Avoid the Big Mistakes

I visit about 60 camps each year, so I often get this question: “What are the biggest mistakes you’ve seen camps make in their facilities?” We’ve all seen the mistakes our friends have made, and when we put our egos aside, we know that if it happens to them, it could happen to us.

Camps are building all the time. The most common projects are camp offices, dining halls, expensive high-ropes towers and maintenance shops. Sounds like fun! But the first question should be whether any of these are the top concern of the camper-parents or group leaders. Nope, not even in the top ten. Number one was probably the bathrooms and showers, right? Then maybe the cleanliness, the bunks and the food? Sound familiar?

If any of those campers or guests return, they see the new office, but those nasty showers look even worse than they did before! That highlights the first lesson …

1.) Listen to the parents and guests.

Why is this number one? Here’s a quick review for those who are new to my articles: Mom is our customer. Moms sign 95 percent of summer camp registrations. If she’s not satisfied, her camper doesn’t return. It’s her word-of-mouth that ensures the majority of our new campers. She’s usually left to make her decisions on brief first impressions of camp, and what little information she gets from her camper. More often than not, I see facility improvements that come as the result of staff recommendations, weighted heavily towards those things that would make their own jobs easier. A happy staff is, of course, valuable, but they are of little use if you have unhappy customers to start with.

“But we really need a new office!” I’m not saying that’s not true; I’m just suggesting that you better take care of those bathrooms at the same time, or you’ll appear very self-centered to the people who really pay your salary.

Good camp leaders have asked their users many times for evaluations and suggestions. So many times, in fact, that we get used to thinking “Too bad we can’t do anything about that.” I worked with a large family swim center a number of years ago that had declining enrollment. The staff had a number of ideas for new programs, but I wanted to know what the families that didn’t renew their membership had to say. “Well, that’s easy; they say the water’s too cold in the pool. But there’s nothing we can do about that.” Not so fast. The center added a pool heater, and the retention rate doubled.

Staff suggestions, and the personal gripes of the director, tend to carry so much weight because we hear them so often. Occasionally I ask a camp director, “What do your parents say they want you to fix?” If the director responds, “I don’t know,” the real problem starts to become more obvious.

2.) More stuff means more expenses. Where will the revenue come from?

If you’ve been living with a 5,000-square-foot dining hall for years, your revenues have been covering the expenses. But what happens when you add a 10,000-square-foot dining hall and keep the old one for a rec hall? It’s twice as large, and will likely take at least twice as long to clean each week (maybe more, since it’s brand-new, and dirt will show up much quicker). With more than twice the number of lights, maybe twice the heat, this one’s now air-conditioned (which costs even more than heat). So your housekeeping and utilities for the dining hall have now more than tripled. But have you added even one more bed?

Too often I’ve heard directors say, “We just assumed that with a new dining hall we’d get lots more business.” But during prime weeks, the camp was already full, and during slow weeks the staff didn’t do anything to eliminate the customers’ greatest complaints.

A friend of mine was a successful director for 25 years. To cap off his career, he raised the money to build a beautiful dining hall that added $25,000 of new expenses every year, without bringing in a single dollar of new income. After three years of deficits, he lost his job. His replacement raised money to add new cabins and bathrooms, and that revenue brought the camp back into the black.

3.) Small additional programs can be “high maintenance” and slow to break even.

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