Avoid the Big Mistakes

By Gary Forster

I visit about 60 camps each year, so I often get this question: “What are the biggest mistakes you’ve seen camps make in their facilities?” We’ve all seen the mistakes our friends have made, and when we put our egos aside, we know that if it happens to them, it could happen to us.


Camps are building all the time. The most common projects are camp offices, dining halls, expensive high-ropes towers and maintenance shops. Sounds like fun! But the first question should be whether any of these are the top concern of the camper-parents or group leaders. Nope, not even in the top ten. Number one was probably the bathrooms and showers, right? Then maybe the cleanliness, the bunks and the food? Sound familiar?

If any of those campers or guests return, they see the new office, but those nasty showers look even worse than they did before! That highlights the first lesson …

1.) Listen to the parents and guests.
Why is this number one? Here’s a quick review for those who are new to my articles: Mom is our customer. Moms sign 95 percent of summer camp registrations. If she’s not satisfied, her camper doesn’t return. It’s her word-of-mouth that ensures the majority of our new campers. She’s usually left to make her decisions on brief first impressions of camp, and what little information she gets from her camper. More often than not, I see facility improvements that come as the result of staff recommendations, weighted heavily towards those things that would make their own jobs easier. A happy staff is, of course, valuable, but they are of little use if you have unhappy customers to start with.

“But we really need a new office!” I’m not saying that’s not true; I’m just suggesting that you better take care of those bathrooms at the same time, or you’ll appear very self-centered to the people who really pay your salary.

Good camp leaders have asked their users many times for evaluations and suggestions. So many times, in fact, that we get used to thinking “Too bad we can’t do anything about that.” I worked with a large family swim center a number of years ago that had declining enrollment. The staff had a number of ideas for new programs, but I wanted to know what the families that didn’t renew their membership had to say. “Well, that’s easy; they say the water’s too cold in the pool. But there’s nothing we can do about that.” Not so fast. The center added a pool heater, and the retention rate doubled.

Staff suggestions, and the personal gripes of the director, tend to carry so much weight because we hear them so often. Occasionally I ask a camp director, “What do your parents say they want you to fix?” If the director responds, “I don’t know,” the real problem starts to become more obvious.

2.) More stuff means more expenses. Where will the revenue come from?
If you’ve been living with a 5,000-square-foot dining hall for years, your revenues have been covering the expenses. But what happens when you add a 10,000-square-foot dining hall and keep the old one for a rec hall? It’s twice as large, and will likely take at least twice as long to clean each week (maybe more, since it’s brand-new, and dirt will show up much quicker). With more than twice the number of lights, maybe twice the heat, this one’s now air-conditioned (which costs even more than heat). So your housekeeping and utilities for the dining hall have now more than tripled. But have you added even one more bed?

Too often I’ve heard directors say, “We just assumed that with a new dining hall we’d get lots more business.” But during prime weeks, the camp was already full, and during slow weeks the staff didn’t do anything to eliminate the customers’ greatest complaints.

A friend of mine was a successful director for 25 years. To cap off his career, he raised the money to build a beautiful dining hall that added $25,000 of new expenses every year, without bringing in a single dollar of new income. After three years of deficits, he lost his job. His replacement raised money to add new cabins and bathrooms, and that revenue brought the camp back into the black.

3.) Small additional programs can be “high maintenance” and slow to break even.
For most resident camps and day camps, the vast majority of campers come for the traditional summer programs. The schedule, equipment, facilities and planning take only minor changes every year, so the “management overhead” is relatively low. But now you want to add a specialty program, maybe horseback riding or adventure-based activities. This takes lots of planning time, marketing, new equipment and facilities for just 10 or 20 new campers. It may pay off in the long run if you’re given that much time to make it work. But if you made promises to your boss about immediate growth in net income, you may be in trouble.

If you go to a bank to get the money for a major expansion, you must complete a detailed pro forma, a month-by-month estimate of each new expense, the plan and costs for marketing and start-up and a realistic estimate of how enrollment will grow over time. If camps were forced to do that more often, two things would happen. First, some projects would never get off the ground. Second, those that did go ahead would have more preparation done in advance, which brings us to number four.

4. If you build it … don’t expect campers to come unless you’ve got all your ducks in a row.
Let’s just look at a couple examples that happen all too often.

A.) A camp starts a new project (pick any of the above). The director, who’s been doing a terrific job leading the camp’s operations and constantly fine-tuning things with her attention to detail and empathy for parents, now is focused almost entirely on fundraising and construction. Some important customer service details begin to slip. The camp is torn up by construction traffic. Routine maintenance and housekeeping fall behind because the camp maintenance staff is involved in parts of the new project. Just when expectations for growth are the highest, enrollment takes a dive. Why? A drop in return rate and positive word-of-mouth. Could it have been prevented? Absolutely, but only with some serious forethought, delegation and on-going evaluation.

B.) A small, historic dining hall needs to be replaced because it’s become too small. Upon its completion, the cooks have to walk four times as far to get the same meal prepared, due to the addition of new cabins to grow enrollment. The whole camp can now eat inside at once, but meals last only 15 minutes because the acoustics are so bad the noise is unbearable, especially for the staff. Kids can no longer have conversations at meals, so they resort to the only thing that works: screaming cheers. “What great spirit we have!” the director says, though he finds every possible excuse not to eat there any more. When parents and alumni tour the camp, they say “wow” when they enter the dining room but keep right on going, where they used to spend time looking at all the photos and hand-made plaques on the wall.

After several million dollars, couldn’t we end up with something better than the old dining hall, not just bigger? As an architectural designer, I see this all the time. The camp staff has been dreaming about a new dining hall for years, but during most of that time they’ve only been thinking about the things they don’t like about their current building, not what they do want in the new one. Architects are hired and it is such a relief to be underway, to dump the project on them and eagerly await their perfect design.

Surprisingly, the first design isn’t perfect, in fact, not even close. So the staff recounts everything they don’t like about the new design, and leave the poor architects to guess again at another solution. By the time the working drawings are needed to hurry up and get the project finished, almost everyone is tired of the planning and says, “Just get it done! We’re sure anything will be better than what we have!” Construction starts and all of a sudden, “Where are the outlets? Where’s the stage? Where will kids hang their coats? I didn’t know the floor would look like that!”

Architects and contractors aren’t mind readers, and camp directors aren’t typically good at visualizing something from a drawing. But only the camp staff will have to live with the results, so the responsibility really has to fall on your shoulders to get it right. The best way to do that is to start collecting ideas long before anyone starts putting pencil to paper, for example, photos of favorite buildings with shots of specific details and materials. Rip full pages out of Country Living and Log Home magazines. Visit themed restaurants, ski resorts and Disney World, not just other camps. Don’t even THINK about painting a whole room or an entire building until you’ve seen another one done the same way. The same thing holds for lighting, floor covering and ceilings. Give your designer files of exactly what you like, with sticky-notes describing why.

Take the architect and contractor to your favorite restaurant so they know exactly what you expect the new dining hall to “feel” like. Ask them to explain to you what makes that particular restaurant work as a memorable space, a place people tell stories about and return with their friends. Your ducks are getting lined up.

Sure, great decisions take courage, but it’s the hard work over the long haul that makes them come alive. You know how much satisfaction you get when a good idea pays off. Now imagine dozens of people being just as invested in the outcome as you are. That sense of group ownership not only will yield a better physical result, but also enrich the lives of everyone involved. And that’s never a mistake.

Gary Forster recently retired from a full career in organized camping. He still speaks at conferences and volunteers. Reach him at gary@garyforster.com.