Marketing Matters: Adding Focus — Doing Your Own Market Research

by Steve Cony

The first question camp professionals often ask about market research is: Does it really apply to something as basic and as genuine as camp? This is the nice way of saying: Isn’t market research mostly for things like consumer package goods? The answer: yes — and no. Yes, market research has significant value for camps, and no, it is not just for Madison Avenue and the like. When the product is the summer camp experience, you need as much input as possible regarding what people — both children and parents — desire so that you can continually evolve your offerings to meet needs and perceptions.

You have an excellent opportunity to conduct focus group research, similar to the process used by providers of products and services worldwide, and you do not need to hire expensive professional focus group moderators to do so. Instead, you can do this kind of work yourself, relying on the close and supportive relationships you establish with campers to produce priceless results.

Campers can provide rich feedback, and you have easy access to them right during the season. Once back home, children tend to lose vivid memories of all they did during the summer. However, in the middle of a camp session, they are immersed in the experience and find it easier to speak their minds. Priceless direction for the future can be yours, and all you may have to do is to invite a bunk group into your cabin for an hour.

How to Conduct a Focus Group

Consider the following steps when designing and conducting focus groups at your camp.

Determine your goals
Develop a written set of objectives for your research. Do you want to find out about preferences among activities? Attitudes toward staff? Motivation to enroll? Likelihood that campers will recruit friends for the next season? You cannot do everything in one session, so make sure that your focus group has focus.

Recruit your interview subjects
Choose a bunk group or bunk groups that are sufficiently mature to answer the questions you will pose. Try to begin your work with an amiable group that does not contain campers with identified behavior problems. Tell the bunk counselors what you will be doing but also ask them to not preview the session with the campers.

Keep the group campers only
Explain to the bunk counselors that they will not be present. Make sure they understand that this is not done to encourage campers to talk about them, but rather to keep the conversation flowing directly between camper and director or senior staffer.

Choose the correct occasion
This project should be done toward the end of a session, after campers have had sufficient exposure to your camp’s experience and when they feel very comfortable with each other. Do not take campers away from a highly desired activity. Instead, try to use rest period and invite the group into your office or home. Have water and a bathroom easily at hand. Make sure everyone is comfortable.

Explain the project
Tell campers you are interested in their opinions about several issues at camp. Make sure they know there are no correct and incorrect answers, that people’s opinions are never wrong. Set ground rules for the discussion so all campers have a chance to participate and so that everyone’s contribution is respected.

Tape record the session
You cannot expect to recall all the important feedback you will receive. Do what professional focus group moderators do: turn on a tape recorder. Tell the campers you are doing this. They will very quickly forget any shyness or any desire to show off.

Channel the discussion
Do not ask questions such as “Do you like waterfront activities?” Do give campers choices as a means to express themselves. For example, “If you had a choice between waterfront and arts and crafts, but you could only choose one and then would go to that activity every day, which would you choose? Why?” If waterfront emerges as the clear winner, then a follow-up question might be “OK, how about waterfront or horseback riding?”

Keep things positive
Do not allow the discussion to deteriorate into a gripe session. Make sure that problems are balanced with identification of favorite things. Do not let one or two eager participants dominate the conversation; keep dialogue moving around the room and encourage campers to interact with each other as well as with you.

Write a report
Immediately at the end of the camp season — or even during the season — listen to the tape and write a summary of your conclusions based on the responses. Make this report and the tape available to senior staff.

Use the findings
Make this project actionable, so you feel value in having gone through the process. Put what you learn to good use, taking care to filter out responses that you firmly believe are not to be taken as reliable.

Share with parents
Let parents know that their children’s opinions are vitally important. Tell them what you did, why you did it, and how you plan to use what you learned.

Responses from Focus Groups

The minute children realize they are being taken seriously, they open up and can become very constructive. For the past three years, groups of children have comprised panels at the Tri-State Camping Conference in New York. These sessions have revealed some interesting findings.

For instance, the children said that marketing messages that concentrate on swimming pools and tennis courts are simply showing them images already well understood. Instead, the children desired an understanding of bunk life. As one panelist said, “That’s the part of camp we are nervous about since living and sleeping with a group of kids in a big room is something we have yet to do when we are thinking about a first camp experience.”

The panelists also said that daily schedules — when included in brochures and on Web sites — actually make them nervous that camp might be highly scheduled like their school year. They want advance reassurance that camp will include time to relax and just hang out with the other campers.

In regard to videos, the children stated that they prefer hearing directly from campers rather than from an unseen narrator. They watch carefully for the testimonials of their peers, and they find them significantly more believable than scripted descriptions.

Just as these sessions provided insights, your own focus groups — concentrating on the specifics of your camp operation — can be a most creative use for rest period.

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 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.