Feature Article - April 2012
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Cabin Fever

Tips & Trends in Today's Youth Camps & Day Camps

By Kelli Anderson

Moms have changed. The economy has changed. Technology has changed. And many youth camps and day camps are changing and adapting as a result. Specialty camps, family camps and day camps are on the rise.

Meanwhile, existing and long-established residential camps are adding more year-round options (catering to school groups, homeschoolers, church groups and conventions), are incorporating specialty camps within their programming, and are adding more high-adventure attractions in an effort to regain the financial ground lost in a struggling economy.

"There's a number of reasons camping is really a more diverse experience today than even a decade ago," said Peg Smith, CEO of the American Camp Association (ACA) for the past 12 years. "Family dynamics have changed, schedules are hectic, and camping has really adapted to meet the demand and changes of family life."

But whether a camp facility is old-school traditional or the latest thing in gee-whiz wonderful, successful camps that are filled to capacity will tell you that there is one thing that they all have in common: a bedrock, foundational core that values kids and has a passion to see them grow as human beings.

That said, understanding why some new ideas are working and what tried-and-true ideas need to be rediscovered, is invaluable to an industry that felt the impact of 9-11 and has been scrambling to find its footing in the aftermath of an economic avalanche. But there is hope.

Back to Basics

According to recent surveys by the ACA, 10 percent of today's camps are at capacity or are 90 to 99 percent full, and 29 percent of respondents said summer enrollment was back up to pre-2008 levels. Of those who are rebounding, their recovery underscores the importance of good practices.

"Camps with leaders who are enthusiastic, caring and engaged in continuous improvement (of themselves, and their camps); camps with well-maintained facilities (be they new or rustic); camps who understand that 'moms' are their customers and give them great customer service; and camps that help kids make and keep friends: These are at capacity and have continued to grow right through the past two recessions," said Gary Forester, camp counselor consultant with Gary Forester LLC, who estimates that such camps currently comprise less than 25 percent of the total.

Steve Heiny, director of Flat Rock YMCA Camp in St. Paul, Minn., is just one of those successful camp leaders who has weathered the financial storm and is seeing the economic pendulum swing in their favor. And he is quick to cite the holy grail of retention—developing friendships—as one of the leading reasons why.

"We've increased every year since 2005 slowly but surely, 3 to 4 percent, but we had a big explosion of 13 percent just last year," Heiny explained of their recent boost in registrations. "I like to think it's just a good program and word-of-mouth and marketing and all, but mostly it is just kids telling other kids."

And what kids are talking about won't come as a surprise to those experiencing similar growth. "Retention rate is a big deal," Heiny admitted, "Making friends is a big deal and it's what they remember."

So, are such successful camps also on the cutting edge of newfangled technology? Maybe. Are they installing new attractions on a regular basis to keep up with changing interests? Quite possibly. And are they paying attention to more ways to effectively market their camps and to spread the word? Very likely. But in every case, a successful camp's ability to facilitate friendships between the kids who attend is critical.