Marketing Matters: Tour de Force

by Steve Cony

Here they come! First-time camp prospects — both children and parents — eager to tour your camp. For some camps, camp tourists become on-site guests during the season. For others, these visits occur off-season. For yet others, visitation is contained to open houses.

Regardless of when and how camp tours are given, every camp director wants their tours to succeed. After all, why go to all the trouble unless the ultimate goal is the highest possible conversion rate?

The In-Season Experience

If you are giving tours during camp operation, there are many ways to make sure these occasions pay for themselves.

  • Confine tours to prescribed days and times, and make sure that staff members know when guests can be expected.
  • Set aside a special point in the tour to tell guests about those things that cannot be shown: special events, evening activities, and mealtimes.
  • Make plans to drop in on staff members who are prepared to add special perspectives and their own narration to the tour.
  • Divide your attention between parent and child, adjusting for the chemistry you observe between them.

During the tour, be sure to address the issue of safety, especially when guests catch their first glimpses of activities such as high ropes courses, climbing walls, and zip lines. To you, these popular camp activities are routine. To the uninitiated, yet-to-be camp parent, seeing these mid-air activities in action can produce a high level of anxiety. Plan your tour route carefully so that you can address the issue of safety at camp before you approach your challenge course. Call attention to the carefully trained specialists who supervise the activity and to the protective gear that campers wear. Explain the low rate of accidents that occur on these activities.

Most important, select only those people who are superior representatives of your camp to be tour guides, not just anyone who happens to be available. Make sure the guides understand the total message you want to convey.

The Off-Season Experience

Off-season tours and open houses are often quiet and can be a bit bleak and forbidding, depending upon your geographic location. During these events, you must make camp “come alive” for visitors. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Plan your promotional video so it has a brief section you can play during open houses and off-season tours to show camp in operation.
  • Consider augmenting your promotional video clip with a staff video. Select a few outstanding staff members and have them “talk” to your mid-winter guests about themselves and their camp experiences. Powerful promotional videos are usually best produced by professionals; however, these interviews can be easily filmed with a video camera and tripod and a little know-how.
  • Enlarge and display great camp photos that impart the fun and excitement of your season.
  • Display a selection of good arts and crafts projects.

Tour Souvenirs

Perhaps the most pivotal point in a camp visit happens when the tour is over and the family heads for their car. People have a natural tendency to share their observations — especially their negative observations. Those first ten or fifteen minutes back in the car will likely represent a family’s chance to find fault.

You can neutralize potential negatives by giving guests something to take home with them. A bucket of popcorn or a Frisbee makes a nice statement about your hospitality or generosity, but it does not go far enough in continuing positive and strategically directed promotion of your camp. If visitors are with you because they have seen your brochure or your video, giving them another copy of either item does not further your message of encouragement. You need to add something that is more closely related to the visit itself.

Consider the tour souvenirs that some camps have developed:

  • A resident camp gives every family member a copy of their camp’s newspaper featuring articles about those things that could not be included on the tour. Articles include a calendar of typical evening activities and a restaurant critic’s review of the dining hall, and don’t forget comics for the children.
  • Another resident camp distributes audiocassettes containing information about the activities and events that could not be shown during the tour, plus interviews with campers and parents.
  • A day camp offers a map that says “You Were Here” rather than “You Are Here.” The map displays all the activities and the equipment that were gone from sight during a mid-winter open house.

A Memorable Tour

Find a way to make your camp memorable. Keep in mind that families touring in season need ways to remember your camp when they have completed their multi-camp tour circuit and that off-season tours need an atmospheric boost.

Also, many prospective families do not know what they should be looking for or asking questions about. Take the opportunity to help these families understand the deeper value of the camp experience. Alternately, if a family comes armed with a checklist, asking questions about numbers of bumper boats or lengths of rest periods, supportively redirect their attention to the teaching of emotional skills, the encouragement of self-belief, and the building of community for campers. After all, these values are what makes the camp experience meaningful.

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 1998 July/August issue of Camping Magazine.