Incremental Improvement, Part 1

In 1978 I was hired as the summer camp program director for Camp Tecumseh YMCA in Indiana. Tecumseh suffered from the same fate as most camps in the ’70s — dwindling enrolment, deteriorating facilities, and crippling deficits that predicted eventual demise.

Related Article: Incremental Improvement, Part 2

The board took a “one last noble effort” stand and hired visionary leaders in Richard “Dick” Marsh and Dave Wright with the goal of creating a “world class camp”… or else. We’re talking serious motivation here.

The major shortfalls in facilities were the cabins (former tent platforms that had been boarded-in and would be poor excuses for chicken coops), and the bathrooms (urine-soaked concrete block bunkers).

Trials by Fire

Dick and Dave’s vision was to create a pioneer-themed experience to play off the natural beauty, the Native American history, and the unavoidable rustic-ness of camping.

Log cabins would replace the old shacks, eventually with attached bathrooms. Great photos of smiling kids in the summer camp program, along with slick renderings of the log home company’s pre-packaged cabins made it relatively easy for the outgoing Marsh to find sponsors for the cabins.

We made one mistake in executing the plan. With the very first donation, we built a “model” cabin with the intention of showing parents and donors how our future plans would look.

First, donors seldom made the trip to camp, and weren’t giving to the “cause” as much as they were giving to Dick, the person whom they felt a personal commitment.

And for parents and groups it was disastrous. Anyone who got to stay in the new cabin was thrilled. Everyone else had never known how really bad they had it until they had something to compare it to. They all wanted to know why they couldn’t have the new cabin. Why had we singled them out for bad treatment? Shouldn’t they get a discount for having to stay in the “shacks”? Many groups said, “We’ll just skip next year. Call us when the new cabins are done.”

That was the final straw. We changed plans so all the cabins could be constructed at once, instead of spreading it out over three years. We temporarily relocated the old cabins so they could be used during construction of the new ones, and between one summer and the next, replaced every cabin in camp. (Every cabin except the returning teens that really didn’t care where they stayed; and in fact most liked the prestige of “roughing” it in “their” old cabins.)

Fast-forward five years. I’ve been hired as the executive director for Camp Jewell YMCA in Connecticut, mostly because of their dire need for facility renovation and my degree in architecture. The board’s plan was familiar: renovate one of the worn-down old cabins into a fully completed “model cabin.” It was a hard sell, but I convinced them of a different tact.

In addition to being hired to renovate the facilities, I was told my other key job was marketing. The summer camp was only three-quarters full, and the cabins, though heated, were seldom all booked the rest of the year.

The most interesting statistic I asked for was the return rate. For off-season groups, it was only 25 percent. That meant for all the effort that went into attracting and serving a group, 75 percent of them weren’t satisfied enough to come back! All we had to do was increase the return rate and the current (admittedly minor) sales effort would be more than sufficient.

So what would get the people to return? We asked them. I asked at the coffee pot before breakfast (when they first came up from their bad night’s sleep). I asked them at their tables as I ate each meal with a different group. I asked them in an evaluation form just before they went home.

Quickly we painted a picture of their priorities, and with my past experience, realized that any changes we made to one cabin we needed to make to all of them. We had very little money, so we had to pick the biggest “bang for the buck.”

Many camps choose the path of doing nothing, waiting for that “one grand capital bail-out” that will replace everything. But in the meantime, thousands of children have to put up with pitiful camp facilities, and thousands more never come to camp because dissatisfied adults have spread the words, “Stay away.”

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  1. Incremental Improvement, Part 2
  2. Conceptual Steps
  3. Adventures in Oz
  4. Offsides
  5. The Elevator Speech
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