Creating a Plan to Start and Operate a Virtual Summer Camp: A Step-by-Step Guide

April 28, 2020

Camp directors across the country are grappling with the two questions:

  1. What is a virtual or remote summer camp?
  2. How do I start one?

Do not worry, you are not alone.

For over 100 years, summer camp programs have spent the months leading up to June preparing to operate on-location programs for kids, pre-teens, and teens. Beginning around January and with the summer season “around the corner”, camp directors inevitably find themselves in a hurry-up mode to finalize all purchasing, planning, hiring, and scheduling. The annual pre-season frenzy, however, is a welcomed period of time, because it represents the norm.

Organizations have worked tirelessly over the years and decades to create their own unique and special on-location environment packed with culture, traditions, and experiences.

Nevertheless, despite all the hard work, time, and energy accompanying the pre-camp mania, it is a welcomed challenge. Although always there seems to be an endless to do list - chalk full of both known and unknown tasks- it somehow all gets done in an impressive manner. Camp directors have an incredibly resilient constitution, and neither obstacles, lack of time, nor exhaustion can prevent them from opening the camp season on schedule and with full enthusiasm. This is not a surprise, because this is what we all live for - summer camp!

However, this season is different. In fact, it is completely uncertain. While camp directors tend to thrive off of challenging situations, we are somewhat new to uncertainty. These are unprecedented times and this summer will prove to be nothing less than atypical. The master project plan and playbook have been tossed to the side as directors across the country pivot to the unknown - how to transition, replace, recreate and deliver a live camp experience into computer screens or tablets.

As a nationwide leader in the camp industry for close to 25 years (on location and over the web), we are here to help guide you through the design process on how best to formulate a step-by-step action plan so you may deliver and execute a successful virtual camp experience for your camp model, your team of counselors, and most importantly for your camp families.

What Is a Virtual Summer Camp and What Does It Even Represent?

Well, let’s start with some simple answers to define what a virtual camp is not:

  • School or a school-led “online learning” experience.
  • A common and physical destination for kids to play.
  • Only gaming programs like Minecraft, Roblox, ESports, Coding, etc.
  • Six straight hours of campers sitting in front of a computer or screen each day.
  • In-person high fives, fist bumps, or encouraging pats on the back.
  • And, it’s definitely not a traditional camp model, a model that has been the backbone of the camp industry.

In other words, virtual camp is not the ideal platform to socialize, to feel free, to learn, to make friends, and to unleash boundless amounts of energy. Lastly, it is certainly not the norm. Or is it? Let’s explore.

Step 1: Time to set priorities and focus upon how and where your valuable time should be spent

So, what exactly is a virtual camp, how do you transition and what are the new and realistic expectations? In essence the outstanding question is: what will your virtual summer camp model be and how will you adapt and evolve from the aforementioned definitions (and challenges) of what a virtual camp is not?

  1. As Master Yoda brilliantly said in the movie Star Wars: “You must unlearn what you have learned.” Wipe your mind completely of what you don’t know and instead, begin thinking about everything you do know. Having met thousands of camp directors throughout the years I have discovered there is one common bond and trait all directors have...the ability to create meaningful, interactive, new and fun experiences for children.

So, now is the time to set aside your list of administrative duties and instead, reflect back upon your days as either a camper or camp counselor. Truly relive those experiences and extrapolate those memories. Over the years you have accumulated a tremendous amount of experience and knowledge. Most likely, you began your camp journey working with campers in a small group, positive and fun environment. Those were the days where you were full of creativity, patience, care, and oftentimes, pure entertainment.

Over the years your role has most likely transitioned. Promotions over the seasons, may now mean less time spent working directly with campers and more time managing your team of counselors and navigating administrative duties. In other words, you may no longer be on the ground floor of a full summer leading kids in their daily camp activities. BUT...do not forget, you are still an expert in your field and at all levels. Camp directors do not become camp directors without having worked just about every job or position the summer camp industry presents.

So, take a moment to pause and reflect on the fact that you know much more about how to create fun, meaningful, interactive and valuable experiences for kids than you may think.

Step 2: Eliminate the Tasks and Responsibilities You No Longer Have to Worry about

Almost all operations associated with an on-location have been completely eliminated: morning care and early arrival, afternoon care and late arrivals, on-campus nurses, handling and monitoring of medications, medical forms and paperwork, carpool lines, drop-off and pick-pick, snack, lunch, swimming, trash, the moving of equipment, cleaning services, children that are sick or lonely, bullying or behavioral challenges, tardy employees, and so much more. It’s all gone.

