Youth camps, for both sports and a variety of other activities, are proving to be an especially attractive way to please younger members—and their “paying customer” parents.
SUMMING IT UP
• Partnering with outside companies that have developed expertise in club-specific youth camps can help add efficiency and proven programming to what’s offered.
• Educational components of youth camps have taken on greater importance, to help address parents’ concerns that their children may fall behind by attending a camp vs. tutoring or other options.
• Strive to achieve a balance between activities that keep kids away from computer and phone screens and those that engage them digitally in a healthy fashion.
• Creating dedicated youth space and facilities helps to organize and maintain programs on a year-round basis and gives younger members something to see as their own.
With competition for members’ time and attention at an all-time high, clubs are creatively marketing to every member of the family. For the youngest members, youth camps are proving to be an excellent way to keep participation numbers up during all seasons.
Elliott Freeman, Youth Activities Director at North Ridge Country Club in Raleigh, N.C., says his club offers four types of camps—day, spring, summer and winter—featuring a variety of activities. North Ridge also provides expanded youth golf and tennis clinics throughout the year.
At North Ridge, summer programming features a pair of camps that cater to different age groups—Camp Bluebird (ages 4 to 5) and Junior Sports Camp (ages 6 to 12)—and are offered for seven to eight weeks each year. Both camps run Monday to Friday, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily.
“Combined, we average 80 to 100 campers during each week,” Freeman says. “Both camps offer a variety of sports, with a few indoor activities added to help escape the summer heat. Activities such as science experiments and cooking classes are always popular with our kids.”
In the Junior Sports Camp, kids participate in golf, tennis, soccer, karate, swimming and other active games.
North Ridge’s programming continues to grow each year, Freeman says. Since 2017, the club has seen a 67 percent increase in registration.
“At Camp Bluebird, our younger campers work on developing their cognitive skills with golf and tennis programs like SNAG golf and badminton,” he notes. “We also feature arts and crafts and themed days, like our always-popular superhero day.”
While summer camps may receive the lion’s share of attention, North Ridge keeps its youngest members active and entertained throughout the year.
“Our other camps are not as focused on sports,” Freeman says. “Winter camps are weather-dependent and typically feature indoor fitness activities, science experiments, cooking, crafts and more.
“Our spring camp is a blend of winter and summer camps as the weather permits,” he adds. “Our Day and Track Out camps follow a similar format to our winter camps, with sports being offered if weather permits.”
Many clubs have found success partnering with outside agencies to help arrange and operate their youth camps. In this way, they can tap into the expertise of companies that have made it their business to develop and operate all-around camp programs that are tailored to the club business, and have developed a good feel for what works—and what doesn’t—in a club environment.
Specific services that these companies can provide include: creating and maintaining customized camp web pages and other social-media communications; handling registration and marketing; providing staffing and staff training; developing fresh programming; making sure camp activities will be properly insured, and much more. In some arrangements, revenue generated by camps is shared between the club and the outside partner; in other cases, the services are provided for a pre-set fee.
Jim Galletly, Director of Membership at Sky Meadow Country Club in Nashua, N.H., says his club’s camp has had success utilizing the service and expertise provided by an outside partner.
“Our camp offering provides golf, tennis, swimming as well as traditional children’s outdoor games, martial arts, fun with food, arts and crafts, and a community-service component,” Galletly says. As an example of the community-service aspect, Sky Meadow’s staff and campers set up a lemonade stand near the club’s first tee to benefit Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation, a national pediatric-cancer charity.
Sky Meadow’s all-day camps are offered in weekly sessions. The club also offers golf-specific camps for all age groups that focus on learning golf skills and etiquette of the game, with a goal of preparing kids to play unaccompanied on the course.
“We also have a three-sport camp—golf, tennis, and swimming—that offers instruction in all three sports on each day of the camp on a rotating basis, separated by age groups,” Galletly says. “This camp runs several days during a week, and is offered in multiple sessions.” The camp is staffed by Sky Meadow golf and tennis pros, as well as certified lifeguards.
“We have enjoyed success in all three of the camps,” Galletly says. “Our highest enrollment is the all-day camp managed for us by [an outside provider].”
Highs and LowsRamping up youth camps is like any new operating area: it will bring its ups and downs, successes and struggles. And as North Ridge CC’s youth-camp offerings have continued to grow, Freeman has been taking notes on both sides of the ledger.
“Our increase in summer-camp registration highlights our biggest success so far,” he says. “However, I am proud that our programming continues to expand to accommodate the changing needs and schedules of our membership. We are always searching for ways to grow and cater to our members.”
