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Tips for Running a Better Summer Camp Business
Running a summer camp is a noble endeavor. Summer camps impart skills and values to all types of children. Nevertheless, every summer camp, small or large, private, religious, nonprofit or for-profit, is a business. If a summer camp takes in less money than it spends, it will eventually fail. Not coincidentally, summer camps that run well as businesses are usually effective in executing their mission. The same talents and skills required to run a business—focus, persistence, attention, and intelligence—are also required to run a quality summer program.
We have devoted much of the past eight years seeking to learn how to best manage summer camps. We certainly do not have all or even most of the answers. But we do have some ideas and suggestions. This article compiles many of the ideas and tips that we have developed ourselves and adopted from veteran camp professionals.
The tips are organized into four categories: Revenue, Operating Expenses, Facility Management, and Miscellaneous. Not every idea or suggestion applies to every camp. Some apply only to traditional camps—those that occupy real estate, the primary purpose of which is for use as a summer camp. Other suggestions apply to nontraditional camps, which occupy real estate used primarily for noncamp purposes such as schools, churches, and community centers.
"Revenue" is the money- collected from all sources—tuition, vendor rebates, canteen charges, interest income—and, in the case of many nonprofits, donations and grants. Since personnel related expenses account for more than half of most camp's expenses, and since such costs usually increase over time, camp revenues must also increase over time in order for the camp to survive and thrive. Here are some ways to increase your camp's revenue.
Tip 1 Measure and analyze your enrollment and your revenue.
Track your enrollment monthly and file your reports. Compare the current and prior year's enrollment at that time. Shown below is a sample resident camp enrollment report. It is divided by age group and by prior year and current year.
Each year, calculate and analyze your camp's re-enrollment percentage. Determine the number of campers eligible to return by taking the prior year's enrollment and subtracting the number of campers who are ineligible to return because of age. Then divide the number of returning campers by the number of campers eligible to return. A camp that runs seven weeks or more should aim for an 88 percent re-enrollment rate. Anything less than 80 percent is unacceptable. Camps with shorter sessions tend to have lower re-enrollment rates. A good target for a three- to four-week camp is 80 percent, and 60 percent is a good target for a two-week camp. Day camps that serve campers under ten or eleven should aim for 65 percent re-enrollment. Those that serve campers up to fifteen years of age should aim for 70 percent.
These industry standards are helpful, but the most important gauge is your own camp's historical performance. If your re-
Tip 2 If you're everything to everybody, you're nothing to anybody.
Like it or not, your camp is a brand. It means something to consumers—perhaps many, maybe only a few. Just as top brands like Wal-Mart® "Always Low Prices"; Bank of America "Higher Standards"; and Burger King® "HAVE IT YOUR WAY®" stand for something unique, so should your camp. Most of today's camps do not stand for anything unique. Scores of camps tout common catch-phrases like "Friendships for a Lifetime," or "Building Great Memories." Compare these to phrases such as "A day camp as complete as sleepaway," which is used by Camp Ramaquois in Rockland County, New York. Hearing this, a consumer immediately understands that her child will sleep at home yet have a sleepaway-like experience.
Hanging your hat on a unique positioning does not mean your camp cannot have other attributes. Indeed, depending on the type of camp you run, your camp must meet many qualifications. But the quality camps in any given sector of the market—whether private sports camps, nonprofit religious camps, or special needs camps—typically share many of the same attributes. These attributes are not differentiators. Rather, they are costs of entry— prerequisites to being considered as part of the category. For example, simply to be considered as one of the category of premium, full-season boys' sports camps, a camp must offer quality sports instruction; excellent, well-maintained facilities; and an organized and supervised program. All premium boys' camps share these attributes. The differentiating factors are often intangible and emotional. The chart below provides some examples of differentiators and costs of entry.
Tip 3 Discover your brand positioning.
Understanding the need to discover your positioning is only the beginning. The next step, actually identifying that positioning, is much more difficult. There is no surefire path, but there are steps to help you find your way. Study your competitors. Gather their marketing materials and find out if they have staked out a position. Ask your parents and campers what makes your camp unique. Common themes will likely emerge. Latch onto those themes. Next, record various iterations of those themes and present them to your existing campers and camp families. Determine which ones they find appealing. Remember, you are not trying to be something you are not. You are trying to find the most appealing way to present what you are.
Here are some questions to ask your campers and camp parents to help you discover your positioning:
Provide parents and campers an open-ended opportunity to respond. Listen to the answers. Do not merely seek an affirmation.
