Adieu To Traditional Overnight Camps

By Martine Brouillet
Photos Courtesy Of Camp Tournesol

In 2001, I founded CampTournesol as a vehicle to help French-immersion students embrace and develop their verbal skills in the summer. For several years, I worked towards this goal by developing day camps in different cities in the Greater Toronto area. Since the organization doesn’t own any property on which to operate camps, local schools were rented. In 2006, I began to research the possibility of providing overnight camp experiences to offer a more in-depth opportunity for campers. I faced two options: rent a facility or take campers on a trip. I decided that an overnight trip to an area where French is the local language would be a richer immersion experience, as well as a fantastic opportunity to discover a new culture.

Instead of the standard way of developing organized tours (where tourists live in hotels and visit museums), I wanted more of a “family trip”—a collaborative, fun, learning experience for campers. France would be the first destination. So I asked myself: ”How would I proceed if I were vacationing with my family?” I decided on some important criteria:

  • The main mode of transportation would be minivans to access smaller villages and more remote towns. That would also make it more affordable than chartering a tour bus, which is extremely expensive in Europe.
  • The vacationers would stay in facilities developed to host youth groups so that campers could meet and mingle with students from other countries and cultures. These facilities also tend to be staffed by local young adults who often organize fun activities for the students and interact with them during downtime.
  • I would incorporate local food as much as possible from every region visited.
  • I wanted to provide local experiences besides museum visits and other tourist attractions. On the trip the group visited Chamonix in the French Alps and took the gondola up Mont Blanc, but we also hired a local guide to organize rock climbing on a nearby cliff in the Alps. For dinner that evening, we went to a small local restaurant to enjoy a typical Savoyard meal.

Effective Advertising
Early booking was important to secure the appropriate number of plane tickets (at a reasonable cost), book hostels and inns, and sort out transportation methods. Because our organization does not meet during the year, we needed to get the word out about the new trips and the registration timeline. Since the camp was founded, the method of promotion was to send flyers home with students at French-immersion and francophone schools. While labor-intensive and costly, that approach worked reasonably well. One of the drawbacks, however, was that many flyers did not make it home or were crumpled up at the bottom of the students’ school bag. We also used print advertising in local leisure guides, with modest results. As a result, we were only reaching families from specific cities, which worked great for day camps, but not for overnight trips.  A smaller direct-mail campaign was even less successful and much more expensive.

I then realized that if I were looking for some travel experience for my own children, I would more likely search online than anywhere else. I started using Google AdWords on my own for day camps in 2005, and found some success. I further decided to hire someone who specialized in that field to do it for me. I originally thought I would not be able to afford this option, but was pleasantly surprised after investigating further. The impact of a well-developed and targeted campaign was immediate. With Google, we have been able to reach families from all corners of the province, families that never would have found us otherwise. The key was to hire a highly knowledgeable specialist to help build and manage campaigns. We also incorporated e-newsletters, using a reputable company to manage and maintain our contact list, which has also helped us keep in touch with campers’ families, as well as to increase the rate of returning campers.

Camper/Counselor Relationships
Another critical factor in the success of the overnight trips (as well as the camps in general) is the quality of camp counselors. They are selected very carefully, and most are teachers during the school year. They need to be dynamic, able to gain respect from the campers, willing to be on call 24 hours a day (although that is rarely necessary), open to new adventures, willing to live in youth hostels, open to new foods and, finally, fun to be around. After participating in three trips, I can honestly say it is the counselor/camper relationships that make the biggest difference in trips being enjoyable and memorable for campers.

Expanding The Product Base
Among the benefits of building overnight trips are the following:

  • They contribute to a higher degree of credibility in terms of positioning the camp as a total-solution provider for developing French outside of the classroom in an English-speaking province, from regular day camps to overnight adventures.
  • They give campers a goal to look forward to when old enough to participate in these trips.
  • They provide an incentive for parents to remain on the mailing list, even after the decision that day camps are not what their children want; parents and children look forward to seeing what new trips will be available in the upcoming year.

These trips are definitely a great deal of work and not particularly profitable, but they are well worth the effort because of the impact they have for the image of the organization as well as the incredible linguistic and cultural growth we provide for these campers.

Martine Brouillet is the founder and owner of Camp Tournesol Inc. Reach her at martine@campt.ca . For more information on Camp Tournesol, visit www.camptournesol.ca .