Day and Resident Camps: Leading a Proactive Economic Recovery

It usually takes some kind of wake-up call to remind us to do the things that should be habitual.

Now that people are more concerned about their future earning power, they are more careful about where they spend their time and money. This can provide us with an opportunity to get back to what we do best: building relationships between people. 

HotTips … for camper retention

  • Caring: It's times like these when we can really show what we're made of. 
    One camp found a larger than usual number of members not renewing. They made it standard procedure to call each camper-parent and gently ask for the reasons.  In most cases it had to do with at least one spouse being laid-off from work, or bills they couldn't keep up with.  "I know you don't want this economic downturn to effect your children, and we'd really like them to be able to come back to camp. I'm sure we can find a way to help.  The camp fee for one session is normally $560.  If I can arrange a reduction, how much do you think you would be able to afford?... Would the being able to pay that over several monthly installments make it easier?" The result: parents feel cared-for in their time of need.  Sure, it will build loyalty.  But what's really being built is community.
  • What's the cause? In many parts of the country, camps suspect the economy has been hurting enrollment.  One way to check: if your day camp or  resident camp revenues are down, see how the number of individuals being served compares to last summer.  We're hearing that many camps have fewer total weeks enrolled, but the same number of families. In other words, campers who came for 2 or 4 weeks last year are only coming for 1 or 2 weeks this year.  That's the economy. And that information can help you decide how to help those families stay engaged.
  • Act as if your mother were coming to visit
    This isn't rocket science: In survey after survey, parents who are dissatisfied with their camp experience consistently report lack of cleanliness, facilities in need of repair , and poor customer service as primary causes.  If that's the case, in times like these when we need to retain every camper we have, shouldn't cleanliness be a priority for every single employee? But it's not natural behavior for most people. Your staff needs proper training, supervisors who model the desired behavior themselves, and positive reinforcement. If you haven't read it recently, pick up a copy of Ken Blanchard's book Whale Done! (On sale for $5.38 used, including shipping, at He considers it his most important work on training great employees. 

HotTips … for cutting expenses

When revenues are lower than expected, we pay more attention to expenses.

  • It's time to re-bid contracts. Over time, suppliers have the natural tendency to increase prices. A vendor you may have picked a while ago may have raised rates over time, and the change may have gone unnoticed. It shows no disloyalty to be honest with your vendors and let them know that "as a not-for-profit, we owe it to our community to periodically put our contracts out to bid and be assured we are getting the best value possible." Trash hauling, fuel oil, LP gas, janitorial services and supplies, office equipment contracts, and pool chemicals are examples of major expenses that are prone to price increases over time. For vendors that have been loyal partners for years, give them a low-key phone call. Send bid letters to your current suppliers and a few good prospects for each product or service, and give them a specific date by which to respond. In many cases, you'll find your vendors ready to treat you differently when they know you're paying attention. And the dialogue that will result should lead to an even healthier long-term relationship.

    If you can be a dependable customer, that's worth a lot right now. For example, Scott Umbel of YMCA Camp Watchaug RI writes, "My T-Shirt supplier is helping with our pre-summer cash flow. In return for ordering now, we get his lowest price, we get them delivered the first week in June so we're not tripping over them, we don't get a bill until they're delivered (and have 30 days to pay so we're already selling the shirts by then), and he even pays the shipping. He can give us his best price and terms because he gets his presses busy now in HIS slow season. Win-win." Your shirt-guy doesn't offer that on her web site? Ask for it. Or contact Scott and ask for his guy!

