Camp has started… Now what!?

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5 min read

For many years it was said that the best, and sometimes only, marketing you had to do was to run a great camp. The web and the proliferation of offerings in the last 20+ years have changed that axiom. It isn’t enough to run a great camp but to have any lasting success you generally have to do so. That leads us to Retention, the Holy Grail.

Some time ago I was talking to a sleep away camp director in NY who told me he had a camp call that night with a family with 4 kids he estimated to be worth $250,000 to him. I was kind of interested in the math so he told me that based on the ages of the kids and his roughly 88% retention rate those were the stakes.

He was referring to Life-Time Value (LTV) of a Camper. Calculate LTV using the following formula:

Camp Fee (x) # of seasons and average duration (days/weeks each summer) you can expect to have a camper (+) the average number of siblings a camper might have & the chance they will join you (+) The average number of referrals of an existing family.

To come up with a number which can be exponential the key variables are:

Your retention rate

The single most important metric you work with. This number should be tattooed on your forehead. If it’s too low you have to constantly spend time and money looking for new campers. Your marketing appears expensive when it need not be. If you retain more of your campers the only reason your marketing costs should increase is if you are growing (We’ll come back to retention strategies below).

Average Duration of Stay

Many of you run programs where in the first summer a new camper may come for a week or two but in subsequent summers they can be expected to stay longer.


Many of your campers will have younger siblings and your chances of attracting them are strong so plan for ways to communicate with them. You need to assume these kids are yours till they aren’t. You might want to invite them for a day or half day and absolutely wow them.


This is, for many camps, the single most powerful marketing force (probably most all non-teen programs). Word of mouth factors into this but it’s not completely word of mouth. When parents look for camp they talk to other parents. Even if a parent learns of your camp via a web search they often seek out other parents’ input and when you are contacted they look like referrals to you even though their buying process was multi-attribute (multiple channels where they say they arrived via a referral but actually performed web searches, visited your facebook page, read an article about you etc…)


This is the special sauce of what you do. The most successful camps have the highest retention rates and vice versa. So how do you retain your campers:


-Run a great program and develop a reputation for doing so to retain more families.

-Be creative and make sure your program grows as your kids grow. It isn’t enough to roll a ball out every July – constantly augment your program, learn and seek feedback.

-If you are in this for the long haul don’t underfund your program. Make sure you have adequate, mature staff and resources.


-Your staff members are mentors and role models so make sure you have good ones who are well trained, adequately compensated and happy. If they are unhappy this will be passed on to your campers (and you’ll hear about it from their parents or you won’t and they will not return).

-Supervise & train your staff on an ongoing basis not just at the beginning. This will minimize surprises.

-Make sure you retain your best staff and communicate this to your community – it will help get kids back. Nurture and cultivate your key staff, as you would your clients.


-Nip problems in the bud that you see or they bring to your attention.

-Anticipate problems. If you run a day program kids are returning home every day with feedback. Send them home happy or prepared to be on the phone with that parent that night.

-Treat your paying customers really well – a very few will drive you crazy because they have too much time on their hands but be kind and attentive to them and most will come around. Yes, many don’t have a realistic view of their child but nobody forced you to run your camp and you’ll just have to navigate this.

-Don’t nickel & dime your clients as they will be with you for years if happy. They will send your brothers and sisters and friends.

-Anticipate their evolving and changing needs for their kids over time as they grow.

Note – there is much work to do in the off-season toward retention and a future article will discuss this at much greater length.

After reading this some of you may say – Great but what do I do tomorrow?

-Hold a staff meeting at the end of the day. Serve “make your own” ice cream sundaes or pizza and thank your staff for a great day. Recognize/reward some outstanding performance and incorporate some sort of lesson or discussion.

-Post some pictures on your website and social media and talk up all the exciting happenings at your camp and what the next week holds.

-Send out an email blast to your families updating what has been going on at camp and what next week holds. Encourage families to contact you if they have any issues.

-Greet parents at pickup. Show parents you are engaged, visible, interested, know something about their child. Thank parents and tell them you can’t wait to see their kids tomorrow. Let them see how much you love what you do. Meet a sibling with them at pickup. Make sure everyone knows who you are – get out of your office or off your golf cart. PS – have your camp shirt on.