Jane McCutcheon has spent over 30 years in active leadership in the camping industry. She has led workshops, organized international camping conferences, served as President of CCA/ACC and has received awards from provincial and national camping bodies. Jane, now a consultant to camps and others, was named Entrepreneur of The Year for the Province of Ontario, 1999.
1) What is your background in camping?
I started at age 12 at Camp Tawingo. I was involved there for the next 36 summers, and for 25 years full time. I moved up the ranks from camper to wilderness journey girl, to camp counsellor in training, to counsellor…. to camp director…to co-owner of the camp.
2) What are some changes that have occurred in camping during your camping career?
Today there are many more summer options for families. Many parents still want their children to have a camping experience, but often as one of many summer choices. Family dynamics have changed and the whole idea of what constitutes a traditional family has been altered.
I think the camping industry sometimes sees itself as more important in the lives of families than it really is. Camps don’t always realize that they are only one of many options. Parents are looking for shorter sessions, and camps are not filling as quickly as in prior years.
3) You say that camps see themselves as more important in the lives of families than they really are – that is quite a statement!
I feel that some camps have not educated themselves well enough about today’s client pool. In fact, there is a great deal of education that needs to be done if we are going to attract new cultures and new families. The word “camp” can have frightening associations for some cultures, e.g. recent refugees. “Camp” needs to be explained really well to people. We have to get to know our communities better and work really hard to espouse the value of a camp experience.
We can learn from the YMCAs, for example – many have adapted to the ethnically diverse communities they serve. We have to be more creative in describing what we do. I am encouraging folks starting a new camp program not to call it a camp, but a learning centre or anything that better allows families to relate.
We need to be very clear about what it is we really do – and who we are. Our marketing focuses on programming and activities because it is easier than selling our strongest suit, which is developing responsible citizens through leadership and role modelling.
We also need to work together as a broad camp community. Rather than each of us trying to market our own camp, it would be far more effective as an industry to send out a unified message. Private camps should run weekends in the city and show families what they do. Partnering with city organizations that serve families is wise. We also need to consider our pricing. Why should we be above offering a discount or a sale to our clients?
4) Was any one of these changes either discouraging or rewarding for you personally?
I am not discouraged about camping as an experience. Camps can do a great job in a short period of time if they stick to their philosophy and know what they are delivering. I remember my twenty one day camp canoe trip – the most fantastic canoe trip in my life. We went through every kind of weather you can imagine. We slept on the ground. Our tents had no screens or zippers. But it was fantastic. Every camp experience can be fantastic with the right leadership.
I am a little discouraged when I hear people who are not filling their camps resist change. I am amazed that people who are not happy with their bottom line (i.e. profit!) are not working harder to change that. We can’t stick our heads in the sand and hope the campers will come.
5) What are the changes which have been presenting themselves to camps in the last 10 years?
I think that the big factors impacting camping are the economy and the change in family dynamics. I think there has been a change in staffing too. Young people in their teens want a louder voice than we had as teenagers. Camps need to get to know their staff better. They need to offer free internet service and allow staff access to their cell phones more often. I believe that children, at certain times, should be allowed to use their cell phones at camp. This will help today’s parents make the decision to send their children to camp.
6) In your view, how are the camps you are familiar with responding to change?
Camps that used to run month long sessions are now offering shorter options; many camps now offer special teenage weekend experiences; some camps offer new and different program activities such as instrumental music, drama and theatre, clowning, circus programs. I have seen some creative pricing options. There are camps who have had success with a tiered fee system.
7) What are some key changes you think camps should consider?
I think the whole idea of keeping your camp in the forefront of your families’ minds after camp and through the year is key. City reunions or events that don’t have to take place at camp can be successful. Using social media effectively is a must. Providing an opportunity for staff to interact with campers online through the rest of the year can work.
8) Why are we as a camping industry resisting change?
I believe some camps feel we know the profession so well that we do not need to change. But do directors know the real world in which the child lives the rest of the year? We know that we can enrich a child’s life when they come to camp, but we need to get them there first. Our marketing needs to cater to the needs and wants of the family as a whole. Change may be uncomfortable but in my opinion it needs to happen, and Camp Directors cannot make these changes alone. They need a team of people (staff or volunteers or peers) to help – the camp as a whole needs to be supportive of the change process.
A key to change is a really good evaluation process. A lot of camps don’t like to have their parents evaluate the camp. I believe you should seek as much feedback as possible from parents, from campers, from staff, from director walkabout tours. Evaluation is a critical step to success.
Camp is still a fantastic profession. It’s just a harder business to run than it used to be. As long as we keep changing and adapting I still think there is a great future for camping. The good news is that from where I sit, I see great things happening across the country.