If you think about it, a great percentage of your valuable time dedicated to pre-camp planning and in-camp responsibilities go towards an abundance of important, yet somewhat mundane administrative tasks, operations, duties. Of course all are important and necessary, BUT, not so much when developing an operational plan to operate a virtual camp.

As an immediate first step and for the initial time being, disregard the administration tasks and set aside all logistical questions. They are overwhelming and they will waste your valuable time. Moreover, temporarily remove all thoughts about how to market a virtual camp to your camp families. Most importantly, eliminate any negativity that may lead to overwhelming distractions related to technology-based deficiencies you or your team may have. These are all roadblocks to creative thinking. Focusing on the roadblocks may very well propel you and your team to overwhelming negativity - believing that operating a virtual camp is impossible. So instead, save your most valuable assets, time and energy, and fully dedicate your focus on how to create a virtual camp model as a reality for this summer

Step 3: Define Your Virtual Camp Model

It’s time to build out your virtual camp model. Keep in mind there is no replacement for an in-person, on-location camp program. So, your first challenge is to first think about the following questions:

  1. Which programs may be immediately eliminated, so you can focus your attention and time in the proper direction?
  2. Separate the computer-based/STEM programs from the traditional camp offerings and instead focus on what you may be able to operate with come creativity and flexibility.
  3. Place these camp programs in three buckets:
    1. Bucket 1: Programs that are not possible to operate
      1. These are camps that must be eliminated due to hands-on requirements and that are not worth running under any circumstance. Some examples may be woodworking camp or any other camp that requires tools, materials and an abundance of prep work.
      2. These are the programs that are simply not viable, require too many supplies, or most importantly, they are not safe.
      3. Example: Drobots offers a number of technology-based drone camp programs that kids participate in during a normal, on-location camp environment. Well, as much we would like to say a drone or robotics program could be delivered in a virtual camp environment, it is simply not possible. These programs are expensive to run, require adult supervision, and call for hands-on learning with a focus on “trial and error” learning. We have completely eliminated the core themes representing not only our business model, but also our repertoire of programs. It’s okay. Eliminate them all.
    2. Bucket 2: Programs that, with slight changes to the curriculum/lessons plans, can be offered.
      1. These are the camps along the lines of the “follow-the-leader” method of teaching. In other words, campers who participate in activities or programs that involve a counselor demonstrating the activity first, and in return, campers have the opportunity to create their own design, artwork, or project.
      2. These programs may be run. It will take some creativity and planning, but campers, provided they receive some assistance from family, will be able to follow a counselor’s instruction and participate in activities from home.
      3. Example: At Drobots we offer Magic Camps and Musical Theater Camps. Although challenging in theory, it can be done. Remove what is not possible and replace it with activities that are highly interactive and energetic. Performance, music, dancing, art, camp games, etc....these are all examples of how to engage with and interact with campers stuck at home, but still accomplish the majority of the learning outcomes and experiences.
    3. Bucket 3: Programs that, at first glance, seem impossible, but upon further evaluation may definitely go on as planned.
      1. These are camps that may be tailored for younger campers, such as all of your Traditional Day Camps for kids between the ages of 4 to 6.
      2. The true magic of a Traditional Day Camp model is the bond between counselor and camper
  4. Identify programs that are computer-based. These are worth saving. Almost all computer-based programs such as Minecraft, Roblox, Scratch, 3D Game Development, Coding, etc. may be operated seamlessly on an online platform, especially for your older campers. Either keep these programs or find a professional company from within the industry to organize and conduct these programs on your behalf.
  5. Eliminate programs that require direct oversight from an instructor and in a live camp environment. An example: many hands-on robotics or STEM programs require a counselor to be physically present in order to help guide or to teach campers how to use a mouse, define an HTML tag, or demonstrate how to press Command-Shift-Tab. Programs like this in the virtual world become frustrating for both the counselor and the camper. Eliminate these programs.

Address the Stereotypes

As you plan and develop your virtual program, keep in mind you will face an abundance of implicit stereotypes. Unfortunately, for you, these biases and stereotypes will be omnipresent. Let’s first address your team and the counselors you employ.

Without your team’s buy-in to the sudden change of structure and organization, everything else you plan may not work. More importantly, it could lead to failure and frustration, potentially changing the bonds and relationships you have fostered for years or decades. Your team is your backbone and they will need to fully support you in this time of sudden change. Do not expect the majority of them to fully (or even partially) understand what it is you are proposing or even how you will accomplish and implement a completely flipped mode. Remember, you may have been contemplating the idea of a virtual camp long before you share your vision with your team. So prepare for some pushback, especially during the first few meetings. Afterall, your plan completely defies the very definition of a traditional summer camp.

