Attending a summer camp has been a rite of passage for generations of American kids. Even if you haven’t been to camp, you’ve seen the iconic imagery on TV and movies – singing songs around the campfire, toasting marshmallows, hiking in the woods, swimming and canoeing in the lake, bonding with new friends and learning from counselors.  You most likely have your very own fond and scary memories.

For years, summer camps were about rustic simplicity: sharing bunk beds in a cabin (or even a tent), spending lots of time outdoors, and making new friends. There was some structure to the camp’s daily routines, but most of the focus was on having fun, while learning a new feeling of independence and self-esteem from being away from home and family.

Times are changing. Partly due to the tight economy, and partly due to changing styles of parenting in the age of highly-involved “helicopter parents,” today’s families are expecting something different from the summer camp experience. According to this recent article from the New York Times (“When S’Mores Aren’t Enough: The New Economics of Summer Camp”), instead of eating S’mores around the campfire and paddling in a canoe, parents want their kids to learn more specialized, high level skills from summer camp.

Some camps have started hiring professional athletic trainers to teach sports like tennis, gymnastics and basketball. Other summer camps have invested in lavish new sports facilities to help them compete with the more specialized camps and summer programs that are focused on specific sports, music and activities.

What are some of the lessons that your company can learn from the changing economics of summer camp?

  • Specialize: The traditional idea of summer camp was pretty general and undifferentiated. It was designed to serve all kinds of kids with a basic “menu” of activities and services: “one size fits all.” The problem is, people today are demanding more choices than ever, and they want to get the best experience possible for their money. Rather than pay $10,000 for a two month “general” summer camp, many families might prefer to spend $5,000 on a two-week basketball camp, or music camp, or whatever is most interesting to their kids.

Lessons for your company: In the same way, most customers would rather hire an “expert” company that focuses on delivering one type of product or service that is most relevant to the customer’s needs, rather than a company that tries to be all things to all people. Is your company a highly-valued, relevant specialist? Or are you falling into the “generalist” trap of trying to do too many things, and not fully succeeding at any of them?

  • Stay in touch with your best customers and biggest fans: The children of camp alumni have traditionally been the biggest source of new campers for summer camps; families kept sending their kids to the same camp for generations.

Lessons for your company: What can your business do to keep nurturing and rewarding your best customers? Who are your business’s most valued “alumni,” and how can you invite them to keep coming back to buy more from you – and tell their friends?  Do they fully understand your value proposition as it relates to their relevance?

  • Maintain an emotional connection: The best summer camps aren’t just selling a few weeks of child care; they’re selling an emotional experience. They’re promising parents that their kids will enjoy future feelings of nostalgia for their time at camp, while meeting lifelong friends and developing their skills. This is the emotional bond that people are willing to pay for. If summer camps can create a stronger attachment with their campers and families, similar to how America’s most successful universities cultivate the fond feelings of their alumni network, they will be more likely to survive and thrive.

Lessons for your company: What can your business do to create stronger emotional bonds with your customers? Is buying from your company an emotional experience, or just a basic transaction? How can you create memories for your customers that resonate with them, and make them want to come back for more?

Summer camps are not going away anytime soon, but the imagery of summer camp might be changing fast. Rather than spending a relaxing summer around the campfire, summer camp is becoming a higher-intensity experience that is more like the rest of the school year. Whether this is “right” or not, it’s what customers are demanding. The best summer camps, like every other business, will find a way to adapt to stay relevant to what their customers want to buy.

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