Finding Our Best Selves
I recently attended a camp owners and directors conference in Boulder, CO, and though at times it might have easily been mistaken for a Patagonia and Nalgene convention, it was good to be amongst kindred spirits-women and men who have devoted their lives to the promise of summer camp. We came from all across the country, operate day and specialty camps, traditional camps, and trip and travel programs. But for all our differences, we had one thing in common. Namely, the firm belief that summer camps are uniquely positioned to make a positive, lasting impact on the lives of children.
We heard from a variety of motivational speakers, all of whom, remarkably, referred to Simon Sinek (the bestselling author and Ted Talk guru) as a close, personal friend. To a person they each reframed all or part of his theory that all great organizations start with “Why”, not how, or when. They spoke of the importance of defining your purpose, and the necessity of conveying that purpose to your stakeholders. For those of us who have had the privilege to attend or work at Camp Mishawaka, the purpose has so often been clear, but maybe not always articulated.
When we set about to do just that last year, we arrived at: Camp Mishawka: Where Kids Find Their Best Selves. We did not so much arrive at it, the iteration of our purpose came to us. It didn’t come out of work we did on a retreat, or a think-session with a white board and jumbo post-it notes. Instead, it came from our campers who, when asked why they value Camp Mishawaka, articulated the “Why” very clearly, over and over again, without prompting.
Many of the conference sessions focused on marketing and how camps can break through the what, where and how of our busy lives, with a message that resonates with prospective campers and families. I should not have been so astonished to learn that there are many who have taken full advantage of Big Data, and all the information and behavioral trails we leave behind, but I was. I learned that the best time to contact a new family about making a referral of another new camper is 9 or 10 days after they enroll. (These emails are scheduled automatically) I heard from a Camp Director who has a crew of eastern Europeans at the ready to answer any live chat questions prospective campers might have (24/7) and that they get a bonus for enrolling a new family. I learned that there are ways to track just how many times, or for how long, a web visitor looks at any particular page of your website and send an auto-generated email about that particular feature of the camp.
I am not sure why I was so surprised, or so naïve. I receive countless such push adds every day. Since our family shares an Amazon account, I know just what Julie has searched for Christmas gifts- for all of us- by the repeated ads that cross all platforms. Often times, I even take Amazon up on their offer. But for us, choosing and attending Camp has always been a much more personal decision for families, and we have struggled to find a way to use these new tools in a way that reflects this, reflects our values and our purpose.
Maybe that is why we have a few empty beds each summer. But what I do know is that the beds that are filled are filled with children who get the best of us, every day, live, in person, and 24/7. I heard the back story later on- this camp needs to find so many leads because only about 30% of their campers return from year to year- a virtual inversion from Camp Mishawaka. Sometimes on the road to finding out who you are, one also finds out who you are not. As per usual, the kids themselves seem to say it best, as they have done in our new, short video.