Smart Money

There’s another scenario where more opportunities are lost… Suppose you plan to build a new dining hall in the same location as the original. (The same concept applies to new camper cabins, and even a new climbing tower.) A building that is currently generating income must be temporarily replaced during construction (disrupting current customers).

When finished, the new building may be more useful and handle more people, but there’s not nearly the net gain in usable space as if the new structure was built in a different location, and the old dining hall re-used for serving groups better, serving more groups simultaneously, and serving more kinds of groups.


Let’s back up to the original problem: a camp in financial difficulty. What do you need? You need income. Sure there is almost always money to be saved — often substantial money to be saved — from cutting expenses.

But the real gains — and the camp’s future success — are found in searching out increased revenues. And there are two primary areas to look…

First, where do you have excess capacity in programs where fees not only cover the direct costs of the camper’s stay, but also contribute to the general overhead of the camp?

Summer camp is the most important place to look, as it has the strongest demand for quality programs, and parents are willing to pay for the value.

Excess capacity can come in the form of actual empty camper beds during the first and last sessions. It’s worth the effort to sell hard to fill each and every space. That can mean special contacts (letters, phone calls) to campers already signed up to encourage them to bring a friend.

For the later sessions, it can be as simple as asking the campers near the end of a session, “Who’s having a great time?!” (WE ARE!) “Who wants me to call their mom and see if they can stay another week?!” (ME! ME!)

But there are less obvious sources of existing capacity, like cabins that aren’t currently being used for campers, but could be. The most common sources are buildings that have been taken over by staff or programs. I’ve seen the best waterfront locations in camps turned from camper cabins into “staff lounges” or staff residences because someone once thought it was a good idea.

Staff need good facilities, but not in the most valuable income-producing locations. Re-examine everything. I’ve seen childcare centers, rec-hall stages, and nature centers turned into terrific camper cabins just for the peak weeks of summer.

The second place to find revenue is to ask, “What do we do best? Where do we have a waiting list?” That yields to the follow-up question, “Should we be increasing the rates by a greater percentage each year for that program?”

And the best question of all: “How can we do more of it? How can we serve more kids?” That means adding capacity during those programs, even those specific sessions, that will yield the greatest number of children in life-changing programs, and the greatest additional net revenue.

Don’t be seduced by the potentially large gross revenue figures of rental or year-round groups. A bed in a building you have to heat and maintain all year, when you only really need it for eight weeks in the summer, is a net drain on the budget. It’s only the net revenue that actually affects the financial success (read survival) of your camp.

Those are the secrets. Fill every bed. Have enough beds when you really need them. And be creative in how you do it.

Gary Forster is the camping specialist for the YMCA of the USA.

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