  • High Overhead Will Fall on You. In changing environments we know that it's the adaptable, not the strongest, who survive.  When money is rolling in almost EVERY organization (companies, governments, and camps) add full-town staff and non-revenue-producing facilities. You know your single biggest expense is payroll and benefits (and I don't mean the paltry sums we pay summer camp counselors.) Too many full-time staff with full benefits are what drag camps down in slow times. It will be difficult, but most camps that look closely realize one year-round staff member costs more than 20 seasonal summer staff. Who actually impacts program quality and revenue generation the most? Who do we have the greatest positive results with, campers? Nope. Summer staff. That's our greatest gift to society and the future. So when we hesitate reducing our full-time staff to keep our camp solvent, we're really saying we're willing to pay dearly to put off the inevitable, resulting in the loss of revenue-producing capacity and a decline in effectiveness, because we don't want to lay off someone we know.  Likely someone that hasn't yet found a match for their God-given talents, and feels stuck instead of finding a truly fulfilling career. The right thing is often tough to do, that's why there's been so many mistakes (probably at your camp) in years past. Talk it out, then take action. And sooner than later, while it will have the greatest net effect. 

HotTips … for Getting More out of Your Staff

  • Take notice of people you rely on. Cutbacks in budgets during tough economic times naturally create stress for camp supervisors. The pressures our staff members face are often doubly stressful. They have less control over their own job futures, and you may not have the money for the salary increases they hoped for this year. Now is the time to remember that there are many other nonwage benefits that are valued even more than salary. When YMCA camping employees were asked what additional benefits they wish they had in their positions, additional training and better working conditions rate higher than additional pay. When asked, what was the one most important thing their supervisors had done for them in the past year, the most common answer wasn't a raise or time off, but rather "my supervisor noticed something specific I had done, complimented me, and thanked me." Just when our staff members are facing the most stress, it's likely we're taking the least time praising them. It needs to be immediate; don't save up for some future day. Be specific to show you've actually been paying attention, and be sincere. In difficult times, being caring and loyal to your staff might be the most motivating thing you can do.
  • Team approach to problem solving. Supervisors often keep economic problems from the staff under the guise of "not wanting to worry them." Staff members worry anyway. In fact, they would feel better if they had more control over the situation. Instead of simply imposing cutbacks, consider including all staff members in problem-solving teams. Challenge them to come up with ways not only to control costs but also to better satisfy members and increase revenues. The results will be better decisions and more dedication to implementation. No troubled camp has ever been turned around simply by cutting expenses. The future depends on finding new revenue. In fact, cutting expenses and increasing revenue often are at odds with each other. Revenue increases depend on having satisfied camper-parents who yield high return rates and generate positive word of mouth. Cutting staff, services, and supplies will obviously work against that. But if cuts are unavoidable, they need to be paired simultaneously with strategies to improve service through new efficiencies, more attention to detail, and deliberate relationship-building between staff and parents.
  • Get out from behind the desk. Too often the very best staff members are "promoted" to positions where they no longer have consistent contact with campers and parents. Make it a policy to require your best staff to spend relationship-building time with your campers and parents, and find ways to delegate to others more of the office work that keeps them from interacting  more often.

HotTips … for marketing

Tough times never last, but tough people (and good organizations) do. The current weak economy forces organizations to get better or get out. That's healthy in the long run. In the short run, one way to get better is to be more effective with those people who ARE looking for a camp for their child.

