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Marketing Your Camp – Finding the Balance
The lifeblood of your camp is your campers. Consequently, it is vital to the success of your camp that you deliver the message that yours is a special place for campers to learn, grow, and thrive in positive and unique ways that will enhance their lives. If camps expect to stay in business and continue to provide these valuable experiences to campers, they must inform and appeal to camp families. The competition is intense. Campers have options among an amazing variety of places, activities, special needs, and traditions. That's the good news. The not-so-good news is that, in competing for the attention of the camper and his or her family, camps are being pushed, from many directions (including from their own organization) to engage in more aggressive marketing—e.g., providing assurances of camper safety and committing to other promises that they may not be able to back up. Camp industry publications are replete with recommendations that camps emphatically tell parents what they want to hear—that their child will be safe—or risk losing customers.
Perhaps the public understands that "safety" in this context does not mean literally that the child will be free from the risk of harm (a dictionary definition of the term "safe"). (See our article "Reasonable Supervision and the "Safe" Environment—What Are the Issues?" The CampLine, Fall 2005.) And, why does a little harmless "puffing" matter anyway? It does matter, and it is important for a responsible camp to mean what it says and say what it means. There will be risks, there will be bumps, bruises, and breaks; there will be disappointments and hurt feelings. This is the stuff of growing up, and the primary selling point of the camp experience is that these risks and hurts can be experienced in an environment which is managing them with the child's best interests in mind.
So, what does the responsible camp do to effectively compete for market share, when other camps are making these promises? There are ways to develop your marketing pieces in a fair and ethical manner, without turning everyone off, or away! We've written frequently in The CampLine about the importance of an accurate information exchange with camper families—before, during, and after the camp experience. This is one of the foundations for running a quality program. This article will focus on the "before" opportunities to educate your public in important ways, while continuing to attract them to your program.
There is an important tension between aggressive marketing and the legal fallout of unfulfilled promises and misrepresentations. The law expects—and camp families expect—the truth regarding the camp experience, and its possible injuries and surprises. The camp is not and cannot be an insurer of everything that might go wrong, and no responsible camp will guarantee this.
However, in their zeal to attract customers, camps will oftentimes market without considering how their words may come back to haunt them in the event of a program-related incident or otherwise. Camps want to assure those characteristics that mean the most to families, and say what parents and campers want to hear: that their camp is the best and the safest—or better yet, that their particular camp is safe. Messages that may say otherwise or documents the camp utilizes that present a different message—which perhaps release the camp from some liability, or ask the camper and/or parent to acknowledge or assume risks—are considered distasteful. "I think my camp is safe, so why can't I say that?" "Why do I need to mention risks—that will be such a turn off!" Importantly, what about the camp down the road from you that includes, in its materials, that it will "assure campers' safety." You feel this message is pulling campers away from your camp to your competition. How do you react? The challenge is to achieve marketing goals, while providing appropriate disclosure and addressing legitimate legal and risk management issues. The tension is real, but there are solutions.
The Information Exchange
Your marketing messages are a critical part of what we term the "Information Exchange"—that critical flow of information between the camp and prospective camper families. A camp's efforts to inform the public about the nature of the camp experience (in words, pictures, or DVDs) are a vital part of this exchange. This portion of the exchange is essentially, the camp's "disclosure."
The Critical Message—Balanced and Internally Consistent Information
A camp's disclosure should be fair and accurate and provide enough information to educate and prepare the camper and his or her parents for the camp experience. Importantly, the message should provide a balance of information—you (the camp) want families who understand the camp's benefits (what makes it unique and special), but who also understand their personal responsibilities, and the activities, risks, dangers, and inconveniences to which the camper may be exposed. The camp's marketing messages should be internally consistent and consistent with other pieces of information provided by the camp.
