Bucking the Trend

In a recent editorial in The Wall Street Journal, Tunku Varadarajan writes, "Today... camp is designed as a break for children from parents. As the latter tribe grows more insufferably aspirational with every generation, kids are getting pummeled by parental ambition. They're overscheduled, over-tended and, frankly, over-parented. Camp, at least for a few weeks, helps them escape from it all."


Camps, particularly more traditional ones with programmatic variety, are biased about the value of the experience they offer in helping build not only great memories, but well-rounded people. But this bias is not without its merits, both in the long-run development of the person and the short-term benefits of healthy activity.

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The question then becomes how to communicate these benefits about camp to parents, and the potential responses to market factors.


"The thing I see more than anything now is parents wanting to know if camp is going to get their child 100 points more on the SAT, or will it get them a tennis scholarship or speak a foreign language. They're not seeing the value of the traditional camp experience if it doesn't come with academics, very high level sports, or whatever it is they're looking for. They're not seeing the value in nurturing the whole child. We hear that all the time. We've heard it from high-schoolers, but now we're hearing it from junior-high kids, and that's scary," says Andrew Townsend, camps director for Kennolyn Camps, Soquel, Calif. "One of the dilemmas for the traditional camp is whether we follow the trend or stick it out until it cycles through again. This isn't the first time this type of thing has come along, and then people realize that their kid needs freedom and time to play."

Townsend says Kennolyn is adapting to some degree by offering specialty classes in partnership with local, sports-oriented programs.

"We're hoping to market against people who go to a sports camp, but are a little disappointed when the sports camp is just sports. There will be some pretty intense, high-quality coaching in different sports, but they'll still do all of the traditional programs as well," explains Townsend. "I don't want to divert energy away from what we do best and change the infrastructure. But if we're only 10 minutes from other facilities and younger coaches who would like to run their own camps someday, we won't have to do the infrastructure investment and change the nature of how our camp feels."

Beyond the minor adjustments to market realities, Townsend hopes that camps can send a unified message about camp to parents, much like the got milk? and other agriculturally-based marketing campaigns.

"I think we're losing an opportunity as a segment of the child development field when we don't have a well-defined message and some money to put that message out in the public eye," says Townsend. "Camp has a warm, apple-pie image, which makes it more attractive. The problem is the parent who doesn't recognize the benefits, so that even for those two weeks of the summer when they used to go to a traditional camp they want their kid at SAT or French camp. They don't want to even give up that two to four weeks to see their kid relax and do something different."

An on-target, broad-based message would help all camps, says Townsend. However, as Townsend points out, the agricultural advertising campaigns -- such as the got milk? campaign -- are funded by higher taxes on the producers, which are funded by subsidies. It's not voluntary, and many producers -- be they of dairy, beef or pork -- don't need or want the extra exposure. This specific model is probably not the answer.

Another possibility is a more regional campaign geared toward the major media outlets in the region. In this scenario, the marketing budget would be more manageable and the ads could be geared more toward that specific market.

Townsend says Kennolyn is looking at the possibility of a collaborative California camp marketing campaign with other camps. After all, "Most people in the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, want a camp within a few hours of home. We believe this will allow us to tailor the message to the values people are looking for out of a camp experience," says Townsend.

Additionally, Townsend notes that kids are much bigger part of the decision-making process. It used to be parents would pick the camp and send the child. These days, the parents' role is to narrow the field (often in conjunction with their child), then the final choice is made by the child.

"We have to be careful that our traditional image doesn't come off to the kids as boring. If we don't showcase how fun traditional camp is, they're not going to know, and will pick the MTV production video from the camp down the road. It's a trend that forces us to look more closely at our video and Web site presentations," says Townsend. "My feeling is that as an industry we have allowed ourselves to become marginalized, and that's why we all suffer when there's a little bit of a downturn or families turn a different way and want academics, for instance. We haven't forced ourselves out there to say, 'Your child will be a better athlete, student and citizen because of the traditional camp experience that teaches them how to grow up into a productive person.' In order to reverse that trend is need to combine our resources and get the message out there. How we do that is yet to be seen."

Land Rush

Camps usually live the "location, location, location" maxim of the real estate business. But like the infamous family farm, many camps are finding themselves squeezed by encroachment on many fronts. This pressure leads some to sell and subdivide. However, this is an asset that can and should be saved, according to Gary Forster, camping specialist for the YMCA.

"In 1960 we had more than 600 YMCA overnight camps. Now we have 245, but we actually serve more kids than we did then. There are economic and quality reasons that big tends to be more successful. But just as people ought to be fighting for small family farms the market drives toward larger models. Small camps ought to band together and find ways they can create the efficiencies and qualities that more naturally come to the larger camps," says Forster. "Retiring camp owners find out that their beautiful camp is more valuable as a housing development than it is as a camp, and the same thing is happening for non-profits. The value of the property is so high, some struggling organizations just can't ignore the price offered for development."

Besides banding together to pool resources and create efficiencies, there are a number of other creative avenues to keep the land, and realize a dividend that will help fill beds. As Forster points out, camps have some of the best undeveloped land in North America.

