Summer Camps are Changing to Find Success

summer camps

Summer camp season 2019 was a record breaker at East Carolina University (ECU) with over 1,000 campers and 16,000 miles traveled.

These numbers sparked a renewed interest in tremendous camp expansion for 2020 with the addition of a third recreational camp, jr. lifeguard camp and adventure trip camp for teenagers. Registration opened with trepidation on March 23, 2020 but saw over $80,000 in revenue in the first two days.

Well, we all know what happened. Hundreds of refunds were issued and over a thousand campers were stuck at home. Our recreation center remained closed until late August. Now it’s 2021 and the worst year many of us can remember is over. We are gearing up for the summer with a modified but exciting experience awaiting our campers this June.

But before that happens, there are several things to think about and execute:

Review Your Mission and Purpose

October is usually the month for assessing the previous summer’s offerings, producing revenue reports and making decisions about plans for the following year. This past October was slightly different. There was nothing to evaluate and a lot of unknown eight months in the future.

EXTRA CREDIT: The University of Iowa camps are equally recreational and environmental education.

We took the time to review the mission and purpose of our summer camp program. We determined if hosting was feasible and what we valued moving forward. A reduced-capacity summer camp aligned with our core purpose of serving the faculty and staff at ECU in a safe and effective manner became our focus. We realized our campus community was clamoring for childcare this summer. And, providing this needed resource was essential as ECU returns to face-to-face operations.

Reduce Your Summer Camps Numbers

Watching crowds of people gather is almost unfathomable these days as worries of viral spread dominate every risk manager’s worst nightmares. Summer camp is no different as our hopes for record attendance and revenue will have to wait another year.

Campus Recreation and Wellness obtained approval for a modified capacity of roughly 50% to meet existing government regulations and indoor gathering limitations. These reduced numbers allow for limited physical interaction during activities. Most importantly, they allow for easier contact tracing in the event of viral spread. The negative side of limiting numbers is clearly the need to produce revenue from camp operations. A normal year yields:

  • Almost 1,000 total campers.
  • $140,000-plus in revenue.
  • A minimum 20% profit margin.

The reduction in registered participants optimistically allows for revenue under $100,000 and a profit margin in the low single digits. Our goal was never to produce a significant financial surplus. It was to serve the ECU community in a safe and fun youth-friendly environment.

EXTRA CREDIT: Due to the current climate and the transition to online, many universities and departments are having to make difficult decisions in regards to budget cuts. Here’s how to get creative with your budget.

Reinvent the Pod System

Many of us with school-aged children understand the value of a closed classroom as contact tracing in the public-school system is accomplished through reduced movement during the day. Children only interact with their immediate classmates with limited trips around the building and the elimination of larger gym classes, cafeteria visits and grade-level recess.

Summer camp this June will be no different at ECU as we plan to create pods by age group. This system will allow for easier contact tracing in the event of a positive test and the ability to continue camp while stopping viral spread. The plan includes:

  • Pods of eight to 12 campers with two dedicated counselors.
  • Contained activities on a “home basketball court.”
  • Separate times for swimming.
  • Quarantine rooms in the event of symptomatic campers during the day.

A positive COVID-19 test from a counselor or a camper is inevitable. However, this system allows our camp to remain functional with minimal disruptions.

Rethink Your Summer Camps Travel

The American Camp Association recommended eliminating travel as a best practice for summer camps in 2021. This recommendation threw a wrench in our plans at ECU as daily travel serves as a hallmark of our award-winning summer camps. Children rave about the trips we take throughout the region to both entertainment and educational venues. The pandemic, and unknown conditions this summer, preempted our abilities to forecast travel abilities. Thus, it’s limiting plans to leave campus in June and July.

The time to get creative is now. Your staff is undoubtedly wary of entertaining 50-plus children for nine hours each day. Increased reliance on campus facilities, local vendors and venues within 15 miles will stretch the imagination of even the most creative counselor. The importance of eliminating activities where contact cannot be minimized is essential as large-scale water parks, amusement parks and locations with large indoor capacities should be avoided.

Remember this is Fun

For those individuals charged with administering your summer camps, there is probably a great deal of trepidation going into the planning process, especially amidst the changing landscapes in various parts of the U.S. Recent meetings on our campus are laden with the problems of operating in this new environment, especially disruptions to traditionally streamlined activity timelines and the ease of off-campus travel.

The most important thing to tell both your seasoned professionals and your student counselors is this is supposed to be fun. Working summer camps is a rewarding exercise for our employees and a memorable experience for campers of all ages. The reason recreational summer camps are so fun and build almost immediate loyalty from parents is the campers are never bored. They are engaged, active and never have a tedious day.

Most campuses have not engaged in youth participation in over 22 months. The time to make this summer safe and memorable is now.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

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Greg Corack, Ed.D., serves as the associate director of Leadership and Programs at East Carolina University Campus Recreation and Wellness. He began his career at James Madison University in intramural sports and eventually moved to Eastern Kentucky University for his first professional position as assistant director of Intramural and Club Sports. Greg has worked in a variety of capacities in his 15 years in the industry including experiences supervising indoor and outdoor facilities, health promotion, athletic training, adventure leadership and team training. He has presented at multiple state, regional and national conferences with a passion for action research and assessment. Greg earned doctorate of education from Eastern Kentucky University, a master of science and bachelor of science, both in sport management from James Madison University.

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