Bucking the Trend

In a recent editorial in The Wall Street Journal, Tunku Varadarajan writes, “Today… camp is designed as a break for children from parents. As the latter tribe grows more insufferably aspirational with every generation, kids are getting pummeled by parental ambition. They’re overscheduled, over-tended and, frankly, over-parented. Camp, at least for a few weeks, helps them escape from it all.”


Camps, particularly more traditional ones with programmatic variety, are biased about the value of the experience they offer in helping build not only great memories, but well-rounded people. But this bias is not without its merits, both in the long-run development of the person and the short-term benefits of healthy activity.

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The question then becomes how to communicate these benefits about camp to parents, and the potential responses to market factors.


“The thing I see more than anything now is parents wanting to know if camp is going to get their child 100 points more on the SAT, or will it get them a tennis scholarship or speak a foreign language. They’re not seeing the value of the traditional camp experience if it doesn’t come with academics, very high level sports, or whatever it is they’re looking for. They’re not seeing the value in nurturing the whole child. We hear that all the time. We’ve heard it from high-schoolers, but now we’re hearing it from junior-high kids, and that’s scary,” says Andrew Townsend, camps director for Kennolyn Camps, Soquel, Calif. “One of the dilemmas for the traditional camp is whether we follow the trend or stick it out until it cycles through again. This isn’t the first time this type of thing has come along, and then people realize that their kid needs freedom and time to play.”

Townsend says Kennolyn is adapting to some degree by offering specialty classes in partnership with local, sports-oriented programs.

“We’re hoping to market against people who go to a sports camp, but are a little disappointed when the sports camp is just sports. There will be some pretty intense, high-quality coaching in different sports, but they’ll still do all of the traditional programs as well,” explains Townsend. “I don’t want to divert energy away from what we do best and change the infrastructure. But if we’re only 10 minutes from other facilities and younger coaches who would like to run their own camps someday, we won’t have to do the infrastructure investment and change the nature of how our camp feels.”

Beyond the minor adjustments to market realities, Townsend hopes that camps can send a unified message about camp to parents, much like the got milk? and other agriculturally-based marketing campaigns.

“I think we’re losing an opportunity as a segment of the child development field when we don’t have a well-defined message and some money to put that message out in the public eye,” says Townsend. “Camp has a warm, apple-pie image, which makes it more attractive. The problem is the parent who doesn’t recognize the benefits, so that even for those two weeks of the summer when they used to go to a traditional camp they want their kid at SAT or French camp. They don’t want to even give up that two to four weeks to see their kid relax and do something different.”

An on-target, broad-based message would help all camps, says Townsend. However, as Townsend points out, the agricultural advertising campaigns — such as the got milk? campaign — are funded by higher taxes on the producers, which are funded by subsidies. It’s not voluntary, and many producers — be they of dairy, beef or pork — don’t need or want the extra exposure. This specific model is probably not the answer.

Another possibility is a more regional campaign geared toward the major media outlets in the region. In this scenario, the marketing budget would be more manageable and the ads could be geared more toward that specific market.

Townsend says Kennolyn is looking at the possibility of a collaborative California camp marketing campaign with other camps. After all, “Most people in the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, want a camp within a few hours of home. We believe this will allow us to tailor the message to the values people are looking for out of a camp experience,” says Townsend.

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