By Zach Mural

So you want to start a day camp (or you already offer several), and you’re not sure what to offer? If your program is located anywhere but in the most remote location, a quick Google search will probably bring up tens if not hundreds of competing options. While choices are good for families, choosing what types of programs to offer can be overwhelming.

The reality is that almost anyone who offers school-year programs also offers a “camp” (the quotation marks are intentional; just because a program is offered in the summer does not mean it is truly a camp). Besides the year-round providers, there are a number of operations that only offer summer programs, and their staff members spend the entire off-season developing these programs and recruiting campers. Faced with this reality, attracting and retaining campers is often a significant challenge.

So, where to begin? What type(s) of program(s) will help you compete? What are the best ways to attract and keep campers? While I do not pretend to have every answer, I’ve been facing these same questions and challenges for a number of years, and this month I’ll offer a few tidbits to help you have your most successful summer yet!

The first challenge is deciding exactly what type of programs to offer. While this might seem fairly straightforward, in reality, without some careful thought and market evaluation, it’s not uncommon for departments to offer programs/options that never have a realistic chance of running.

The first question is, what are you already good at? Put another way, what types of programs do you offer during the school year for which you have the materials and staff expertise in place? Those who typically offer youth sports probably don’t want to offer a circus camp. In fact, if you already have a niche carved out, then the best opportunity for success is to go with what you know.

Along these same lines, the next question is, what are your goals for the camp programs? Are you trying to teach skills related to a specific activity? Is academic enrichment or support a mandate from stakeholders? Are you looking to provide a sweeping overview of recreation options? Or, are you looking to meet the needs of working parents who, above all else, need an affordable full-day, child-care alternative (hint: offering a wrap-around or extended-day option is almost always a winner)? There are not right or wrong answers to these questions, but by giving them some honest thought, you can save yourself a lot of wasted time and effort.

Whatever direction you decide to take, ideally you will be positioned to maximize current resources and strengths and meet the needs of the community. And, if you’re not sure what you have, or what the community wants, soliciting both formal and informal input from staff and parents is a great place to start.

Avoid “The Parking Lot Phenomenon”
Another common pitfall for parks and recreation programs is overwhelming parents with options, thereby becoming your own competition. This is especially problematic for larger departments and municipalities with a history of being everything to everybody. Now, if this is what you’ve always done and all of your programs are full, then keep it up and more power to you. However, if you are frequently running programs with only enough participants to “go,” I suggest you scale back offerings.

In fact, there are two primary reasons why more is not always better. The first is simple math. If you have a pool of 100 potential campers and offer 20 programs, then, even if you successfully enrolled every child, you could be looking at five campers per program and a salary line that would likely make your supervisor cringe. On the other hand, if you only offer five programs and, as a result only enrolled 80 campers, you would still be looking at 15+ campers per program and much friendlier figures on the budgetary end.

The second reason to limit offerings is to avoid what’s known as the parking lot phenomenon. For example, you pull into the local shopping center early on a Saturday morning when the lot is mostly empty. How often do you drive through a perfectly acceptable parking space in search of one a little closer to the door or farther from potential cart dings? The same is true of families; at times when we are confronted with too many options, we are unable to decide and may end up looking elsewhere (after all, if you have all these choices, then maybe your competition does too).

Waiting List = Winning!
If “perception is reality,” then having full (or nearly full) programs is a great “problem.” Many of us choose a product or program because we are concerned that, if we don’t act immediately, the price will go up or the opportunity will be lost. To that end, if parents and families perceive your programs are full or nearly full, they are more likely to commit to avoid having their child miss out.

Now, if the programs have historically struggled to fill, how can you create this perception? I’ve used two approaches with remarkable success. The first is to offer a “very limited number” of early-bird registrations (you can decide what “very limited” means). Frequently, I will discount the enrollment fee or provide a free camp shirt to these early committers. While the actual monetary cost is low, the perception is that, if parents don’t act fast, they might miss out on a deal.

The second approach I have used to create the perception of demand possibly outweighing supply (without being dishonest) is to use the phrase “space is limited.” In reality, this is nearly always the case. I cannot think of a program that I’ve ever offered that did not have a cap for one reason or another. So, if I’m camper number 2 of a possible 30, was I in any real danger of missing out? No. However, was space limited when I enrolled? Absolutely! So, by being deliberate with language, the perception can be created that families need to act now in order to secure their camper’s enrollment.

A Note On Cost
Finally, while some parents perceive “full/popular” to equate to “good,” other parents equate “costly” to “good” and “inexpensive” to “poor.” Sometimes being the least expensive option is not good. You obviously know your parents and the market, but in my experience, when I’ve offered programs closer to the high side of the market average they’ve filled more quickly than when my camp has been the least expensive choice around.

Whatever types of programs you ultimately offer in the summer, I encourage you to give these factors some serious thought. By being honest about what you do well, what your community really values, and what you can realistically do, you can position yourself to have a stellar summer!

Dr. Zachary Mural is an executive-level leader, youth-development professional, and father. He holds a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology, is the owner of Youth Development Consulting, is VP of Education for The Minnieland Academy Family of Schools in Northern Virginia, and is an ExpertOnlineTraining faculty member. If you have questions or comments, or would like to discuss a possible workshop or training, visit