The camp's Web site or its brochure may be the first contact the camp has with the family. It is the beginning of a relationship that will be sustained through further exchanges of information, and the camp experience—including, unfortunately, the prospect of disappointments. Honesty from the start will provide a basis for an amicable resolution of disputes later. Misleading the family at the outset is an invitation to later surprises, disappointments, and anger.
The camp's obligation is to manage risks. It cannot, in a traditional camp experience, eliminate risks. Risks and hazards simply come with the camp territory, and neither camp nor camp family should want those risks eliminated, for they are the generators of growth and experience. Parents need to know and understand this from the outset as they consider the appropriate camp for their child. At the same time, the camp can provide positive and accurate information to camp families about the camp's strengths, mission, and unique attributes. This "balance of information" can fortify the partnering relationship the camp wants to forge with its camper families. (See our article "Legal and Partnering—Really?" Camping Magazine, January/February 2006.)
Work with your marketing consultant and legal counsel. Consider creating a theme statement, portions of which should then flow through all of your marketing materials (Web site, brochures, DVDs, phone calls, etc.). This statement can describe why and how your camp is special (e.g., activities, mission, location); discuss risks and hazards; and discuss the camper's responsibilities (at whatever age, this is empowering!).
Rather than providing general assurances of quality, you can describe what your camp is and does. Consider discussing the
elements of your camp's quality program—e.g., camper/staff ratios, what type of training and qualifications your staff members have, and your ACA accreditation or staff licensure. You can provide these as examples of how your camp endeavors to address safety and manage risks, reminding parents that no camp can eliminate risks or assure safety. Create this theme, reinforcing it throughout your materials, being careful to remain consistent. Mean what you say, and say what you mean.
Certainly describe your camp as a fun, unique, and special camp that allows campers to learn and grow, but balance that message with information about camper responsibilities, and a camp culture that prioritizes safety and risk management considerations, without assuring or promising safety.
Marketing Traps to Avoid
Here are some examples of marketing traps to avoid:
The following two quotes, paraphrased, are from camp marketing consultants, and appeared in recent industry publications:
Your message to parents should be "your camp is safe." That's their Number One concern.
The message to parents should be security and safety. If you can't assure this they and the kids will move on. It must be the most prominent part of your message, at the Web site, in your mailing, in the answering of your telephone . . . balanced with the kids' need for excitement and fun.
And a random selection of recent marketing materials included these statements: "Our safety record is unmatched." (Probably true, literally—who has the same safety record?—but potentially misleading unless no one has a better safety record.) "Your
(activity) will be exciting and safe." (Unlikely that it can be both.) "You will learn . . . ." (Okay, we're nitpicking, but no one can represent that anyone will actually learn anything.) "Ours are the best teachers in the business." (Perhaps acceptable exaggeration, but unlikely to be true.) "You will have everything you need to live and travel safely." And, "Our first priority is safety . . . even while we make your (experience) as thrilling as possible." (No comment necessary, we believe.)
Many marketing consultants and camps are determined to promote the promise of safety. We must presume they do so with the belief that the term will be understood not as the assurance of no risk of harm, but something else. What is intended, surely, is that the inherent and inevitable risks of the camp experience—physical and emotional—will be handled wisely. Not that they will
disappear. Camp families deserve and should be provided a context for such statements.
While most of the examples above focus on safety and security, opportunities for exaggeration or misstatements abound: quality and proximity of medical care; competency, certification or training of staff; co-ed activities; supervision; the nature of off-campus trips and activities; and facilities and services. Be aware, too, that photographs and other images send a powerful message. Are they accurate or potentially misleading? Consider, for example, pictures of horses (is there an equine program?); elaborate waterfront gear (is it still in use?); that pristine waterhole (is it overgrown with algae and infested with who knows what?); photos of campers participating in activities without required or recommended (either by ACA standards or by state or federal law) equipment or safety gear.
The bottom line is: don't buy into the message that you can assure campers' safety or assure that your camp is "safe"! No one can. And avoid absolutes or guarantees of quality, or flat-out wrong information. Avoid statements that provide vague and
undefined information: "Our staff are the best in the business"; "Our equipment is of the highest quality." Further, if you attempt to set yourself apart ("we are one of the top ten equine programs in the country") be prepared to back it up.