Moreover, a virtual program may not simply be for everyone in your organization. This is how I communicated our change of plans and the new vision to our team:

  • Communicate the reality. Camp may not be a physical, on-location or in-person camp for the entirety of the summer. Back in February, I made it very clear to all part-time and full-time team members that our own personal opinions or hopes will not make a difference in how the summer plays itself out. I reiterated that all decisions or changes in the everchanging Governor mandates is something we need to pay attention to, but not worry about. It is not controllable and therefore a distraction. In other words, let’s remove what we think will happen, and instead plan for what could happen.
  • We then discussed how experienced we all were in operating and delivering an on-location and in-person camp. Collectively we had over 70 years of service time. My point was the following: we know how to operate a summer camp inside and out. Of course, every pre-camp season involves a handful of overwhelming and last minute tasks to complete, staff to hire, supplies to purchase, etc. But, it is not a novel concept or challenge. That is the work we have done and the projects we are accustomed to accomplishing. So, as a team, we were all able to adopt the fact that if camp goes on as normal, we will be able to make last minute adjustments and figure it all out. The camp may not have all of the bells and whistles as our previous camp seasons, but then again, I reminded our team, that the world is experiencing a pandemic and the last thing we should worry about, as one of many examples, is how and when to order the camp t-shirts. Not a good use of time and not a good investment if the in-person camp experience is reduced or removed. If an in-person camp does happen, then the sheer excitement and opportunity for children having the ability to get out of the house and attend a summer camp will far supersede any extraneous items and/or experiences they may be used to receiving (giveaway items, t-shirts, certificates, etc). 
  • The outcome of our initial meeting was the following: we all felt 100% comfortable that we possessed the collective skill sets and experience to run an in-person camp, but none of us knew or had any experience on how to operate a virtual camp. Therefore, it became pretty clear to the team that we should put forth all of our energy and efforts into planning the virtual camp model.
  • Lastly, I provided our entire team with a friendly invitation to not participate in the virtual camp planning. I realized that while everyone understood the challenge and major undertaking in front of us: the new challenges, planning, additional work, creativity, training, etc. was not going to be for everyone. Without attempting to be convincing or demanding, I individually spoke to every member of the team to ensure a) they fully understood that the company was moving forward with a virtual camp plan, and b) to communicate that the pace and effort required to pull it all off is not going to be easy or incredibly enjoyable. I told them we were acting as a start-up company and provided a portrayal that the start-up company environment and mentality may prove to be extremely difficult and frustrating to work---Longer hours worked, spending days making plans only to destroy and rewrite those plans, taking on new roles and responsibilities, and lastly being 100% supportive and flexible.

Redefine Value and Create More of It

In the Virtual Camp environment, the true definition of value has changed, but only slightly. Camp directors will have to re-focus on how to deliver value that best accommodates the work-from-home parent and the stay-at-home camper. The easiest way to identify how you may provide the most value is to begin with the camper and how she will experience the delivery of your program. Similar to creating, and then sticking to a mission statement or set of core values to help navigate company-wide decision-making, placing the camper’ experience as core value #1 makes all of your decisions simple and easy.

For example, let’s say you operate an in-person cooking camp and you always allow campers to turn on the burner and let them manage the process of sauce simmering. It’s pretty obvious that permitting campers to do the same from home, and without your direct and in-person supervision, is not a great idea. However, this realization may frustrate you -knowing that part of running a cooking camp is the time that campers are allowed to have “control” and use the burner/oven. After all, overseeing the sauce simmering may be the most fun part of an in-person cooking camp experience. Moreover, perhaps that is what separates your cooking camp from another competitor’s cooking camper, etc. In other words, it could be your company’s primary “value-add”, so the very thought of eliminating this portion of the camp, in your mind, is one that discourages you from even attempting to operate a virtual camp.

What if, however, you removed the (in-person) unsupervised dangerous activity of sauce simmering, and instead created a step-by-step, pre-recorded video to share with both the camper and the respective family member an hour before dinnertime. In your marketing message, the value add could be “cooking together creates a friendly and fun end-of-day activity for both parents and children.” Now, instead of having kids actually cook the food, that portion of your camp is replaced with a recorded video that demonstrates how the camper will walk the parent through the step-by-step process of cooking the meal that the camper prepared all day making. In this scenario, everyone is happy and the camp is safe.

