Is Summer Camp Marketing Unethical?

Do you think summer camp marketing is unethical?

Some camp directors -- especially those who’ve been running their camps forever -- often find themselves in a quandary about this. They fight like hell with themselves about whether summer camp marketing is an "ethical practice." The notion of marketing their own camps causes them a great deal anxiety, because they're afraid they'll be viewed poorly by the general public or even their peers.

Meet Jenny, a Camp Director from Maine

Take Jenny. She's a camp director in Portland, Maine who says camps and camp directors are looked upon poorly when we advertise. I don't know whether that’s Jenny's personal opinion or if she took a formal survey and she's repeating the results. (I didn't bother asking, even though she wanted me to.)

In any case, Jenny's point is well-taken. And it raises the question, does marketing demean our profession?

Here’s my view.

If you've got a kick-ass camp, the world needs to know about it. If you run a safe, fun, well-organized program, you're doing families a disservice by keeping it a secret. So when you give your camp the attention it deserves with a well-put-together marketing plan, everyone wins.

Now if your camp has an established reputation, you're probably getting lots of word-of mouth-referrals by default. But these days that's not enough.

If you really want to thrive, and stay competitive, you need a constant stream of new enrollment every year. You're only gonna get that by proactively marketing your camp with a consistent, creative, effective marketing approach.

I'll go a step further. You need to market your camp or deal with irrelevancy.

Now if you don’t want to be competitive –- if you want to fall behind what others in the industry are doing -- don’t bother marketing your program. But if you want to sell out your camp each year, you need to market like crazy.

Let’s get something straight. I’m not saying camp directors should use sleazeball marketing tactics like you see personal injury lawyers doing on T.V. (Those 1-800 Bad Drug commercials make me sick.) I AM saying you need to find that "fine line" you're uncomfortable crossing, then promote, promote, PROMOTE until you're just about to cross it.

How I Market My Own Camp

At Aloha Beach Camp, we like to push the envelope. We have an “edgy” marketing style that compliments our image. We like it that way. Other camp directors might prefer a more low-key approach. You need to decide for yourself what you feel comfortable doing and how aggressive you want to be.

Hard-core marketers say the way to get maximum exposure for your camp is to be controversial. You could do that any number of ways. Maybe you'd pick an enemy -- a competitor -- and have a public war of words with them. You'd certainly get some press that way.

(In my opinion, that’s unethical, too. I wanna puke when I see one company disparage another in their marketing. Yet that’s exactly how marketing’s done in today’s world. It’s just part of the competitive landscape.)

Back to Jenny. This isn't the first time I've heard from her. She enjoys arguing with me and other bloggers, usually just for argument's sake. But I certainly respect her opinion. I respect everyone’s opinion, even when I disagree with them.

I’ll tell you what though. From the looks of things, the public isn't offended by summer camp marketers one bit.

If marketing diminished our profession, enrollment wouldn’t be growing, prospects wouldn’t call, your website would be a ghost town and nobody would ever show interest in your program. I doubt any of that's happening to you. At least I hope it isn't.

As one marketing guy put it, “If Coke stopped advertising, Pepsi would sell a lot more soda.”

What that means is this. You gotta keep marketing, otherwise kids will miss out on what you've got to offer. Worse, you could lose them to your competition no matter how good your camp might be.

And please don’t EVER be ashamed to market your camp. There's nothing unethical about it, unless you choose to make it that way.


  1. I'm just starting a summer theatre program. I got a late start on marketing and missed the summer camp fair that my area holds every year. I just put two ads out, one in a paid county paper and one in a free county paper. Total circulation between the two is 74,000.

    As of right now, I have six registered and paid attendees to the program which begins in July. These people have not met me personally.

    I'm thinking that I need to hold some form of an "open house" before the end of this month where they can meet me and those working with me.

    I'm also think about offer referral discounts to those six early registrants.

    What are your suggestions? In order for me to break even I need to have a total of 30 kids registered for each two week camp session (total of 60 kids).


  2. Hey Tim,

    Thanks for the comments. I wish all the best with your new camp.

    I'm not sure I can give you too much info without knowing more about your program. Assuming you have a website and online registration capabilities, I'd suggest doing everything you can to drive people there.

    You should also start a blog (free at, post at least three times a week, and link it back to your site.

    You should also consider google's adwords program ( to make sure yout site gets to the top of the search results.

    You're on the right track getting your six registrants to help do your marketing for you. I'm a big fan of referral based marketing! If each of your registrants can get just 2 friends to sign up, you've tripled your enrollment in a snap.

    For open houses, you can hold these in public parks or even the place you're running your camp. I'd also contact schools to see if you can attending their fundraisers and carnivals, and also little leagues, etc., to set up booths there. Get to as many of these events as you can, and make sure you list all your open houses/events in community newspapers, calendars, and websites. Many will let you do it free.

    Finally, when camp starts, make sure you hit your current campers hard for extension enrollment. It will be much easier on you to get 30 campers to attend both camp sessions than 60 campers to attend just one each.

    If you want me to create a customized marketing plan for you I can do that, but for that we'll need to talk offline. For now, and in general, this is where I'd start.


  3. Here's what would be interesting . . . find a few dozen camps that do NO marketing other than their website, and do minimal work there. Find out what common threads there are amongst those camps (ala the Good to Great research method), and then help camps quit spending money on marketing and start spending more time and money on making camp great.

  4. I think many of you are too young to understand the history of New England camps. The old camps (now celebrating 90-100th anniversaries) never had to advertise. Their next generations were signed up the day they were born to make sure they got a space 6-8 years later. There were fewer camps to choose from. Colleges and private schools were not in the summer camp business. Commercial sport outfits like Nike were not in the summer camp business. Professional sports teams were not in the summer camp business. The internet did not exist. Camp was a family tradition. You went to the camp your mother/father did.
    That is no longer the case. There are more programs and less kids who want a camp experience (that's a topic for another day)
    To get your program recognized you have to advertise, have to market in multiple ways and have to stay up to date with technology. And this is coming from a Camp Director who runs a adventure/wilderness camp which is anti-technology at camp. And by the way, thanks to the internet we have increased our presence dramatically and are spending less than half than the old days of print know what a NYT/Boston Globe ad costs!!

  5. Candice, you're absolutely right. Anyone who thinks they don't need to market their camp (or any business or organization) will get SMOKED by competition and lose customers by the boatload. If coke stopped marketing today, pepsi would sell a lot more soda -- that's just the way it is.

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