Still, he adds, “One of our biggest challenges has been developing a dedicated program for our teens. I think this is a key demographic that many clubs struggle with.
“Last year, we introduced teen-specific programming that includes events like paintball, laser tag, pool parties and campouts,” he reports. “Many of the events are offsite, allowing our teens to feel independent while having fun.”
Including small educational components in summer camps, and doing so in an engaging fashion, is a trend that has been catching on with many clubs.
“Parents are more and more concerned about their child ‘falling behind’ in school, because they choose to send their child to camp while peers may be involved in tutoring or another summer school,” explains one expert in club camp offerings. “While unfortunate, it’s a reality, and [that’s led to] club camps including small amounts of science, engineering, math, or creative-writing workshops.
“It’s important to do this in a fun manner, all while teaching campers about something that’s also become very important these days—the ability to socialize without the use of [computer or phone] screens,” he adds.
Freeman, who studied education and physical education while in college in Liverpool, England, and who has been at North Ridge for almost two years, says that youth activities, in general, are becoming increasingly important to any club when it comes to attracting and retaining members.
“I can see successful youth camps evolving into afterschool programs,” he says. “[Our membership includes many families with] two working parents who are always looking for afterschool opportunities for their kids. This is a component of our short-term planning, and we hope to offer a consistent solution soon.”
For Galletly, today’s avoidance is tomorrow’s probability. “At present, we avoid any computer-based activities,” he says. “We see that trend changing down the road.”
Another emerging trend is for clubs to create dedicated youth space and facilities within their clubhouses and properties. This not only helps to make it easier to organize and maintain youth offerings on a year-round basis, it also legitimizes youth programming on an equal basis with other club offerings, and gives younger members something to see as their own.
At North Ridge, Freeman says, “We currently make use of whatever space may be open and is large enough to accommodate our campers. [But] the club recognizes the importance of youth programming to help attract and retain members, so a dedicated space is part of the long-term strategic planning.”
Dan Schmitz, owner of KE Camps, which operates children’s camps for country clubs across the United States, offers these “Dos and Don’ts” for properties looking to create and host successful youth programs throughout the year:
DO: Offer an ‘all-around’ camp at your club.
DON’T: Offer a ‘sports camp.’ Why cannibalize your current Junior programs? KE Camps’ research has shown that on average, more than 70 percent of members’ children are not involved in the current Junior Programs the club offers, based on age and/or interest. An all-around summer camp can help to capture the ‘rest’ of the kids by offering something unique, yet traditional at the same time.
DO: Offer camp registration to guests of members. One of the best ways to gain membership is through your current members, especially current members with kids. Invite guests to stay after camp for dinner at the pool and a bottle of wine on Friday.
DON’T: Tell a member that camp is sold-out if you’re allowing guests. Whatever you decide is your maximum weekly amount of campers, always undersell by five spots to ensure you have spots for last-minute members. We all know how last-minute some members can be.
DO: Hire camp staff with experience working with kids. Hiring a staff for camp is not easy and should be taken very seriously. Background checks, sex-offender checks, CPR/First Aid certifications and professional references should all be mandatory prior to hiring.
DON’T: Make your full-time staff operate camps (an exception would be a full-time activities director). Why would you put your event manager, member relations director, F&B director, or golf pros in charge of running camp? They have their own jobs to do that have nothing to do with summer camps. While it’s nice to have a familiar face for parents to see at drop-off, a camp will suffer if its staff isn’t focused entirely on the kids and program.
DO: Listen to the needs of the parents and campers. These can range from diet to behavior to “my camper can’t be in the sun after 3:30 on Wednesdays in July.” Whatever it is, needs should be heard, documented, acted upon and followed up on.
DON’T: Be afraid to find out from campers and parents how to make your program better. It’s often difficult to hear negative feedback, but it’s essential for constant improvement. While it’s easy to write off certain members as ones who “complain about everything,” participants should still be surveyed about their experience, and committees can also be created to help find out what people are looking for. While programs can’t be all things to all people, the effort to come as close as possible should still be made.
DO: Start advertising and planning in the fall and early winter. After the New Year, parents are looking into summer programs. Don’t miss out on the families who are ahead of the game. Be the first camp in your area to be ready with camp information.
DON’T: Wait until spring to begin spreading the word. Even though members tend to be “last minute” with many things, you never know who may be looking to register early. You always want the best opportunity to get as many campers as you can.