Beware of Surveying Parents Before You Begin to Plan Your Virtual Camp

Apple co-founder Steve Jobs once said:

Some people say give the customers what they want, but that's not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they're going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, 'If I'd ask customers what they wanted, they would've told me a faster horse.' People don't know what they want until you show it to them. That's why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.

Here at Drobots, we have never been reliant on surveys unless 1) the survey is conducted after the camper completes the camp program, and 2) the survey questions are extremely simple to answer and provide us with meaningful data. An example of two out of a total of three survey questions we ask parents (after their camper completes a program with us), are:

  1. Describe your overall camp experience this past week?

Answer Choices: (a) Below Expectations (b) Met Expectations (c) Exceed Expectations

  1. Based on your experience this past week at camp, would you recommend a Drobots program to family friends who have children?

            Answer Choices: (a) Yes (b) No

The answers to those two questions provide us with all the information we need to know about how our company performed during that particular week of camp.

To the contrary, we do not ask parents before the camp begins (at any point in the year) if they would enroll in a certain new program or if the price point is right, etc. As a camper director or owner, it is up to you to make those decisions based on knowing your product and deliverables and secondly, conducting your own market research on the appropriate pricing of your camp.

Over the past few weeks, we have had many camp directors and camp owners share with us that they are making final decisions entirely based on the results of responses from parent surveys and polls, and polling results related to virtual camp. On first thought it makes a lot of sense to ask parents what they want in a virtual camp or how much would they pay for a virtual camp, etc. However, the questions, and more importantly, the answers to those questions cannot be a distraction. Why? Because no parent has ever thought of these questions for one second before you presented the questions to them? In other words, the pre-camp surveys and polls are forcing parents to provide you with feedback on a virtual event that a) they are hoping never has to occur, and b) a deliverable that is almost impossible to value before it happens. The truth is, you know your product and you know the value of your product.

Lastly, if you are trying to determine the appropriate tuition of your virtual camp then make it simple. Ask yourself what the normal hourly rate is for your area and then multiply that dollar amount by the total hours kids will participate in your virtual camp. I once heard a senior customer service agent at the Disney Institute say, and I paraphrase: if you ask customers (in this case parents) what they want, they way want, want, want you right out of business.

So, we suggest spending your precious time creating value; not trying to interpret a set of survey data that could prevent your virtual camp from even launching. Asking your families what they want may lead to extreme confusion, distraction, and overall, an inefficient use of your time.

Just remember Steve Jobs’ other famous business quote:

“You can't just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they'll want something new."

Most importantly, all camp owners and directors are building the equivalent of an airplane as it is being flown, so there is no time to waste on interpreting data that could prove to be misleading and detrimental to your company’s solvency.

Set the Proper Expectations to Families

If you think you are confused by the concept of Virtual Camp, imagine how campers and parents will grapple with the new reality - that a summer camp facility is now their very own house! Families will have no idea what to expect, so it is extremely important you define, set, and share those expectations with all families early and often. Post them everywhere. Below is a checklist of the 20 internal questions my team put together to help us anticipate parent inquiries well before they are even asked.

  1. Is the camp a live video stream or is it pre-recorded?
  2. What is the appropriate amount of time, per age, a camper will sit in front of a screen and remain fully engaged?
  3. How long is a camp session? How many camp sessions are in a camp week?
  4. What is an example schedule for each session?
  5. Do campers do the same activity every day?
  6. How will families access the username and log in information to access the remote video platform?
  7. Is the video platform secure?
  8. How many counselors will be present during each session? What is the role of each counselor?
  9. How does the parent get to meet the camper’s counselor?
  10. Do all camp activities occur during the camp session or are campers encouraged (or “required”) to continue to work on a project in between sessions or before the start of the next camp day?
  11. Do campers need to use a keyboard and/or mouse OR can campers watch the screen and follow along without ever having to use additional components
  12. Will campers participate in any activities that could potentially damage a computer or its components (painting, water etc.)?
  13. What type of technology will families need to access the virtual camp platform. Will a smartphone, tablet, PC, Mac, Chromebook work?
  14. Will campers need headphones, webcam or microphone (sounds obvious, but remember...set all of the expectations)? Will campers need any household items or supplies to participate in the camp?
  15. Will campers receive a kit of materials to use during the camp session(s)? If so, when and how will it arrive? What is in the kit? What if the kit doesn’t arrive by the time the camp start date begins?
  16. How will parents learn how to prepare their camper for the upcoming session or camp day? Is there a listing in the website? Will a pre-camp weekly email be sent or even a nightly email sent prior to the start of the next camp day?
  17. Will parents have to be involved, helping campers log on or prepare materials, before the camp sessions begin?
  18. Will parents have to be present and actively involved during the camp session?
  19. How will our team communicate with parents if a camper is disconnected from the virtual camp or simply decides to walk away from the screen for a long duration of time?
  20. How will our team communicate with parents if a camper is upset or falls down and becomes injured in any way during the session?

