Information. Retrieved May 13, 2008 from www.surveymonkey. com/sr.aspx?sm=fNudW4Oi0AMmfSaYOW_2bO 5079jSxLG_2f5HNs_2fv9zHltj4_3d.
American Camp Association (ACA). (2007). The history of the organized camp experience. Retrieved February 17, 2007 from www.acacamps. org media_center/about_aca/history.php.
Anonymous. (2006). Practical applications: A summer camp experience from the perspective of youths with disabilities. Palaestra. 22(2), 7-9.
Anonymous. (1999). Internet marketing. Camping Magazine. 72(3), 4.
Bedini, L. A. (1995). Campers with disabilities: Encouraging positive interaction. Camping Magazine. 67(4), 21-24.
Bialeschki, M. D. (2006). What’s happening with camp enrollment? Camping Magazine. 79(2), 50-55.
Biddle, A. (1998). Marketing for camp trends. Camping Magazine. 71(1), 35-38.
Briery, B. G., & Rabian, B. (1999). Psychosocial changes associated with participation in a pediatric summer camp. Journal of Pediatric Psychology. 24(2), 183-190.
Brookman, L., Boettcher. M., Klein, E., Openden, D., Koegel, R. L., & Koegel, L. K. (2003). Facilitating social interactions in a community summer camp setting for children with autism. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions. 5(4), 249-252.
Charles, B. (2006). Adapting to an evolving audience. Marketing. September, pg. 18.
Cony, S. (2006). Marketing: It’s fifty-one percent common sense. Camping Magazine. 79(5). 28-30.
Cony, S. (2002). Frequently asked questions. Camping Magazine. 75(4), 43-44.
Cony, S. (2000). Marketing: Common Sense. Camping Magazine. 73(2), 10-11.
Cony, S. (1999a). It’s a camper’s market. Camping Magazine. 72(4), 16-17.
Cony, S. (1999b). Good questions. Camping Magazine. 72(1). 16-17.
Eisner, M. (2001). What I did during summer vacation: Exposing children to possibilities and opportunities. Vital Speeches of the Day. 67(16), 504-508.
Goodwin, D. L., & Staples, K. (2005). The meaning of summer camp experiences to youths with disabilities. Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly. 22, 160-178.
Henley, D. (1999). Facilitating socialization within a therapeutic camp setting for children with attention deficits utilizing the expressive therapies. American Journal of Art Therapy. 38, 40-50.
Kurnit, P. (2005). Responsible marketing to children in the US. Young Consumers. 6(4), 8-12.
Malinowski, J. (2007). The words of the profits. Retrieved April 13, 2007 from www.acacamps. org/campmag/0609malinowski.php.
Michalski, J. H., Mishna, F., Worthington, C., & Cummings, R. (2003). A multi-method impact evaluation of a therapeutic summer camp program. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal. 20(1), 53-76.
Pearson, H. A., Johnson, S. Simpson, J., & Gallagher, M. (1997). A residential summer camp for children with vertically transmitted HIV/AIDS: A six-year experience at the Hole In the Wall Gang Camp. Pediatrics. 100(4), 709-713.
Thurber, C., & Malinowski, J. (1999). Summer camp as a therapeutic landscape. In A. Williams (Ed.). Therapeutic landscapes: The dynamic between health and wellness. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

Gretchen Snethen received her master’s in recreational therapy administration from East Carolina University and is currently a doctoral student in the Department of Recreation, Park, and Tourism Studies at Indiana University.

David P. Loy, Ph.D., is an associate professor of recreational therapy in the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies at East Carolina University.

Originally published in the 2008 July/August issue of Camping Magazine.