The institution of summer camp exists and thrives in large part due to its traditions. If a summer camp experience left no footprint on the mind of a child, it is unlikely that next generations of campers would be encouraged so exuberantly by their parents to carry on the family history of going to camp.
However, camp directors and/or owners must be careful that the tendency to hold onto traditions does not result in a self-hand-tying exercise when trying to develop the strongest possible marketing effort.
Here are several traditions which all too often remain a part of camp marketing:
“We have always been modest about our efforts; we pretty much let the camp just speak for itself.”
Modesty has no place in marketing. Your brochures, Web site, video, direct mail, etc., are the vehicles that allow you to speak enthusiastically about all that you do for campers. You cannot expect people to first admire your modesty, then take over and build your sales message for you — in their own heads, all by themselves. You have to tell them what you do, then tell them again, and then tell them a third time.
“People know who we areand what we do; our alumniare very supportive.”
Perhaps. But your primary marketing objective is to create a sale to a non-“camp person.” Of course, many of your prospects are indeed camp alumni, eager to pass along the experience to their own children by enrolling them. However, when you establish your target as families where the parents have never been to camp, you will have more of a likelihood of building a strong message for everyone. Call these people “neophytes,” parents who do not carry with them from their childhood experiences the joy of going to camp. They need a higher level of salesmanship — and the higher road is always the way to go.
“We take pride in our brochure and video; they were produced for us by two of our counselors.”
This is a tough one. In many cases, camp professionals love to challenge people with unique assignments and then watch them rise to the occasion. Your staff may include good writers and good photographers and even a good videographer. The key issue: Are they good marketing writers, commercial photographers and/or experienced camp videographers. Probably not. Your prospective camp families — the real targets for all your marketing messages — do not know and do not care who produced the materials. Your prospects know only what they see. So the joy that a camp director may take in watching her or his counselors or even campers turn out newsletters, brochures, videos, and Web sites is not shared with the target audience. That new prospective camp family does not know your staff or your counselors, and they will not benefit from a possibly second-class marketing message.
“We like to trade spaces in camp for outside services, so we havea parent doing our video.”
Too many videos, photographs, etc., are thrown away after the fact, because some parents whose children wanted camp and were willing to trade their services were not the right ones to do the job. This may sound like an extension of the previously discussed concern — the one about over-empowering camp staffers — but there is a distinct difference. Many children have parents who are professional photographers or videographers or writers, and many of these parents are more than willing to get out into the sunshine and record your camp’s activities. However, many do not understand the subtleties of what camp is really all about, and their lack of understanding often shows up in their finished products. Just because someone is an award-winning photographer for National Geographic (a fictional example) does not mean that he or she understands how a camp must be portrayed or that he or she works well with children as the subjects of the photos.
“Camp is not a glitzy institution; our marketing materials must not look too slick.”
There is an important difference between creating perceptions of slickness and doing what is needed to gain a high level of attention for your message. If you err on the side of overly conservative communications, your message may just sort of fade into the background, and you will simply not get sufficient attention. Particularly if your camp is being compared to others during the decision process, your goal is to get noticed first and to get appreciated foremost. When your materials end up looking like everyone else’s, “because that’s the camp tradition,” then you have lost.
“My campers love it here, but I still don’t like getting testimonials from them. It makes them look like commercial spokespeople.”
Kids are your best references. At the Tri-State Conference, sponsored by the American Camping Association — New York Section in association with the New Jersey Section and the Keystone Regional Section, panels of children have regularly reported that they trust hearing about a camp directly from the campers, rather than only from some announcer. Camper testimonials, carefully edited so that things don’t sound overly forced, are the most effective messages you can share with prospective families.
“I have to edit Eddie the Counselor out of the video; he isn’t here on our staff anymore.”
Your marketing message does not promise the availability of everyone shown, unless you name them and feature their titles and/or their history with the camp and/or the vital role they play. People understand that employees come and go, so there is no need to constantly be re-doing all of your marketing tools to accurately reflect your staff. Even when you dismiss a staffer, it may not necessarily be a reason to exclude that person from the marketing package. Remember that your package almost always goes to a prospect, not to an existing camp family. Of course, discretion is highly advised, but some camp directors are too hard on themselves in this respect and end up re-inventing the wheel every year or so for no particularly good reason.
“I’ve got some great footage of last year’s Color War, where the kids are absolutely going wild! The seniors are all painted with war paint and they are having such a great time fake-terrorizing everyone! I thinkwe’ll add it to our video.”
Hmmm. First, be aware that many of your prospects are neophytes, who do not understand many camp traditions such as Color War. Second, many of your prospective parents are very protective — some overly protective — of their children. Finally, always remember that most of your prospects are families that include children, who are often between the ages of eight and eleven, and certain images may seem overwhelming to them prior to a first camp experience. Color War is just one of many camp traditions that usually do not belong in your marketing message.
“Marketing? Oh, I’ll just do what I did last year with new rates and dates.”
If you only do what you’ve always done, you’ll only get what you’ve always gotten. Marketing is not a static activity; you must remain proactive so as to make your image fit with all the other images absorbed in our marketplace. Just as you annually consider improving camp with new and innovative facilities, equipment, programming, and staff-training techniques, so must you maintain an “of-the-moment” marketing program. Make the goal of expecting more from your marketing program into one of your most cherished traditions, and you will see how hard your marketing investment can work for you.
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 or e-mail email@example.com 
Originally published in the 2003 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.