While many of the above questions seem obvious and directly correlate with the types of questions parents have before attending an in-person camp, this is new territory. Therefore, set the expectations at all times and well in advance. Parents/campers and you/your team are already pressured with adversity, so do your best to eliminate confusion, set the precedent, and clearly define the expectations in order to stay organized and eliminate potential disappointment (unintended consequences of not setting proper expectations).

Consider Setting up a Weekend Orientation for Parents and Campers to Join and Practice Using the Video Platform for Virtual Camp

Remember the section above where I suggested how to determine creative ways to generate an abundance of value? The old adage of sharpening the axe... could not apply more when it comes to new experiences.

First, make yourself fully available to assist parents or campers who may be technologically challenged during the weekend is something that will most definitely take additional time, but in the end will ensure success. You will reap tremendous benefits knowing, prior to each camp week, parents and campers are ready to log in to the video platform successfully before the first session of camp. Nothing is worse than having your campers and counselors all prepared and ready to go only to realize that more than half of the campers cannot even log on to the video platform. Instead of welcoming campers to the session and capturing their undivided attention, you may find yourself receiving phone calls, texts and emails from parents who cannot log on or who cannot find the information and instructions on how to log on. Get ahead of all of this and set up periods of time day(s) prior to the start of the camp session.

Second, dedicate some time to make yourself available for parents and campers to meet you before the start of the virtual camp session. If you do not have the time to schedule a live “parent/camper orientation” then challenge yourself, instead, to create brief video clips to share with families. In general and similar to a meet-and-greet or pre-camp family orientation, the impact of these events may even prove to be more valuable when it comes to setting a positive and friendly tone prior to the delivery of a virtual camp experience.

The generosity you demonstrate by taking the time to both meet the campers and/or provide assistance to those who need some technical help will pay off in dividends.

Define Your Camper (Customer) — Try Not To Be Everything To Everyone

Some camps have a niche set of programs and a certain age group they serve. Other camp organizations have multiple camp offerings that vary by category and by age, serving a wide array of campers throughout the summer. In the process of defining your virtual camp categories, age groups and programs, we strongly suggest you focus on the programs that you know will have the greatest opportunity for success (enrollment). It is recommended you determine your final list of virtual camp offerings by contemplating the following:

