Marketing Matters: The Right Staff

by Steve Cony

Do you remember the movie The Right Stuff, about the meticulous selection and training of astronauts by NASA? If you consider every marketing contact between your camp and the public as a mission, there are some interesting parallels.

First, it is important to recognize most prospective camp families as “neophytes.” While there are many families where the parents have fond memories of camp, there are many others where the summer camp experience has never been important or even existent in their lives. These families shop for a first-ever camp session as if they were shopping for their first-ever computer. They are unaware of the issues, the questions, and — most important — the seriousness of their new purchase.

If you design your marketing messages not for the camp-is-my-life type of parents but rather for the neophytes, you will not go wrong. Inherent in this targeting is an understanding of the importance of people’s in-going perceptions. Parents have expectations of what camp is supposed to be like. You must begin with an understanding of these perceptions in order to create a basis of acceptance for what you have to tell them. You can address these perceptions, and you can alter some of them, but you cannot make them go away.

Sound Friendly

Starting with the telephone, people expect a camp to sound friendly in every way. After all, you’re that place that creates fun and friendship. If the first voice ever heard at the camp sounds disinterested, distracted, and — most important — a bit gruff, then your camp does not sound like it is supposed to sound. So, beginning with the sound, you must send in the people who are most fit for the challenge. (Like those astronauts.)

Deploy Knowledgeable Reps

Camp is perceived to be a detail-oriented place where people are knowledgeable to a fault. These perceptions help parents muster the trust needed to send their children off into your care. Therefore, to send someone out into the marketplace who cannot answer basic questions such as “What are the fees for next summer?” can undermine all confidence in an instant. There is no substitute for sending in the pros.

When you choose representatives to staff a camp fair display, make sure they are knowledgeable and that they understand that camp fair participation is selling — nothing less. When you hold an open house, choose carefully those who will speak.

Portray “Summer Ambience”

The issue of camp tours is perhaps one of the most critical points of contact between you and your prospective families — definitely a “critical mission,” in NASA parlance. No matter what time of year families choose to tour your facilities, do everything you can to fulfill their expectations of what “camp people” are like — youthful, exuberant, and knowledgeable.

Remember that midwinter tours and open houses at a camp facility can be pretty dismal treks. You need to do all you can to make these events cheerful and bright, evocative of the real summer ambience. Consider hiring a senior staffer to return every Saturday and Sunday throughout the year to lead tours with all the pep that she exhibits with campers during the season.

Regardless of your chosen tour guides, winter tours should include a brief video that lovingly portrays camp the way it is meant to be seen: in session. This is a perfect opportunity to include brief interviews with staff members who personify perceptions of camp people.

Create Memorable Images

When choosing the messages for your marketing materials, your goal is to create memorable images. It is important to choose photos and video clips that feature people who best match the marketplace’s perceptions of camp folks. It is also necessary, at this point, to recognize that perceptions do not always match reality. That realization, however, cannot undermine the importance of those perceptions.

Some camp directors have photos and video footage of perfectly typecast staff members but are skittish about using them because those people are no longer employees of the camp. This is no reason to exclude them from your marketing materials. Your brochure, video, and Web site are not expected to be accurate rosters of your current staff. They are meant to portray the overall direction and spirit of your operation. If a former counselor presents the perfect image, feature that person even if he is no longer with your camp.

A superior camp operation is founded on the importance of democracy in action. Camp marketing is different. The staff member who gains the love of all campers may not have the ability to communicate that same trust and caring in a video sound bite. The camp director who demands that a brochure or video be edited to accurately reflect the true “camp heroes” may be bypassing the opportunity to best meet prospects’ perceptions and expectations.

One camp had a senior group head who was an absolute legend. He could not pass a single camper anywhere without becoming a beloved clown. Campers spent winters daydreaming of him; he spent winters dreaming up new bits and routines to make the summer yet more fun-filled. When it came time to produce a new video, the camp director made it plain that this group head must be featured prominently. But when the camera rolled, he panicked and could not form complete sentences. The environment of camp was his to own, the medium of video was not. A young first-year counselor stepped in and became a mesmerizing face and voice for the camp, turning in a performance she never expected to deliver. Viewers of the video have no idea that she was a rookie, nor that the most beloved member of the staff lies motionless on the cutting room floor.

Capitalize on “Mission Critical”

NASA has its own definition of “mission critical.” When you have nothing more than a brief, fleeting opportunity to convince a family that yours is the right place for a child to spend the first of what could be summer camp sessions over multiplies of years, you too have a mission critical. If you are being considered among other competing camps, the critical nature of the mission multiplies.

Marketing is much more than chronicling; it is persuading. The persuasion task takes place in an environment of competing messages and options. To effectively market your camp, you cannot afford to deploy anyone less than “the right staff.”

Steve Cony is a marketing consultant who assists children's camps with the development of strategic plans and the execution of marketing materials. Camp directors may contact him at 914-271-8482.

Originally published in the 2001 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.