This past month has been a stressful one for camps (and most everyone else). Most camps rely on things like weekend retreats, corporate team building, holiday camps, and, of course, summer camp. With it looking more and more like camps will not be able to run normally this summer, many are wondering how they can survive these crazy times financially. After all, camps still need to be maintained, animals need to be fed, year-round staff need to be paid, etc.
Many camps are looking to the idea of running virtual camp programs, but everyone has questions like…
- Will parents pay for an online camp experience? Do they even have the funds available?
- Will kids want to participate in an online camp experience?
- How much should be charged?
An argument can be made that virtual camp goes against everything typical summer camps stand for – being outdoors, experiencing nature, unplugging from technology, being around others, experiencing new activities like archery, rock-climbing, canoeing, and much more.
But there are reasons for offering online activities for our campers.
- To give kids an alternative to playing video games or watching movies all day.
- To give parents a rest from having to constantly come up with activities to keep their kids busy.
- To stay connected with the families we serve and to help connect them with their camp friends.
- To keep the spirit of summer camp alive.
- And, of course, to produce an income and avoid having to lay off year-round staff or shut down completely…and maybe forever.
Over the course of the past month, I have been thinking a lot about this and I want to share my thoughts on how to raise funds, what parents would pay for and how to keep campers tuned in. I welcome all your thoughts, ideas and even criticism in the comments below.
Let’s start with donations. You may be thinking that you don’t want to charge a fee for anything right now, that there are so many parents unemployed they cannot afford to pay even a minimal amount.
First, understand that there are still a lot of people working these days. And with stores and entertainment options closed, many have even more funds than normal. Of course, the opposite is true as well. Many families are struggling and it could get worse.
Second, a virtual camp option should be priced WAY below a typical summer camp experience. The costs associated with most virtual options is next to nothing compared to an in-person experience that requires food, lots of staff, supplies, equipment, increased maintenance, increased utilities, etc.
So consider offering your programs and asking for donations from those that have the means to pay.
Another option is to offer tiered pricing. Offer three different fee options. The lowest one could even be free. From what I have heard, those with the means to pay a higher fee will almost always choose one of the upper tier fee options.
If you have a board of directors, chances are they have a network of people who they could reach out to. Many of them may be in the position to sponsor a virtual week or more.
All camps can reach out to their parents or network to see if anyone is able to be a sponsor or knows anyone who would be interested.
While most camps offer one and two week sessions, consider other options that may be more cost-effective and appealing for families.
- One Day – offer an option that allows families to choose just one day at a time instead of a full week.
- Half-Week – offer a 2-3 day option that would be less expensive than a full week.
- One Class/Activity – offer a mastery option that allows campers to choose one class/activity that lasts an hour a day for up to four weeks.
- A La Carte – offer the option for families to pick and choose which activities they want to participate in from weekly schedules.
When it comes to charging or finding funds for a virtual camp, you’re going to need to add value. Parents aren’t going to pay for pre-recorded videos of camp crafts and songs or for generic coloring book pages and word search printables. They might pay for tangible items and live, engaging content, especially if their children are excited by it and/or learning something.
Let’s take a look at some things to consider.
Recently, I ran an email roundtable on virtual camp ideas. Katie Elliott wrote this. “I haven’t tried this yet, but I would love to put together a box containing a craft, a new game, a science experiment, a nature learning activity, a challenge, a snack, a devotional book (we’re a Christian Camp) and an invite to a virtual campfire. I’m thinking that I could make these available at cost, but encourage camp families to give a larger donation. It would be a neat way to interact with our camp families, provide a practical mini-camp experience, and run a very low-risk fundraiser during a difficult financial season.”
These can be sold with links to pre-recorded videos that guide the kids through the activity, or you can run live sessions.
Side note: wearing gloves and a mask while assembling the boxes may be a good idea during these times…including when you receive your shipment of items to pack in the boxes.
You could offer themed boxes/kits to send out, where all the contents of the kit would fit a specific theme. Each day, your staff would offer activities based on the theme. And they could decorate a background that supports the theme as well as wearing appropriate clothing. Here are a few examples.
Around the World Week – Each day your staff would run activity sessions around a different country. The backdrop/decorations and staff costumes would reflect each country. The activities could include an international craft, international recipe, videos of kids in other countries, music from that country, some language lessons, and games or contests with that country as the focus (like a trivia contest).
Pirate Week – Along with the pirate crafts, printables, puzzles and schedule in the box, throw in some pirate coins and gems. Don’t forget to hang that pirate flag on the wall in your background and dress the part. Argh!
Superheroes – In this box/kit you can include supplies for crafts like a mask, writing prompts like Create Your Own Superhero, an activity book, superhero slap bracelet, etc. Dawn your capes and masks and start your daily live stream.
There are lots of themes you can use and a lot of different items you can add to a kit. You want the kids to be excited about their package. You’ll also want to keep the ages you are serving in mind. What you put in a box for a seven-year-old will probably differ from what you’ll want to put in a box for a tween.
Another type of box you can send out is one that is specific to a certain activity or skill. For example, if you want to run a two-week magic camp, you’ll want to send kids all the props they’ll need. A virtual art camp or cooking camp would require very different items in their kits.
This leads me into Mastery Programs.
In the virtual camp ideas roundtable, Kat Lindemann writes, “One of our campers’ favorite activities is our Mastery block. Each week (at our day camp), 6-8 staff offer a Mastery idea – something they are passionate about that they want to share with the campers over 4 days. The campers either learn a new skill, create something, or further growth in something they’re interested in.”
If you have staff that are willing to share their passion for a specific skill, hobby or interest, you can create a Mastery Series for different age groups. Here are some ideas.