  1. Start with a list of the age groups you serve and the programs offered with those age groups. Narrow that list down into younger-aged and older-aged children.
  2. From there, analyze and determine that you may need to offer more programs to younger campers, since their parents need supervision and activities for their children the most. Younger campers are also less judgemental about curriculum and more engaged by the fun, energy, traditions, simple hands-on projects, and the counselor connectivity more so than anything else.
  3. The older the campers, the more challenging they are. Out of all of your camp families, identify the families who truly need your camp program offerings the most. You know your families the best, so think long and hard about which programs you know will serve a true need for parents/campers vs. the programs that serve a want (a nice-to-have).
    1. Example 1: Younger campers need structure, a daily schedule, entertainment, and personalized camper/counselor experiences. On a similar note, parents need to provide their younger children with an abundance of constant attention and activities - all summer long. Without a solution, many parents may become either highly distracted from their own work/jobs or completely overwhelmed. In our opinion, serving younger-aged campers is a true need. What can you offer to this age group and do it well? You may have to re-write the script, but also, you may be surprised what you can figure out and deliver. Moreover, the general consensus is that more younger-aged children attend summer camp programs compared to older-aged campers. Simplify your focus and attract the masses.
    2. Example 2: Some of your older campers, who are presently enrolled in a speciality camp (i.e.: a woodworking program, hands-on robotics program, etc.), may be the campers who want to participate in a specialized hands-on, and physical design-like program. There is no doubt most children need structure, a schedule and personalized camper/counselor experiences. However, spending your valuable time to recreate the camp programs families want (hands-on category of programs) into a virtual camp setting or list of offerings may not be the best use of your time or resources. When coming to this realization you may get a pit in your stomach and feel as though you are not serving your entire camper-base (as you have for decades), but for this summer camp season, it may be okay to give yourself a pass. Quite frankly, it may be the only way for you to survive this unforeseen adverse situation.
  4. Having defined the difference between a need vs. want, you may only have one age group of campers  whom you serve. Moreover, the campers who attend your camp each summer may only participate in hands-on, project-based programs. If that is your customer, and only customer, then we suggest you challenge your team to devise a plan where you take your camp product and transform it into a virtual program.
  5. There is no doubt, this will take a lot of time and effort, but you can do it. I have spoken with camp directors who only offer cooking camps, science camps, magic camps, sewing camps. At first glance many of them had a very hard time comprehending how their respective, 20+ years of in-person program delivery could translate in the virtual camp setting. However, after taking the time to create a list of activities that could be transformed into the virtual world, we then discussed how best to create additional value around those topics.
  6. This exercise included the elimination of activities that we determined were either not safe, required a lot of supplies, or simply did not have that overly engaging “wow” factor.
  7. So, that brought our team back to the creative table. We all fully recognized there was no way to create an apples-to-apples and hands-on transition, but we were energized realizing that, with some creative thought, there may be an abundance of innovative ways to transition a hands-on program and keep it alive for this summer.
  8. In sum, challenge yourself and your team to strip away all the hands-on activities (example: if you offer a cooking camp, are you really going to feel comfortable asking your campers to turn on the burners and ovens when you are not in the same room as they are? The answer is most likely a “hard no”, but can you re-recreate your cooking camp offering to either be a:
    1. A program where the cooking camp is now a cooking camp show! This may entail that the campers are entirely focused on conducting the prep work and learning about food safety and how best to develop instructions to teach someone else how to cook/prepare the meal. Perhaps this redesigned model has counselors demonstrating and encouraging the campers, with the prep work, organization, and learned safety tips, to create a step-by-step video on how mom, dad, family members, and friends can follow their simple instructions on how best to cut and cook the food. The end result may exceed expectations: parents and friends watching the camper’s food network show, while the onus is placed on the adult to actually conduct the cutting, cooking or baking. To take this example even further, perhaps the new camp model is that campers prepare the food all afternoon and then parents and children work together, later that evening to complete the cutting and cooking together. Ouila! Now you may have saved your cooking camp by incorporating the parents into activities, at the end of the day, that create a time for kids/parents to not only bond, but more importantly to accomplish something together.

Create Value with the 3 Cs: Connections, Culture & Communication

I recommended you revisit your core values, your mission statement and overall, your camp culture. It is time to determine how you are going to truly operate and deliver a virtual summer camp - full of fun, energy, surprises, traditions, etc - and not a summer school or a class. With safety and professionalism at the forefront of each discussion, turn your attention to the fun and zaniness you can provide for the campers. Let’s face it, these campers have been cooped up for months and they will most likely have formed a predetermined notion of what it means to log on and watch someone “teach a class”. Take that energy (or lack thereof) and reverse it. Again, this is a camp and unlike school, the “rules” may be adjusted for the benefit of all involved.

Connections: First, think about all of the micro and macro connections you and your team make during a regular in-person camp experience? How do you make these connections? What is the message you communicate? What is your overall culture? Other questions to ask yourself: why do campers attend your in-person camp? What stories do campers share when they go home each day? Why do campers return year-after-year to your program? What are your camp traditions?

Culture: Your underlying culture should not change. Culture begins not with your product, but with your company’s leadership, core values, and mission statement. You could literally take your culture anywhere in the world and experience success. Your culture defines you as a company and the overall message your company delivers to your entire collection of customers: your team members, campers, and families. Therefore, do whatever you can to protect the culture as you transition from in-person to online. Although you may not be able to directly apply every facet of what you believe creates your camp culture, you are fully capable of protecting, maintaining and delivering the same cultural environment as you have over the past few years and decades. It may take some creative brainstorming, but you can pivot and figure it all out. Never lose your culture. In this period of transition keep in mind if all or even some of your culture is compromised, you may not be successful, either in the short term (this summer) or long term (future summers). As culture dissipates, so will your customers.

Communication: We use the terms “communicate”, “overly-communicate” and “assume nothing” all in the same sentence. You, your team and your customers are juggling an intense amount of change and uncertainty...two words that may scare and can overwhelm almost all of us. Therefore, you will need to step up and become the beacon of over-simplified, continuous, and clear communication at all times. Then...you will have to do it all over again until your communication methods and channels become a highlight with those with whom you work with and serve, and not just another complicated, confusing, anxiety-filled correspondence.

To accomplish this we suggest you apply the following methods of over-communication with every email, letter, revised text on websites, schedule change, etc.

