A Shrinking Window

By Gary Forster

Last May, a camp director called me in a panic. “We’re way behind in registrations, and I’ve tried everything! I don’t know what to do!” While we talked, I pulled up his Web site. I asked, “Are you aware that your Web site still has the 2006 dates and says ‘2007 registration coming soon’?” Hmm. Tried everything?

When you hear “camp marketing,” what do you think of? Direct-mail brochures, postcards, Web pages, newspaper ads, camp fairs and an equally demanding amount of staff time dedicated to creating, mailing, distributing and attending? A major portion of a budget is invested in Web and print design, printing, mailing, advertising, fees, travel and hotels.

And why do all of this? To get a parent to sign a child up for camp, most likely by mail or online. And that’s where many of us make a critical error.

A large percentage of parents need to get a question or two answered before they’re ready to sign up. (After all, this is an expensive purchase involving their most precious possession--their irreplaceable child.) It might be as simple as “Do you have space in session four?” or as complicated as a first-time mom seeking assurance that your staff, activities, menu and facilities are a good match for her expectations.

The Telephone Battle
Here’s my experience calling many camps in February and March:- “Hi, you’ve reached camp, and our office hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.” (it’s now 2 p.m.). “If this is an emergency, dial this other number.” (Do emergencies happen so often it’s the first choice on the voice mail?) “If you’d like to reach the archery range, dial 1; the boathouse, dial 2; the kitchen, dial 3. For resident camp information, dial 23.” The extensions have been assigned alphabetically, so everyone must listen to the whole list! Why voice mail during the day? Possibly because the office manager decided, “Phone calls really slow my work flow.” I pointed this out to one director, and he responded, “I’m not sure I can convince her to change it.” Hmm.

And that’s if Mom can even find the phone number. I’ve seen dozens of camp Web sites where the phone number is missing, or hidden in small type on the “contact us” page. I asked several of those directors why, and (you guessed it), the response was, “Our office manager asked us to not put the phone number there, as the whole reason for the Web site is so parents don’t call us.” Better go check your own Web site!

Who answers the phone at your camp? Hopefully, someone who has been at campfires, knows what goes on in the cabins, has participated in activities, and worked with the campers and counselors. Some camp receptionists and registrars are real experts in helping parents and selling the camp. But too often, I’ve overheard conversations like this: Parent: “Hello, I’d like information about your summer camp.” Receptionist: “Can you get on the Internet? I can give you our Web address,” or “Give me your address, and I’ll mail you a brochure.” The goal apparently is to end the call quickly in order to “get back to work.”

So the parent calls the next camp on the list, and the receptionist says, “How can I help you?” When the discussion goes to areas she’s not familiar with--like supervision issues or specific program offerings--she says, “Our camp director is here today, and I’m sure she can answer your question for you. Let me connect you!” Where does the camper ultimately go?

Trial By Fire
As usual, I learned many of these lessons the hard way. For instance, our entire office staff took off at noon to eat in the dining hall. When we returned, there were a number of phone messages. Then the phone-tag game started. Likewise, when we opened the office, there were six to eight phone messages from parents who called the night before. Our registrar would call each back and get a home answering machine. Mom would call back when she got home from work that evening, and get our answering machine. Again, I have no figures to prove this, but I’m betting many of those parents called the next camp on their list, and if they were able to get through, that’s where their child went.

It was obvious that we couldn’t let that situation continue, so we used a new answering machine that put a date stamp on each message. Most of the parent calls were recorded between 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. (when Mom came home from work). During the slower seasons, we forwarded the “night service” to my home to catch those calls, and during the “busy” registration months, we staggered office staff schedules so that someone was in the office at lunch and until 7 p.m. Real people answered all those calls, and those folks were signed up for camp.

A Fresh-Air Approach
Here’s a different way to look at the issue. We spend tens of thousands of dollars and countless days of our most valuable resource--staff hours--convincing parents they should consider our camp and call us. But many camps leave open only a small window for those contacts because so many of the calls from parents have been “deflected.” It is thus unlikely that potential customers can get through to us. And they end up somewhere else.

Instead of making assumptions, let’s immediately examine our “window” from a parent’s point of view, and solve the problem:

  • Turn off voice mail during the day.

  • Change the voice mail message to focus on summer camp registration first.

  • Update the Web site: make summer camp the top choice; make the phone number obvious on every page; make it easy to find dates and descriptions; use photos to answer the most common questions, like “Why is your camp different?”

  • Extend phone-answering hours during peak registration months, even if you have to answer the calls from your home at night.

  • Teach the receptionist how to put second calls on hold instead of letting them roll over to voice mail, and have questions transferred to those who can best answer them.

  • “Secret-shop” other sales points, and provide the motivation (try brownies!) and training to improve performance.

  • Have all staff trained to “listen first” when they take a call, to fully understand what the parent (or any customer) is looking for before offering suggestions.

Parents and campers have so many choices and so much research to do in deciding to go to camp. Some camps make it easy for them while others make it nearly impossible.

Which are you? How quickly can you change?

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