Tip 4 Live your positioning and shout it to the world.
Once you settle on a positioning, you must share it with the world. If you do not constantly tell people what you stand for, then others—often your competitors, sometimes well-meaning outsiders—will fill the void. Their messages will certainly differ from yours. Include your positioning in every communication with your existing parents, campers, and those who express interest in your camp. Highlight it in all of your promotional materials, on your Web site, in your end-of-summer letter, in your prospect letter, in your ongoing newsletters and on your logoed camp clothing.
Tip 5 Every contact and communication is a marketing opportunity.
All contact between your camp and your current customers and prospects sends a message. Pay attention to how everything you do communicates your message. The chart below explains some of the subtle, sometimes unintended, signals conveyed during a tour given by a resident camp for prospective camp families.
There are two types of expenses, operating and capital. The use of funds to provide services during the current year are termed operating expenses. Expenditures on projects lasting more than one year are capital expenditures. Salaries are operating expenses. The cost of a new building is a capital expenditure. Although the distinction between operating and capital expenditures is sometimes subtle, for purposes of this discussion, we assume the distinctions are clear. Controlling your operating expenses is just as important as increasing your revenue. The old Ben Franklin adage, "A penny saved is a penny earned," applies to every business.
Tip 6 Understand where to save.
People are the lifeblood of your camp and, indeed, of any business. Do not save money at the expense of keeping and rewarding good people. Rather, focus on saving money in other spending areas. Use the savings to retain and motivate your best people.
Tip 7 Track and analyze your spending.
The best and easiest way to control your expenses is to pay attention to them. The first step is to keep track by using accounting software. The Quickbooks® accounting software is inexpensive and easy to use. Use Quickbooks® or some other accounting software to set up your chart of accounts, which is a list of revenue and expense categories. Invoices, checks, and other spending records should be filed and easily accessible.
After setting up your chart of accounts, code every invoice, payroll charge, credit card charge, and expense report to the correct account and file the backup. All accounting systems enable you to compare current and prior year spending in all of the accounts. Take advantage of this functionality. If you notice a steep increase in spending in a particular account, investigate until you understand. For example, if you notice a sharp rise in your spending on athletic supplies, create a report showing every athletic supply purchase for the current and prior year grouped by vendor. Review the larger invoices. Check your inventory of athletic supplies. How much inventory remains? Did you over order? Who is ordering? Are they ordering better or more expensive products than you need? Are two people ordering the same things? Eventually, the truth will emerge.
Tip 8 Pay attention to price.
Pay attention to the prices you pay. Long distance telephone charges have fallen precipitously in recent years. Several years ago, these charges averaged seven cents a minute. Now they average less than four. If you are still paying seven, call your long-distance provider and pleasantly, but firmly request a reduction. If you don't get what you ask for, find a carrier who will charge less and switch to that carrier. Take a similar approach to cell phone charges. Check your monthly bill. If you are paying for minutes beyond your plan limit, contact your carrier and ask to change to a better plan. Shop around for your propane. Most summer camps pay too much for propane. One of the first things we do after purchasing a camp is compare the price that the camp pays for propane with the price that our other camps pay. Inevitably, the new camp is paying much more than our existing camps. We call the current supplier, explain that we understand that the price is too high, and kindly request a price reduction. The result is almost always an immediate 25 to 35 percent price reduction.
Tip 9 Bid where possible.
Most catalog vendors will provide price quotes. Indeed, many vendor catalogs invite camps to "contact us for a price quote." And a new Web site developed by American Camp Association, New York, www.campshoppingnetwork.com, allows ACA members to simultaneously request via e-mail multiple price quotes from vendors in a particular product category. Bid pricing generally beats the standard 10 percent discount that catalog vendors offer. If you do not have the time or inclination to prepare your own bids, you can engage an outside consultant to prepare and disseminate bids for you.
Tip 10 Special situation: camp laundry.
If your camp has excess septic capacity or is connected to a public sewer line, then build your own laundry facility. In 2005, one of our camps spent $35,000 to convert a building into a working laundry and staffed it with six seasonal employees. The camp's laundry expense declined from $40,000 in 2004 to $15,000 in 2005. Another one of our camps built its own laundry and realized similar savings.
Tip 11 Special situation: abatement of real estate taxes.
Challenge your real estate tax assessment at least every other year. Many attorneys will perform this service for a contingency fee and take one-third of any savings as compensation.
Tip 12 Special situation: food.
