By Jeff Merhige
The end of summer is really just the beginning of the next one. Or, in other words, the best time to prepare for next year’s season is before the memories and lessons of the current one disappear forever.
Hopefully, all camper evaluations are in and accounted for, parent evaluations are probably still trickling in (and will continue for the next few weeks and months) and, if you’re really ahead of the technology curve, the results of your online evaluations have already spit out a report of trends and suggestions for the future of your camp.
All of this information will be useful. Here’s how to take advantage of it.
Time Is Of The Essence
Advance planning is no longer a luxury. In order to be successful, advance planning (one year is good, two is better) is a necessity. Why?
Because pushing your planning out one or two years provides you with:
1. Time to market and recruit campers
2. Time to create urgency among your parents
3. Time for word-of-mouth advertising to work
4. And, time to adjust your programs and offerings
A good way to start is during your summer programming. Provide your campers with a complete exit packet at the end of their session. The packet should include:
1. Next year’s basic schedule
2. Next year’s early registration form
3. Questions for parents to ask their camper using “camp language”
4. Fall calendar of events
5. Camp update newsletter providing information on camp projects and initiative
Right away you might be saying, “I don’t know what I will be offering! How can I ask them to sign up?”
Guess what? You’re right. You probably don’t know what specialty camps or special one-time programs you will be offering next year, but you do know the general dates, session lengths and basic camp programs you’ll be offering. Give these dates to your camp parents and encourage them to reserve their son or daughter’s spot early. As an incentive, keep the rate the same for all early reservations AND give parents who register early a camp T-shirt and card to wrap and place under the Christmas tree.
In addition to helping your parents with their holiday shopping, you may also have enough takers to dramatically change your cash flow during this typically slow period and you have early registrants – reducing the stress of the late winter and spring.
Just an idea – but the important thing to remember is this type of marketing is most effective if you start it on the first day of camp and continue it all the way until the next summer.
In the end, the more information you give your parents over the longest amount of time the greater the chance of word-of-mouth working for you.
But, I Didn’t Hand Out An Exit Packet!
If your camp has not already handed out early registration forms or did not provide exit packets this summer, don’t worry. There’s still time!
To take advantage of early registrations (and kick-start your marketing program), send a one-page flier to each of your summer campers with a basic program description and early registration form. Make sure they receive the flier before October 1st and that the deadline for early registrations is clearly communicated. (The deadline you set should allow enough time to process the form and mail out the card and t-shirt for arrival several days before Christmas.)
It’s also a good idea to let your parents know your new brochure will reach their homes in January and they can, if they wish, change their early registration to a specific program at that time.
The Big Mo -- Momentum
One of the big advantages to planning a year or more in advance (and accepting early registrations) is it shows parents (and their friends) that you’re ready and professional. It also translates into momentum, which, in turn, translates into even more registrations.
Like all good word-of-mouth campaigns, this momentum is created when both your parents and your campers tell their peers they’ve already reserved space at your camp. When this discussion takes place eight months to a year out from the start of camp that really resonates with the listener. That’s powerful marketing.
Some camps work to build this momentum internally by training their staff to respond to inquiries with statements like, “That particular session has a few more spaces open but is filling fast.” One note of caution here, it’s important not to create a sense of urgency in an unethical manner, which means no lying. It’s better to create the idea of urgency by presenting prospects with advance registration packets, session information and actual early registration numbers.
Effectively Using Your Early Registration Data
If you’re successful in drumming up early registrations (and each year should be more and more successful), you now have the information and time you need to create and renovate programs so they meet the needs of your campers – before your new brochure comes out. You have an inside edge. You know the trends and camper needs based on your early registrants and you can design your programs around them and maximize their potential in recruiting the rest of the way.
This is my favorite part of the job. The joy of working on programs is made even better when you have time to work on program details while registrations are already in the computer!
Program Renovation & Creation
When it comes to program renovation and/or creation the only worthwhile advice is feedback from your kids. Read your camper evaluations. Listen to them. Campers will let you know what needs tweaking, what is needed to stay fresh. Ask questions. Train your staff to ask questions throughout the summer.
If you didn’t do this over the summer don’t worry -- it’s not too late!
Pick up the phone and call some of your campers and parents. Conduct a phone survey with both of them. Have mom, dad and the camper on the phone with you at the same time and ask all the questions you would in a standard evaluation. Then, take the information and make some changes they can recognize.
You don’t have to make every change they suggest, but the ones you do implement, make sure everybody knows you made the change because of their suggestions. This simple call has an added benefit – it builds loyalty and trust. The deeper the trust, the more information you receive, the better your programming. (It’s also nice for parents to hear from you when all you want is advice – not money.)
In the end, all camps deliver the greatest summer they are capable of delivering. We all know the very best way of guaranteeing your retention rate is to deliver the greatest possible experience to our current camper’s day in and out.
Unfortunately, we’ve all also had summers when we knew in our guts we just didn’t hit the mark. Something was off.
If and when this happens, it’s essential to call campers and parents during the off-season and listen to their feedback. This approach can not only ease the negative word-of-mouth, but also reassure parents their camp is still on track and fighting to give their child and their family the greatest experience possible.
Likewise, early registration is a great barometer of your summer season and also a great way to identify (and ward off) possible negative issues before they are allowed to fester and grow over the off-season into reputation-damaging rumors. As we all know, the greatest form of advertising is “word-of-mouth.” Turns out, it can also be the worst.
Congratulations on completing summer 2006 and good luck getting going on 2007 and 2008!
Jeff Merhige is Executive Director of YMCA Camp Kern, Dayton YMCA, Dayton, Ohio. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.