What can we do to get more campers? How is our camp perceived by youth, parents, and staff? What do we need to do to stay competitive with other camps?

Camp administrators around the country are exam¬ining their facilities and asking themselves questions like these. The resulting list of items that need to be addressed can prove daunting and even overwhelming! Sometimes, this kind of self-analysis will point to the need for major capital improvements, under the notion: “If we build it, they will come.” But this idea can often be misguided.

Organizing and conducting a capital campaign is a complicated task often involving a feasibility study, survey of customer needs, focus groups, architects’ renderings, recruitment of fundraisers, and more. Then the fundraising begins. Because many capital gifts are pledged over three to five years, it may be a year or more before ground is even broken on the first project. So, what can be done in the meantime? Or, if a capital campaign is imminent, what can be done to better position your camp for a successful campaign?

Someone once said “nothing succeeds like success.” It’s no secret that people are more apt to associate themselves with successful programs. So, what can a camp do to start making visible improvements now? How can a camp energize volunteers for greater efforts? What can we do to build pride and ownership of “our camp”? How do we make a camp something that everyone wants to be a part of?

I say, build your own success! Here are some great, low or no-cost ideas I’ve gleaned from camps around the country that can help your camp succeed.

Curb Appeal

Make sure trees and vegetation are trimmed back where appropriate. Consider low-maintenance/indigenous plantings along main thoroughfares. Control erosion.

Some camps have “invisible” garbage lying throughout. This neglected detritus can be things like the old water heater that was pulled out of the dining hall and left on the back porch with the idea that it would be hauled away at some future date; or the old roofing materials that were shoveled off the backside of the rifle range shelter on the work weekend and left to be disposed of on a date to be determined. Over time, we become accustomed to seeing this stuff in the same spot, and it gradually becomes invisible to us . . . but not to campers and parents who are left with the impression of a messy camp! Simply renting a truck or trailer and devoting some focused time to properly hauling and disposing of these unsightly blemishes will go a long way toward creating a better image of your camp.

Because “invisible” stuff is hard to see, your board or camping committee may have a hard time identifying what needs to be fixed or cleaned up. A couple things that may help:

  • Go out to your camp and take photos of your roads, trails, signs, buildings (inside and out), structures, program areas, and natural features. Number them and put them in a slide presentation. Then ask your committee to rate each item (on a scale of A, B, C . . . 1 to 10, whatever works for you!) and make notes about each.
  • Or do the same thing, but show the slides to a group of parents, leaders, or campers.Don’t forget about the appearance of your group of staff. Yes, we’re talking uniforms here. Give them more and nicer shirts, settle on a simple policy . . . and then FOLLOW IT! A dress code might make you unpopular at first, but, in relatively short order, you will find greater cohesion and pride among your staff and greater positive feedback from campers and parents.

Don’t Bury Your Lead

This time-honored maxim in the news¬paper business admonishes reporters to bring out the most important point of the story first!

This works for camps, too. What is the most beautiful natural feature of your camp? Is there a great view of a nearby mountain range? Is there a wonderful strand of virgin pines? Is there a pristine creek filled with the largest trout on the planet? In other words, what is the first thing second- and third-year campers run to check out when they get off the bus?

Now look at that feature with fresh eyes. Is that great view of the mountains marred by an old abandoned camp truck? Is the grandeur of the old pines diminished by a nearby trash pile? Is the glorious lakefront negated because of the scuffed up buddy board and dilapidated fencing?

Natural elements are some of the biggest draws to our camps. Featuring these prominently in marketing your camp is a good bet . . . just be sure the actual scene matches the glossy photo in the brochure.

The same goes for manmade features. Got a grand old dining hall? Make sure it’s clean, well-maintained, and unclut-tered. Have the waterslide and bounce raft become really popular? Then make sure they are well-maintained and highlighted in your promotion. One camp I worked in had campers lining up to use the blacksmith forge. (Who knew twelve- and thirteen-year-old boys would enjoy poking stuff in a fire and banging on things?) The next step was obvious: Acquire an additional forge!

