Summer Camp as a Side Business

by Julie Rains on 3 September 2009 0 comments

My tween son went to a Lego camp this summer so that he could learn robotics, something I wasn’t sure I could teach him since his technical skills typically surpass mine. My initial fascination was with the computer programming aspect of the camp. Then, I became intrigued with the idea of running a summer camp as a side business. So, I spoke with seasoned camp directors about how they turned summer weeks into extra income. Here's a road map for a summer camp business.

Passion usually sparks the (summer camp) fire

Most of the independently run camps that I learned about were formed because of the camp director's passion, though some were started as a way to fill a market niche.  Dedication to serving kids and their families seems just as intense whether the camp is the fruit of a long-held dream or a deeply-researched business plan. Types of camps offered include:

Marketing: word-of-mouth rules

Word-of-mouth referrals seem to be the best (and least expensive) way of attracting campers. Referrals may come from campers and their families, or those who work with potential campers, such as teachers, coaches, and counselors associated with youth organizations. Most camps have websites but some rely more on search engine traffic and web campaigns than others. Marketing techniques:
  • Word-of-mouth referrals
  • Websites
  • Flyers and banners at kids’ schools, partner facilities, and local businesses
  • Listings in summer camp directories in newspapers and websites
  • Direct mail and email campaigns
  • Newspaper ads
  • Google ads
  • Television ads
  • Social media: Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook
  • Summer camp referral services such as Camp Finders 
  • Craigslist

Hire and train staff who love what you do

Camp directors will often tap into their networks to find staff suitable for working with children and qualified to provide supervision and instruction in specific areas (in addition to background checks). For example: 

  • Courtney Reid-Hammock of Camp Trinity Children Programs hires teachers for her academic camp
  • Drew Searl of East Meets West Lacrosse hires professional players and coaches for his lacrosse camp
  • James Taylor of Taylored Athletes hires current or former professional players who have earned college degrees for his basketball camp
  • Neeley Neal of Sideline Star hires AACCA (American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Administrators) certified professionals for her cheerleading camp

Staff training ranges from half-day talks on camp basics for day camps to multi-day sessions for staffers at residential (overnight) camps, such as that held by Maine Arts Camp including instruction from medical professionals. Topics might include camp policies, camp songs, responses to medical emergencies, and dealing with behavioral problems.

Find space wherever you can

An open field can work for some day camps (such as cheerleading or lacrosse) while residential camps require more extensive facilities such as cabins or dormitory-style housing, classrooms, and cafeterias. Ideas for locations:

  • public parks and recreation facilities
  • privately owned studios (gymnastics, dance, karate, etc.)
  • places of worship
  • college and university facilities
  • your own place (property owners Glynn and Jo-An Turman hold Camp Gid D Up at their ranch)

Match camp with campers

Most camps don't have rules about who can attend (with the exception of age requirements) but are clear about their offerings and whether a camp is suitable for potential campers. Common ways of making sure that camp will be fun and appropriate for campers:

  • in-depth descriptions of camp activities on brochures and websites
  • candid discussions with prospective parents who often call to get information on camp
  • camper applications with personal and medical histories (Camp Caglewood, which serves children and adults with special needs, has a thorough application process to make sure camp is enjoyable and enriching, and adapts its programs to the specific medical, social, and/or physical needs of campers)

Safety and risk management ideas: 

  • establish and maintain an appropriate camper:counselor ratio
  • set, communicate, and adhere to rules and policies
  • get campers to sign agreements covering behavior and safety issues
  • have parents sign releases or waivers (including photo releases)
  • access the expertise of insurance agents, who can advise on risk management measures
  • carry event insurance and liability coverage
  • have medical staff onsite or contract with a physician for dedicated services during camp weeks
  • limit camp hours so that campers will not need to have medication during sessions
  • have campers bring their own snacks and/or lunches to help avoid allergy problems

Deal with concerns of parents

Candy Cohn, assistant director of a residential camp told me typical concerns of parents are whether their kids will be able to make friends and get along with other campers. Many parents also feel uncomfortable with not having on-demand access to their kids, who aren't allowed to have cell phones. To help kids and parents make the transition from home to camp, Candy and others advise:

  • keep camp small enough to provide personal attention to campers
  • get information on specific concerns of parents and address those concerns directly
  • encourage parents to allow their children to develop independence
  • be available for kids who may need mentoring or special attention

Make money (or give back to the community)

To set camper fees, consider industry standards for pricing and count all expenses, such as:

  • facility rentals
  • instructor fees
  • advertising
  • camp-related equipment and supplies
  • administrative supplies
  • food
  • insurance
  • takeaway items such as camp t-shirts

Payment policies include 50% or payment-in-full at time of registration with balances due at the time of camp. Some camps offer discounts for early registration, referrals, and siblings. 

A few of the camps I've mentioned are 501(c)(3) non-profits (Camp Caglewood and ReCreation Camp provides outdoor and traditional camp experiences for adults and children with special needs; Camp Gid D Up serves inner city and at-risk children) but operate using business principles; they cover costs through donations, sponsorships, or camper fees.

Get started with camp

Experience as a youth instructor, coach, and volunteer is a great way to get the planning and teaching skills needed to run a camp. Though some directors have careers in sales, technology, marketing, and entertainment, many are teachers or business owners who provide year-round instruction, either full-time or part-time. 

Linda Calvert Jacobson, an artist and owner of Casa de Linda Art Studio taught art to adults and children for many years before starting her summer camp. She gives tips on organizing day-to-day activities: 

  • establish age groups for sessions
  • develop general outline of daily activities
  • select a camp theme
  • develop project ideas through extensive research and professional knowledge
  • create timelines for major projects and activities so that campers will have a completed project by the end of each camp session
  • have smaller, back-up projects and activities to keep campers busy and having fun

At the end of camp week, Linda holds a brief ceremony in which she presents certificates to campers and takes group photos; she has also started hosting an end-of-summer art show and ice cream social, encouraging campers to bring favorite art pieces and inviting families and friends. Similarly, campers at the Lego camp each presented one project and received a personalized CD of digital photos illustrating the camp week.

If you're thinking about using your skills to teach others but don't want to take on the responsibilities of running a camp, consider holding a session in partnership with a local school, church, or parks and recreation facility. For example, teachers designed and led classes at a summer enrichment program organized by St. Irene Catholic School; school board member Laura McGowan told me that both the school and teachers were able to generate extra income in a difficult economy.

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