The challenge for any business is to stay successful — especially in tough economic times. The summer camp industry faces two significant additional challenges that have emerged in recent years — the need to compete with the growing number of readily available alternatives to traditional summer camp and a growing movement in our culture toward offering youth immediate gratification and constant fun and entertainment. I remember one reluctant camper I spoke with who said that "nothing at camp is as fun as my computer and video games." His parents let him come home from camp less than a week later, and he never returned. Sadly his story is all too common.
Unfortunately, a growing number of camps are changing their programs to appeal to this pervasive cultural trend. One camp I know eliminated its weekly campfires because too many campers complained that they were boring. Another camp now hires staff to do many of the camp chores like cleaning the bunks, etc., because too many parents complained that it wasn't something they valued their children learning to do. A growing number of other camps give teens abundant freedom and make all sorts of special exceptions and special deals with parents. Some prioritize investing more in flashy toys than in developing skills in working with youth.
All of this is to stay competitive in the marketplace. Some do it reluctantly — some aggressively and willingly. Regardless, every camp has had to come to terms with these challenges. Each must ask the essential question of where is the line of compromise that they won't cross. Each time a family chooses another camp because of the fun and exciting toys or special glamorous trips they offer — or even worse because of the special deals the other camp will offer — the issue is revisited. For many camps, this is becoming a daily concern.
While it is easy to make value judgments about camps who have acquiesced to fun and indulging the campers, it is more intriguing to look at camps that have chosen not to yield to the marketplace pressure, but rather chose to raise the level of expectation higher than it was before. Interestingly, these camps continue to earn positive feedback and support from parents — parents who previously were choosing camps that offered all those excesses.
Trail's End Camp
The directors discovered that families were making their camp decision based on whether the camp had the latest gadgets and activities to ensure that their child wouldn't be missing out on activities and comforts their friends might get at other camps. And in some cases, the child was making the decision of which camp to attend rather than the parent. Requests for special favors that would be exceptions to the rules were becoming common — and often the reasons for these requests were not even legitimate. Common requests included extra phone calls that the parents said their child "needed;" certain foods for dietary concerns, which they found out were simply favorite breakfast cereal; special placement of a bed because of phobias that never really existed. What did exist were special deals parents made with their child to get their child what he or she wanted.
When the directors confronted parents on these issues, the response was usually that a nearby camp was allowing their friend's daughter to do it. When the directors talked about fairness, they heard about how "camp should just be fun." Rather than have the support of these parents in teaching essential values, they were being challenged to be as much "fun" as their competition. The directors were being asked to compromise their essential values of the camp experience, and this was a line they were not willing to cross — even if it meant losing business.
Trails End Camp made a decision one autumn day five years ago to become uncompromising. What has transpired since is a model for camps working with parents and families.
Defining Our Culture
In a series of meetings and weekend-long retreats that winter and spring, staff compiled a comprehensive mission statement — with input from various sources including veteran camp staff, young group leaders, and activity-area directors. "We had a group of people who were committed to the process of defining who we were and what the culture of our camp was to be," says Honigfeld.
The Trail's End mission states that the camp is "a community of positive people living in a positive way" where "success is based on attitude, not aptitude." The mission statement applies to everyone in the community including campers, parents, and staff — which means that there must be "one standard for all."
To put their plan into action, Trail's End staff invested countless hours in training themselves to communicate in ways that matched this statement. They altered aspects of their program to insure they lived it exclusively. They made some significant changes in staffing leadership positions. Every decision in camp was referenced against whether or not it was in line with their mission. The commitment and time invested was enormous and continues to be a top priority to this day. "There is not a day that goes by that I don't refer back to the mission statement. I have it in a frame on the wall in my office, on the cover of the staff manual, and even on each bunk's bulletin board," remarks Honigfeld.
In the end, Trail's End sacrificed nothing in terms of the quality of the camp's programs, and the campers still enjoyed themselves. The obvious change is that the campers find themselves experiencing more success in positive ways — and the focus of the camp experience shifted back to the quality of relationships and the support that creates opportunities for counselors to help children grow. Parents began to get on board with their approach . . . albeit some more slowly than others.
"I remember the first time I addressed one particular parent's issue and told her quite frankly, ‘This is not about your daughter, this is about your struggle to let go and let your child go through the growing pains which are inevitable.' The mother was stunned at not only my unwillingness to acquiesce to her request for special treatment but by my bluntness in telling her where the responsibility lies," said Honigfeld.
Honigfeld had no idea that by the end of that conversation that parent would apologize for her behavior and thank him. He was willing to have the mother pull her daughter from camp, rather than compromise the camp's values and integrity. Instead, however, the mother became one of camp's greatest advocates and still thanks Honigfeld and his co-owners and directors Stan and Starr Goldberg. "The stories we have like this now are endless — and many are the same parents who just a summer before were expecting us to raise their children by the values of the communities they came from, not the values we aspired to at camp!"
