7 Inexpensive Tricks to Guarantee Higher Camper Retention

7 Inexpensive Tricks to Guarantee Higher Camper Retention

Engaging your #1 target audience

There’s a trick to marketing that a lot of folks don’t know. I certainly didn’t when I first started trying to market summer camp. I was so desperate to engage all those other people out there. Those people, who if they just heard about my camp, would fill every bed for me next summer.

Unfortunately for me, focusing on people who had never heard of my camp at the expense of those who had already heard of my camp was like fishing pennies out of a fountain while ignoring a stack of dollar bills on the bench next to me.

You see, it really boils down to a math problem.

Per the formula used in our summer camp retention tool, we realized what our average camper was worth to our camp, monetarily (not even including referrals, and volunteering – just what that camper alone would be worth over the lifetime of her experience with us). We then looked at our retention rate – roughly 63% at the time.

So we asked ourselves – what would it cost us to increase our retention to 65%? How about 75%? Was 85% possible? We weren’t sure – but one thing was clear, spending $2,000 to advertise on the local city’s website would be insane if we only had $2,000 to spend. If we only had $2,000 to spend, we realized, we needed to spend it on retention – or marketing to the people who already cared about us.

And then we realized, Hey – we might not need to spend much money at all on retaining more kids. We talked to some other camps, and used our own creativity, and we settled on these 7 tricks that have made a world of difference for us. And to be clear – we’re not talking about “tricking” anyone into coming to camp. We’re talking about ways to authentically connect with people – to give them full information about what their attending camp means to us, so they can make the best decision possible. On to the tricks!

The 7 tricks to guarantee greater summer camper retention

1) Make sure every kid is told, to his face, that you want to see HIM back later THIS summer.
2) On the day they leave, have counselors encourage kids to thank their parents for sending them, if they want to come back in the future.
3) Have each counselor talk to each parent, and tell them something special about their child.
4) Add a new program every year, and specifically talk to each returning camper about it.
5) Early in the week, ask each camper, specifically, what they want to do later in the week. If that activity isn’t on the schedule, make it so.
6) Call every family that came to camp, they day AFTER the day they registered during the previous year, to ask after their intentions for the upcoming season.
7) Have counselors write birthday cards to every kid at the end of the week, and mail them on the kid’s birthday (we didn’t actually do this one, but I’ve heard it’s killer.)

Tricks to empower your counselors and campers on the last day of camp.

The most important day, by far, when it comes to retaining a camper for the following summer (or later in the same summer) is the last day of camp. Tricks 1-3 cover this day specifically.

Trick 1 – “Hope to see you later this summer!

Trick 1 was a revelation for us. We discovered it by accident. I overheard one of my most sincere and loving counselors speaking passionately to a young woman – “You HAVE to come back to Camp Outrageous in 2 weeks! You’d love it!”

And you know what? The girl came back. Huh.

As our leadership team thought on what I’d seen, it made perfect sense for the following reasons.

A) The counselor was being 100% sincere in her statement.
B) It got the young woman thinking on the possibility that she COULD come back to camp. Most kids don’t even realize this is a possibility.
C) It helped the camper see that her counselor really, really cared about her. More than just “It was so nice to meet you!”
D) Like all good sales strategies, there was a call to action.

I want YOU back here during THIS specific week.

And even if the camper couldn’t come during that week, that sincere connection was there. My counselor wanted me back two weeks from now. Not next summer. 2 weeks from now. A pretty special feeling.

Now, I get that it’s ugly to think of this beautiful interaction as a “sales strategy.” I know it is. I prefer not to think of things in these terms, either. And I’d never, ever, recommend that a counselor say something like this if she didn’t mean it. But if she does mean it? What a cool gift to be able to give a child – a sincere statement that might also help her get back to camp for another week during the summer (or next summer) instead of doing…whatever else kids do during the summer.

So now we recommend that counselors speak on this feeling whenever they have it. It works wonders. Especially when paired with trick 2..

Trick 2 – Letting kids know they can thank their parents for sending them to camp

As a parent of young children, I know how touched I feel whenever I receive an organic and heart-felt “Thank you, Daddy,” from my children.

