Marketing Matters: It's a Camper's Market

by Steve Cony

You’ve sent your marketing materials and one of those personalized-looking letters to parents about the benefits your camp can offer their child. Then you call to discuss price, safety, and your qualified staff, but the parents won’t even allow the conversation to proceed. And why? Their child has reviewed the mound of brochures, videos, maps, and more received to date and has not identified your camp as one of the finalists. What more could you have done? It is possible that you could have put more emphasis on marketing directly to the seat of camp decision making in the family — the child.

As a major auto manufacturer might say, it’s not a parents’ camp anymore! Today, the real camp consumer is often between the ages of eight and fourteen. Parents often set parameters of price, distance from home, and theme (sport, computer, arts, or general) and then allow the child to take over the decision process.

Understand Your Target Market

Before you revise or re-start your next marketing project, revise your understanding of the target market. Communications Counselors LLC, a communications consulting firm, conducted a camper focus group during the first quarter of 1999 with twenty typical campers. The participating campers fit into the following profile:

  • stressed out at school.
  • bored at home.
  • unable to sustain a reasonable attention span.
  • pre-occupied during free time with television and every conceivable application of the Internet.
  • emotionally loyal to camp and eager to maintain camp memories throughout the year.

Camp cures the rest-of-the-year syndrome
All focus group respondents told us that school life is highly stressful due to tests, homework, the rigors of sports, other extra-curricular activities, and peer relations. Camp kids view their summer life as an “oasis,” perhaps even a Utopia that liberates them from the stresses of the rest-of-the-year syndrome. Even though many kids spend an average of two hours daily watching TV and an average of five hours per week surfing the Internet, they still claim to long for the freedom and independence that camp represents to them.

When asked why their camp is the best, most said, “We have free time to do what we want.” And why do they want this free time? Campers responded by saying they need free time to hang out with friends and bunkmates.

Camp Kids’ Views

As a result of this successful focus group session, three children (two of which were from the original focus group) were invited to the Tri-State Conference in New York to offer their points of view to camp owners and directors about what they liked and disliked about camp marketing materials (i.e., brochures, videos, Web sites, etc.). Camp directors who attended the seminar were mesmerized by these child experts’ opinions and suggestions.

Good versus bad marketing materials
The children were given a collection of camp brochures in advance of the session. During the session, the panel of campers offered these helpful insights into their opinions of camp marketing materials:

  • Photos of campers with arms around each other smiling for the camera prove nothing.
  • Bunk photos are critically important, because bunk life is the “unknown” for a first-time camper.
  • Candid shots of campers in action are likely to attract significant interest. (Emphasis on candid.)
  • The waterfront is perhaps most loved and scenes of the lake and/or pool must include water play, not just lessons.
  • A daily schedule to explain what camp is really like is very important.
  • Color is imperative because black and white is boring. (No equivocation here.)
  • Web sites must be interesting and interactive; a photo of your camp entrance or some mountain means nothing.

Kids listen to kids
The campers also stated they prefer to hear endorsements of the camp from other campers, not from parents or the camp itself. Parents are insufficiently cool and can’t really prove to them the camp’s excitement, and the camp directors may be great-looking people, but they are strangers. When you include endorsements, such as interviews in a video or letters of praise reprinted in brochures, make sure to go beyond “I just love this place!” or “My camp is the best camp ever!” Go for why.

Year-round communication is key
When asked, “When do you think about camp?” Campers responded, “All year!” They said they daydream about camp from the first day of school to the last. One boy said, “I think about camp every time I sit down to take a test.” This reaction implies that a child’s interest in camp can be stirred and addressed at any time of the year. Keep in touch with your current campers on a continuous basis for the best shot at re-enrollments.

Things to Remember

Remember that the majority of your child prospects have never before been to camp. You must persuasively convey the spirit of camp, or they may opt to stay home and ride bikes or surf the Internet.

Remember, the make-new-friends mantra of almost all camp brochures will not set your camp apart from your competitors. Without getting specific, the premise is obvious (“Of course, I’ll make new friends if I hardly know anyone there.”) and the promise is shallow (“How can these strangers, thrown together with me, become good friends?”).

Also, remember that the children of the turn of the century are media-saturated people who have seen it all. Overly obvious claims and overly staged situations will lead to an immediate credibility gap. Your Web site is likely to be viewed in between visits to other Internet destinations, one more spectacular than the next. Finally, how can you expect children to crave what your camp offers so they can rescue themselves from their boredom if their very first contact with your camp lacks enthusiasm, energy, mystery, and fun?

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 1999 July/August issue of Camping Magazine.