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Getting the Most From Your Camp — All Year Long
Sunday afternoon. The weekend groups have gone home; the kitchen is clean; the heat turned down. For the moment, camp is quiet. The question for you, and many other camp leaders, is whether the camp will remain quiet all week until the next weekend group arrives or whether when Monday morning comes the camp will be busy and filled with weekday users.
At Camp A, the weekends are active with retreat groups and day users. On Sunday evening, the camp settles into the quiet that remains unbroken until Friday when more weekend guests arrive. Except for occasional day groups, the camp faces the same operating expenses every day but has many weeks without any mid-week income. This is an issue facing many nonprofit, faith-based, and agency camps. For many, the difference between staying open and closing the gates is the margin of weekday use.
At Camp B, the weekend crowds are replaced on Monday morning with school groups, older adults, and/or corporate groups. They come to enjoy the relaxed setting for organizational meetings , to grow together on the challenge course, to take courses of interest, to learn about the environment, and to slow down the pace of their lives. The camp has made an intentional effort to build relationships with local and national organizations so that it can identify and serve their needs. While these programs bring both costs and income, they result in good stewardship of the resources of the camp, as well as expanded local and in some cases national visibility and service to the community.
This article is about Camp B and the way in which many American Camp Association (ACA) camps are developing programs, meeting needs, and building their financial base. While this article is not exhaustive, it does seek to describe some successful off-season programs — and to stimulate the imagination of many Camp A's to the possibilities that exist for partnerships and creative uses of their camps. All of the camps mentioned in this article are ACA-Accredited® facilities.
An Honest Look
Camp B is serving three basic populations: school groups, corporate groups, and older adults. The first step in the development of weekday programs or increased use is the identification of which populations your facility is best suited to serve. That involves an honest look at your present facilities. It really is not helpful to say that when you have the new retreat center or build the high ropes course you can serve this or that group, nor is it realistic. Ask instead, what facilities and program potential you have right now that you can offer to weekday groups. Then begin to seek out groups that you can serve!
The second step involves gathering information about the local or national groups who will want to make use of the facilities and programs you already have to offer. That step requires collecting general information about groups and then having conversations with them about the ways in which you can help them reach their organizational goals. As an example, you may realize that you have established access to several ecosystems within your property, as well as a low-ropes initiative course for group building. Since you know that you have the facilities and resources to offer environment programs to schools, you will want to begin by finding out your state learning standards. In that way, you can design programs oriented around those standards.
Next, you will want to decide what personnel you already have and the services you can offer using their skills. If you have a highropes course then you probably already have people trained as facilitators. You can increase that pool and pay them only for the times they lead. Not long ago a camp director wanted to begin an environmental program but did not have the funds to hire someone full time. A member of his summer staff had created an environmental curriculum for a college course. He offered her the chance to advertise to schools. He paid her on a contract basis per school that she recruited. When the program was up and running, he was able to bring her staff on full time.
A Business Plan
Finally, you will need a business plan including budget and marketing strategies. When you begin with what you have and match what you have to a group's needs, business planning will go smoothly. Your goals and your market are already in place. Prepare to market to the specific populations you want to serve.
Let's examine each of the three populations previously mentioned to determine what they need, what they are looking for, and the types of camps that are serving them. It is unrealistic to think that, if you are a Camp A, you can instantly build an extensive and successful program like the ones that are cited in this article. However, you can see what others are offering and begin making plans to adapt the ideas for your own site.
As Boomers turn sixty and move toward retirement, older adults will be a larger and larger percentage of the population. They are more active and healthier than any generation before them. They want to keep lea r n i ng a nd are looking for new experiences that will broaden their perspectives. Camps who position themselves now to serve this population will never run out of people interested in what they have to offer.
Older adults are looking for comfort and privacy in the sleep spaces. They often prefer comfortable beds and private bathrooms rather than a dormitory environment. Senior adults are interested in the accessibility and possibility of special diets at your site. Consider day programs if you can offer good food and programs that interest this population.
Churches or older adult agencies in your area may want to partner with you as you contribute the facilities and they are responsible for the programming and marketing of the event. Camp Hanover outside of Richmond, Virginia, has partnered with churches in the area to offer such day programs for seniors. The churches invite a speaker of interest to this population, and the camp provides the space and meals. The program — now offered twice a year — draws sixty to eighty adults. Recently one participant told the director that she loved being able to be outside in nature and to be safe.
Elderhostel is a national nonprofit who since its founding in 1975 has become a leader in this country and around the world in providing educational and travel experiences to older adults. They partner with camps, conference centers, and educational institutions to provide events of historical, cultural, educational, and social interest to adults who are fifty-five and older. Local camps and centers create local interest programs and then market them to the national Elderhostel programs' leaders. Elderhostel (www.elderhostel.org) advertises their entire approved program through their Web site and newsletter.
