How to Help Campers and Parents Find Out About Camp

Sleepaway summer camps, like any other business, have to rely on marketing to reach potential camp families, and they essentially always have.

It may feel strange to talk about marketing camp, or camp as a business, but marketing is simply telling our story. Who, what, where, why, and when?

For us, marketing has always been about inviting an audience of parents, campers, and even staff we would hire, to learn about our nearly 100-year old all-girls camp, set in a mountainous natural setting astride the Greenbrier River, where for one- to three- to six-weeks campers have activities, gatherings, and community living in which they discover themselves, have an opportunity for supervised independence, make friends, and participate in longstanding traditions and celebrations.

So how have we told that story over the years?

A Little History of Camp Marketing

Way back in the very beginning of American sleepaway summer camps, around the 1870s-80s, was the only exception to more standardized forms of marketing. Back then it was like when Pa and Ma Ingalls of the Little House on the Prairie memoir series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, joined with other town folk out on the prairie and decided to start a school.

The difference for camps was that most camps came as a result of rapid industrialization that ushered in a period of declining air quality with city kids spending too much time indoors.

Concerned educators with naturalistic dispositions started camps as a way to get those kids back out to the country for some good old fresh air and sunshine, and some time away from parlors and carriages and loud city streets. These educators and parents wanted kids to have “old fashioned childhoods” like the ones that they had enjoyed, playing archery in the meadows, canoeing on rivers and lakes, volleying tennis balls on clay courts, and doing nature crafts and homemade theatricals to entertain each other after nature hikes and specimen collecting.

Nights under starry skies cozied up to campfires and singing songs together were just icing on the cake.

So people started camps and simply told their friends and families to “bring the kids out” and the parents jumped right on board. Mostly by word-of-mouth and a little bit of magazine advertising these camps took off and the American summer camp industry was born.

Population on the Move

As the 20th century dawned, and the population grew both more educated and more mobile, a little more anonymity grew in the newly cosmopolitan society.

Adults often went on extended summer tours abroad or to mountain retreats like the Greenbrier Hotel near what is now Camp Alleghany. They wanted a place for their kids to spend the summer that was near them, but let them be kids rather than governed by dressy dinners and formal indoor spaces. Six, eight, and even twelve weeks away at camp was a norm under the philosophy, “Give the kids what kids need — time in nature and at play — and give the adults what adults need, a little downtime from parenting and a chance to travel.”

Thus was born Camp Alleghany for Girls and other camps like it. And this more sophisticated summer culture called for a new way to reach parents and campers.

Camp Information Parties

Back in those days, and lasting for the rest of the 20th century, camps held camp information parties for their marketing.

At camp info parties, one camp family would host the camp directors, invite local friends and family members, and come for a BBQ or nibbles, mingle, and then hear a pitch from the camp directors, often accompanied by a slide show (and later a video), and maybe an activity for the prospective campers to do.

At a time when Americans thrived on learning about new opportunities at social occasions like backyard picnics, afternoon teas, or an evening gathering, this way of educating parents about camp was just par for the social course.

These informal events were no-pressure situations. Just as now, though, parents wanted a way to ask questions, see face-to-face who the people were who would be taking care of their kids for one, three,  six or more weeks, learn what kids would experience there, and meet staff, whether office personnel or counselors or directors or all three.

Where Did Camp Parties Go?

Now don’t get me wrong camp parties still exist. We successfully had parties as recently as 2012, when a Sunday afternoon camp party brought many folks out to hear about camp.

But times have changed and some very vexing things have happened: Between so many invites on places like Facebook, and the feeling that with so many opportunities families feel themselves to be overbooked, camp parties weren’t as successful in terms of numbers of people coming.

After several camp parties with a few too many no shows — or regrets because of being “too busy” — we realized that the digital age has its own challenges.

We still believe face-to-face is the BEST way to teach about/learn about camp. Yet currently, the most “efficient” way to reach folks is online, where the parent has the power and ability to learn about camp in their own way at their own pace.

Some camps with a lot of resources or the personal freedom to travel extensively still do a lot of face-to-face parties, events, and fairs. And it really is the best way to answer parents’ questions, from their excited anticipation of opportunities to their concerns and fears.