  • Budget tight? Cut advertising expenses, right? Well look at it this way:  when there aren't many fish bighting, a good fisherman uses his or her very best bait, not a rubber worm. One difference between a camp and a retail business is that what we offer (a healthy lifestyle, personal and family support) is of even MORE value to people during stressful times. Keep targeting your message to those who need camp in the lives of their kids by continuing to use your most effective tools.
  • "OK, we can't cut out all the advertising, so we'll cut training." We've called dozens of camps that are proactively addressing a tough local economy. Those with the best results share one trait:  They are increasing time spent on staff training.  First, to impart and refresh skills in customer relations, service, giving tours, sales, even listening.  But it has a second, equally important result:  when your staff knows you care about them because you're investing in their future, they share that caring with others. 
  • HotTips…for "Inside-Out Marketing"
    Proven practices for tackling today's most common challenges
    • When enrollment numbers stall or fall, someone usually suggests a discount promotion or buying advertising. But camps are "inside-out marketers," i.e., suppliers of relationship-oriented experiences and personal services for which the most credible advertisements are personal endorsements from satisfied members.
    • So we should feed our word-of-mouth sales forces tools and information to make them more effective. Consider this: We send each current family one brochure intended for his or her personal use. What if you sent each parent two copies, one to use, and one to share? What if you had a monthly newsletter that not only listed info for current members, but also served as a great stand-alone parenting tool to be shared with their neighbors? That's the reason retail stores send a catalog every month with the same products listed in it.  They need to be ready when the customer is, and give their "biggest fan" customers the ammunition they need for spreading the word.
    • If you don't have a web site that's even better than your brochure, you're still in the last century. (When's the last time you went to a Travel Agency to "pick up a few brochures. Uh-huh.) Your web site is THE most important tool for word-of-mouth. It's the first place a parent will go if they've gotten a testimonial from a neighbor, friend, relative, or co-worker. If you don't live up to that image, you've lost the sale.  FEWER WORDS, MORE AND BETTER PHOTOS.  Or just quit now.
    • Lastly, remind your word-of-mouth sales force to say to friends, "Why don't you come with me and see the camp and meet the director?" No free sweatshirt can compete with the satisfaction of helping a friend make a great decision.
    • All of this is based on one important first step: You have to have satisfied campers AND parents in order to expect referrals from them. Make budget cuts if you must, but never sacrifice excellent service, and warm, caring relationships.
    • Three resources: Purple Cow by Seth Godin (more important now than ever); Selling the Invisible: A Field Guide to Modern Marketing, by Harry Beckwith; Marketing Without Advertising: Inspire Customers to Rave About Your Business to Create Lasting Success, by Michael Phillips and Salli Rasberry
  • Time to make lemonade.
    Your campers from last summer are back in school. Did you send an evaluation to each parent to have them assess your programs?  There are LOTS of reasons to do this. First, of course, is to find out what you did wrong so you have a chance to correct it for next year.  Second, is to find out what you did right so you can promote it and do more of it next year. Third, if you teach the parents how to ask open-ended questions, you'll help them really hear from their child about the great things that went on at camp this year. That's not only building assets in the child, but building a stronger family, too.  So give your parents some examples of how to ask open-ended questions. Not, "Was it fun?" ("All I get is one-word answers!") Try instead, "I heard you had a Pirate Day at camp. Tell me about it!"  And finally, when you get a parent who responds with a specific problem or a complaint, you have one more chance to make it right.  But only if they get a call. In most cases, that's what they really wanted, someone to intently listen to them describe their frustration with your lost-and-found system, or the behavior of a specific counselor one day at drop-off. They don't want excuses, they mostly want to know that you care, and are willing to try and make it better next time.  And if you call, there likely will be a next time.  Caring...What a concept!
  • If there ever was one magic bullet…
    You spend a lot of time, effort, and money to convince potential camper-parents to call.  What happens when they do?  At a lot of camps, they reach an answering machine.  Not a good impression.  Imagine how many people then change their mind.  Or maybe they try the web site first.  Oops, the web site doesn't have the answers to the most frequently asked questions. They can't even see what the place looks like, it's just a bunch of kids hugging each; no counselors at all! The bad news: this happens way too often. The good news, these are problems that can be solved, and quick. If this sounds like you, make it a priority. Get a volunteer to work on your web site.  Have a real person answer the phone, and learn how to transfer calls to the people that can best answer your hard-won new prospects. (Read "Are You Shutting Out Your Campers?" and "The Elevator Speech" and "Brochure and Webb Site Design" at Camp Business Magazine online.)

Gary Forster (a past member of the ACA national board) is the camping specialist for the YMCA of the USA. He was a camp director for over 25 years, but started out with a degree in Architecture and an MBA. He visits at least 60 YMCA camps a year, working with staff and board members on strategic planning, staffing, program design, marketing, and facilities. You can reach him at

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