In today’s episode I speak with Lori Martin, a summer camp director/owner at Cub Creek Science Camp, a traditional summer camp, based in Missouri, combining a focus on science and animals. The camp has it’s own zoo! Lori started her camp with $200, using vacation time from her full-time job to run the camp the first summer.
Listen to the Podcast
Here’s more from Lori about her camp and how she got started on a part-time basis:
I started my business 19 years ago after taking a night class at a community college on how to start a small business. When the class was done I, incorporated, created a small trifold brochure and set to work marketing my children’s summer camp. For my first summer, I used all my vacation time to run the camp. I had about 10 kids each week and two employees. I offered three weeks of camp. My husband and I now work full time for our company, we employ 8 full time employees and about 70 summer staff. Last summer we had 1200 kids attend our summer program, with kids coming from nearly every state and many foriegn countries.
You can really tell from the interview that Lori has a passion for what she’s doing. No doubt that’s what’s help to make her and her camp a success. Here are some of the questions I asked Lori.
- How did you get started with your own summer camp?
- Can anyone start a summer camp at a State park?
- What did you learn with the community college class on starting a small business?
- How did you first summer of camp go?
- What were your expenses?
- How did you market the camp and get people to come?
- How has this side business helped your family financially?
- How do you make the most of camp fairs?
- What skills have made you successful in this business?
- How did you price your summer camp?
- Any tips or tricks for future camp directors?
- What are the common mistakes when starting your own camp?
- Is there a special type of summer camp insurance?
Resources mentioned in the podcast:
Read the full transcript by clicking show
Welcome to the Part-Time Money Podcast, Episode 4: Making Extra Money by Starting Your Own Summer Camp. I am your host, Philip Taylor, creator of PT Money Personal Finance.
Part-Time Money Podcast is designed to help you discover new and interesting ways to make extra money and to learn the ins and outs of those money-making methods, not from me but from the people who are actually doing the work. Along the way hopefully you can pick up a few entrepreneurial skills to help you in whatever money-making pursuit you take on.
In today’s episode we are going to be talking with Lori Martin, owner of Cub Creek Science Camp, a camp that combines science, animals, and traditional summer camp activities to create the most fun you have ever had. Lori started her camp over 19 years ago by using her nights, weekends, and time off during the summer to conduct the camp. In this episode she shares a great deal of insight into starting your own summer camp. Well, let us check it out.
Philip Taylor: Alright, I am here today with Lori Martin, owner of Cub Creek Science and Animal Camp. How is it going today, Lori?
Lori Martin: Very good, thanks.
Philip Taylor: Well, I really appreciate you joining me today. I definitely want to get some information about how you started your camp. I think you told me you started it from a part-time basis initially or at least just during the summer, so maybe just give me a background about your camp and how you got started with it.
Lori Martin: Well, I started summer camp 18 years ago. I was working in the camping field at the time and thought I was about to lose my position because the company was downsizing. The camp that I went to as a child was a science camp. There were no science camps in the area. So, I took a class at a community college, nighttime class, and figured out how to incorporate, started the business. I took 3 weeks off my summer vacation, and I had 10 children a week. I had 2 employees. I rented part of a state park and had a great first year, did not make much money but had a good time doing it. The next year we had 60 kids during the same 3-week period, and the next year we had 90 kids. Last year we had about 1300 come from every state in the country.
Philip Taylor: Well, that is great. Do you still do it at the state park, or do you have your own place now?
Lori Martin: We have outgrown the state park. We purchased an abandoned Camp Fire Girls Camp back in 1999, and we have converted it and built brand new cabins. It is much larger than what we had at the state park.
Philip Taylor: Oh I bet yeah. Can anyone still to this day do a camp like that at a state park?
Lori Martin: Yes. State parks are great places to go because most of them have campgrounds that you could do a more primitive camp in a campground. Many of the state parks will have organized group camps where you can rent part of that. There are also lots of possibilities for doing day camps out of many places. You could do a day camp at a golf course.
Philip Taylor: Okay. So, you knew you wanted to do this. You just needed the business skills, so you went out and took the class at a community college, right?
Lori Martin: Yes.
Philip Taylor: Tell me a little bit more about that decision and what you learned from that class.
Lori Martin: It taught me to have a business plan. It taught me to think through the details of what I wanted. How to incorporate was all new to me, but that is just pretty much filling out a form. The fact that we started the program so small really helped because I could get my feet wet without being totally overwhelmed, and you have a real short period to get everything done, and then you have a whole year to prepare for your next year.
Philip Taylor: I see. So, how did you do that first year? You said you barely sort of squeaked by. It was a 3-week camp, right, the first year?
