by Jon C. Malinowski, Ph.D.
As reported previously in this series, Teen Research Unlimited, Inc. (TRU) found that 13 percent of 1,016 teens surveyed indicated that they would attend camp in 2007, and 55 percent said they would not attend. But these numbers mask regional differences that may affect camper and staff recruitment. With many camps drawing campers from all over the country and the ability of marketing materials to reach far beyond local areas, it's important for the industry to understand the regional differences in the propensity of today's teens to go to camp.
Map 1 shows the percentage of teens in each region of the country indicating that they would attend camp next summer. As you can see, teens in the mountain states of the west have the highest likelihood to attend camp. Because Mormon youth attend summer camp in high percentages, it's hard to tease apart whether this higher number is indicative of non-Mormon teens. The west south central region that includes Texas also has high percentages of youth indicating camp attendance. What's interesting about these two areas is that the American Camp Association traditionally has few camps in these regions, indicating that there may be opportunities to expand membership and support for camp initiatives.
The Middle Atlantic States, a core area of the camp industry, has low percentages of attendance and, as shown in Map 2, a high level of teens that indicate they will not attend camp. The data do not allow us to fully investigate why this region has lower percentages, but there are clues. For example, suburban and urban teens are less likely to indicate that they will attend camp than young adults from small towns and rural areas. So perhaps the lower propensity in the Middle Atlantic is related to a higher percentage of urban teens. Or it could be an ethnic divide. About 14 percent of White and Latino teens indicated that they would attend camp, but less than 10 percent of African-American teens did.
So, what does this mean for camp directors and camp professionals? Well, first of all, directors need to think out of the box when marketing their camp services. Many residential camps have campers from all over the country, so if you're looking to expand your market area, try starting in areas of the country where you already have campers and that also have teens more likely to attend camp. For example, an eastern camp with a base of campers from Texas or Colorado might offer referral bonuses to campers from those states that get a friend to sign up. These areas might be more fruitful because teens on the fence about camp might be surrounded by more friends who are already going away to camp the following summer.
Furthermore, make sure you use existing marketing materials to target nontraditional or emerging markets. If you want campers from a certain region or see growth from a particular city or state, make sure that the meta tags and content of your Web site specifically mention those states. For example, if you are a Pennsylvania camp with a lot of North Carolina campers, will parents in Raleigh find your camp if they search for "summer camp North Carolina"? They won't unless "North Carolina" is in your Web site's meta tags or text. If you don't know a meta tag from a laundry label, check with your Webmaster. Likewise, if you use online advertising, such as Google™ Adwords, you may be able to target your ads to parents and teens in certain areas. So, for example, if you see camperships rising among youth from Colorado, you can target your Web ads to be shown to only viewers from Colorado. If filling your spaces is a concern from year to year for you, you should certainly be tracking exactly where your campers live. Even day camps can benefit from knowing exactly where their campers live and whether their markets have changed over time. If you see growth in new areas, target them for marketing campaigns.
Ultimately, the most important piece of this TRU data may not be what was reported, i.e., the percentage of teens who will or will not attend camp, but the group of teens that did not indicate a decision. In other words, the teens who were undecided about going to camp may well be the most significant data. In 2006, there were an estimated 20.6 million Americans between the ages of ten and fifteen. The TRU study would indicate that roughly six million of them had not made a decision whether to attend camp or not in 2007. If the industry was able to convince even one percent of the "maybes" to attend, 60,000 more bunks would be full next summer. In the upper Midwest, for example, 39 percent of teens indicated no decision on whether they would attend camp in 2007. In a region that traditionally has a large number of excellent camps, this is a wonderful population to target in marketing campaigns. In all, only two regions of the country, the mountain states and the Middle Atlantic, have less than 25 percent undecided teens. In all other areas, there are large percentages of fence-straddling teens ready to be brought into the camp family.
Jon C. Malinowski, Ph.D., is professor of geography at the United States Military Academy, West Point, New York, the co-author of The Summer Camp Handbook, and a member of the American Camp Association Research Committee.
Originally published in the 2008 January/February