The two traits the best camp marketers have, and it's something you can replicate
The best camp marketer I've ever seen, and what I've learned
In the last three years I've had the honor to work with, speak to, observe, and generally rub elbows with some of the most brilliant minds in camping. I've worked with community camps that charge $50 a week (with subsidies), and private camps that charge $1,500 a week. I've talked to the heads of marketing departments of big camp conglomerates, as well as household-names in the summer camp marketing industry. I've even Skyped with Travis Allison before he's done his hair in the morning.
And the camp marketer I've encountered with the most impressive results is Laura Kriegel of Go Camp Pro and Camp Stomping Ground fame.
Yes, in the interest of full disclosure, I am one of the co-founders of Stomping Ground - but Laura's contributions to growing camp are what have really made it what it is today.
To get the numbers out of the way, Stomping Ground was only an idea 2 years ago. In its first summer, Stomping Ground had 1 week of residential camp with 64 campers. Last year, it had 3 weeks of camp and 196 camper weeks. That's 196 fresh camper weeks with:
1) No one to retain going into year 1. 2) No camper families to refer anyone into year 1, and very few going into year 2. 3) No brand recognition or trust. 4) No established camp budget with which to market.
Adding nearly 200 camper weeks from scratch is a startlingly impressive result, particularly because Laura had so little to work with in comparison to other camps. I'll get into some of the strategies Laura leveraged in a little bit, but I want to key in on the two traits Laura possesses that I believe catapulted Stomping Ground from non-existence to thriving camp.
Trait #1: Laura believes Stomping Ground is the best possible camp for kids to attend
Laura and Jack have now visited close to 200 camps across the country and have received accolades throughout the industry for spreading a lot of the best ideas in camping. They've seen a lot of great camps, and have had the opportunity to work for a number of them. But they chose to strike out and take a much riskier path: starting a new camp.
Because after seeing so many different ways of doing camp, it's only natural that one would like bits and pieces about each. They've blended programming ideas from various camps, formed a camp culture based on their own research, and created something they really believe in.
And when you really believe that you have the best possible camp for kids to attend, the level of urgency in recruitment changes dramatically. They believe in the power of what Stomping Ground can do for kids, and resolutely believe that kids will be better off going there than doing anything else during the summer.
Does this mean other camps are bad? No. I believe every camp director can sincerely believe that their camp is the very best one for kids to attend while still being honest. Each camp director has examples of kids' lives being changed, of best friends being made, of lifelong memories being formed.
But if you don't believe that your camp is the very best for kids to go to, why should they believe it? If there are better camps for them to go to, shouldn't we just redirect them to those other, better camps?
I don't mean to sound harsh here, but I believe this level of resolution is incredibly important. Why?
Because of the implied stakes this attitude brings. For me, camp was a literal lifesaver. I struggled with depression as a kid, and had next to no confidence when I arrived at camp as a 15 year old. Then one counselor helped me like what I saw in the mirror, and the rest was history.
But my camp story is fragile. I don't believe it could have happened anywhere, and I strongly believe experiences like I had are much more likely at some places than others. If I believe that the happiness of a young person is dramatically more likely if they find my camp vs. one of their other summer options, you can bet your bottom dollar I will do whatever it takes to get that kid to camp.
And this is what makes Laura such an incredible camp marketer. I've been in the room when she decides that a certain kid has to come to camp. And I've seen what she does afterward.
Trait #2: Laura is willing to do whatever it takes
When I first hear about someone who's willing to do "whatever it takes," I usually assume that they are willing to do a lot of stuff, but not actually whatever it takes. This is normal - human beings are prone to exaggeration. Can't hold it against them.
But in the case of Laura, I see the resolve to literally do whatever it takes. And it makes sense, right? If you believe, as Laura does, that campers will be much better off if they find Stomping Ground than one of their other summer options, it only makes sense that you'd do anything in your power to help them to come.
And this brings up an issue I've had as a summer camp consultant. The bottom line is that 99% of the value you can get from a good camp consultant can be had in the first hour - where we can brain dump all of the things I've seen work first hand. After that it's just implementation, and if you need encouragement to keep implementing things I believe you're in greater need of a coach than a consultant.
The key here is that the most effective camp marketing techniques can't be implemented by anyone other than the people who are the face of the camp.
A really successful marketing session with me looks like me outlining what the best camp marketers have done, and the client actually taking action on those ideas. Sure, there are a few implementation-based things that I have the technical skill for - running an Adwords or FaceBook ads campaign or whatever - but I can't do the most important things. Only a camp director can do those.
What "whatever it takes" actually looks like
If this doesn't make sense yet, let's jump into the things Laura has done in the last year for Stomping Ground, and figure out which of these a marketing consultant can do for you as well as you can do yourself.
