Seven Emerging Issues Today's Camps Face

Cait Wilson, MS
September 2017

Results of the 2017 Emerging Issues Survey are in and suggest that camps face a variety of challenges, such as staff and camper health, staff training, parent communication, diversity, revenue generation, marketing, and evaluation. Compared to previous years, these current issues are consistent with past trends. One interesting difference from previous years involves staff training; many camps have indicated a need for LGBT resources where before it was not a main priority for training.

In all, 335 camp professionals responded to the survey, which was sent electronically to all ACA member camps in February 2017. Camps were residential (48 percent), day (23 percent), residential and day (25 percent), and rental groups (3 percent). Camp affiliations included independent nonprofit (42 percent), independent for-profit (21 percent), agency (16 percent), religious (11 percent), government (5 percent), and medical (5 percent).

The following information is based on camp professionals’ responses.

Each camp faces its own unique set of opportunities and challenges, so the purpose of this survey was to paint a broad picture of trends affecting the entire industry. One way camp professionals might use these findings is to guide decisions about areas of strategic focus at their camp, or as an opportunity to connect with other camp professionals around a specific issue or challenge.

Health and Safety

Camp professionals reported that the health and safety of campers and staff (including mental health, medical needs, and physical safety) is the top issue they’ve faced in the past two years. The majority of survey respondents (71 percent) said campers’ and staff members’ mental, emotional, and social health (MESH) is more of an issue than in the past. Campers and staff are exhibiting more instances of depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, self-harm, and eating disorders, and it appears this issue is more prevalent in overnight camps than in day camps.

One possible explanation for this trend is that because campers and staff members at residential camps are living in close quarters, they may feel more comfortable disclosing issues at camp related to MESH. Or, overnight camps might be more stressful for some kids and staff because of group living and being away from home. More than half of responding camps reported facing challenges with training staff to address campers’ MESH needs.

Findings from the Emerging Issues Survey also suggest that staff and campers have increased unique medical needs (e.g., medications, allergies, and dietary restrictions) that need close monitoring. About 45 percent of camps think medication and prescription management is more of an issue than in the past.

Survey results also show that camp professionals are worried about campers’ physical safety and security (e.g., intruders and emergencies). About 42 percent of camps are more concerned with trespassers, intruders, and strangers than in the past. Respondents indicated they are now thinking about active shooter situations, wild fires, and issues with wild animals. Some camps have even experienced bomb threats. The key is to be prepared and have the proper protocols in place before an emergency happens.

Some resources to help:

Staff Training and Recruitment

Many camps (65 percent) described challenges related to recruiting quality and specialized staff (e.g., nurses and sailing instructors); some felt that recruiting applicants was more difficult than in the past because of competition from college internships and noncamp jobs that provide more compensation. About 47 percent of camps had issues encouraging their staff to do high-quality work. Some camps (35 percent) had problems managing negative staff behaviors, including entitled attitudes, lack of work ethic, lack of respect for authority, misrepresenting the camp around town, and instances with alcohol use.

Some ACA resources to help if you are struggling with staff training and recruitment:

Parent Communication

Findings from the Emerging Issues Survey suggest that camp professionals are more concerned than in the past about communicating effectively with parents during registration, regarding camper health, or during emergencies at camp. For example, some survey respondents described struggling during registration when parents didn’t fill out documents correctly or provide the necessary medical records.

Some said parents were overbearing regarding their children attending camp, even more so than in the past. They wanted to have a say in the activities in which their camper participated, have constant contact with their child while at camp, and wanted updates on their child’s health and well-being.

For help navigating parent communication, check out these ACA resources:

Revenue Generation

Another emerging issue for camps appears to be related to revenue generation. Survey respondents reported increases in their operating fees, particularly in the areas of wages, maintenance, and rent. About 83 percent of camps indicated it was a priority to decrease expenses. Camp professionals shared that they are actively trying to find new ways to generate revenue. For some camps, this means renting their facilities to outside groups, extending the season, or adding capacity through capital projects. For others, the focus is on enrollment: 75 percent of camps think increasing enrollment is more of a priority than in the past. Despite this interest in increasing revenue, respondents to this survey shared uncertainty about how to price their registrations to generate revenue without being too expensive for parents.

Some ACA financial resources for revenue strategies:

Marketing

About 70 percent of camps said that marketing is more of a priority than in the past. Respondents indicated that they are interested in developing and using innovative marketing tools to reach new target markets. According to the Emerging Issues Survey, camp professionals face challenges in marketing the value of camp to parents, specifically messaging around camp as an opportunity for growth and development. It also seems that camp professionals face increased pressure to compete with their competitors’ marketing efforts, such as those from youth sports organizations or other camps. Respondents indicated they have limited budgets and do not have sufficient funds to market
camp effectively.

Helpful marketing resources:

Diversity and Inclusion

Results from this year’s Emerging Issues Survey indicate that camp professionals are more concerned with issues related to diversity and inclusion than in the past. About 53 percent of camps face challenges recruiting diverse staff and campers to meet their diversity and inclusion goals, while 40 percent of camps struggle to provide financial support to campers. Thirty percent of the respondents say they have difficulty providing adequate training opportunities for staff to promote equity and inclusion among campers. Half of camps do not evaluate how effective their efforts are towards diversity and inclusion.

Some ACA resources on diversity and inclusion:

Evaluation and Assessment of Camper Outcomes

Evaluation is an increasingly important issue among camps, and the Emerging Issues Survey results indicate that it is more important today than in the past. About 87 percent of camps said evaluation is very important or critical to their camp. Many camps (66 percent) said a major challenge they face when conducting evaluations is finding the time to collect, analyze, and disseminate data. About 40 percent of camps indicated they weren’t sure how to use evaluation results for positive change and expressed concern about evaluation findings that were negative. Twenty-eight percent of survey respondents indicated that they worry about dealing with negative results. Another challenge appears to be engaging frontline staff in the evaluation process: One in four camps feel this is a major challenge.

ACA evaluation resources:

Key Takeaways

Today’s camps face an array of complex and weighty issues, especially in the areas of camper and staff safety, parent communication, and diversity and inclusion. Compared to previous Emerging Issues Reports, these appear to be more of an issue now than in the past. Think about what the biggest issue is at your camp. Do you have MESH issues like a lot of other camps? Or maybe evaluation is your biggest problem. No matter what issues you face at your camp, you can take small steps to start addressing them. Take advantage of the ACA Resource Library to look up resources pertaining to your specific issue. Camps can learn from each other too. If you are having an issue, consider posting to “ACA Connect,” a new online forum where camps can inquire about how other camps have addressed a similar concern.

We would like to thank each camp professional who participated in the 2017 Emerging Issues Survey. The trend information shared in this article was made possible by these individuals’ willingness to participate in the study. If you did not participate this year, we hope you will consider contributing your camp’s information next year. The higher the participation in the survey, the better the information we all have with which to compare our individual experiences. For more information, please visit the ACA website for the full report: ACAcamps.org/sites/default/files/resource_library/2017-Emerging-
Issues-Full-Report.pdf
.