As I’m sure is true with many camps, we spent several weeks last October and November recruiting and visiting families in the major cities from which we draw campers. It is a fun and sometimes exhausting time of year — late nights, many new faces, camp events, reunions, and time away from home. Throughout the trip, I was struck by a pattern that has always been present but had escaped the focus of my attention: Many parents don’t know why they want to send their children to camp or what they expect their kids to get out of it.
Eventually, of course, parents who click the Register button will have arrived at a reason for sending their child to camp. Something they heard at an information session or from a friend made that parent believe her child will benefit in some way, or at least enjoy camp as much as his or her friends from school do.
But I was surprised by the number of parents who arrived at our events last fall without knowing why or even if they really wanted to send their child to camp at all. They heard from a friend that camp was a great experience, but beyond that, they weren’t really sure yet. Was camp right for their child? Was their child ready? Was camp really worth the cost and the time away from their child? Which was the bigger sacrifice?
These are reasonable questions, but they are the questions of an unmotivated buyer. Unmotivated buyers aren’t ready to compare camps, make visits, and invest in relationships with directors. They don’t even know whether they want to be shopping at all.
Educating unmotivated buyers is part of being in business, and we can expect to encounter this type of parent as long as we are still selling the idea of camp. But what if we could create more motivated buyers? What if we could work with more parents who already believe with vigor that their child will be attending camp, and they just have to find the right one?
There is a simple argument we can use to create more motivated buyers and, in fact, that we must use if the American Camp Association® (ACA) is to reach its 20/20 Vision.

Parent Motivation and the 20/20 Vision

Twenty million is a big number. When the ACA adopted the 20/20 Vision in 2007 (the goal of 20 million children attending camp by 2020), about 10 million children attended camp that year. The latest information on the ACA website suggests that as of 2010, 11 million children attend camp every year. Even if that growth trend accelerates, it will take a substantial effort throughout the industry to reach 20 million campers by 2020. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.
In announcing the 20/20 Vision, ACA’s then CEO Peg Smith identified five Brutal Truths that were the impetus for such an ambitious goal. Among these were the following:
  • “We serve too few.”
  • “Many parents do not embrace camp.”
  • “Our brand, camp, is losing relevance.”
Those are good observations with which we must contend. They are also issues of parent motivation.
ACA also published three Pillars of Hope to which we can look for guidance in growing our industry:
  • Our intimacy with nature and ability to address nature deficit disorder
  • Our opportunity to help kids make good friends and develop healthy relationships
  • Our capacity to help children build confidence
These pillars are excellent goals for any camp, but will they get parents jumping from their seats and racing to sign their kids up for camp? Arguably, no. In a vacuum, any parent wants their child to appreciate the outdoors, have good relationships, and be confident. But most parents either don’t think these areas are a problem for their kids, or they think there are better or less-expensive ways to address any shortcomings.
If we are really going to grow camp attendance significantly and on a national scale over the next six years, we must rethink our strategy for motivating parents. They must feel that they cannot let their children miss out on the benefits of camp.
What basic argument is so motivating to parents that they will think of camp not as a fun luxury, but as a developmental necessity? ACA’s primary campaign since launching the 20/20 Vision has been called “Because of Camp . . . ®”, which is sentimental but perhaps not motivating. What if, instead, it was “Camp Creates Advantage for Kids”?

What Motivates Parents?

Let’s briefly revisit what we know about parent motivation before assessing how a new approach might influence the way parents look at camp.
If parents loved going to camp themselves, they will have a strong motivation to send their children to camp. But far fewer children went to camp 30 years ago, so it is likely that only a small portion of the 20 million campers targeted by 2020 will be legacies. If we are to grow, we need to learn to make an argument that compels parents who are new to camp to give their children an experience they did not receive themselves.
One defining characteristic of many parents who are new to the idea of camp is caution. They are cautious about entrusting their child to a group of strangers. They are cautious about sending their child away for a summer. They are cautious about spending a lot of money on something they aren’t even necessarily sure they want.
So what will turn these cautious prospective parents into motivated buyers? Creating advantage for their kids. Camp creates advantage by providing an experience through which children can build the skills that predict for success in college, career, and life: resilience, independence, optimism, self-regulation, and the ability to connect with others. As long as safety concerns can be met, most parents will be far more motivated by an opportunity to create an advantage for their child than by a chance to entertain or amuse their child.
Our challenge is that most parents don’t yet make an association between summer camp and these skills, so they don’t know to ask about it. Many fail to ask about growth or outcomes at all. As camp directors, we must take it upon ourselves to provide parents with this language.

Making the Argument: Camp Creates Advantage

Over the last five years a growing tidal wave of research makes it clear that there are a certain set of skills that predict for long-term success in life — and those are the skills being taught at summer camp. Academic performance may help students get into a competitive college, but it is grit, tenacity, optimism, and self-control that will get them through to graduation. Most camp directors already know and understand this, but as an industry we can do a better job of making this argument. We must show parents that camp is uniquely positioned to build exactly the skills their children will need to thrive not only in college, but in their careers as well.
For example, did you know that Princeton’s Dean of Admissions has recommended that high schoolers return to their summer camps to be senior leaders and counselors (Rapelye, 2012) instead of other academic or resume-building opportunities? I didn’t know that until I started researching this article. You’d better believe that every prospective parent I meet for the rest of the year is going to hear about it though.
Did you know that in April of 2014, CNBC ran an item titled “Summer Camp May Improve College Admission Odds”? That link has now been posted to our website as evidence for prospective parents.
Have you ever spoken with a parent about the Partnership for 21st Century Skills? This organization has published reports that describe the critical skills major American employers desperately want from new graduates entering the workforce. The skills these employers have identified are exactly the skills that are built every year at summer camp: communication, collaboration, creativity, and leadership.
These are the kinds of statements that turn heads and cause parents’ eyes to light up. Parents may like the idea of sending their child to camp to be outdoors, make friends, and be more confident, but they feel compelled to send their child to camp when they believe it creates an advantage and sets their child up for success.
That camp creates advantage for kids is a winning argument that camp directors must learn to make. It is a winning argument not only because it’s true, but because it snaps parents from a cautious approach to an eager approach to finding the right camp for their child. It will help directors fill their own individual camps and benefit the industry as a whole if we broadly communicate that camps really do create advantage for kids.
ACA’s 20/20 Vision is a bold and ambitious plan for strengthening our industry and for benefiting millions of children. Let’s help make it a reality by learning to make a compelling argument from the ground up: “Camp creates advantage for kids.”
Rapelye, J. (2012, Sept. 28). Part 5: Answers from Princeton’s dean of admission. The Choice, New York Times. Retrieved from…

Erec Hillis is the boys’ camp director at Camp Champions. He graduated from UC-Berkeley in 2010 but always spent his college summers back at camp. He is now working full time and loves helping to create the magic of the camp experience that he had for others. He will present on this topic at the 2015 TriState Camp Conference. He can be reached at

Photo courtesy of Camp Lou Henry Hoover, Middleville, NJ.