  1. Create either 1 or 2 pages on your website (create a google site if need be) or an online PDF that provides a simple-to-comprehend checklist of all changes, adjustments, and clarifications that are vital to communicate to your team, campers and parents. This allows you to make adjustments on the fly since there is no doubt the information may change and change quickly. We prefer not to make our major announcements on email since you cannot go back and edit the email. Moreover, we all receive way too many emails -especially now in the work-from-home environment, so keep your emails short and to the point - directing everyone to your online portal of information. Then when a master camp/company change has to be made, you can update only the website or online PDF (and associated link), write a very short email to parents, and point them back to that portal of information - letting them know what bullet point to read to view the change(s). Keep it all simple and scalable.
  2. Remove long sentences and write in subject matter titles followed by a list of bullet and sub-bullet points. Disseminate the information to your team and families in an overly simplified manner. Easy to read and simple to comprehend. Titles and bullets are your friend. Long sentences and convoluted information is your enemy.
  3. Assume nothing. Let me rephrase that to: assume nothing, and over-communicate everything, always. We have gone so far to inform parents that campers will need access to a computer or tablet to access our online virtual camp programs. Seems obvious, right? Well, of course it does; how else would campers participate in a live virtual and online camp program? But is it obvious to everyone? Perhaps not. Some parents may believe they can access your camp programs on TV or perhaps, some others may believe you will be sending them a tablet or laptop to take your virtual camp.

Assume nothing! As a great friend and extremely successful business owner once told me, “Signs (physical signage)...you have to have them, but nobody reads them!”. In other words, despite how obvious the level of embedded presumptions and communication may seem to you and your organization, assume that nobody will truly understand or read it. We emphasize over and over again to our team that all modes of communications (audio, text, video) must be presented as though an alien from outer space will read it and attempt to understand it. If you eliminate all assumptions and over-communicate all details in a simple manner, your communication with others will not only be appreciated, but also will save you and your team so much time on the backend attempting to re-explain or clarify some or all of your correspondence. The result = not a good use of your time.

Once you revisit and discuss all of the above, sit down with your team to modify and enhance your approach where applicable. On making sincere connections, simply them, and get creative. Determine the quickest and most effective way to maintain your culture, enhance your ability to connect with everyone, and finally determine the most elementary approach on how best to over-communicate as though your staff, campers and families are all learning about you and your camp offerings for the first time. Think alien-language!

Exceed Expectations — Add Additional and Included Activities for Campers and/or Camper Families

Now more than ever customers are dissecting every aspect of a business and its services. The companies that receive the most praise are those that strive to exceed expectations with each and every interaction between customer and employee/business owner. They go the extra mile to ensure an exceeding-expectations product, service, and experience to all with whom they serve.

How can you exceed expectations with your campers and camp families? What about with your team members and counselors? Perhaps you offer additional credit for next summer camp season for the families who transfer their registrations to the virtual programs? Or, maybe you are a local camp that takes the time to deliver a special 2020 summer camp t-shirt to the doorstep of every camp (contactless of course). Think about how you and your camp can create special “peak” moments to “wow” the campers and parents. Go out of your way to determine how you may create a positive moment to make everyone feel extra special this summer. Not only have we added free extended enrichment programs, in both the morning and afternoon this summer, but we have planned multiple evening “family night” live events for all parents and campers who attend our virtual camp programs.

In sum, this is the time to focus not only on your camp model and presentation, but also on any and all special moments or services you are able to provide to your families. Trust me, they will not only be appreciated and valued now, your acts of kindness, creativity, and positivity will pay off in dividends in future summers.

Hire for Personality and Energy and Yes, Even for Technology

It’s time to engage with your counselors and let them know you are either considering or making the switch to a virtual camp this summer. During this announcement, I recommend that you are considerate to the fact that some of your counselors, even those who have worked with your camp for many years, may not be interested in working this summer under the new model. Do not hold that against anyone. Let’s face it, teaching a camp remotely is not going to be easy since it demands an overwhelming amount of energy each and every second of the day. Moreover, some of your counselors and staff may not have the proper technological tools to actually participate in the delivery of your virtual camp.