If you have a modern center with up-to-date technological equipment and computer connections in all the rooms, then you can attract corporate groups to your site. If you have comfortable meeting spaces and a high ropes course, you can market meeting space as well as team building to groups. Contact the human resource departments of local corporations and explain how the use of the ropes course can contribute to leadership development and team building. Nonprofits are particularly interested in comfortable places they can have board meetings at a reasonable price. Offer them the facilitation of the challenge course, as well as a good meal.
The Nature Place at Sanborn Western Camps in Florissant, Colorado, outside of Colorado Springs, is dedicated to providing leadership and team development experience to teachers and corporate leaders. Engagement in experiential learning techniques enables participants to connect with nature, their inner-selves, and their teams. The Nature Place creates a curriculum of training and development that is designed for the needs of each individual group that comes. By using the natural setting, the challenge courses, and other participatory experiences, they are able to meet the needs of a wide variety of groups. For further information, visit their Web site at: www.thenatureplace.net.
Schools are looking for ways to meet their standards of learning. Camps that have access to a variety of ecosystems can partner with schools for daylong and weeklong experiences to help them meet those goals. If you have ropes courses, include these in your marketing. You can go online to find out your state's standards of learning so when you talk to school personnel you can be very specific about the learning goals you will be able to help them meet. You can include the numbers of those specific standards on your Web site and print marketing of your programs.
W. E. Skelton 4-H Educational Conference Center at Smith Mountain Lake, Virginia, (www.skelton4h.ext.vt.edu) offers a variety of outdoor education programs to schools. They range from the daylong Discovery programs for PreK-2nd grade to Explorers programs for grades 3-6, and Eco-Institute for teens to off-site programs for schools who cannot come to the center. Within the Explorers programs are three types of offerings: Natural Science, Wildlife Studies, and Adventure-Based Education. The Web site lists the designated numbers for the Virginia Standards of Learning for each of the components of the programs. Schools can know immediately how the center's programs will enable them to reach specific state goals and requirements.
School groups visiting The Green River Preserve outside of Hendersonville, North Carolina, can participate in two courses of study based on two pertinent books. The Education of Little Tree by Forrest Carter is the basis of a pre-designed curriculum; Crow & Weasel by Barry Lopez invites students to explore "Woodcraft Laws," a foundation of Green River Preserve. Learners read the books before they come, and hands-on field experiences introduce them to the cultural heritage of the area, ecological respect, stewardship, and interconnectedness within nature and between human beings and nature. See their Web site for more information: www.greenriverpreserve.org.
At Howell Nature Center (email@example.com) in Howell, Michigan, and at Shepherd's Springs Outdoor Ministry Center, a ministry of the Church of the Brethren, in Sharpsburg, Maryland, adults and children can get an up close and personal glimpse of life in a third world country and encounter the realities of their food, housing, and lifestyle. These are two of five Global Villages in the United States — villages with reproduced housing and area animals — have been built in cooperation with Heifer International (www.heifer.org). Centers are responsible for raising funds for developing the sites and use a curriculum provided by Heifer International. According to Ann Cornell of Shepherd Springs, the most challenging part of building the global village has been convincing local inspectors to "understand why we would want to build substandard housing structures and expect people to spend the night in them."
One way to get work done for free and to build the connections with supporters and stakeholders is to host groups of volunteers. At Redwood Glen — a bay area Christian Camp and Conference Center outside San Francisco — volunteer groups come for a week at a time. They build and repair the camp facilities thus saving the center the costs of labor. The center in return gives the volunteers great food, comfortable beds, and the peaceful surroundings of the redwoods. An added attraction is the Pacific coast located only thirty minutes from the center.
Networking with Other Camps or Centers
A group of Presbyterian camps have formed their own network to present adult programming in a cooperative manner that witnesses to adults in the name of Jesus Christ. Way-Points (www.way-points.org) programs vary from educational to religious, from travel to training, from large group conferences to small experiences. The host site designs the program and invites the leaders. All the sites (and the Web site) advertise the programs. Together they are accomplishing something none of them could do alone.
Coordinate Local Work Camp Opportunities
Youth and adult groups frequently want to visit a location to do work on financially stressed communities or storm damaged areas. However, they do not have contacts within the local communities to make appropriate arrangements. Camps and centers can more easily make the necessary contacts to identify leaders and their needs for groups seeking to come to the area. Camps can both coordinate work projects with local leaders as well as host the work groups when they arrive.
None of these programs began without someone's creative vision to address the needs of special and diverse populations. As you consider your site, your neighbors, your supporters, and local needs, you can begin to envision ways to can increase the weekday and off-season use of your facilities. See what you have and expand your horizons. Begin small and build on your strengths and established relationships.
Nancy Ferguson is a former day camp director and management consultant for the Religiously Affiliated Camps (RAC) council of the American Camp Association (ACA). She is the author of several books including Training Staff to be Spiritual Leaders — A Guide for Christian Camp Leaders, available from the ACA Bookstore. Ferguson recently moved to the eastern shore of Virginia near Chincoteague Island to concentrate on her writing. You can visit her Web site at www.BlueTreeResources.org.
Originally published in the 2009 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.