Get Some Skin in the Game

Put together a detailed list of projects campers or alumni groups (or even volunteer service groups) could adopt. You’ll want to be very specific. As an example, if you need new picnic tables, you should supply detailed measurements, material specifications, paint or stain color, etc. If you don’t, you are likely to end up with tables that don’t match, don’t hold up well, or are potentially unsafe.

Here are some examples of projects that have been done to improve camps:

  • Construct new picnic tables
  • Build/repair trails
  • Construct foot bridges
  • Install split rail fencing
  • Make portable “No Flames in Tents” signs
  • Build/repair tent platforms and frames
  • Replace campsite bulletin boards
  • Install new flagpoles in campsites
  • Plant trees
  • Paint/stain buildings

Tell ’Em Where to Go

Examine the many different signs in your camp. You probably have direction signs coming into the camp; signs directing campers and staff to program and other facilities within camp; a sign welcoming campers into the camp; signs identifying buildings, program areas, and campsites; signs giving instructions; and more.
Take a good hard look at your signs and ask questions like:

  • Do our signs look professional?
  • Are they in good repair?
  • Do they follow a template? (Do they use the same font and same color combination? Are they made of the same materials?)
  • Are they redundant? (Too many? Can some be removed? Combined?)
  • Are they placed where they are obvious but not obtrusive?
  • Are they friendly?

FREE Doesn’t Necessarily Mean GOOD

Stop accepting things from well-intentioned parents or alumnae if you don’t really need or want them at camp. Some of the biggest culprits are appliances. “I have this old refrigerator that could replace the older one in the Thunderbird Cabin.” Now your camp has a marginally better refrigerator in a cabin and a second refrigerator taking up space in the warehouse. For the cost of disposing of these relics, the camp could have bought a brand new one!

Another culprit can be Gifts in Kind. This is a program where products are accepted in lieu of cash donations for approved budgeted items. This is a great program, but you need to think through your requests. Let’s say you have budgeted to replace all sixty lifejackets (PFDs) at your waterfront. The word goes out in the Gifts in Kind catalog and lifejackets start rolling in. Because you weren’t specific, though, you now have four different styles in six different colors. Put your marketing hat on. What would look more professional: a variety of life jackets or a rack full of matched PFDs? Yes, this is picky (maybe even a little obsessive), but it is this kind of attention to detail that, when applied throughout the camp, will create a much more favorable impression on campers, leaders, and parents.

Creature Comforts

In the category of “Most Significant but Least Talked About” are your camp’s restroom facilities. Are your latrines and restrooms the very best they can be? Are they kept clean with a regular maintenance schedule? Are leaks fixed? Floors clean and dry? Are they given a fresh coat of paint annually? Are latrines pumped regularly? Are they deodorized? Are broken mirrors, windows, screens, and doors fixed promptly? Are the areas surrounding latrines free of weeds and trash? Walkways or paths clear and dry? While only the worst examples tend to show up on written evaluations, discussion with focus groups and individual interviews with campers consistently tell us that all but the most pristine latrines and restrooms are source of discomfort/ irritation to clients.

New Coat

A new coat of paint or stain on your buildings makes a positive impression on everyone. Your camp should have a color scheme, for example: forest green buildings, with light green trim and brown roofs. If you don’t have a color scheme, take steps to move in that direction. From my experience, greens and earth tones seem to work best in a camp environment. You want to make the buildings as unobtrusive as possible. Having them all follow the same color scheme helps this, and gives your operation a unified and professional look.

Some Last Words

John Stewart, (a Boy Scouts of America [BSA] colleague who has analyzed more camps that you can shake a stick at!), offers the following: “Not every camp is going to be a success. Density, location, and competition are factors that determine utilization and are not easily controlled. However, program and the condition of our facilities are in our control, and if taken seriously, can readily influence the success of our camp.”

Bottom line? We’re all concerned with the “big picture.” We tend to equate that with long range strategic plans and capital campaigns. The REAL big picture is how we impact the lives of the young people we serve. They are the future. And that future is staring expectantly at us now. So what’s keeping you from improving your camp today?

John Van Dreese is an outdoor program specialist with the BSA and has served as program director and camp director in BSA camps for over twenty-five years. Contact the author at JohnVan.Dreese@scouting.org.

Originally published in the July/August 2011 Camping Magazine.