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Interview with Jane McCutcheon - Reasons to ChangeBack to Enliven! Services

Jane McCutcheon has spent over 30 years in active leadership in the camping industry. She has led workshops on camping topics around the world, has organized major international camping conferences, and has received awards from provincial and national camping bodies. Jane has an MBA from the Ivey School of Business and was named Entrepreneur of The Year for the Province of Ontario, 1999. She serves as consultant with a wide range of camping and other organizations.

1) What is your background in camping?

I started at age 12 at Camp Tawingo. I was involved there for the next 36 summers, and for 25 years full time. I went up the ranks from camper to wilderness journey girl, to camp counsellor in training, to counsellor. I was in charge of the waterfront, the office, the music, leadership development and ultimately I became camp director in charge of administration. In the mid 90’s for 8 years I was a co-owner of the camp. After having met my husband in 2001 I decided to move away from the camp life and have become a camp consultant.

2) What are some changes that have occurred in camping during your camping career?

Often the family options were limited - perhaps a summer camp experience and a family trip. Now there are many more options. The big change came when sports teams started training and competing through the summer. Now parents still want their children to have a camping experience, but often as one of many summer options., which means the time frame at camp might be shorter. Family dynamics have changed, with both parents working. I remember a time when our mailing list had very few children from single parent families or families that had split up - everybody had a mom and a dad - what we then called a traditional family. The whole idea of what constitutes a traditional family has changed.

I think the camping industry sees itself as more important in the lives of families than it really is. Camps don’t realize that they are only one of many options. Also, parents are not as ready today to separate from their children, because they have more fear for their children. Parents are looking for shorter sessions, so camps (with long sessions) are not filling as quickly as they used to.

3) You say that camps see themselves as more important in the lives of families than they really are – that is quite a statement!

I feel that camps have not stayed in touch with the client pool. Camps sometimes think they don’t need to communicate the importance of what we do. In fact there is a great deal of education that needs to be done if we are going to attract new cultures and new families. I recently Googled the word “camp”. The first words that came up were “prisoner of war camp” and “terrorist camp”. The word camp can have frightening associations for some cultures. For that reason and more, “camp” needs to be explained really well to people. We have to get to know our communities better and work really hard talking about the value of the camp experience.

I think some of the agency camps are already doing a great job at adapting. We can learn from the YMCA’s, for example, many of which have adapted to the ethnically diverse communities they serve. We as camp have to be more creative in describing what it is we do. In fact, I am encouraging camps starting a new program not to call it a camp, but a learning centre or anything that better allows families tor relate.

Camp is, in many ways, hard to sell. Our marketing focuses on programming and activities because it is easier than selling our strongest suit, which is developing responsible citizens through leadership and role modelling. We need to very clear about what it is we really do - and who we are.

We also need to work together as a broad camp community. Rather than each trying to market our own camp indiviudally, it would be far more effective as an industry to send out a unified message. For that, we are going to need some corporate help from people who have had a great camp experience when they were younger. I have often said to private camps that they should running weekends in the city. Go and book a centre for a weekend experience 20 minutes from the city and show people what you are doing. I think if more remote camps partnered with organizations which serve families in the cities we would do a better job of introducing the overall value of camping. We also need to consider our pricing. Why should we be above offering a discount or a sale? Maybe we offer a discount to people who sign up first, or to first time campers.

4) Was any one of these changes either discouraging or rewarding for your personally?

I am not discouraged about camping as an experience. Camps can do a great job in a short period of time if they stick to their philosophy and know what they are delivering. As an example, I remember my twenty one day camp canoe trip - the most fantastic canoe trip in my life. We went through every kind of weather you can imagine. We slept on the ground. Our tents had no screens or zippers. But it was fantastic. Any camp experience can be fantastic with the right leadership. We as camps have training in how to make activities fun and educational.

I do feel discouraged when someone says” that won’t work at my camp” or “you’re not in camping anymore – you don’t know what the pressures are like”. I feel change can happen positively. But I am a little discouraged when I hear people who are not filling their camps resisting change. I am amazed that people who are not happy with their bottom line (i.e. profit!) are not doing anything about it. We can’t stick our heads in the sand and hope the campers will come.

5) What are the changes which have been presenting themselves to camps in the last 10 years?

I think that the big factors that are impacting camping are the economy and changing family dynamics. I think there has been a change in staffing too. Young people in their teens want a louder voice than we had as teenagers. Camps need to get to know their staff as people. They need to offer free internet service and allow them to use their cell phones. I even think that children should be allowed to use their cell phones at camp –not all the time – they don’t need to carry it around -but let them phone their parents once or twice a week . This will help in parents making a decision to send their children to camp.

6) In your view, how are the camps you are familiar with responding to change?

More camps that used to run month long camps are now offering shorter sessions. It is more important to get a child to camp, and then have the child go home and tell their friends how great it was than to stick to the traditional month long sessions. If I were running camp today I would do whatever it takes to get campers on site, e.g. offer introductory weekend programs for younger children, five day camps for those who wish to go to the cottage on the weekend.

Many camps are now offering special teen age weekend experiences There are camps that offer 35 or 30 different options of programming over the course of the mummer. Some camps are working very hard to attract the young teenagers by offering activities that interest them, like music, drama and theatre, clowning, circus programs. I would say folks are moving forward but there are still some camps that have a long way to go.

I have seen some creative pricing. There are camps who have tried a tiered system. The first tier invites parents to pay the actual cost, including overhead, capital building plans etc. The second tier covers the hard costs, e.g. the food, the leadership, the equipment . The third tier allows parents to pay whatever they can. History has shown that the longer the people send their children to camp, and the more they see the results of the camp environment, the higher the tier they are willing to pay.

7) What are some key changes you think camps should consider?

I think the whole idea of keeping yourcamp in the forefront of your families’ minds after camp is key. Offer city reunions or events that don’t have to take place at camp. Use social media effectively. Provide an opportunity for staff to interact with campers online through the rest of the year. Some traditions should be dropped because they no longer meet needs. For example, I think some of the camps that are extremely competitive should look at their programs because they don’t encompass the needs of the whole camper population.

8) Why are we as a camping industry resisting change?

We as camps feel we know our profession so well we should not need to change. We may in fact know what to do once we get the child to camp. But do we know the real world in which the child lives the rest of the year? Rather than hammering home that once we get the child we can teach them citizenship and cooperation, we need to get them there first. We need to spend some time, through our marketing focussing not on the end product but on how to encompass the broad changes in the world around us. That requires us to change. Change may be uncomfortable but in my opinion it needs to happen. Camp directors cannot make these changes alone. They need a team of people (staff or volunteers or peers) to help. The camp as an organization needs to be supportive of the change process.

A key to change is a really good evaluation process. A lot of camps don’t like to have their parents evaluate the camp. I think you should get as much feedback as possible, from parents, from campers, from staff, from director walk about tours. Evaluation is a critical step to success today.

Camp is still a fantastic profession. It’s just a harder business to run than it used to be. As long as we keep changing and adapting then I still think there is a great future for camping. Some people need to move ahead more quickly than they are. The good news is that from where I sit, I see great things happening across the country.