Lori Martin: It was a 3-week camp. We probably took in about $9000, but most of the money went towards expenses because science is my passion. There are so many things that I wanted to get for the program. Rather than really making money up front, it was more that I saved money up front. All of the things that were normally my hobbies that I would spend money on, I could then take it as a deduction.
Philip Taylor: I see.
Lori Martin: We had some building of the program, and all of the money we took in we would buy more program supplies to make the program more appealing for future campers.
Philip Taylor: Oh, that is awesome! So, you did this during 3 weeks over the summer, so that meant you had another job? You were still working at the other camp? Is that right?
Lori Martin: Well, it was not a camp, but it was a weekend program for folks with disabilities, and yes I did that year round, and I just had vacation time. I would use my vacation time. So, all of the prep work was done on nights and weekends. There are camp fairs that are held throughout the country, and so I would go and attend a camp fair and set up a booth to tell families about what I was doing. I had to create a brochure. After you get your first set of kids and they love it and tell their friends, it kind of acts as a snowball.
Philip Taylor: Awesome! So, how has this side business over the years helped you and your family financially?
Lori Martin: Well, financially both my husband and I gave up our full-time jobs, and we work full time for our own business. We live on the property. We happen to be able to brag that we are the only summer camp in the nation that has its own zoo. We have over 100 species of exotic animals. Our children are raised on the property here, and we are our own boss. We have 70 summer employees and about 10 full-time, year-round employees.
Philip Taylor: Okay. That is great. How did you get the kids to come initially with the first summer that you did, and what are some of your marketing techniques that you have learned going forward?
Lori Martin: Well, getting kids to come initially, I did a lot of site meetings with parents. Parents would want to meet me, and we would meet out at the state park. I would give their kids a tour, and I would take them down to the creek beds. I would talk about the fossils that we were going to find and the activities that we were going to do, so just having one-on-one face-to-face meetings. When we started off, like I said we only had 30 campers the first year. So, on the weekends I would meet them out at the state park. Now we do a lot of camp conventions. An awful lot of our business is done online, so we have a pretty good website. People go there, and they can see all about it. We have lots of word of mouth, so you have 70% to 80% of our campers returning each year, and then they tell their friends, and it grows that way.
Philip Taylor: Oh cool.
Lori Martin: As far as marketing, the best marketing is I go to a camp fair, and I have a monkey on my arm. The program that makes a standout is we have a program called Adopt an Animal, so kids can pick their favorite animal from the zoo and take care of it for the week. So, we will bring along a baby kangaroo or a baby monkey, and that just flocks people to our table so we can tell them about what we do.
Philip Taylor: Oh, that is great! So, there are camp fairs where parents and kids come to decide which camp they are going to attend for the summer? Is that right?
Lori Martin: Yes, exactly. They are set up oftentimes in school gymnasiums, or we have attended camp fairs that are at the mall. You just come, and you can meet camp directors from 200 different camps and choose the speciality that you are interested in. They have traditional camps for kids who are going to come and go swimming and fishing and play sports and specialty camps like my program which focuses on science and animals. There are computer programs. There are circus programs. There are golf programs. So, the specialty camp niche is becoming the real in thing that kids who have an interest want to go to camp that specializes in the interests that they have.
Philip Taylor: Okay. So what kind of kids are you attracting?
Lori Martin: We are attracting the kids who love animals, science, and nature. We have one of the only junior vet programs in the country. Out here in addition to the zoo we have created a surgical lab, and we work in conjunction with the local vet. He will come out and do surgery on the facility so the kids can sit in and watch surgeries as they are being performed. We have a partnership with the local shelter, and so we provide spays and neuters on their dogs and cats from the shelter. We also have the culinary science and a crime science and so just a lot of specialized programs that all focus on hands on science.
Philip Taylor: Well, that is great. So, obviously you have a science background, but what skills do you think have enabled you to be successful in doing this?
Lori Martin: Well, I had a pretty strong HR background as well. So, when you are going to have a lot of summer staff, and your summer staff is typically college students, you have to be pretty good at the whole recruiting of the staff. Right now that is what takes up almost as much time as camper recruiting, finding 70 staff that can work for you. We are up to a 12-week summer program now. So, having good HR skills, good organizational skills to figure out what you need to do. I no longer have to cram it into the nights and weekends, so that makes it nice.
Philip Taylor: Yep. Yep. How did you decide how much to charge the kids?
Lori Martin: What competition was charging. I looked at what other camps were charging, and when I started I just tried to be right in the middle of what they were charging.
