Winding Down & Winding Up

Time seems to stand still each fall. The last campers and most staff have said their good byes, leaving an eerie quiet on campus.

It's easy to be lulled into a post-camp melancholy and consider hibernation, particularly given the international crisis precipitated by the tragic events of September 11, and the resulting domestic unease and economic uncertainty.

In the aftermath many of us have learned to reevaluate our priorities. We have also learned that the breakneck, cavalier days of the '90s and early 21st Century are gone, at least for the time being. In its place is a more thoughtful, customer-oriented business climate.

Camps have always been one of America's beacons of customer service. It shows in the meticulous contact-oriented follow-ups that the best camps do each fall.

That won't change, but what might change next summer are the cross-country and cross-region migratory paths taken by campers, and camp directors' reaction to this and other changes.

"This is usually our big selling season, but parents are very reluctant to make plans for the summer given the circumstances in New York and Washington," says Joey Waldman, director of Camp Blue Ridge, Mountain City, Ga. "It hurt us after having a great summer and a lot of positive e-mails and calls."

It's this climate that has Waldman making some subtle adjustments to this fall's marketing strategy. Waldman usually offers discount rates shortly after the camp season through September. But this year Blue Ridge's series of discounts will be pushed back a month.

The camp's first discount will run through November, instead of ending in October, the secondary discount will run through the beginning of December, and the final discount will run to the middle of January. February will mark the push for new clients, where advertising and Internet leads are followed up on more closely.

Though a major airline hub city, Atlanta, is nearby, and ferries many of Blue Ridge's campers, the camp is also pursuing alternate modes of transportation.

"History has told me in this business that parents -- given the opportunity of getting their space and their vacation, and giving their children a summer experience -- are willing to foot that bill, and not sacrifice their time off and their children's time off," says Waldman.

Follow Up & Reinforce

For more local to regional camps, travel issues are not as intense, so the focus becomes more parent and camper contact. For Camp La Junta, nestled in the Texas Hill Country about 90 miles from San Antonio, most of its campers come from the big cities of Texas.

Camp La Junta's director, Blake Smith, sees this contact as less follow-up and more as "laying the ground work for the following summer."

This groundwork takes the form of thank-you notes, follow-up statements, mailing out lost and found items, birthday cards, and "any excuse we can come up with to email or write them," says Smith.

Between the last summer session and Christmas, Camp La Junta does little to no advertising, instead concentrating on making sure no stone is unturned in the quest to make contact.

Smith and his staff have weekly meetings where each staff member has their specific contact responsibilities, working off of computer print-outs from the camp's database management program to pinpoint the possibilities.

Camp Blue Ridge's Waldman says that 65 percent of his post season is dedicated to follow up, where an initial contact is made via phone or e-mail. That contact is followed by a phone call to offer assistance and answer any questions.

The other 35 percent of post-season, says Waldman, is 99 percent Internet-based, with the Camp Blue Ridge name spread out on a number of directories and through multiple Web sites run by camp-specific site providers. But Waldman hasn't completely forsaken traditional advertising.

"I still like to run some newspaper ads in various communities just to keep our name out there with the competition," says Waldman. "It's a nominal amount of money, and you use those three important months when you're not running discounts. Eventually, you drop those because, as you get close to filling up, you want people to know you're filling up and that you don't need to advertise."

Waldman researches which publications are being sent to the right places and read by the right people, simply by tapping his existing camp contacts who have a feel for the effectiveness of certain local publications.

Most camp owners send out brochures and other informational mailings to past and potential campers, but perhaps no one pumps up the volume as much as Marc Katz, owner of Long Lake Camp for the Arts, Long Lake, N.Y.

"Ninety percent of the camper base is filled by November, then I don't really have to worry too much about campers, but we still send out 100-150 brochures a week anyway, even if we are full," says Katz. "You never know… One day you may need to grow, or want to develop another program. It's a very beautiful thing to say, 'I'm sorry. We're full.' I've waited 20 years to say that. You're basically trying to guarantee longevity in sales."

Like most camps, Katz is convinced that "the Web is where it's at." He cites over a $1 million in sales attributed to it, and a decrease of $80,000 in advertising and $30,000 in referral services.

"We've been on the Web for 10 years, and I tell it how it is," says Katz. "We are a creative camp, so the Web site should reflect that. We have 127 people at our camp whose main focus is artistic pursuit. I ask them as an artist how we're presenting things."

Give it Away

Another way to maintain camper contact and retention is through give-aways, which can take a number of forms beyond what's referred to as advertising specialties or promotional products.

Each year, for example, Camp Blue Ridge's Waldman gives away a video yearbook to all the kids. It's a constant reminder of the fun they had at camp, and also a constant reminder about where they had that fun.

"This year, for the first time, we have a CD-ROM slide show of 3,100 pictures of campers, and it'll be a great keepsake for these kids," says Waldman. "In the future we might sell something like this, but this year it'll be a great giveaway. As camps get streetwise to the Internet and computer systems they'll learn that they don't need to pay money for these projects; they can do it on their own."

Most camps give away or sell things like t-shirts and other keepsakes as constant camp reminders, and Camp La Junta's Smith takes these on the road in the off months.

"We travel off and on during January and February at city parties with slide shows and videos; anywhere we have a pocket of kids interested we'll go," says Smith. "We use bumper stickers, Frisbees, magnets, t-shirts, pens, pencils and stickers when someone shows up at a camp function. We try to avoid the junk and give them something they can use. It all comes back to the contact."

Bryan BuchkoComment