The value of the camp's structure and discipline continues to reap rewards. Parents who may have questioned the camp's guiding principles when their children were young are overwhelmingly supportive as their children reach the early teen years — the years when children naturally want to test every limit they can.
"The key," explains Honigfeld, "is to know for certain who you really are, and then to become uncompromising in your commitment to insure you live it. Fun is still one of our highest priorities — we just make sure that each of the ‘fun' activities is done in a way which is in line with our mission statement."
"While we were confident we would succeed in taking back our camp, we never thought that the results would be so dramatic," reveals Honigfeld. "It is amazing how much of a difference doing this work has made and how much commitment it takes to do it. No doubt it is the most worthwhile investment we've ever made. Investment of time, money, personnel . . . is worth more than words can describe."
Campus Kids Minisink
Making Parents Part of the Team
Jani Brokaw is one of the owners of Campus Kids, a unique Monday to Friday residential camp two hours from New York City. When Campus Kids opened its third location in 2001, Brokaw saw an opportunity to take her passion for the camp experience to a new level. Building upon the successful reputation of Campus Kids' ten-year history, Brokaw aimed to create a camp that parents selected primarily for the intangible qualities associated with personal growth that their kids would learn, rather than just the exciting and fun facilities.
Starting literally with no campers, Brokaw could create whatever she wanted, while staying true to the basic philosophy of Campus Kids — a child-centered program. Brokaw, whose background includes thirty years of running camps in both the nonprofit and for-profit sectors, had already expanded several camps successfully. She'd also committed to countless hours of training in developing her own counseling skills. Initially motivated by her desire to effectively raise her two sons through adolescence, her path led her to a passion for inspiring young people to believe in themselves and to operate their lives from an authentic state of possibilities.
Life Learning and Fun
"Before parents even see the facilities, they are told that our program is designed to bring out the best in their children, to teach the children ‘growing up skills,' and, most importantly, provide them with the skills to approach each life challenge from a mindset of possibilities. We repeat this message," explains Brokaw, "several times again, especially when they come to take a camp tour."
Brokaw's approach demands that she be uncompromising. She very much subscribes to the notion that if you appeal to everyone then you must be doing something wrong. "Occasionally we'll get the parent who begins asking for all sorts of things that are not aligned with the values we want to impart or the structure of our program. While it would be easy to take a camper for three weeks instead of four, it demands compromising the program in ways I just can't — not if I still want to get the specified outcomes. I am comfortable telling parents, ‘We may not be the right camp for you.'"
Brokaw continues, "Often, when I say that, the parent looks at me in shock — taken aback that I am not willing to do anything I can to make the sale. They tell me what a contrast this is to some of their other experiences. For me, however, this approach ensures that I always demonstrate behavior that I want my staff to demonstrate — to be honest, consistent, and positive."
A Leap of Faith
The results of her approach are nothing short of phenomenal — 98 percent of families who came to meet her and tour the camp the first winter enrolled their children. This success continues — in just her third summer in business in 2003 she had over 240 campers.
Parents expect that their children will have loads of fun at Campus Kids Minisink — just as they'd expect from any camp. They also expect that their children will deal with the tougher issues of growing up here, too. In fact, most would be disappointed if they did not!
There are those parents who occasionally forget and try to demand the camp pamper or make exceptions for their children. "Occasionally I'll get an upset parent on the phone," explains Brokaw, "and I'll listen. Then I remind him what it is we are really here to do. I ask, ‘What is it that you really want for your child?' We usually agree quickly that what matters is that the child learns and grows — even if in the short term it's not such fun."
Parents are recognizing the value of their child's experience at camp, states Brokaw. "We are growing our reputation as a program that truly empowers and teaches life lessons and skills to create a better future for youth. The fact that they have a blast doing it is truly secondary. And the enrollment is booming!"
Campus Kids Minisink continues to learn and grow — facing challenging situations and working with kids who've had a lot of difficulties. The staff knows the program is still far from perfect, but as Brokaw explains, "…we are further along the path to being the caliber of summer camp I dream of than I would have thought possible a decade ago."
Two Camps on the Cutting Edge
Uncompromising intent. Commitment to acquiring the skills. Knowing who you are and presenting only this to the world. Trail's End Camp and Campus Kids Minisink are two camps who are accomplishing what they most value in the camp experience — and they are doing it without compromise, despite the troubled economy, and in spite of the culture at large.
Jeffrey Leiken, M.A., is a professional counselor who travels internationally training organizations who work with children. He has worked with over 100 summer camps. To learn more about this program or his other services, visit his Web site, www.MentorCounselor.com , or contact him at 415-441-8218 or by e-mail at Jleiken@MentorCounselor.com .
Originally published in the 2004 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.