by Gary Forster, YMCA of the USA

Create a year-round marketing / parent communication plan that puts special emphasis on retention and word-of-mouth marketing:

Two basic concepts:

  1. The customer is “Mom”, and her number one concern is safety.
  2. “Word of mouth” accounts for 85% of new campers, and we need to direct a majority of our marketing dollars to supporting that sales force.

The Brochure must use its column-inches like a grocery store uses shelf space: more space for programs with more beds (and the most financial “margin”). Summer camp needs twice the space of any specialty program. Photos and photo captions must tell the whole story: boys and girls, young to teens, multi-racial, safe, great staff, fun activities to choose: swimming (showing the lifeguards, fun, and the natural surroundings in the background), horses, kids on bunk-beds, showers, etc.

Counselor’s Parent Letter written Monday and mailed Tuesday morning each week of camp. Parents are concerned about their kids. Hearing from a positive role model who shows they already know their child is a great reassurance and will alter the parents’ communications with the camp, their child, and everyone they meet.

Camper’s Parent Postcard mailed Wednesday. The result of a “thank those people who care for you” devotion or chapel.

Campers’ “Eat your heart out” postcards to their friends back home. Camp supplies postcards (with a photo of the pool and the horses, and camp web site address prominently printed) and pays the postage, even helps find the addresses using the internet for kids who don’t know them.

Cabin Photos of each cabin group with their counselors. Print 4x6 photos at one-hour photo and glue-stick them to the pre-printed 8 ½ x 11 card stock “frames.” Give to every camper the last morning so they can get signatures, addresses, etc. Counselor writes a positive note for each camper in her/his cabin, and they are given out the morning the campers go home (so they don’t get ruined before mom sees them!)

Director’s parent letter and Satisfaction Survey with suggestions on how to ask “Open-Ended Questions” when they pick up their children.

Personal Letter of Invitation to all returning campers, customized to their age and gender, to highlight those specific features and benefits that we’d like you, (camper’s name here), to join us for this summer!

Monthly contact with one of the following: brochure, newsletter, or holiday card; each with the web site address prominently displayed (and a reason to go there: “new photos of…”), and each with a registration card, dates & rates for next summer. Each newsletter should highlight a different program: summer camp, horses, teens, etc, matched to the time they are most likely to sign up (teens are last), and pushing the dates that most need selling. The full brochure should be designed to “hit” on the third day of any school vacation. Second and third brochure mailings should include a bright sticker: “please share this with a friend!”

Brochure displays for summer camp in the dining hall during the spring-winter-fall, and keep them filled.

Brochure displays in every YMCA branch, refilled by a camp part-time staff member (“Mobile Marketer”) on a routine basis (so the branch doesn’t have to store them). And bring fresh baked cookies for the branch office staff! They are the ones that get the question, “do you have a resident camp?” This has been a huge benefit to camps that have done it this year.

Brochure displays at the camp dining hall for the Grand Rapids YMCA family memberships and day camps. (Quid pro quo)

Registration Card and dates for next summer ready for check-out days this summer.. “Many sessions filled completely last summer. You can reserve your space for a $50 deposit, fully refundable until March 1st.”

Volunteer work weekends at camp (board, alumni and parents), and Y branch “team” work days at camp, to encourage “ownership” by a diverse community base who will act as local cheerleaders.


All these same things apply for recruiting staff. Staff will be ready to re-apply at all different months, not just when we want them too. And the best staff have the most opportunities. They are being actively recruited to do other things. That means you can’t just send them an application. Someone must call them on the phone (or at least e-mail them personally) and individually ask them to come back because you really want them.

And just as satisfied parents are the key source of new campers, good staff members are the best source for new staff. But you have to give them the ammunition they need to help you sell (web site, video, brochure, postcards, etc). And encouragement. And thanks. (A little cash or a pizza helps, too.)

Other Specific areas:

Targeted Ages –From national experience, if a camper comes to resident camp for the first time at age 7 or 8, they typically have less than a 30% chance of returning for a second year. But if a camper attends camp at ages 10 or 11, they have an 75 % chance of returning. The message? Spend more time recruiting older kids than younger ones. (This relates to the primary reason that only 20% of resident campers are members at any YMCA: local Y’s don’t typically have members who are older than 9 or 10 years old.

Taking Phone Calls – conduct coaching sessions for everyone who answers the phone at camp. Hold brief “in their office” coaching sessions for YMCA branch front-desk staff. YMCAs may have few kids of the right age for resident camps, but they get LOTS of phone calls. Tom Madeyski just did a “secret shopper” phone survey in San Diego. Call him about it!

Phone registration: Why have parents (mom) fill out a brand new registration card every year with all of the same information? Promote phone registration; call those who haven’t registered by March and offer to instantly register them over the phone. Or do as Camp Thunderbird does: mail a computer-generated registration card to each family with all the standard information already filled-in, so all they have to do is pick the weeks and mail it or fax it back.

Offer Bank Draft as a camp payment option.

YMCA Branch Marketing: have a fun-filled bus trip to camp for YMCA front-desk staff. Show the video on the bus, have a great meal, give them a camp shirt and sing camp songs on the way back home.

Create a Video/DVD, produced this summer at camp for next year’s marketing. Explore having it done for free by a major Detroit area company’s in-house video department. If not, it’s still a wise investment. Along with the internet, it can be the best supporter of the “Word of Mouth Sales-force.”

Rally the Alumni. Recruit a separate alumni committee to create an on-line newsletter, and host alumni events like spring and fall work weekends, and annual support phone-a-thon nights.

Improve the quality of branch YMCA day camps. Area YMCAs also provide day camping, some of which is of good quality, others are not. A consistent definition of “Day Camp” would benefit all parents. The two key components of “Day Camp” are:

  1. A significant amount of time spent outdoors each day.
  2. Campers are assigned to a specific group and counselor (as apposed to the “lifeguard” staffing arrangement of most child-care operations.)

When parents have good experiences at their local Y, they will be much more likely to sign up for sessions of day camp and resident camp. Use the ACA standards to identify priorities for each day camp.

  YES! Print all games and skits

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