Beyond Summer

By Jeff Merhige

How many times have you told people that you are summer director and then been asked what do you do the rest of the year? I have had that experience countless times.

Some camps are seasonal and take a year to prepare for, while others operate year round. So what programming should or do you do year-round? There are a couple of guidelines that directors should follow if they choose to run year round programming.

First, only do something well. Too many times directors choose to run off-season programming (not summer) and do not think about the ramifications of running weak programming.

Remember that all programming, no matter the time of year, reflects on your program as a whole, including the reputation of your summer programming.

Quality of program delivery is how we sell summer camp. Running a poor quality weekend or winter camp program does not limit your damage.

There are participants saying the camp experience was weak and this reputation will affect summer camp. But if you choose to run a weekend or winter program then make it is as high in quality as your summer.

Let weekend and off-season programming be the recruiter of summer campers to fill the summer season. Every weekend and winter program participant should not only have the time of their lives but they should leave with a summer brochure and information.

What Type of Programming?
If you are just starting out in trying to create off-season programming then I suggest weekend groups and holiday weekend camps. Halloween, winter camp, CIT, fall colors and Spring Wild flowers weekend are great introductions to off-season programming for your camp.

Staffing is easy and light and can be based on calling in summer staff, and facility use is usually small scale compared to facility capacity. Fliers can be given out during summer camp and registration can be added to your summer brochure.

A harder level of programming, but a great program to run, is family camp. It's more staff intensive and usually run Memorial Day weekend, Labor Day weekend, or attached to your summer camp. Expect to use a lot of staff, with heavy facility and resource use to run a good one.

Family camps have a rich tradition and assist your camp in numerous ways. Pools of volunteers are created, future campers are home grown, parent advocates are created and community reputation is enhanced.

The next level in off-season programming is full-time programs that require full-time staff additions to your camping program. For instance, outdoor education programs, equestrian programming, year-round, and year-round retreats and conferences.

While working in Michigan I attempted to start an outdoor education program with my northern resident camp. I forgot some of my own rules at the time...

First and foremost, when looking to start the program I failed to recognize if there was a need for such a program in the location I wanted to do it. My wanting the program did not mean that the program would be successful.

The camp was located 250 miles north of its main constituents. I thought the idea of outdoor education for our base market area would work despite the transportation distance. My greatest failure with this thinking was forgetting my key market territory, the distances involved and what, exactly, I was asking schools to take on.

Know your audience and know if there is a market for the program. I learned quickly that weekend excursions was a much better fit for travel, staffing and programming than weekday outdoor education programming 250 miles way from my main market area.

But that being said, I learned on my first weekend winter excursion that preparation of the camp was necessary to host an event in the winter.

The first weekend all the water froze in camp. I spent the first night with heaters in the pump station hoping to have water by Saturday morning and/or preparing to move the campers to a local hotel. Luckily the water came up and for the future all pipes were wrapped and lined with heating tape!

Our greatest success was the creation of a Halloween and winter retreat camp. These became our traditional outings and were full each year.

Halloween camp was the time to tell the scary stories and carve pumpkins. We even went trick or treating in a neighboring town.

Winter retreat camp was a time for winter fun, with the added benefit of camper input for the next summer's planning. The frozen lake walks, sledding, winter camp fire and more made the weekend a yearly favorite for summer staff and campers to come enjoy as well.

In planning your budget you need to remember that each one of these programs requires facilitators, heavy facility usage and also requires an expansion of your kitchen facilities and maintenance capabilities.

Remember Support Services!
Too many time directors see the chance to expand programming and forget the basic support services that need to be expended to allow for the program growth. Are you going to do it? Are you hiring others to take care of it?

Basic rule: People need to eat when they are with you! Second rule: If you want them back they need to eat well! Third rule: Bathrooms make or break you guest experience. Final rule: The appearance of your grounds says a lot about the care of the camp and the attention to detail of the staff.

Failing to feed guests properly and present a clean facility will work against any successful program you may facilitate or deliver. Your guests will still remember the food and the facility look.

Hiring full-time kitchen or part-time kitchen and maintenance costs money and it is hard to just hire people for each event. I can tell you, as many of you I am sure could second, I have acted as cook, maintenance, grounds keeper and counselor all at the same event to make sure that it happened.

Find your break-even point for all programming. Too many times I have worked with camp staffs that don't understand why they are not making money on year-round programming. The reason? The budget had not really been worked out.

Hopefully you have figured out the budget needed to run the program -- counselors, support services, director time, facility heating cost, facility electric cost, program supplies, food, marketing, and so on, and created a rate and number of participants needed to run the program.

Remember that when you hire full-time people, or you're keeping animals full time, even with no guests in camp you are paying and feeding them. Those weeks have to be worked into the equation and budget.

There is no shame in canceling a program that would result in a loss to you and your camp. The shame is if you cancel too many in a row.

Usually, too low of enrollment is connected with marketing and word of mouth sales. We have found a large success in first marketing to the summer campers (people who know us) and then school fliers to the schools in our main target market area (word of mouth then works for you in selling the idea). Our traditional weekend program is now apart of the summer brochure and all open house presentations.

It is important to realize that change in programming comes with educating your clients about the change. It is unrealistic to believe that the creation of a weekend program will automatically fill and pay for itself. You must approach off-season programming in the same way we approach summer camp.

Build tradition and deliver top-notch quality programming. If you do it… do it well. Grow your staff as you grow your program. It is easier to add needed staff then to cut unneeded ones. Just strive to continue your camps mission to deliver a magical experience of quality to your campers and parents.

Jeff Merhige is the Executive Director of YMCA Camp Widjiwagan in Nashville Tenn. Reach him at