Although food is generally the second largest expense at resident camps (after personnel), it is the least understood by camp directors. There are two, interrelated aspects of food cost: material and preparation. Generally, the better the chef, the lower the food cost. A more expensive chef can save you money. The example below is illustrative.
Camp 1 has an excellent chef and does not use a food service. It spent $200,000 on food. Camp 2's chef is not as accomplished. It spends less on personnel but more on food. Camp 3 uses a food service. While using a food service is convenient, it is also expensive.
This type of multi-account analysis applies to many spending categories. Personnel expenses are another example. Recruiting expense, salaries, foreign staff fees and staff travel expense, benefits, and payroll taxes and charges must be analyzed together to determine and understand personnel costs.
Facility Management Maintenance
Tip 13 Maintenance saves capital expenditures.
Over the long term, investment in basic infrastructure and maintenance—roofs, foundations, septic systems, paint and drainage—saves money by forestalling expensive capital projects. Water tight roofs preserve buildings. Proper drainage prevents washouts that destroy buildings and roads. Maintaining septic systems avoids replacement and the costly, mandated upgrades attendant thereto. Keeping buildings off of the ground limits dry rot that undermines buildings.
Tip 14 Inspect and trim trees.
Falling trees and limbs are a significant hazard to people and buildings. Rarely and tragically, falling trees kill or seriously injure people at camp. Frequently, falling trees destroy valuable buildings. Dead or diseased trees and limbs should be removed and overhanging limbs should be trimmed away from roofs and pedestrian paths. Trees with roots growing under paved surfaces such as a court or road should also be removed. At least once every five years, retain a certified arborist to mark all hazardous trees in the immediate vicinity of buildings or people. Remove the hazardous trees. Cutting back trees has the added benefit of enhancing views.
Tip 15 Adopt and enforce a zero tolerance graffiti policy.
Graffiti, which usually appears on cabin, cubby, and bathroom walls, should not be tolerated. It is an eyesore, and its presence sends an unwanted message—that the camp takes little pride in its appearance and cannot control its campers. The only way to prevent graffiti or to rid a camp of graffiti is to remove all of it—by paneling or painting (sanding won't work)—and then adopting and strictly enforcing a zero tolerance policy. All staff must be enlisted in the effort. As soon as graffiti is spotted, it must be removed by the offender. A two-time offender should be sent home.
Some camps contend that their graffiti appeals to returning alumni who search the cabins for their names. Graffiti's negative impacts far outweigh this benefit. Bunk plaques are an excellent alternative. Every session, each cabin group creates a plaque listing its campers and counselors. The plaques, which are displayed in each cabin, enhance the cabin's appearance and confirm the camp's commitment to tradition and continuity.
Tip 16 Consider a trash compactor.
Camps that have multiple garbage dumpsters on site should consider installing a trash compactor. Dumpsters, which attract bears and other animals, can create an unsightly mess. Many waste collection companies will lease a compactor to a camp. The camp's only upfront expenses are the cost of bringing electricity to the site and of pouring a concrete pad. The annual costs of using dumpsters or a compactor are approximately equal; however, the compactor offers enormous maintenance benefits. It does not attract bears, reduces the number and duration of waste pickups, and neatens up the camp.
Tip 17 New fences make a big difference.
A cost-effective method of improving a camp's aesthetics is to remove old, chicken-wire fencing or netting that serves as fencing and replace it with black, chain-link fencing. The expense can be limited by retaining and painting the existing fence posts and attaching the new fencing to those posts.
Tip 18 Good maintenance staff need little direction.
If you find it necessary to continually provide your maintenance director with a list of projects, replace him. A good maintenance director proactively and continuously makes and updates his own lists of projects. This is not to say that a director who walks the camp property and makes notes is wasting her time. Two or three sets of eyes are always better than one. However, a good maintenance staff fixes most problems before the director notices.
Tip 19 Clean up your environmental messes.
Having a dump site at your camp is convenient, but when it comes time to borrow or sell, it will be a headache. If you have an old dump, clean it up. If you can't afford to clean it all at once, clean a little at a time. Likewise, remove all underground gas and oil tanks and replace them with above-ground tanks that have secondary containment. Underground tanks can leak without your knowledge. Spills are expensive and time consuming to remediate. If you remove a tank or a dump, retain a licensed contractor or professional consultant to assist you. This will spare you further expense by insuring that the remediation is properly documented.
Tip 20 Beware of "grandfathered" septic systems.