One of the first steps we took with our current team members, including all of our returning staff and the newly added staff whom we had just hired, was to define what virtual camp entails. We have been overly transparent about all of the intricate details that may actually trump the flexibility and simplicity of working from home. Some of the expectations we set, in the form of both statements and questions include the following:

  1. What type of computer do you have? Will it accommodate the ability to log on and join the video platform without complication?
  2. Does the computer have a webcam (internal or external)
  3. How technologically savvy are you? Have you ever used an online video platform to teach?
  4. Do you have a headset and microphone to enhance your voice and your ability to hear the campers?
  5. Do you have an extremely reliable internet connection? Is it Wifi or do you use an ethernet cord?
  6. Do you have a quiet place to work from at home, and without interruption.
  7. Is your place of work (at home) clean and are you able to make the background of your room clean, without posters or pictures that may disrupt campers or even worse, be somewhat offensive or message-driven?
  8. Will you have the ability to place materials and supplies (used for activities) next to your desk, so you may easily access those materials to provide demonstrations for the campers?

All of the questions above, and more, will need to be answered by your team well before they commit to working with you in a virtual camp environment. You simply cannot make any assumptions or believe all will be well without triple checking key components to how the virtual program will be delivered. It is important to engage with your staff immediately and directly ask them about their technology hardware to confirm it will work without failure, but equally important, to ensure they possess the capability, bandwidth, and level of interest to truly learn and commit to the remote and virtual camp concept. If you do not communicate and engage with your counselors, you are leading both yourself and your staff to failure.

Be Very Careful How You Plan the Camper Day or Session

In our opinion, a camp session should not be any shorter than 30 minutes and no longer than 2 hours, with multiple mini-breaks included throughout.

One of the most important factors in planning your virtual camp is the schedule. We suggest that you be overly intentional about the duration of time you will spend online with the campers. This includes the following:

  1. How many times will you meet each day?
  2. How many days will your program operate? What constitutes a camp

Promote Non-Screen Time Activities at the End of Each Session

Over the past few months and most likely, children have been around their parents more than any other period of time since toddler age. In short and in full transparency (at least this is the case in our house), my kids need a break from mom and dad. The continuous parent commands of “do this”, “go outside and play”, “take the dog for a walk” or “take out the trash are all quite normal. But not when these commands are blurted out on the hour, every hour throughout the day. Whether parents recognize it or not, they most likely have been telling their kids what to do every day simply to keep the kids busy. Let’s face it, most parents are not used to being at home all day long, let alone being at home with their children all day. As a result, a rested child is a target for a parent command. So, what’s my point? Kids need a break from their parents and they need it ASAP.

Virtual Summer Camp to the rescue. Your underlying camp culture and the energy your counselors provide will prove to be a relief valve for campers. In other words, children cannot wait to listen to someone else other than their own parents. Therefore, you and your team will have a tremendous amount of responsibility on your shoulders. Take advantage of it in a proactive, positive, and healthy way.

At the end of each session challenge the campers to go play outside, take out the trash, walk the dog, clean up their room, help set up the table for dinnertime, etc. Use the power of your unique engagement and inevitable role of mentor to encourage the campers to be proactive around the house, well before parents intervene. This is a win-win for everyone and provides responsibility and accountability for the campers. These proactive and random acts also help to provide additional value to your camp offering.

Provide Daily Challenges for Campers

Have a plan for how you will maintain the focus and energy for both your campers and your counselors. I have heard from hundreds of teachers how challenging it has been to deliver their curriculum online. Unrelated to the technology aspect and daily challenges of getting all students online, the more pressing concern seems to be around the topic of engagement and energy. So how will you transition and change the current, pre-camp model of online or remote learning into a true summer camp model. The answer is easy.

Over-deliver with continuous breaks throughout the daily sessions or block of time you have with the campers. For every 15 minute block of activity time, pause and mix in a 3-5 minutes period of game time. 15 minutes is a long time to maintain focus online and it appears to be the proper period of time (no scientific research here, only sharing best practices we have learned from doing) when counselors should introduce a break. Not necessarily a walk away from the screen break, but a highly positive, energetic, all camper inclusive break. Some of the breaks we have instituted and will continue to develop are similar to those we would do in an in-person camp setting.

Examples include:

  1. Round Robin Trivia
  2. 20 Questions
  3. Guess the Picture (like Pictionary, but the counselor draws and the campers guess)
  4. Simon Says
  5. Jumping Jack Frenzy
  6. Riddles Galore

There are so many fun, inclusive, engaging activity breaks you and your team can introduce, so I recommend starting your list now and schedule intentional times throughout the duration of each session or day to institute the breaks using the 15:5 methodology (for each 15-minute segment, stop, and then introduce your overly exciting and energetic break session. This will keep campers fresh and full of energy!

In Summary

You can do this! So long as you set your own expectations and those of the campers and families you will become a savior for families who truly need organization, structure, and enjoyable learning for their children.


ACA was not involved in the creation of this content and does not imply an endorsement of products/services.