From Floundering To Flourishing
By James Sullivan
Located in the foothills of the Northern California Sierra mountains with cabins nestled between tall pines and majestic oak and cedar trees, Camp Del Oro in Nevada City provides the perfect setting to learn about God's creation. Situated just 75 minutes from downtown Sacramento, more than 900 underprivileged youth enjoy a week of camp each summer. Life-changes happen at camp.
But those in the life-change business know that owning and operating a camp can be expensive—even becoming a money pit. In fact, after purchasing the camp almost eight years ago, Camp Del Oro was losing money. The Salvation Army Del Oro Division, with headquarters in Sacramento, was facing a significant financial strain. Left unchecked, it had the potential to leave a negative impact on the Army’s ability to provide other services to the poor and needy in its 27 local corps operations and 100+ service extension offices in northern California.
While the camp worked well to host its internal camping programs, it was seldom used the other nine months of the year. Rental groups were minimal and few larger groups could be attracted. There was not enough conference housing with private rooms and private baths, plus meeting-room facilities were inadequate. Only one room, the Lodge, held more than 100 people at a time. Large conferences required every meal to be served outdoors, utilizing rental tents. No large worship or auditorium space was available outside of the main dining room.
Additionally, the Lodge had to be used for meeting areas and a dining room for large groups in the wetter months, which meant people tracked mud through the room on a daily basis. Larger groups were continually frustrated, and some sought out other camps and conference centers with better facilities and capacity.
Exacerbating the problem, few people in the community even knew the camp was here. This translated into a lack of support and few donations, and also a general feeling of frustration by staff members and leadership.
Camp Del Oro needed to change. It was time to transition from just being a “camp” into a full-service camp and conference center. A needs assessment was completed, and the master plan for the complete property was updated. The suggested solution was the addition of new facilities, including an 8,000-square-foot chapel/multi-purpose gymnasium plus three new lodges with 36 private rooms and 72 beds and smaller meeting rooms. But the price tag was a hefty capital investment of approximately $8.5 million. Where would the money come from? Leadership continued to pray for answers and resources.
Prayers Were Answered
Prayers were answered as a donor estate was received for just under $7 million. Leadership met with the trustees and everyone was pleased that the fund would be used to pay the majority portion of the camp project, as well as another project in the area.
With new momentum, leadership boldly stepped forward. Money was borrowed from other trust resources held at regional headquarters, with the expected payback from future will trusts and estates. With great risk come great rewards. That is the plan.
A new, on-site camp director was recruited with a fresh vision and renewed energy level. The master plan for four new buildings totaling over 26,000 square feet of program space was submitted and approved by local Nevada County representatives. A groundbreaking was held in July 2016. Facilities are currently under construction and scheduled for completion in January 2018.
Construction has been met by several delays due to a very wet winter and subsequent flooding. Since time is money in the construction industry, work had to be officially stopped on one occasion.
The plan also includes the expansion of the camp’s community “Advisory Council” to include stronger leadership and more major players. Open houses are being scheduled for the local community to see and experience the camp. Potential rental groups from large area churches and businesses are being contacted and invited.
The plan also includes outreach to the immediate community through the development of a summer day-camp program. Local families can drop off kids in the morning and pick them up in the late afternoon. Families can stay for barbeques and camper presentations. In addition to serving an additional 350 kids each summer, the launch of a day camp will invite the community to be regularly involved in ongoing operations, which will lead to future investment in the camp.
A rebranding and marketing campaign was also needed. C. Grant & Company, an integrated marketing firm, was contracted. New promotional materials are being developed. The camp is being renamed and rebranded as The Del Oro Camp & Conference Center. New signage will be going up all around camp to match promotional materials. Thousands of postcards and materials are being sent via direct mail, email, and social media to potential rental groups.
Camp shirts, water bottles, and the like are being produced by the hundreds to be sold in the camp canteen/store. Our own campers and groups will pay to advertise for us!
New Team Members
And the phones are starting to get busy like never before. In fact, staff members have been hired to manage the transformation. A new, full-time guest-services manager has been hired, whose background is in the hotel industry (Hilton!), to significantly upgrade the way we recruit and treat guests. New systems are being put into place to manage the change and increased usage. Linens are being standardized throughout camp. Upgrades are being made across the board in equipment, furnishings, and overall supplies to increase professionalism.
A new food-services manager has been hired to upgrade every meal presentation to culinary standards. And the food tastes great. Rental groups will be coming back. Smaller rental groups will turn into larger groups. The single “maintenance guy” will soon be overseen by a full-time facilities manager as the entire campus is receiving an upgrade.
Conference-management software has been purchased and installed on camp computers, allowing staff to manage usage of rooms better and more effectively. Customers can make reservations themselves with new online capabilities.
And rentals are increasing, even before the new buildings are up. The significant annual net loss is shrinking quickly and is expected to go away entirely by FY2020. This will allow the camp to provide more scholarships to serve more underprivileged kids in the future and increase our overall camperships by more than 35 percent annually without a negative effect on other important programs and social services in communities throughout northern California.
James Sullivan is a Major and Commanding Officer for the Divisional Youth & Candidates Secretary for the Salvation Army’s Del Oro Division. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.