How to Start a Summer Camp [Are they Profitable?]

make money with a summer campIn 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 its 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

Getting Prepared and Starting Small

Since she was fearful that her job running a weekend program for people with disabilities was about to be eliminated due to downsizing,

Lori Martin had an idea to start a camp of her own. She had gone to a science camp as a child and knew there were no science camps in the area of Missouri where she lived.

Step 1 of Lori’s camp plan, though, was to take a class at the local community college. She knew that she was lacking the business skills necessary to run a successful camp. That community college course taught her the importance of having a business plan before proceeding. If you’re looking for more education and training, check out this post with online training sites.

When it came time to start the camp, Lori began small. She took her three weeks of vacation in the summer, rented camp space at a local state park, hired two employees, and had ten children per week.

She didn’t make much money the first year, but she had a great time. The following year, they had 60 kids, followed by 90 the next. In 1999, she bought an abandoned Campfire Girls camp and spruced it up. Now, Lori sees as many as 1300 kids from every state each summer.

You cannot fill a summer camp your first summer out. You have to start with something small. I had known many people who had gone out and bought the land and decided to build the facility before they built the program. I think that is kind of the backward way to do it.

How Lori Has Found Success with her Summer Camp

Lori is passionate about science, so in the initial years, she would take any money she made and re-invest it into the camp program by purchasing more supplies and making the camp more appealing to campers.

She would look at what other camps were charging and place her fees right in the middle.

Then, whatever monies she had, was her budget. But there were more for her to pay for than simply program supplies. She had to budget for feeding the children, as well as staffing costs and insurance.

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.

Finding campers and marketing is critical to the success of any camp. To prepare for the first summer, Lori conducted site visits with parents and kids on weekends.

Those visits allowed them to get a feel for the location and talk to Lori about what camp would be like. Following that initial summer, Lori said that often kids would have fun, go home and tell their friends, and it would snowball into more and more campers. They have about a 70-80% return rate.

However, she also attributes their success to participating in camp fairs each year. Camp fairs are often held in school gymnasiums and malls. Since niche camping is so popular, fairs give kids and parents a chance to visit with camp representatives and find the right camp for them.

Lori also says she believes her background in human resources contributes towards her camp’s success. Currently hosting a 12-week summer program,

Lori has a staff 10 full-time and 70 summer employees. Recruiting the right college students to staff her camp, she says, takes up almost as much time as recruiting the campers themselves. Find other ways, including hiring great employees, to increase the revenue for your small business in this post.

For anyone who is serious about beginning a summer camp, Lori cautions against trying to become too big, too fast. Finding a niche you’re passionate about, renting a facility, starting off with a few day camps, and organizing the event well is key to initial success. She also suggests getting accredited. While the accreditation process is not mandatory, it is a seal of approval.

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 foreign 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:

American Camp Association Accreditation Process
Mid States Camping Conference (Cub Creek Science Camp)

Read the full transcript by clicking show

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  1. Avatar 20 and Engaged says:

    That sounds like an awesome idea! I would love to do something similar, since I love kids. The wheels are turning now. Ah I’m so excited!

  2. Wow! Thanks for sharing. That sounds like a fun side job. I love hearing stories of people combining their passions and profits in a successful way.

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