Making Camp Sticky
By Gary Forster
Photos Courtesy Of Gary Forster
When summer-camp sessions end, most directors make the mistake of thinking their job is complete . They brag about how summer camp makes lifelong memories and has a positive impact on kids when they return home. But all of the responsibility for that happening is put on the campers.
Even when kids have a great time at camp, their parents often don’t know how to talk to them about it. Parents ask the wrong questions, receive short answers, and eventually give up. That, unfortunately, robs them of sharing in the remarkable stories, and robs the campers of the positive feedback they would receive from the parents and the repeated opportunities to relive their experience every time a new story is told. If camp doesn’t get home , the campers are cheated of the future we promised.
A Look Back
What were the most meaningful experiences of your youth, from approximately nine to 14? I’m willing to bet that one or more of the following contributes to those memories:
There’s at least one photo you’ve looked at occasionally over the years.
You saved an “artifact” or two from the event (in a box or junk drawer), even if you can’t find it today.
You shared the experience with a friend, and/or made new friends.
You described the event in detail to at least one other person. (You “sold” it.)
You wrote about it in letters or a journal; now it would be Facebook, Twitter, etc.
Each time you re-told the story, the “good parts” became even better.
If we as camp directors pretend that these memories are not our responsibility, we’re ensuring that much of our hard work will be wasted. It’s like writing a book and forgetting to hit “save.” As the professionals who are paid to make camps successful, we must follow through so campers and their parents receive the full value from their investment.
And the economic issues can be even more motivating. The financial success of a camp is dependent on two ideas:
A solid return rate (no amount of marketing can fill those many beds).
Word of mouth from one satisfied Mom to another (75 percent or more of new campers find a camp this way).
Driving It Home
Moms who know the specifics of their own child’s summer-camp experience are eager to share those stories with neighbors, friends, co-workers, and relatives. And that’s a gold mine for new campers and repeat campers.
Here’s a checklist of ideas that work:
Send a letter (snail-mail or email) to Mom with suggested open-ended questions (see sidebar). These will encourage her camper to talk about the cool things that happened. “Did you have fun?” usually solicits only a frustrating, one-word answer vs. “I saw you had a campout on Wednesday night. How did you cook dinner?” Or “Tell me about your counselor,” or “Can you teach me your favorite camp song?” Then she’ll be able to complete a short evaluation of the summer camp. Perhaps she and her child can even go over the form together.
Are photos posted on Facebook? (If not, get them there!) Don’t post more than a dozen at a time, and spread the photos over several days, or even several times a day. Remind parents before, during, and after camp where they can see the photos, and that they can be copied to their own Facebook page, shared with Grandma and Grandpa, or printed out to post on the refrigerator or in a photo album.
If there are great photos of specific campers, send them to the parents. If you have a photo that will “make their day,” nothing will better guarantee that the good feelings will be shared with others, and children will be encouraged to return. Just imagine how overjoyed you would have been if a camp director had taken the time to send something that valuable. “But I don’t have one for every kid.” Then send the ones you do have. As with the starfish story, it matters to this one. Have counselors help match pictures with names. Crop the pictures so the faces are large and clear.
Send another photo in the fall (with a link to the newsletter and next year’s registration). A simple photo and a short note, “I just had to share this with you,” is all that’s needed. And it is much better than a brochure.
Sometimes campers don’t take home all of the craft projects. If you can identify to whom the crafts belong, sending them to their owner will spark not only immediate storytelling, but may ensure years of memories that would have been lost. If several of the campers are from the same town, arrange to return the crafts at a church one Sunday when “Testimonials from Camp” are given … this fall. Don’t wait until next spring. There doesn’t have to be more than one testimonial—the story will warm the congregants’ hearts and create a reputation that will grow throughout the year, especially every time they hear something new about the camp.
Thank donors. A single photo of kids being impacted at camp (with a counselor in the photo, and outdoors), with a single hand-written line of thanks will be so remarkable donors will share it with their friends.
Thank counselors. They probably haven’t printed a single picture since they keep them on their phones these days. Before Christmas, send them at least one print (15 cents plus postage) so they have something to bring back the best of their memories.
