When our popular basketball camp lost its celebrity director, my college decided not to take down the nets and close the gym doors. On the contrary, his departure became the impetus for making a great program even better.
Here are some tips from the pros at Houghton College. You, too, can make your camp one that kids and parents alike will keep coming back to, year after year.
Be willing to lose
According to Mark Pavone, women's basketball associate head coach and administrative camp director at Houghton College in western New York, you must be willing to lose money during the first year. The college had to field such setup costs as buying portable hoops and balls.
Pavone's philosophy is, "Get the kids in here no matter what the cost." And the college has. Today the Houghton College Basketball Camp is the most successful camp in the southern tier of western New York. It went from 237 girls and boys in the first recovery year, to just under 600 kids currently.
They come from 14 states and five countries to attend basketball camp in Houghton, a small town an hour and half from Buffalo or Rochester, N.Y. No matter where you're located, your camp can attract students from anywhere, if you're willing to build from the bottom up.
Now that you've risked capital to get warm bodies to come to your camp, keep them coming back, so that you can begin to make money.
At Houghton, Pavone says that recruitment and retention go hand in hand. "You must flood the market with your program," he says. In its recovery year the college printed 30,000 brochures and placed them in high schools and bookstores and mailed them to youth pastors and alumni of Houghton College. Today they mail half that many because they have built a client base that keeps coming back.
The brochure the college sent out after the celebrity director left was not just any brochure. It was a poster-brochure. While it folded conveniently for mailing, it opened into an 11" x 17", full-color, glossy poster, touting the great things about basketball camp at Houghton: specialized instruction with highly qualified staff, a full week of play, three full-length games per day, and a maximum of eight people on a team. Not only do participants learn basketball skills, they learn life skills, such as team cooperation and living together.
The brochure used loud colors and bold type and showcased the week's various camps for boys and girls are offered.
Besides a flashy, large brochure, camp directors went out and met face to face with local coaches. They promoted the Houghton camp and offered discounts to schools that brought a group to camp. Scholarships for players added an attraction, as well. Also, Houghton's public relations department promoted basketball camp via news releases to local newspapers.
Basketball camp is so popular at Houghton that they've added a day camp for children in grades one through three and a camp for teams. The brochure advertised early-bird specials and discounts if registrations were received by a certain date.
While that personal touch is still integral to the success of the program today, Pavone encourages directors to have a strong Web presence. "Today's young people are techno-savvy," Pavone says, "so use this technology to your benefit."
To check out the Houghton College Basketball Camp, visit www.houghton.edu/sports/camps.
The college uses its Web site in many ways. Campers' parents can register their child on-line or print out a user-friendly version to mail in. (For security reasons, the college cannot accept payment electronically yet.)
Also, the sports pages are listed on other sites, so if a parent or child is searching an engine for a basketball camp, Houghton's will pop up.
Pavone also uses the Web to provide daily updates for parents while their child is at camp. A parent can find out how their child's team is stacking up, for instance.
Once the brochures were out, Pavone and athletic director and women's basketball head coach Skip Lord hit the streets. They met with coaches, youth pastors, and anyone else who would listen, to talk about their camp.
Coaches who they hired to work as counselors at the Houghton camp also received incentives for bringing more kids from their school. These coaches, in turn, became valuable spokespersons in their areas for the Houghton camps.
Once the kids were coming, Pavone, Lord, and men's basketball coach Brad Zarges wanted to keep the camp at its high level of excellence. They developed a mission statement: "Houghton College basketball camps are committed to providing top-quality, professional instruction and exposure to the Christian life in a setting that emphasizes individual attention and maximum participation at an affordable price." This maxim drives all that they do at the camps.
A Packed Packet
When kids register, they and their parents receive a confirmation packet that's chock full of useful information. A letter outlines details such as what medical forms are required and what it costs to sign up for a special shooting session with a former Penn State player.
Another sheet reminds campers what to bring to camp: pillow, blanket, alarm clock, a fan, and basketball shoes, among other things. Another outlines a typical daily schedule: breakfast at 8 a.m., roll call, thought for the day by 8:50, league play, lunch, more league play, followed by evening free time, devotional, and lights out at 11 p.m.