Now again – we never want to tell kids to mislead their parents. If a kid has a terrible time, he shouldn’t feel the need to thank his parents.

But we tell kids the following, “If you loved camp, and want to come back in the future, it’d be great to let your parents know how much you appreciate them sending you here. That way they’ll know to sign you up next year, too.”

Times are tight for a lot of families across the US, but in a world where parents are constantly trying to guess at what the heck their kids actually want, they aren’t cutting budget on things their kids are organically thanking them for. They just aren’t.

Trick 3 – Having your counselors tell each parent something wonderful about their child

As a child, I dreaded parent teacher conferences. And you know something? I imagine my parents did, too. In retrospect, I think teachers had mostly nice things to say about me… but the ones that didn’t really stung.

So on that last day of camp, we schedule an impromptu parent-counselor conference. It takes all of a few seconds.

Parent: “How was Jane this week?” (parents that ask this are nervous that Jane drove everybody crazy)

Super-Counselor: “Jane was incredible. She gave piggyback rides to the younger girls up from the waterfront – she has such a kind heart, and it’s obvious that she really cares about other people.”

Parent: Dumbfounded look, or huge smile.

Now, there is a big difference between giving a generic “He was great!” and a specific, intentional example of a special thing a child has done. So counselors are to catalogue at least one special thing, and share it with the parents when they come. Easy as pie.

I can’t tell you how many parents have specifically mentioned how obvious it was that a child’s counselor had a personal relationship with their child, and how much it meant to them.

Tricks that can be used during the camp session

After the last day of camp, the next most important time to key in on retention is: you guessed it, the week the child is actually at camp!

Now, this might sound like the most obvious concept you’ve ever heard – but we found that adding a few nuances makes a big difference in how seen a camper feels. Ultimately, feeling seen and loved is what will separate your camp from the other options in a child’s live, and these tricks can help you accomplish exactly that.

Trick 4 – Add a new program every year, and specifically talk to each returning camper about it.

If you’re like me, this sounds a little daunting at first. But here’s the thing – the #1 reason I’ve received for older campers not returning is: “It’s the same thing every year.”

And if you know me, and how I run camp, you’ll KNOW this isn’t true. We add new stuff all the time, and no week of camp is the same even in the same summer, much less from year to year.

But, to kids, appearances really matter. We give campers the option to choose their own activities, so a given camper might choose the same things year after year.

So, we decided to get intentional about how we engaged kids about our new programming.

During meals, I make it a point to talk to every kid at camp at least every other day. This means I’m walking around while I eat, typically, and I don’t sit and hold meetings with other members of our leadership team, or make any plans that take longer to discuss than, “We all set up for the evening program?”

I’ll share another thing I do during these conversations in a second, but with returning kids, I’ll always throw out a casual comment like this:

“Hey Duncan! How’s everything going for you this week? Hey – have you tried the Dreamworld activity this year? I think you’d really like it – it’s brand new.”

Now, Duncan loves active activities, and while I think he would love Dreamworld, he is pretty unlikely to choose it. That being said, just hearing that new things are happening is important to him. It makes him feel like things are happening.

We’re inspired to actively change are program in loud and visible ways, as frequently as possible. We aspire to be like Camp Augusta, who changes every single evening program, campfire skit, and “special wake up” that they use every summer, only re-using things on a 7 year basis. I like to reuse things a little more frequently, but we’re working to change over 75% or so. If kids see new things happening, they won’t need to go somewhere else next year to “try something new.”

Trick 5 – Early in the week, ask each camper, specifically, what they want to do later in the week. If that activity isn’t on the schedule, make it so.

Now, I have the pleasure of running a camp that has about 80 kids per session, so I can ask this question to each child myself. If your camp is bigger, or you don’t get a chance to interact with every child, you can empower counselors to do this.

The process is simple, and stated right there in the trick.

The benefits are likely self-explanatory, but there are additional payoffs that might not be so obvious.

Most children are going to say something like archery, or play soccer, or some activity they are expecting to do. This is probably on the schedule already – or maybe kids sign up for all their activities at the beginning of the week and they are already aware what they’ll be doing. In that case, you run a camp that is very catered to kids’ needs already, and you’re doing this whether you realize it or not.