Thank counselors’ parents. If parents understand the responsibility and experience their college student received from working at camp, there will be a greater chance of their returning. Send a photo of their young adult to hang on the refrigerator. This can be the same photo you took for the “biography” posters each counselor makes for parents to see on check-in day, or the same photo you post on the map of where staff members come from and where they go to school. And these parents refer campers, too.
As people talk about a camp and share photos, new parents will be clicking on the website to discover the location, the activities, and the upcoming dates and rates. Don’t expect a customer to bookmark the website and return to it next spring. Keep the email address and contact that person when registration begins next year.
Although this sounds like a great deal of work, it’s worth investing the time to make someone feel good, to collect many compliments for the camp and the staff members, and to fill the camp—all at the same time.
Enlist volunteers and counselors to help, too. Make a few phone calls to say “thanks,” to see how they’re doing, and to ask if they would be willing to help. That’s how you get busy people (the kind who follow through) to volunteer.
Congratulations on the lives you have changed, some of them changed forever as a result of a summer’s investment of your time, strength, and emotion … and hitting “save.”
Gary Forster recently retired from a full career in organized camping. He still speaks at conferences and volunteers. Reach him at email@example.com.
(SAMPLE LETTER given out on check-out day, or mailed to arrive home the day before)
Teaching Parents How to Ask Open-Ended Questions
Thank you for the trust you’ve shown in our camp!
Could you and your camper take a couple of minutes to fill out the enclosed evaluation together? The things your camper liked best need to be repeated. We know that there are areas where we can improve, too, and want your advice on where to put our energies. Your advice and feedback, both good and bad, will have an impact on how we finish this year and prepare for the next.
Summer camps have been providing “Memories to Last a Lifetime” for almost 150 years. To help keep your camper’s memories alive, I hope you can make time to talk about what your child did and how he or she feels about it. To avoid getting one-word answers (like “Yeah” and “Nope”) I suggest you use open-ended questions that require the child to think about the answer and put it into his or her own words. Depending on age, you could try:
“I heard you started each day at the Chapel with a ‘thought for the day.’ Could you tell me about one of them?”
“Did your cabin get to sleep out and cook your own dinner one night? What jobs did you have at the campsite? How did you cook dinner? What did you do after dark?”
“Which Skill Clinics did you like best? What did you get to do? What did you get better at?” (Clinics are the morning 5-day classes the campers take each week.)
“Can you teach me some of the songs you sang at camp?”
“What kinds of chores did you have to do to keep your cabin clean each day? Did your cabin ever win a ‘cabin clean-up award’?”
“Who was your best friend at camp? What did you do together? Would you like to write a letter?”
“Who was your favorite counselor? What did you like about him or her?”
Your interest in your child’s positive experiences will help insure lifelong memories. If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to call or write. We’ll continue to keep in touch through the year with our newsletter. We hope to see your family at camp again soon.
Be Proactive During Summer
A little effort will create enough reminders to campers about their experience all year:
Take cabin group photos the first or second day of camp. (Get nice and close, so the faces are easy to see.) These will give parents initial confidence, spark dialog when their camper gets home, (“Tell me about each of them”), and be kept by the camper … forever.
Teach photographers to include counselors in most of their photos of campers (to show safe, caring supervision and instruction), recognizable camp landmarks (to make you distinctive), and campers and staff doing things (to tell stories about what goes on at camp and not just who goes there).
Teach camp songs, and sing favorite songs often.
Camp songs are a universal sign of membership—and memorable.
Have everyone make at least one craft to take home. Encourage arts and crafts be made as gifts, too. (Don’t shy away from traditional crafts like gimp and friendship bracelets. Just like camp songs, they invoke positive responses from others “in the club,” like friends at school—even parents and grandparents! Many will be kept for years, and bring camp “back to life” each time they’re seen, touched, or talked about.
Create Compelling Dialogue
On the way home in the car:
Mom: “Did you have fun?”
Mom: “Did you make friends?”
Mom (frustrated): “Is the food as bad as I remember?”
Camper: “Yeah. Can we stop at McDonalds?”
Most moms ask yes-no questions, and are surprised when they receive one-word answers. For many, the best indication they’ll have as to what happened at camp is when they go through the dirty clothes:
Mom: “Oh, look, they still do color wars; this shirt is blue.” And, “I guess it did rain at camp, I’ll never get this mud and smell out!”
Or worst-case scenario for young boys: “None of these have even been worn!”