- Film Making
- Balloon Animals
- Dungeons and Dragons
- Stop Motion Animation
KEEPING KIDS ENGAGED
If you can’t keep your virtual campers engaged, parents aren’t going to want to pay for the experience. Keep in mind the 3 Es – Entertain, Empower and Educate.
We’ve talked about educating kids with Mastery programs. Now let’s go over entertaining them.
At camp, we entertain the kids through programming and our staff. It also helps that we have a captive audience. Programming virtually takes a hit in the entertainment bucket, especially when kids have so many other choices at home like TV, movies, YouTube, Twitch, toys and video games.
While your virtual programming can be entertaining with some out of the box thinking, it’s going to be you and your staff that will need to step up here. In front of the camera should be those who can be fun, silly and outgoing. The more charismatic they are, the better. Props, colorful decorations, music, sound effects, good audio, good video, fun scripts, costumes…these can all play an important role in keeping kids entertained and engaged.
It’s time to pivot. The more you can embrace the production side of video, the easier it will be to charge for your virtual camp.
Kids who feel empowered are kids who will come back again and again. Parents who see their kids being empowered will pay for it.
The act of creating something (art, food, music, etc.) that you can be proud of is empowering.
Learning a new skill is empowering.
Performing can be empowering (talent show).
Being heard by your peers and those you look up to can be very empowering. Good camp counselors listen to what their campers are saying, verbally and through their body movements and facial expressions, which can still be done virtually.
There are plenty of other ways a child can feel empowered. One way is to give children choices.
While many camps are giving their campers more and more freedom of choice during their normal summer camp weeks, the campers can’t just leave camp whenever they want. They don’t have THAT much freedom.
However, with virtual camping, they can just leave when they want. So it’s more important than ever to give campers choices, because whether we like it or not, they have the choice to log in and participate or not.
Providing multiple activities during the same time of day adds value to your camp and it gives campers a choice. Find staff or volunteers to run different activities at the same time. One way to do that is by using Zoom breakout rooms.
Competition and Challenges
People of all ages like competition. It’s human nature to want to compete, against others, the clock, or ourselves.
Hold contests and challenges within reason. Incentivize kids to show up by awarding them points. Don’t make everything a competition, though. Don’t award first, second and third places to kids in your activities. Instead, give them points for completing tasks. Unless you’re running a virtual Color War, of course.
Kelli Lesser writes, “Given the current state where we can’t go out, we were looking into Low-Prop/No-Prop crafts and decided that the makerspace idea of reusing items would work best, so we have been posting these on our social media.
Kiddos can choose to just draw or write if that is what they have, or they can go the farther step and build things using what they have in (their home).”
What are challenges and competitions without rewards?
Reward your virtual campers for showing up and participating. Not only will this be fun for the campers, it again adds value to what the parents are paying for.
I suggest having levels of prizes the kids can earn. Rewards can be buttons you make at camp, stickers, shoutouts on leaderboards, special craft or activity kits, camp store items, choosing to have something done to one of the staff (like a pie in the face), etc.
Reach out to other camps to create a collaboration. These can be camps in your area, camps that are run by people you know, or camps that are similar to yours (a particular faith, serve the same type of campers, part of a larger organization, etc.)
Get together with these camps and brainstorm what activities you’ll offer. Then put together a schedule and price. Let’s say you find 3 other camps to team up with. Each camp will have 2 one-hour slots to run their activities making it an 8-hour day. Kids will, of course, pick and choose what interests them.
Whatever you charge will be split equally between the camps. In this example, each camp receives 25% (after processing fees). There are logistics to work out, like which camp will take in the money and distribute it to the others.
If you plan to ask for donations rather than charge a fixed fee, post a suggested donation amount and have buttons for each camp so that families can donate to their camp of choice be that their home camp or the camp whose activities they like the most. Also, have an all-in-one donation button that splits the money to all 4 camps. Just make it clear what each donation button is for.
The benefits of collaborating with other camps:
- You don’t have to put together a virtual camp experience on your own.
- More people to bounce ideas off of = more ideas that often end up being better than what one person can come up with on their own.
- A larger pool of kids to pull from.
- An increase in quality. This usually comes from one person in a team raising the bar with their part of the project and everyone else trying to match or exceed it. In other words, if one camp puts out awesome content, the other camps will probably try to make better content themselves.
Here are a few other things you should consider when creating your virtual camp.
Offer each of your age groups different activities. Even with CITs, you can still run a leadership program but also have them co-lead some of the virtual activities or manage the chat.
Video and Audio
Please make sure your audio is good. Use microphones if the activity leader is not right next to the computer. You can get lapel mics that plug right into a smartphone that has great sound for around $25.
Also, make sure your video is good. Webcams are fine. The video on smartphones these days is better. A DSLR camera can be even better than that. One of the keys to good video is lighting. Don’t record in dark areas. Open those curtains and let in some natural light. Or just make sure you are in a well-lit area. There are also lights you can get on Amazon that are reasonably priced. Ring lights are all the rage with vloggers these days.
Another thing to consider is a green (or blue) screen for virtual backgrounds on Zoom. Chris Kallal writes, “Ours is just blue fabric that we’ve hung 3 sections next to each other.”.
There are loads and loads of videos on YouTube that can give you great, budget-friendly instruction and advice on improving your audio and video. Do yourself a favor and do a little research. Small changes can make a huge difference. Then pass that knowledge on to your camp staff that are running activities from their own homes.
If you are charging for a virtual camp experience, do not post the videos online for everyone to view. You don’t want parents to feel cheated that they paid while others got to have their kids watch for free.
If you have any thoughts or suggestions, please leave a comment below. Thank you.