But for camps like mine, where activities are sort of revealed over the course of the week, asking kids what they want to do is very powerful.

When we started asking kids what they wanted to do, and saying yes to every single one of their requests, an amazing thing happened. Kids started coming up with crazier and more creative activities – essentially doing our programming for us.

And the kids with more modest goals? They got to feel seen and heard. Sure, their goals are “only” to do the normal activities that camp always offers, but in asking them what they want to do and assuring them that it will happen, you help them form a sense of security and efficacy that they won’t have if they were just pleasantly surprised to hear archery announced on Wednesday afternoon.

What’s more, doing this early in the week allows you to make sure your schedule meets every camper’s perfect vision for camp. You might have a week where half the kids are looking forward to archery, and you realize that you should offer archery twice as much as usual. Or, you might have a week like we had, where 50 of our 80 kids wanted to do a “Dr. Who Meet-up.” I didn’t know what Dr. Who was, much less that anyone could have a meet-up about such a thing, but it was the most popular activity at camp that week. And all because we took the time to ask. You can believe the inventors of the Dr. Who meet-up will be back next year.

Tricks to increase your retention that can be done throughout the year

Your job as a master summer-camper retainer doesn’t stop the moment kids leave camp. There’s work to be done throughout the year, as well. For us, we were doing all the normal things – sending out a camp brochure, posting to facebook (more on that in a future post), updating our website, and so on. But there was one thing we started doing that put us over the top. And the last trick, trick #7, is not something I’ve done yet, but it’s just such a good idea I had to include it anyway.

Trick #6 – Calling parents the day AFTER the day they registered during the previous year

This trick works so well for a number of reasons. Let’s start with the formula for the call:

“Hey, is this Jacqueline?”


“Hey! It’s James, from Vanderkamp, where Aidan went to camp last summer.”

“Oh, hi!”

“I just wanted to give you a buzz because last year you had registered by this time, and we were wondering if Aidan was thinking of coming back this year.” – Here, I’d also let her know if there was any relevant info that might effect them registering. I’d tell her if there were only 30 slots left in the week Aidan came to last year, or if the Early Bird registration discount was expiring soon, etc. I’d give as much of a reason as to why I could be calling as possible.

“You know what! We talked about this ages ago, and I forgot to follow up with him. Thanks for the reminder!”

This call can go in a number of ways. You can get a definitive “yes!” – in which case, you can use this for your planning purposes. If I get a yes, and the mood seems right, I’ll sometimes ask if they want to “get the deposit out of the way” over the phone and reserve a spot. You can get a definite “No,” which is also helpful for your planning purposes. You can get a “I’ll check back with Aidan and we’ll let you know,” which is also very useful.

If I get a “maybe,” I’ll mark it in my database, and be sure to follow up if things are getting closer to closing in a month or so. We don’t want to get pushy, of course, but a lot of my camp families are busy during the summer. Sometimes, they have every intention of signing up for camp, but manage to squeeze it out of the picture with a vacation here or a basketball camp there.

I’ve never had a parent who didn’t seem to appreciate the call. And if I have some specific memory of their child to share, it’s all the better.

The very worst case scenario in this call is that you hear a “no.” No parent will decide not to send their kid to camp because you called them.

They worst case scenario of you not making a call is far more serious – there could be a child who would have come to your camp, but either forgot about it, or accidentally made other plans, or budgeted for something that would impact him less.

That’s not good for anyone. That’s why I make the call.

Trick #7 – Have counselors write birthday notes home

Okay, as I mentioned, we’ve never actually done this. But the idea is too good not to share. As I understand, it basically works like this: hand each counselor a set of birthday cards during each session. At the end of the session, you have them fill out a brief personal birthday card, replete with a single memory from camp. Easy. It takes each counselor 10-20 minutes per week. Then, you put them in birthday order in a file someplace, and do a small mailing once per week for birthdays coming up the following week. Seems so easy – we’re definitely going to try and do this next year.

So, those are my tricks – do you have any lying around you’d be willing to share? Leave them in the comments, and help us create the rising tide that will lift all of our boats 🙂

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