Growing Camp

Daniel Zenkel
November 2015

Camp director Erec Hillis encourages camp professionals to broadly communicate the fact that “camp creates advantage for kids.” He asserts that this “is a winning argument that camp directors must learn to make . . . . It will help directors fill their own individual camps and benefit the industry as a whole” (Hillis, 2015). I agree that this “life-time advantage” argument is persuasive and encourage camp owners and directors to use it. However, the argument has limitations. It can only be addressed to those who are already in the conversation. What of the millions of parents and children who have no existing connection with camp, who neither went to camp themselves nor know anyone who did? To generate the explosive growth in camp attendance required to fulfill ACA’s goal of 20 million summer campers by 2020 (2015), we need to reach those who have never even thought about camp.

One way to reach this audience is to persuasively and persistently inundate the public with messages about the lifetime benefits of camp attendance, which include building resilience and fostering teamwork, communication, and leadership skills. Such public education would require tens, if not hundreds of millions of advertising and public relations dollars, as well as a massive leadership commitment. Neither the required funding nor the institutional energy is currently available. Absent a massive marketing and PR campaign, I propose that camps adapt or evolve to provide the specialized and targeted experiences that today’s parents and children demand.

Specialty and Common Interest Camps

Many of today’s parents are consumed with developing their children’s special interests. They enlist coaches, tutors, and clubs to “enrich” their children. Sports, dance, theater, computers, martial arts — the interests are too numerous to list. Entire institutions and industries dedicated to such specialized training have evolved to meet the demand. Many parents believe that summer and, indeed, all nonschool time, is best used to advance their children’s proficiency.

Correspondingly, these parents believe that one month or one week away has the potential to disadvantage a child for the long term by setting back the development of his or her particular interest or proficiency. A separate cadre of parents is constantly challenged to meet their children’s unique special needs — ranging from medical issues such as severe food allergies to behavioral and mental health challenges such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and Asperger syndrome. These parents want to give their children a safe, fun, and enriching experience that also considers their children’s unique needs. Selling camp as a way to build skills like resilience, independence, optimism, and self-regulation that predict future success in life will not win over these parents.

Don’t get me wrong. I am an advocate for traditional camps that offer varied programming and focus on character building. I attended such a camp as did my children. These are fabulous programs, and there will remain a market for them, particularly among parents who have had the same experience. However, to reach beyond our base, I propose taking the path of least resistance and providing the targeted and specialized training and experiences that many of today’s parents and children crave.

This is not a revolutionary suggestion. For years camps have targeted specialized activities. Theater and dance camps such as French Woods Festival for the Arts and Stagedoor Manor in New York and Belvoir Terrace in Massachusetts have thrived and grown. More recently, Camp Motorsport in Virginia has helped children learn to race cars and study the related science and technology. California’s Pali Adventures has grown by leaps and bounds by offering 21 different action, creative, and performance camps — from Hollywood Stunt Camp to Rock Star Camp.

What’s more, there is now solid proof that targeting special interests generates camp attendance among those who would not otherwise have attended camp. In 2008, the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) launched a Specialty Camps Incubator to develop new Jewish specialty camps. Five new camps were developed with four different focuses:

  1. Outdoor adventure
  2. Sports
  3. Organic farming and the environment
  4. Fashion, music and theater, and the culinary arts

A study commissioned by FJC found that, over their first four summers, the incubator camps served a total of 2,713 unique campers. Enrollment grew 138 percent from the first to the fourth summer. The study’s parent and camper data confirmed that the high-quality specialty programs were the key to attracting and retaining campers, including those who would not typically have sent their children away to camp (2014).

Other specialty camps have had similar success attracting those new to camp. The Berkshire Soccer Academy for Girls (BSA) in Otis, Massachusetts, which I founded, opened in 2012. BSA markets to girls who want to play and improve their soccer in a fun environment. The word “soccer” is the focus of every marketing effort. The approach works. In 2015, 475 girls attended at least one, one-week session, and 21 percent attended more than one session. For more than half of the campers, it was their first overnight camp experience.

Similar results have been seen with affinity-targeted camps. Camp Akeela in Vermont was founded in 2008 to serve children who struggle to make meaningful social connections with their peers, including children diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. Camp Akeela’s marketing directly targets parents of these children. The camp is at capacity with 150 campers in attendance for both four-week summer sessions. Many of these children would not have attended another camp. Not only do these specialized and targeted programs generate new campers, they also generate repeat campers as well as significant word-of-mouth marketing. FJC’s incubator camps retained 50 percent of their campers from year to year,  a high retention rate for specialty camps (2014). BSA has a 50-percent return rate as well. Although campers and parents choose these specialty camps because of their particular interest or passion, it is the friendships, independence, responsibility, sense of community, and other advantages of camp that create the impactful and life-changing experiences that keep them coming back for more. The camps’ advantage derives both from improving in their specialty and from gaining the life skills that camp imparts.

Importantly, campers from special-in- terest camps are far more likely to discuss their camp experiences with their peers and teammates, particularly because so many are new to the camp experience and had no preconceived notion of what camp would be like. Also, many of their friends and peers belong to the same affinity group — whether a sports team, musical group, outdoor skills group, or parent support group — so personal recommendations become that much more relevant and impactful.

To reach the ACA’s ambitious 20/20 enrollment goals, camps will have to open up new markets by attracting customers who know nothing of camp. One proven way to do that is to develop and offer the specialized and targeted programming that today’s families crave. Such programming can be integrated into a traditional camp setting thereby ensuring the propagation and growth of traditional camping.


American Camp Association (2015). 20/20 vision — our preferred future. Retrieved from

Hillis, E. (2015, March/April). The argument we must learn to make: Camp creates advantage. Retrieved from

Foundation for Jewish Camp (2014). New Jewish specialty camps: From idea to reality. Specialty Camps Incubator Evaluation Report. Retrieved from Camps-From-Idea-to-Reality-Foundation-for- Jewish-Camp-Specialty-Camps-Incubator- Evaluation-Report.pdf

Daniel Zenkel is a partner in The Camp Professionals, which of fers comprehensive consulting and sales and acquisition services to for-profit and not-for-profit summer camp owners and operators. He is the co-founder of the Berkshire Sports Academy and was one of the founders and former president and CEO of CampGroup, LLC.