Being successful in the business of camp is really about managing a business that keeps pace with change. The key to success for many camp owners is in their ability to remain open to new ideas about what a camp experience can be.
Probably the biggest challenge in managing change is staying on top of your camp's target market. For example, it is likely that the demand for adult and family camp programming may eclipse the market of the traditional, overnight and day camps for children. Another example is the surging interest beyond summer camp. Many camp business owners are looking at how they can offer camp programming for all four seasons.
Another sweeping change in camp business is the power of promotion. Even though there are still many camp businesses that can rely on a steady camper enrollment by earning repeat business and attracting legacy campers, the promotional tide is turning. Many camp owners are now adopting aggressive, promotional strategies to grow their enrollments.
Technology has played a huge role in promotion and how owners create new profits centers. However, keeping pace with technology carries its own price tag.
When you add on the challenges of risk management, rising liability insurance, the responsibility of hiring trustworthy human beings as residential employees and meeting new state regulations by conducting Criminal Offender Record (CORI) checks, the business of keeping pace with change can start to feel overwhelming.
However, the flipside of these changes is that they can present an impetus for improvement. John Lilly, a physician and researcher in human behavior, once said that "our security is our ability to change."
I think that it is safe to say that most camp business owners believe that standing still is just not an option. However, change for the sake of change might not produce a healthy camp enrollment.
Staying ahead of the curve does take some planning and it requires more than just keeping track of what's hot and what's not. A huge factor in rising to these challenges is being able to assess and adapt your camp's facilities to ensure that your camp business stays on the cutting edge.
Super Structures If you haven't taken a hard look at how your camp's facilities will help you keep pace with new waves of camp programming, you can ask the following questions: How well do you know the strengths and limitations of your camp's facilities? Are your facilities ready to meet a shift in new camp programming demands?
If you were to expand your facilities, would you eye a prime piece of undeveloped land or would you scrutinize the existing buildings that may be liabilities because of high energy costs, lack of capacity that impacts your ability to grow, or the headaches they cause because they are just not handicapped accessible?
If you want to make the best investment to enhance your campers' satisfaction and safety, as well as have a healthier bottom line, you need to consider both your developed and undeveloped spaces and take a look at the spaces that adjacent to your camp that you could purchase.
When camp owners get the urge to expand their facilities, more often than not, it is sparked by a crisis, such as discovering that termites have helped themselves to the floor joists of your dining hall, suffering through a second, consecutive summer of record rainfall, or experiencing an unexpected surge of camper interest in adventure activities.
The knee-jerk reaction is to fix the immediate problem as quickly and cost-effectively as possible. But as satisfying as a the quick fix might seem, taking the time to treat the crisis as an opportunity to assess your entire camp operation by keeping the big picture in mind will probably yield the best return on your next investment in your facilities. This big picture is your master plan.
Camp owners who stand the best chance of staying ahead of the curve are going to invest in a master plan of their camp facilities.
A master plan is a purposeful and investigative process that uses the same tactics as a master chess player. Before the first move is executed, the second and the third moves have already been determined.
Master planning for a camp business does not take the genius of Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer. Master planning can be as simple as identifying and understanding all of your options, projecting what the advantages and disadvantages are of each option, and then considering these options in the context of both the short-term and the long-term results.
There is nothing more frustrating than realizing that the parking area you built last spring could have been the site for a new dining hall that would have saved $75,000 because that site wouldn't require a retaining wall.
Retaining walls, floor joists, standards for ziplines… there are so many technical considerations that need to be addressed when you assess your options to expand or enhance your camp's facilities.
Zoning laws, drainage restrictions, demolition costs, energy-saving options… the list of variables can be daunting. As you encounter areas where you don't feel like you have the expertise, you may decide that you need to hand the master planning decisions over to an architect.
But remember that you and your staff are the people with the knowledge of the day-to-day camp operations. Not that you wouldn't benefit from an objective eye and the braintrust of design experience from an architect, but you are the person who has lived and breathed the way that your camp has worked.
You know that when the campers leave the waterfront just before lunch, they need to hustle back to their cabins before they go to the dining hall. And you also know that the usual time for express package deliveries coincides with lunch.
So your knowledge about camper and vendor circulation patterns needs to be addressed. You also know that campers tend to congregate in front of the camp store and that building a new infirmary next to the camp store would compromise privacy as well as the quiet atmosphere needed to deal with a medical emergency.
Your braintrust of how your camp works is vital to the master planning process. There really is no substitute for your knowledge of the existing conditions of your camp.
So is an architect a necessary player to develop a master plan? I would say that it would be smart to involve an architect who is willing to provide answers to your questions about the best options for expanding and improving your camp facilities.
However, the architect should not drive the thinking: the people who know your camp business best should. This means hiring a master planner who listens and takes the time to understand your camp's issues. Beware of the planning professional who provides "the solution" after a quick perusal of your camp's operations.
If you communicate your key concerns, the architect should address these directly, explain to you what variables come into play, and help you to identify what options are most viable. You should drive the decision making for expanding and enhancing your camp's facilities.
To help put you in the driver's seat for decision making, here are some important issues for you to discuss with a master planning professional...
Master plan with innovation and flexibility:
• Consider a pod of sleeping areas that can house up to 50 people with varied configuration via wings and adjoining restrooms. These pods could incorporate a lounge/meeting room for small gatherings that will encourage children and adults to visit with one another and will provide an area for community projects.
• Create parking lots for camper arrivals and other peak traffic times that can also be secured for street hockey and four square courts during off-peak traffic times.
• Design fieldhouses with suspended indoor tracks that can expand spectator capacities for assemblies, drama and social events.
• Expand the volume and consider acoustics of dining halls that can also accommodate drama, learning and social activities.
• Provide locker rooms with adjoining team rooms that can expand the service areas to accommodate large events.
• Create waterfront areas with generous sandfronts that can support volleyball courts.
Master plan to cultivate a feeling of security and community:
• Create one central access point as the only camp entrance and use signs that communicate mandatory check-in for visitors.
• Develop open areas to congregate by creating quadrangles with new facilities.
• Avoid narrow alley ways created by positioning major buildings side by side.
• Separate the waterfront area from the sleeping areas with residences of administrative staff
Master Plan to protect your investment with adequate storage:
• Avoid the temptation to shortchange storage to squeeze out more activity space; consider your annual budget for equipment and the replacement costs of damaged or "missing" equipment. Also consider how much more enjoyable an activity is when there is enough equipment for everyone to participate.
• Optimize storage volume with generous wall space for multiple level shelves and hooks, but make sure that doorways are large enough to accommodate equipment like volleyball standards, soccer goals, portable basketball hoops, and sailboat equipment.
• Incorporate separate, lockable compartments so that each instructor can manage his/her own equipment. This can give added incentive to carefully manage equipment use and storage while eliminating the detective work for lost equipment.
Master planning at its best is a career-long journey for camp business owners. When you visit other camps and talk to camp owners, keep a journal of what you liked and what you didn't.
If someone sings the praises of a great master planning professional, find out why, and how to contact the firm.
When there is a problem at your camp, analyze how your facilities might have contributed to it and explore solutions. Striving for perfection in your master plan can help you to make solid decisions and it can make all the difference in successful camp programming.
Dr. Susan Langlois has more than 25 years of experience as a college professor, athletic administrator, camp director and sport facilities consultant. She is currently the Dean of Sports Science at Endicott College.