Planning for summer camp can be an exciting time for families, but unforeseen circumstances can lead to enrollment cancelations. This is where a cancelation policy isn’t a nice-to-have. It’s a need-to-have.
The breadth of this topic is what led us to Dan Weir, a recognized expert in the field of summer camp planning and operations. He says that camps often mimic the cancelation policies of other camps, without taking into account their unique needs, values, and customers.
With more than 20 years of experience in the industry, Dan has a deep understanding of what drives camp directors and what camper families need. As a father himself, Dan is also personally invested in camp (and all associated policies). Here are Dan’s suggestions for what to take into consideration as you work on the right approach for your camp.
Relationships with Camp Families
In the context of summer camps, it’s important for leaders to demonstrate compassion. This, according to Dan, is where all policies should start.
A harsh camp cancelation policy can discourage families from returning or signing up in the first place. Because it’s impossible for camps to know how many people are discouraged from reenrolling because of their policy, walking this line is key.
As a camp that takes care of children, building strong relationships is essential. It’s not just a transactional exchange like retail.
The sudden emergence of the pandemic prompted a reckoning of sorts, as camps had to take a hard look at their policies and procedures.
During the pandemic, two critical aspects of business operations were highlighted: insurance policies and legal counsel. As a result, many camps had to review and update their policies.
Before Covid, camps were a bit stringent on cancelations due to sickness. In the past few years especially, camps have shifted their focus to preventing illnesses from coming to camp. Dan points out that this is almost a greater form of loss prevention than a cancelation policy. He says more camps than ever before advising sick campers to stay home, and many will even offer refunds. A sick camper can infect all the kids in their group and their counselors, and that could be much more detrimental to a camp’s business or to the camp experience.
The Airline Model
Some summer camps charge customers for cancelations or transfers, which is similar to the policies of the travel industry, specifically airlines. However, most major airlines do not charge for cancelations or transfers, except for Frontier Airlines and Spirit Airlines.
This relates back to Dan’s initial point about the need to build trust. Transactional relationships are common in the travel industry, but summer camps are focused on building emotional relationships with their customers. The most valuable commodity at a summer camp is trust, which is built through policies that are forgiving and flexible.
Choosing a camp with a strict cancelation policy may not foster trust and could impact a customer’s decision to return. Dan points out that while cancelations can affect a camp’s resources, such as supplies, food, and staffing, it’s important to consider how policies impact customer experience.
Part of the marketing strategy for summer camps is creating a fear of missing out. Parents are willing to deal with their own disappointment, but the idea of disappointing their child is a whole new level of concern.
In today’s parenting style, and with an increase in competing interests and enrichment programs, children have more influence on decision-making than ever before.
As a result, families are more likely to examine camp policies closely when making decisions. It’s important for camps to be aware of competing interests and policies of other programs in the area, as parents may choose not to enroll their child if a camp’s policies are too harsh or don’t meet their expectations.
In his review of policies, Dan points out that often deposits are non-refundable. This, he says, really plays into the question of if you really creating goodwill or are more focused on profit.
Dan points out that this equity has to be considered here because a non-refundable deposit as part of a cancelation policy will be seen differently for a family that can’t afford to lose that deposit versus a family that can. Camps might be, in essence, penalizing families that can’t put up the deposit.
Dan encourages camps to look inward at the audience their serving and try to figure out how to do right by them.
Non-profits vs For-profits
It’s not surprising that cancelation policies will differ between nonprofits and for-profits. Often nonprofits can have more flexibility because income from registration isn’t their only revenue stream. They may run other programs, and receive grants or donations. Dan notes that a common cancelation policy for nonprofits is to give full refunds up to 30 days before the start of camp.
For-profits, on the other hand, vary widely in their cancelation policies. Some for-profits handle cancelations on a case-by-case basis with families, similar to a high-end private school. Other for-profits have very strict policies, where no refund is given if canceled within a certain timeframe.
Day vs Overnight
Again, because day and overnight camps are so different, their cancelation policies are going to differ as well.
Dan points out that with day camps, parents may ask for refunds for individual missed days or cancelations. Since children attend day camps on a daily basis, the expectations of parents can be different compared to those of parents whose children attend overnight camps for several weeks.
Some camps note in their policies that they will refund a certain number of days as part of an enrollment package, while others may only book one or two week-long sessions with a set price for that duration. Since day camps do not have to worry about overnight accommodations or meals, they may be more flexible with their policies.
The way forward
Cancelation policies are essential for every camp business, but it’s not cut and dry. Camp leaders need to consider the emotional connection they have with their customers, the need to safeguard their business’s interests, their reputation, what their competitors do, and the health of campers and staff.
That’s a lot of factors, but by weighing them, camps can create a cancelation policy that fosters trust and builds a positive relationship with their customers, while also protecting their bottom line. This, Dan says, is his favorite thing about the camp industry. Everyone is so open and willing to share practices.