This year registrants will receive a purple 2" x 3 1/2" magnet for their school lockers. A map details directions from Jamestown, Rochester, Buffalo, greater New York City, and central Pennsylvania.
When students come to basketball camp, they are names, not numbers. Part of that one-on-one attention starts at check-in. Pavone and all camp counselors -- who are Houghton College basketball players -- greet all campers.
The director and counselors arrive at camp several hours before the campers so that they can prepare their hearts and minds for the young people who will be living with them all week.
About a month before camp begins, Pavone sends counselors a registration packet, which includes examples of drills they can run with their campers.
Weekly e-mails prior to camp provide totals of registered campers. Pavone says this motivates counselors and also reduces their shock when they get to campus and see over 300 young people!
The day camp starts counselors and directors arrive several hours ahead of the registrants and prepare their hearts and minds with a devotional and prayer time. They continue this each day of camp. The first evening of camp teams are drafted.
Campers receive smiles as well as a refreshing cold beverage and help carrying their luggage into the dorms.
After parents get back in their cars to head home, their children may have forgotten them, but Houghton College hasn't! The directors know that it's not always easy leaving your kid in someone else's hands for a week. Parents may be unsure about the supervision their child will receive.
A postcard from the camp director the next day assures parents that their children are in good hands: "We trust that your child will get the most out of this week and that it will be a growing experience, not only in the game of basketball, but in the game of life." Pavone includes the college's phone number and e-mail contact in case parents need to reach him that week.
Parents who aren't familiar with a college campus have valid concerns about their child's safety and how well they will be supervised.
At Houghton, the 8:1 counselor-to-camper ratio provides a checks-and-balances system that accounts for every child at all times.
Students are not allowed in the dorms without a college counselor. This is a non-issue since basketball camp is filled most hours of the day with playing basketball. Seven to eight roll calls a day help counselors know their students by name.
As for safety, Houghton College is nestled in the rolling hills of western New York, 60 miles from Rochester or Buffalo. While no place is immune, Houghton does enjoy an excellent reputation for safety.
When parents bring their child to camp, they receive a copy of camp rules, which include, among other things, no tobacco or alcohol allowed.
Houghton adheres to the New York State Health Departments guidelines for public safety. A highly structured time with very little free time ensures that safety is a priority at Houghton. Seven roll calls a day help counselors know their campers by name.
A residential college community, Houghton, can't boast being neighbors to popular fast-food chains or department stores, but it can offer a serene setting for those who value beauty, serenity, relationships, and exceptional basketball camps with exceptional staff.
When camp's over
At the end of the week, when league plays, dips in the pool, and new friendships with campers and counselors is complete, many campers would like to stay longer.
Steve Minor, a senior at Coudersport High School in Pennsylvania, has been attending the Houghton Basketball Camp for three years and plans to return this summer. He said, "There's good competition. I like the way teams are set up so we can scrimmage. The food's good at camp, and the coaches are friendly." His brother, Phillip, a tenth grader, said, "The camp is well organized. Attending the camp has helped me improve my game."
A packed schedule is key. "Campers are here to play basketball, and that's what we do!" Pavone says. Drafted teams provide team variety and equality in skill levels. Players meet players from other schools, as well.
Throughout the year the camp director sends a birthday card to all campers. This is one more way they are reminded that they are someone special, an individual with a name, not a number. Campers also receive invitations to events on campus and game schedules.
Once a month campers receive e-mail updates on the college's men's and women's basketball teams. They also receive invitations to games (via e-mail -- our postage budget doesn't allow mailing out invitations).
In January the college hosts a Camp Night: campers are invited to come to a game free if they wear their camp t-shirt. These updates and invitation are posted on the Web as well. The Camp Night is also advertised via a postcard mailing.
Cynthia Machamer is a writer and editor at Houghton College. Houghton, founded by The Wesleyan Church in 1883, provides an academically challenging, Christ-centered education in the liberal arts and sciences to students from diverse traditions and economic backgrounds and equips them to lead and labor as scholar-servants in a changing world. The college of 1,300 students is located in western New York, just 65 miles from Rochester and Buffalo.