"The creative solutions -- beyond seeking lower tax rates through wilderness, undeveloped or recreation assessment classifications -- are beginning to show themselves, such as selling development rights. We have a wonderful camp in Washington, Mass. -- Camp HighRock -- serving YMCA's in Connecticut that sold their 1,000 acres to the Nature Conservancy, the state of Massachusetts and the National Park Service. In return they get a 99-year lease for a dollar to operate the core 300 acres where the camp is located. They can continue to develop and use the camp, but no one will be able to sell it for development later. They get money right now to put into an endowment to do critical things to protect the site," says Forster. "The coolest thing is that it can never be sold off and used for anything but a camp. Different states do it in different ways. In Connecticut, for example, the state might buy the development rights in return for an easement that says it can never be used for development."

Forster points out that there are many organizations interested in protecting open space. When land is developed for housing it creates a painfully large burden on local government that the taxes don't fully support.

"The camp needs to be the one to gather and orchestrate all of those interested parties at the table -- municipalities, the state, the local land conservancy, and other groups interested in protecting open space. Each one has a pot of money it can go to, but it's usually not enough, and most of them get more when they can show they're working with other organizations. The property we chose for our camps is in huge demand, and the upside is that there are people willing to help to keep it that way," says Forster.

Barring this approach, Forster says individual donations are becoming a more realistic and potentially groundbreaking avenue of improving camp facilities, grounds and programs. Though the Baby Boomers may take our Social Security with them, they're also filling philanthropic coffers, and camps have a compelling story to tell them.

"In the YMCA in the early 1900s there were a few charismatic leaders who believed this country really needed camps because of what they do to develop youth. There were people with lots of money to invest, with multi-million dollar camps, in today's dollars, being built," says Forster. "There's been nothing like that since the mid-30s... until now. There are examples now of organizations taking hold of this baby-boomer transfer of wealth, and that's happening now and for the next 40 years.

Whoever can paint the picture of how people might spend those assets while they're still alive for a good purpose will generate big results. The money is available, and these organizations are getting it through individual donors who want to make a difference in kids' lives. They're teaching us the potential we have, and that it's possible right now. These affluent donors are going to buy into your success, and change hundreds of kids' lives in the process."

Shattering the Myth

For at least 20 years, Forster says the drive to go year-round has been more damaging to camping than just about any other "myth" in the camp business.

"Serving schools and groups is one of the most effective tools we have in reaching kids of all income levels. But too often camps went year-round, not to serve a new market with a price-supported program, but with the misguided notion that there is money to be made in going year-round. The one thing we do that parents value most is summer camp. If you look at the prices of everything we do -- outdoor education is usually 25 percent of the price of summer camp, weekends is 50 percent. You can't say you're covering your expenses with these programs, let alone making a contribution to your overhead," says Forster. "I was talking to a camp that had two staff 20 years ago. Today they serve the same number of summer campers, but have 27 year-round staff. Yes, they have 12,000 guests in the off-season now, but they still only serve 800 kids in the summer, and all their net surplus still comes from the summer camp. Now they're working like crazy to cover the increased overhead of their year-round expenses. Meanwhile there's a camp down the road that still has two full-time people, operating 10 weeks a year, and they put all their money back into the program. They design great programs all winter, and focus on what they do well."

That's not to say that year-round programming should be off the table. Quite the contrary. The point, says Forster, is to first make sure summer camp -- or whatever niche you serve -- is healthy. Once it is, the sky's the limit, as long as you don't forsake the bread-and-butter for pie in the sky.

"A growing number of brand-new, not-for-profit camps are being built all around the country, many costing as much as $32 million each. Those camps that went into year-round programming hoping to cure their financial ills may find themselves out of luck when customers can choose beautiful new retreat facilities for the very same price. The camps that are being successful with big philanthropists are going to clean everyone's clock in the off-season," says Forster. "But there's an important difference in the summer; summer camps just don't need all that stuff. Most folks like the idea of a simpler, more natural lifestyle. You don't need $32 million for a great summer camp.

If you have a strong summer camp program, and there's enough market in this country that every camp could be running full, it gives you the revenue to do just about whatever you want. You can invest it in scholarships, in new summer program equipment, or reinvest in the community for year-round programs, which are essentially scholarship programs."

That's why, adds Forster, that yurts, teepees, log cabins, covered wagons and other similar structures work so well and are so popular at camp. They're relatively inexpensive and yet the kids love them. But the bulk of the conference center market wants a conference center.

"We do group leaders a disservice when we don't label ourselves as retreat centers. We're not a resort; we work with groups in a group-living environment. That's a retreat, and it has unique benefits over a conference setting. But it's not for everyone," says Forster.

Forster says the problems start when a weak summer camp program tries to improve their bottom line by adding year-round programming before they have the staff, time and money to support it. Precious resources and attention are diverted by the additional marketing, program delivery, utilities and maintenance. As a result, the already-struggling summer camp -- which wasn't strong to begin with -- suffers.

"Get your summer camp in order first. Nobody who's done that has had any trouble doing whatever they wanted after that. Likewise, nobody has been able to dig themselves out of a bad summer camp program by investing in the rest of the year -- not a single one. They'll point to our biggest camps, but if you ask those camps, every single one of them did their summer camp first, and then got into the rest," says Forster.

Bryan BuchkoComment