Avoid the Big Mistakes

For most resident camps and day camps, the vast majority of campers come for the traditional summer programs. The schedule, equipment, facilities and planning take only minor changes every year, so the “management overhead” is relatively low. But now you want to add a specialty program, maybe horseback riding or adventure-based activities. This takes lots of planning time, marketing, new equipment and facilities for just 10 or 20 new campers. It may pay off in the long run if you’re given that much time to make it work. But if you made promises to your boss about immediate growth in net income, you may be in trouble.

If you go to a bank to get the money for a major expansion, you must complete a detailed pro forma, a month-by-month estimate of each new expense, the plan and costs for marketing and start-up and a realistic estimate of how enrollment will grow over time. If camps were forced to do that more often, two things would happen. First, some projects would never get off the ground. Second, those that did go ahead would have more preparation done in advance, which brings us to number four.

4. If you build it … don’t expect campers to come unless you’ve got all your ducks in a row.

Let’s just look at a couple examples that happen all too often.

A.) A camp starts a new project (pick any of the above). The director, who’s been doing a terrific job leading the camp’s operations and constantly fine-tuning things with her attention to detail and empathy for parents, now is focused almost entirely on fundraising and construction. Some important customer service details begin to slip. The camp is torn up by construction traffic. Routine maintenance and housekeeping fall behind because the camp maintenance staff is involved in parts of the new project. Just when expectations for growth are the highest, enrollment takes a dive. Why? A drop in return rate and positive word-of-mouth. Could it have been prevented? Absolutely, but only with some serious forethought, delegation and on-going evaluation.

B.) A small, historic dining hall needs to be replaced because it’s become too small. Upon its completion, the cooks have to walk four times as far to get the same meal prepared, due to the addition of new cabins to grow enrollment. The whole camp can now eat inside at once, but meals last only 15 minutes because the acoustics are so bad the noise is unbearable, especially for the staff. Kids can no longer have conversations at meals, so they resort to the only thing that works: screaming cheers. “What great spirit we have!” the director says, though he finds every possible excuse not to eat there any more. When parents and alumni tour the camp, they say “wow” when they enter the dining room but keep right on going, where they used to spend time looking at all the photos and hand-made plaques on the wall.

After several million dollars, couldn’t we end up with something better than the old dining hall, not just bigger? As an architectural designer, I see this all the time. The camp staff has been dreaming about a new dining hall for years, but during most of that time they’ve only been thinking about the things they don’t like about their current building, not what they do want in the new one. Architects are hired and it is such a relief to be underway, to dump the project on them and eagerly await their perfect design.

Surprisingly, the first design isn’t perfect, in fact, not even close. So the staff recounts everything they don’t like about the new design, and leave the poor architects to guess again at another solution. By the time the working drawings are needed to hurry up and get the project finished, almost everyone is tired of the planning and says, “Just get it done! We’re sure anything will be better than what we have!” Construction starts and all of a sudden, “Where are the outlets? Where’s the stage? Where will kids hang their coats? I didn’t know the floor would look like that!”

Architects and contractors aren’t mind readers, and camp directors aren’t typically good at visualizing something from a drawing. But only the camp staff will have to live with the results, so the responsibility really has to fall on your shoulders to get it right. The best way to do that is to start collecting ideas long before anyone starts putting pencil to paper, for example, photos of favorite buildings with shots of specific details and materials. Rip full pages out of Country Living and Log Home magazines. Visit themed restaurants, ski resorts and Disney World, not just other camps. Don’t even THINK about painting a whole room or an entire building until you’ve seen another one done the same way. The same thing holds for lighting, floor covering and ceilings. Give your designer files of exactly what you like, with sticky-notes describing why.

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