- Had phone calls with and face to face meetings with a dozen or so like-minded schools
- Driven up to 4 hours to meet prospective campers for milkshakes
- Gone to conferences outside of just the camp space to meet with potential thought-leaders
- Partnered with influential people outside of the camp space like Peter Gray
- Called every single camp family multiple times per year
- Learned how to and created numerous videos about camp
- Sent numerous email correspondences throughout the yearT
- aken personal ownership over Stomping Ground's social media presence
- Ran free library classes/community classes, including team building, conflict resolution, arts and crafts, makerspace
- Called current families and asked for advice on how to reach more families like them.
- Volunteered at local/like-minded organizations with Stomping Ground swag on (public market, Flower City Pickers, Circle School)
- Babysat for potential camper families
- Hosted a booth at local fairs, and lugged the ga-ga pit there
- Facilitated lots of mini mastermind groups with current campers and their parents asking for advice on how to make camp better.
Quite a list, right? Among those things, a camp marketing consultant could probably help send out your emails and maybe manage your social presence. They wouldn't do as good a job as you will, though, because they can't believe your camp is as important as you do.
A video Jack and Laura made to promote the Stomping Ground
The dangers of thinking big
The biggest mindset shift I've tried to bring to camps trying to boost enrollment is to get them to stop thinking big. I get that that sounds crazy. The biggest transformations I've seen for camps, though, never come from running better Adwords campaigns. Spreading the word about camp just doesn't happen the way Minecraft takes over a generation of young gamers.
Let's look at Laura's list again. Traveling 4 hours to meet with a potential camper family for milkshakes? Volunteering at the library? Babysitting!? How can anyone grow a camp with such tactics? Shouldn't a camp director being doing more important things? Things that probably involve an office?
In a word, no. Camp families don't want to be marketed to, they want to be sold. It's why your local car dealership has someone walk around the lot with you, telling you the same information you can read on the sign pasted to the car. People are sold by human connection, and what's more, they're sold by conviction.
If you've ever attended one of Laura's presentations, you know that the passion she has for the things she believes in is contagious. If you're a camper family willing to meet her for a milkshake, you are never going to be less likely to come to camp afterwards. You're just not.
It reminds me of a common quip I'll hear from camp directors, a moment of realization they often have when I'm trying to talk them through the power of thinking small.
"Right," they'll say, "We almost always get the kids who come on tours to come to camp."
Yes! Exactly! And you know what? It's not because of your pristine lake nestled on however many acres. It's because they trusted you. You know what builds even more trust? When someone doesn't ask you to come visit camp, but instead they offer to come visit you.
But is it really worth it to drive 4 hours to meet with a single camper, even if you know for sure that will make the difference between them coming to camp or not? I believe it is, even from a dollars and cents perspective. If you could recruit 1 brand new camper every business day from now until summer camp season, and still recruit all the other campers you get from more passive channels (like retention, referrals, social media, etc), I'd guess you'd exceed your enrollment goals for next summer.
Even if the dollars and cents wouldn't work, though, and this is the key - if you believe your camp is important, helping that young child will easily make the 4 hour drive feel like it was worth it.
I'm thinking of when I went to Stomping Ground last summer and met a young man named Daniel. He was actually referred by someone from the previous year, but his family was on the fence about Daniel coming. Laura drove from Rochester to northern New Jersey to meet him for milkshakes, and he ultimately wound up coming to camp. Daniel wound up being an incredible asset to our community, and told me personally that he would never forget that Laura cared enough about him to drive all the way to meet him personally.
"It's so crazy," he said, "She runs this whole camp and drove all that way to meet me. It was just amazing."
When your marketing feels like summer camp
Hearing Daniel talk about how much it meant to him that Laura came out to visit him was a light-bulb moment for me. After all I've read about marketing, and all I've thought specifically about camp marketing, it never felt like my camp marketing could actually feel like camp. Even if Daniel hadn't come to camp, the fact that Laura drove out to meet him seemed as significant to him as my counselor touching my life as a depressed 15 year old.
And that's not a bad worst case scenario for a day's work, in my opinion.
What Laura has unlocked in her deeply personal marketing campaign is what I believe we try to help camps do all the time, which is convey the importance of camp during marketing season. Like a lot of camp directors, Laura is at her most effective when you can see her and hear her. Unlike a lot of camp directors, Laura has put herself in the position to leverage her greatest assets on a super frequent basis.
Now maybe your day to day is pretty locked it at this point - Laura did have the advantage of getting to write on a totally blank slate when it comes to her strategies for spreading the word about camp. But adding just a few of these strategies can go an incredibly long way. It does take work, though. Hope to see you on the front lines.