Many camp owners contend that they can continue to use a septic system that does not meet current health codes because the system's construction predates those codes and is therefore "grandfathered," i.e. permitted to continue in use even though it does not comply with current codes. True, a functioning septic system that predates the current septic code is generally grandfathered. However, most septic systems eventually fail. When they do, they must be replaced with code compliant systems. Take an inventory of your "grandfathered" systems and gradually replace those that do not comply with current codes.
Tip 21 Reinvest in your facility.
Failure to consistently reinvest in facility upkeep will eventually catch up to any camp. The camp will garner a reputation as "run down" and will find it increasingly difficult to attract new campers.
Tip 22 Showpiece buildings feed the ego but may not feed your family.
Many summer camp owners take great pride in their facilities. They consider their camps as extensions of themselves, expression of their identity. Some build breathtaking buildings. The construction of such buildings, although personally satisfying, doesn't always makes good business sense. Few people choose a camp based on its impressive buildings. Current and prospective camp families want to see that buildings are neat, clean, and in good repair. Most do not care if the camp has the "nicest buildings." The exception is a camp that positions itself as the "best that money can buy," or simply, "the best." Since it is difficult for any camp to prove that it has the best programming or the best staff, the one area where a camp can objectively support its claim to being the best is in the size and scope of its buildings. These reinforce a "best camp" positioning and are a wise choice for a camp seeking to capture that market.
Tip 23 Neatness counts.
Keep your camp neat and clean. A messy camp sends a message about camp safety. A visitor asks herself, consciously or unconsciously, "If the camp's directors tolerate this mess, how do I know they are making sure my child is safe?"
Tip 24 Signs matter.
Signs enhance a camp's appearance by tying the camp together in a visually appealing way. They also enhance a camp's brand by consistently displaying the camp's name and logo. Signs also help new campers, staff, parents, and visitors navigate the camp. Finally, consistent signage conveys the message that camp is well-organized.
Tip 25 Get along with the local community.
Camps that take their neighbors for granted do so at their peril. Irate neighbors can ruin a camp director's summer or her entire year. Unhappy neighbors are more likely to complain to the local authorities, question a camp's zoning, or complain to the police. Fortunately, it is usually (though not always) easy to maintain good relations with the neighbors and the community. The best way to keep your neighbors happy is to limit ambient noise, especially early in the morning and late at night. Do not invite post-camp groups that will disturb your neighbors. Face loudspeakers inwards, away from the neighbors. Contribute to local charities. Every contribution, however small, is appreciated. Join the local lake association. Invite the neighbors over for a picnic. Arrange for campers to perform in front of a community organization like a home for the elderly. Arrange for your campers to paint the local library. Send out a precamp letter announcing your camp dates and the dates of any particularly boisterous events such as a carnival or color war break.
Tip 26 Don't nickel and dime your customers.
Camp tuition represents a large expense for most people and a financial sacrifice for many. Don't stick your customers with petty charges (e.g., $30 for a photograph on visiting day or $5 for a video of a recital). Give them the photo or the video, or, if you can't afford that, don't do it at all.
Tip 27 Enhance your existing programs.
Great organizations focus on what they do best. Few try to satisfy everyone. Feel free to add new programs but not at the expense of your existing programs. If you add a program, seriously consider removing another program that is not up to par.
Tip 28 Be your own biggest critic; confront the brutal facts.
The only way to improve is to discover and understand your weaknesses. Take surveys. Talk to your campers and your camp families. Invite criticism. Criticism may be painful to hear, but it must be heard. One school of thought holds that "Sleeping dogs should be let lie." I disagree. The risk of stirring up criticism is far less than the risk of not addressing a problem because you don't know it exists.
Tip 29/30 Admit your mistakes and apologize for them.
If you make a mistake, admit it, apologize, and explain how you will correct the mistake or prevent a recurrence. Two examples follow: 1) Your camp generates noise late at night that disturbs your neighbors. Send your neighbors a letter apologizing and explaining what you will do to prevent a recurrence. Then, follow up to make sure that you do not repeat your mistake. 2) You neglect to follow through on a promise to a parent, and the parent inquires about the promise. Apologize to the parent and explain what you will do to make sure the promise is kept. Then follow up to make sure the request is satisfied, and call the parent to tell them so. Humans have a great capacity for forgiveness. They have no capacity for being ignored.
Daniel Zenkel is president and chief executive officer of CampGroup, LLC, which he and his father, Bruce Zenkel, founded in 1998. Prior to founding CampGroup, Dan practiced law and developed and managed real estate.
Originally published in the 2006 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.