Philip Taylor: Okay, and then you just said, “Well, our expenses are going to have to be under that level right there.”
Lori Martin: Exactly, yes.
Philip Taylor: Okay. Alright. Very cool. Any tips or tricks for any future camp directors out there who might want to do something similar?
Lori Martin: Well, I would say that they need to get associated with the American Camp Association. That is kind of standard. You have to know what the accreditation process is. It is not mandatory to become accredited, but it is a seal of approval. It means that you have gone through the thinking process. They have over 300 standards that relate to staffing, hiring, safety, and food service, and you can get an accreditation guide, and you can go through the guide on your own to see what they consider the minimum standards. You can then have them come out to the facility and go through the formal process of having your camp accredited. They also have camping conferences that you can attend. In the area that we are in (I am in Missouri), there is a Mid-State Camping Conference that is held once a year south of Chicago. It is really inexpensive to attend. For the first-time camp directors to attend there, it is next to free. You have to provide your own housing and food, but you have access to professionals in the field who are doing talks on any subject that you feel that you could use a little help with.
Philip Taylor: Oh, that is great. I will definitely link to those resources from the blog post as well as link to your camp website, which is?
Lori Martin: It is BearRiverRanch.com.
Philip Taylor: Okay.
Lori Martin: The name of the camp is Bear River Ranch, the name of the facility. The name of our summer program is Cub Creek Science Camp.
Philip Taylor: Oh. Very cool. Any mistakes you can think of that you might have made along the way or people who get started in this type of business might make?
Lori Martin: I think some of the most common ones are that people expect to be too big too fast, so starting off small is real important. You cannot fill a summer camp your first summer out. You have to start with something small. I have known many people who have gone out and bought the land and decided to build the facility before they built the program. I think that is kind of the backwards way to do it. You should start a program, rent the facility, find a facility, and then build your facility as you need it. I think you also cannot under estimate the importance of organizing summer camp. You cannot just wing it just because you have a group of kids out there. There are lots of safety things to consider. Folks need to think about their own unique theme; what do they love doing; and what would they have a passion to teach kids about. It does not have to be a traditional camp. If you are good at graphic design, then you could create a graphic design camp. They do not have to think about school-age kids. There can be a summer camp, a day camp, for college students who want to do a specialized course. They are willing to pay good money to have somebody who is an expert in the field teach them.
Philip Taylor: As you get like-minded people together, there is kind of an added benefit to that versus just having it maybe in a one-off classroom.
Lori Martin: Well, there is a lot of team building that goes on when you are in an overnight camp, but there are 2 classifications of summer camp. You have day camps, and you have overnight camps. Overnight camps have a whole set of advantages over day camps. People who run day camps are going to say that they have a whole set of advantages over overnight camps. I happen to be a residential camp, an overnight camp, and I would not trade it for the world, but starting off if people are not able to find the facility, it should not keep them from trying to start a program. They can run a day camp and then move it into a day camp and offer 1 overnight on the weekend or a day camp and then offer 2. So, they can build into the overnight component if they needed to.
Philip Taylor: I see. Very good advice. What were some of the expenses of that first summer camp for you?
Lori Martin: The expenses would have included the facility rental, the food costs. We were at a facility that actually provided food service in a dining hall setting, and we paid them per person per meal, but some campgrounds you will have to provide your own food service. Then the staffing costs and insurance and program supplies are probably all the major categories.
Philip Taylor: Okay. Did you mention insurance? I think you did.
Lori Martin: I did mention insurance.
Philip Taylor: Is there a special type that you have to get for camps?
Lori Martin: There are companies that specialize in summer camp insurance that cover the liability issues that you would face when you are responsible for somebody else’s children, but I think the first year when we started off we contacted our insurance agent. We explained to them what we were doing, and they insured us as they would the schools. So, we did not have a specialized insurance. It was just through our ordinary insurance company, the same people who insured our home.
Philip Taylor: Okay. Very cool. So, any last bit of advice or information you could share with future camp directors out there?
Lori Martin: I think the trick is finding a niche that you have a passion for because if you love it then it never seems like work even when you have to put in the 80-hour work weeks.
Philip Taylor: Awesome! Good advice. Well, Lori, thank you so much for being on with me. I really appreciate your time and candor in answers. I think you are providing some really useful information for future camp directors out there, so thank you so much.
Lori Martin: You are welcome. Thank you.
That does it for this week’s podcast. This has been Phil Taylor with the Part-Time Money Podcast. You can contact me at pt[at]ptmoney.com or just visit me online at ptmoney.com. Again, thanks for listening, and see you next week.