Repeat Retreats

By Kyle Linback

Having worked with weekend and off-season guests for more than 11 years, I have successfully unlocked some of the secrets to outstanding return rates.

With increasing competition, budget cuts for schools and nonprofits, and economic uncertainty, some groups may be hesitant to return.

They may look for cheaper options, go elsewhere, or cancel an event altogether.

With that in mind, it is important to provide groups an extraordinary experience to keep them coming back year after year.

Keep In Touch Throughout The Year
You may have heard the old adage that donors do not leave camps ... camps leave donors. Essentially, the message is you need to stay in touch with donors throughout the entire year--not just once a year when you ask for money.

The same applies to year-round guests. Here are some ways to stay in touch:

1. Postcard or email. Send one of these out to group leaders a few days after a group departs. Thank the contact person for volunteering to coordinate the event. This helps to acknowledge the leader, and shows an appreciation for all of the hard work and planning.

2. Christmas cards. Every November/December, I send out about 150 to 200 Christmas cards to various group leaders with a personal message on every card. I try to make the photo on the front of the card funny enough so that the contact person will share it with others. This is a wonderful marketing tool. I receive numerous emails and calls from group leaders telling me they love the card and they have shared it with everyone they work with. Wow--what a way to achieve word-of-mouth advertising! Do not limit yourself to Christmas. Send another card during the year letting groups know you are looking forward to seeing them again next year.

3. Random emails. Send random (personal) emails to guests. Highlight something new and exciting at the camp that the groups will enjoy. Email pictures of the newest activity. I guarantee they will forward it to others in the group to get them pumped up about an upcoming trip.

Do Not Nickel And Dime
I hear numerous stories from group leaders who have been nickeled and dimed by other camps. One leader told of a $100 addition to the final bill for failing to put tables and chairs away at the end of the weekend.

Another group leader said he was frustrated when the group was billed for being one person short of the minimum count guaranteed in the contract. He added that the group had been attending the camp for many years and this was the first time it was short on numbers.

Scout leaders say they have run into similar situations where they were charged a fee for being short one or two people.

What impression do you want to leave on guests? Do you want them to leave with bad feelings? Or, would you rather have them tell their friends and family what a wonderful experience they had and how accommodating the staff members were?

Is the extra $100 worth the negative advertising? Is it worth making the groups so upset they start looking for another camp? Keep in mind--camps live and die via word of mouth.

Solve Their Problems
Another surefire way to convince a group to return every year is to help solve problems. Most groups are bound to run into an internal issue while visiting. If you can solve their issues, you have almost guaranteed a repeat customer.

Here are a few examples:

• The season finale of a popular TV show was airing while a group was visiting our camp, and everyone wanted to see it. I went home, recorded it, burned it to DVD, and played it for the large group later that evening. That was four years ago. Every year, somebody comes up to me and comments on how much they appreciated the extra effort.

• On a snowy January weekend, a fraternity’s buses were extremely delayed in arriving at the camp because of the weather. The group leaders were panicked about being able to feed the group late at night. I called around and found a pizza shop willing to make 25 pizzas on short notice and deliver them in treacherous conditions by 12:30 a.m. I even talked the shop into giving the group a 15 percent discount. The group leaders were ecstatic and relieved that that issue had been handled. They used to send half of their fraternity to our camp and half to another camp, but now the entire fraternity attends our camp.

Be prepared to solve issues prior to a group’s arrival. Have extra items on hand, such as pillows, sleeping bags, towels, soap, shampoo, cellphone chargers, etc. You will be a hero.

Details, Details, Details!
In reading evaluations at the end of a session, I notice that most guests do not comment on the food, the facilities, or the various activities offered. Instead, most of the comments are about staff and service.

Some comment on how nice it was to be greeted upon arrival, while others comment on the ease of our check-in procedures. Parents express gratitude when a staff member spends extra time with their child at the archery range to make sure he or she hit the target. Attendees appreciate that a staff person personally walked a guest to the cabin or an activity. Others comment on the staff person who made a special trip into town to pick up something for the group members had forgot to bring with them.

Details matter!

To go the extra mile, keep detailed notes on groups to anticipate what they might need. Recently, a group leader asked me to email her my notes on her group so she would be better prepared for the group’s event. She knew I had detailed records on all of the group’s special needs.

Make It Happen
Whenever a new group inquires about booking a retreat, I always ask how the contact person heard about us. Roughly 95 percent of the time, another group that had a wonderful experience at our facility mentioned it to others.

Many groups did not find out about us through an advertisement, a mailing, or a web search. They heard about us through word of mouth.

Refrain from spending an entire day emailing another mass advertisement or snail-mailing your latest brochure to various churches, schools, and non-profits. I do not even have a brochure for off-season groups! Instead, use that time to stay in touch with current customers, and build on your relationships with them.

Do not hesitate to contact me with questions, comments, or feedback. I would be happy to share more about what to do to keep guests coming back!

Kyle Linback hails from Camp Tecumseh YMCA in Brookston, Ind. He has worked in the Retreats Department for 11 years, and has worked in YMCA camping for over 16 years. Contact him at



To learn more about word-of-mouth advertising, try reading Purple Cow by Seth Godin.