Eight or so years ago, handfuls of camps with vision began to invest in ropes courses and climbing walls. They signed contracts with those who would construct, teach, and maintain ropes course programming for their camps. The next move was to feature this newly installed equipment on brochures, in videos, and on Web sites. For a while, it all looked mysterious and intriguing and certainly quite different. The movement mushroomed until a point when a camp without a climbing wall was like a camp without an arts and crafts program. Within a few short years, equipment that could once serve to differentiate a camp in a positive manner was — well, old hat.
Now camps are rushing to purchase inflatable rafts, trampolines, and other shaped bouncing equipment — to be anchored so many yards out into the lake for the edification and jubilation of their campers. Once again, some water experiences that might have served to differentiate an innovative first purchaser are about to become rather common.
Your product — the summer camp experience you create for your campers — deserves distinctive marketing. The most basic strategy to insure distinctiveness in your marketing message is to determine and then stick to a Unique Selling Proposition (USP) — a niche, if you will — for your own particular brand of camp experience.
Here is the drill. You must do some soul-searching, some group discussion involving senior staff, and perhaps even some organized research among your customers — all to determine what exactly makes your camp different and unique. You must not be lulled into believing that those photos of your waterfront are magical, even though you maintain the docks and the fleet meticulously.
The fact remains that the competing camps have waterfronts, too. And, to the uninitiated (prospective parents and their children), one waterfront looks pretty much like the next. That is just one example. In broader terms, you must take care to not accept that your own personal display of same-old-same-old camp activities will be met by an audience just waiting to painstakingly discover why your camp is the preferred alternative.
You must tell prospects why your camp is different and why this difference has significant value for them. Of course, in order to communicate a USP, you must first determine what that USP is — and you must also feel confident with it. Here are some aspects of a camp operation that may yield your particular USP:
Do you have a particular approach to your entire operation that would serve to distinguish you from competing camps? In answering this question, it is important not to turn automatically to your mission statement. Please pardon what may seem like heresy, but too often mission statements are based on platitudes and generalities, which do not translate into identifiable differences. If your mission statement says that you will provide new and valuable experiences for children in a loving, caring, and nurturing manner . . . this is not enough to distinguish you from the camp down the road! However, there are examples of operating philosophies that permeate an entire camp and that do sound unique. If a camp makes acceptance and kindness into ingrained themes, then a campaign centered around “our Tease-Free Zone” can work well. If a camp concentrates on friendship, this — when served up creatively — can make a very positive impression.
Many specialty camps find it easy to develop a positive differentiation. Even for a general interest camp, are there aspects of your program that serve to make you look unique? Are there particular activities around which your camp has built a year-to-year reputation, even while maintaining a total schedule that appeals broadly? For example, does your camp offer a very wide variety of activities yet have one area such as dramatic arts that excels? In a case like this, the idea of emphasis on dramatics — and a reputation for its excellence — could be translated into the benefits of self-confidence and self-awareness, which acting/singing/dancing can provide — even for the most inexperienced campers.
Everyone has a “mature, experienced, and professional staff.” This overused set of attributes does not go far enough to distinguish a camp’s counselors and specialists. However, some camps have staffs, which include true “superstars,” whose brief biographies can set a perceptual standard that truly makes a case for “there are staffs and then there are staffs.”
There is a Pennsylvania camp that bases its entire marketing message around its staff — and proves its dedication in this area by explaining that no staff interview is less than three hours in length and that some are as long as five hours. A camp which experiences consistently positive interaction between campers and its international counselors can build a case for teaching acceptance and for giving campers a global perspective. Camps that concentrate efforts in order to maintain a stateside staff have other opportunities to use this particular focus in order to differentiate.
Equipment and Facilities
In order to place emphasis on the higher value of the summer camp experience, there has been strong emphasis on not relying on equipment or facilities in order to help close a sale. When you encounter parents who compare the number of bumper boats or the heights of climbing walls camp to camp, it is important to try to shift their focus upward. At the same time, you might have invested in certain types of equipment or facilities, which enhance specific learning and growing experiences for the campers — and this relationship of equipment or facilities to benefits could become valuable imagery for you.
Many camps begin their marketing stories with their locations. It should be understood that “out in the wide open spaces” or “amid the towering pine trees” or “up here in New England” is not enough to lend distinctiveness to your positioning. However, a camp in the Colorado Rockies that recruits campers from a wide geography can indeed use its location as a valuable selling point — if it carefully explains what this particular location lends to the total camp experience for the child. Just to say “the Rockies are magnificent” is not sufficient.
Some camps cater to specific populations — for children with various special situations and needs. Beyond this, however, you can benefit from analyzing the families that gravitate toward your camp year after year. There are camps with overwhelming atmospheres of acceptance for all campers that are known as safe havens for children who do not dwell at the center of the social circle back home and in school. For these children, camp can be a wonderful opportunity to “reinvent” who they are — and this can be a distinguishing characteristic for a particular operation. A camp that tends to cater toward high-achieving children included a unique photo in its brochure — a boy reading Homer’s Odyssey in the comfort of an Adirondack chair. The camp owner told me that this shot attracted more positive parent attention than any other photo in the brochure.
Find Your Niche
It is no longer sufficient to announce your annual rates and dates, and then call it a day. In most cases, the world is not standing out on the road, just waiting for you to open the gates for this year’s registration. You need to approach the market with compelling reasons for parents to choose your camp. Among these reasons, one should stand out as having significantly high value, and your presentation of this USP should be memorable. In order to create that memorability, the message should be a creative one, and it should be used consistently from one marketing tool to the next. Every aspect of your sales presentation should serve to reinforce that positioning.
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 2003 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.