Marketing Choices—Legal and Practical Ramifications
Providing inaccurate information, guarantees of safety, assurances of quality, or other absolute or inaccurate statements can lead to disappointment, distrust, anger, and even a law suit. Consider the following:
- Marketing information can lead a jury to find that the marketing message formed an independent, perhaps unintended, contract, separate and apart from the camp's release agreement or other contracts. Consider a promise, for example, of exotic field trips, of equine events, or of a curriculum that is in fact not offered, or certain assurances of safety or quality.
- Material misrepresentations can lead to actionable claims against the camp. In addition, if a family is found to have reasonably relied on a misrepresentation material to enrollment, that misrepresentation may invalidate other agreements. The argument would be that the family was improperly—even fraudulently—induced into signing those other documents, including, importantly, a release agreement.
- Material misrepresentations in marketing information sent out of the camp's state or jurisdiction, may allow a suit, based on those misrepresentations, to be filed against the camp in the states to which they were sent.
- Representations can actually create a duty of care for the camp where, otherwise, one did not exist. Such representations might overstate the supervision supplied in cabins, promise to eliminate certain inherent risks, and the like.
- An unsupported message that your camp is the "best," or unwarranted assurances of safety, character, or quality may hold your camp to an unachievable standard (a plaintiff's expert will tell a jury what "best" is), including an expanded or elevated standard of care.
- Representations that are inconsistent with statements contained in other important documents or agreements can nullify one, or both, documents. Consider the implications for the integrity of the participant agreement (which customarily includes a release of a liability and an acknowledgment and assumption of risks).
- Importantly, as stated above, such "mis-information" can lead to surprise, disappointment, anger, and a breakdown in rapport between the camp and camper families, damaging the camp's credibility, reputation, and future marketing potential.
On the other hand, accurate, internally consistent and balanced disclosure allows you to ethically and effectively "partner" with your camper families (see our article, "Legal and Partnering – Really?" mentioned earlier), a major goal for any camp. It focuses the camp's energy on accurately describing its program in an effort to attract camper families (and enough of them!) that are specifically interested in what the camp has to offer and have confidence in the camp's operation. This can be done in a positive and upbeat manner, rather than a "doom-and-gloom" approach. Your doing so will allow camper families to more clearly understand your camp activities, their personal responsibilities, and the risks and dangers to which they may be exposed should they choose your program.
ACA has provided some guidance in the matter of marketing strategies on their Web site. We suggest you review these materials carefully and consider how they fit your camp and the image you wish to project. You must tell the truth and avoid "puffing." This is not a used car you are selling: it is possibly the most important experience of a young life. Recognize the limitations of a family's understanding of the camp experience: what do the campers and families want to know, what do you want them to know, what do they need to know? We found the posted suggestions generally sound but, again, every camp is different, and one announcement does not fit all.
Choose your words carefully. You may show pride in your operation and address the realities of risk and responsibility in a positive and responsible way, without turning camper families away, and without making overstatements or assurances of safety or quality. A camp that has taken the time to thoughtfully disclose this valuable and accurate information, can reasonably expect to attract camper families—and create a good match between what the camp offers, and what families want! In the process, camps can maximize the potential for developing and maintaining good rapport, trust, and confidence with camper families. Importantly, this disclosure, if accomplished fully and fairly, will enable good preparation and good communication, and hopefully minimize the risk of incidents or injuries and resulting lawsuits. Well-informed campers and their families will be better prepared to deal with surprises, discomforts, and incidents and, hopefully, more likely to work with you (and less inclined to take legal action). Finally, a camp that says what it means and means what it says will be able to effectively back up its messages if they are ever questioned, and stand behind
its quality program.
Originally published in the 2007 Winter issue of The CampLine.