When you’re sending your child away to an overnight situation, meeting the camp directors in person, in advance (before even deciding to send your child) is a way to begin building a real relationship — after all, we are partners with you in your child’s well-being, education, and self-development and we want to know you and we want you to know us!

That’s why we still make ourselves available this way whenever possible.

And to supplementin-person opportunities, we offer an extensive website with lots of parent resources, and regular blogging where we try to tell a meaningful story about who we are, along with fun social media outreach, and e-mail campaigns, we reach out to today’s parent in a new way.

We hope all the resources we’ve mustered help you to learn about sleepaway summer camp in generalwhy it’s needed, what it does for kids, what to expect — as well as the specifics of Camp Alleghany for Girls — why we value single-sex camp, that our mission is to empower your daughter to embrace and express her unique voice, and that immersion in nature with a digital detox is an essential aspect of our camp culture.

Bring Back the Camp Party!

At the same time, one of camp’s greatest assets is that it’s a fully connected culture. By that I mean it’s human-scale, face-to-face, and built with mutual respect for each community member. That’s why I want you to know that I’m available to you in more ways than just online.

Yes, I want you to e-mail me and ask questions. And I am also more than happy, delighted even, to share a chat by phone, Skype, Zoom, or Facetime. So let’s schedule one!

AND…I still want to do camp parties!

I want to be with a group of parents in a no-pressure social situation where you can, first of all, meet me socially and learn who would be taking care of your kids while they’re away at camp. And I want you to ask ANY question of me about camp whether in the public group (hearing other parents’ questions is part of what makes camp parties great), or after the event in private, or by scheduling a private talk for later.

The thing is…do parents still want these events? Likely some do.

If you’re in a connected group of friends and/or parent acquaintances from school, girls scouts, sporting teams, or craft classes, where you think that a causal setting to learn about camp would interest your group, talk to me about hosting a camp party!

Secondarily, but worth mentioning is that these camp parties do have some incentives for the host, like discounts against your daughter’s tuition when/if your attendees register a girl for camp. I can talk to you about these details if anyone is interested so just e-mail me if you are.

Finally, we have scheduled our winter alum reunions to double as camp info events. Last year we had two winter reunions, one in Washington DC and one in Richmond, Virginia. We invited and encouraged prospective families to join us, which I think was successful. We’re planning these events again! DC is set right now for January 5th, and Richmond is TBD in January as well.

We also have New Camper Parties for brand new (registered) campers to meet up in the spring and ask questions and meet friends ahead of time. These events are very well attended!
I also schedule some springtime ice cream socials for all campers, and the turnouts for these aren’t too bad. It’s a great opportunity to bring interested friends, meet the directors, and hey, have a free ice cream! (For signed up families, it’s also an opportunity to pick up that summer’s Camp Tee before camp even starts!)

The Online Camp World

Even with all this, we do focus largely on online outreach now because we want to be on par with the way most people like to gather their information these days, which is through digital means. We want to meet you where you are and where you’re comfortable.

To that end we share lots of pictures and some videos from recent summers and share fun tag lines and “meme messages” along with an email list to help tell the story of who we are. And you can see my smiling face on lots of these because I’m trying to make clear to our audience who I am as the director, and what you can expect from me in shaping the culture and integrity of Camp Alleghany for Girls.

And we need you to help guide us there in terms of what you need and expect. If you ever have a question about camp that you think would make for a great blog topic, by all means, reach out and suggest we tackle it in a blog or an e-mail.

American culture sure has changed in the 150 years since sleepaway summer camps first sprang up here. One nice thing is that in traditional summer camps, not a whole lot has changed. We may do most of our outreach online, but camp itself is still that retreat from a busy, noisy, nature-deprived culture that kids today need even more than their 1880s and 1920s and 1950s counterparts!

And on that score, I’d love to tell you all about it. So please follow our blog, view our directors page, subscribe to our social media (Facebook | Twitter | Instagram), e-mail me about anything. And if you want to have a camp party, let me know that, too!

—Elizabeth Shreckhise, Director, Camp Alleghany for Girls