How To Start A Summer Camp On A Budget 2021

The lifetime of memories that can be made at summer camp is next to impossible to make anywhere else. Summer camp changes the lives of the children that attend and even the lives of camp counselors and administrators that manage it. 

Summer camp presents a wonderful opportunity to introduce children to the outdoors and a world of activities they may not have been able to enjoy otherwise. Camps can also help them develop new skills, build self-confidence, explore new interests/hobbies, and guarantee that they spend a lot more time outdoors in a world where so much time is spent inside staring at screens.

how to start a summer camp

Starting a new summer camp, however, can feel like a daunting undertaking.

Trying to figure out the logistics is hard enough, but even just coming up with an idea and a core concept you’ll build the rest of your camp around can take quite a while, especially if you are starting from scratch.

Modern technology and the internet’s collaborative nature have streamlined things significantly if you want to start a summer camp. You should find it’s a lot easier than ever before to build a new summer camp from the ground up, especially when you dig deeper into the inside information we highlight throughout this quick guide and the best practices to follow when you start a summer camp. 

You’ll better understand the legal requirements necessary to plan/run a summer camp, how to market and price your camp, how to hire the right team to make your vision a reality, and how to guarantee that campers come away from this with a lifetime of memories we highlighted above. 

Create A Business Plan 

It’s impossible to begin your summer camp establishment process without first deciding the type of camp you want to run in the first place – but you’d be amazed at just how many people try and put the cart before the horse in this particular department. 

It isn’t enough to come up with a sort of nebulous idea of what you want your camp to be and what your camp to encompass.

You need to settle on a concrete direction for your summer camp, a vision that will inform every single decision you make moving forward, and a vision that is going to help separate your camp from the rest of the pack as well. 

The more defined you can make this initial vision, the faster the rest of the camp creation process will go – particularly when you get down to creating the business plan, a core document that lays out the rest of your camp pretty much from start to finish.

You’ll first want to establish whether you are looking to build a day camp or an overnight camp, which will significantly impact the operating costs.

This simple decision will help you to plop the rest of your summer camp course. There’s a world of difference between a day camp where children go home at the end of the day. At a sleep-away camp, the logistics, administrative demands, and camp population potentially coming from around the world change everything entirely.

As we just mentioned a moment ago, this is why you can’t be “fuzzy” in the vision for your camp in the early stages. Plotting and planning your new summer camp without knowing something as fundamental as how much time your campers will spend there will make life a lot harder later down the line.

It’s also a good idea to start thinking about things such as: 

  • The physical location you want your camp to be based on and what that location may provide you as far as amenities and activities are concerned
  • The budget that you are working with as well as the budget you’ll need to operate and maintain your camp moving forward
  • The staffing situation that you will inevitably find yourself with
  • The kinds of campers that you are hoping will attend your camp, to begin with
  • The pricing that you will be shooting for that allows your camp to grow and to be profitable.

We can also tell you that your camp’s theme and central focus will have a critical impact on its success, whether it's a resident camp or day camp.

Budget Tip: While some people go to expensive consultants to create a business plan, you can use online resources as a cheaper alternative. 

Settle On A Camp Theme 

The absolute worst thing you could do is create another “copycat” summer, a camp that isn’t able to differentiate itself from any other on the market. A camp without something that differentiates it, whether it's camp programs offered or a theme, is hard to market and advertise because it blends in with the rest of the crowd. 

camp theme

This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to break the summer camp mold entirely from top to bottom and create an experience no human being has ever experienced before. For starters, that isn’t all that realistic, and to follow up, there are many elements that parents and campers alike are looking for in the camps they consider. 

What you do want to do before you start a summer camp business is to figure out what your core theme will be and how that will inform the rest of your summer camp experiences. Different types of camps are going to attract different types of visitors, counselors, and the like.

Without this core vision in place, everything else is going to struggle. This means you should have a clear understanding of the age groups your camp should take in, as that will affect the theme, camp programs, and camp activities offered.

Flesh Out Your Business Plan 

For everything else that a summer camp is, it’s important to remember that it is, first and foremost, a business. Even if you aren’t planning on running a camp to make a mountain of money, it will need to be financially successful if you want to keep it open and maintain it for years and years to come. 

This means creating a business plan that helps you blueprint your future success. Here are some things it needs to encompass:

Market Research – You need to understand why people are looking for summer camps in your location, with the landscape inlay of the land as far as competition in your industry and area is concerned. You also need to figure out how you might differentiate that summer camp experience from the rest of the other options.

Marketing – You’ll also need to know how you’re going to get the word out about your summer camp and the marketing approaches you plan on taking.

Budgeting – The cornerstone of any effective business plan includes a lot of details regarding your financials. Some of the most important financial decisions you have to make include the budgeting process. You’ll need to know how much you’re spending to rent or purchase land, how much you’re going to pay to develop the land, how much you’re going to spend on staff and supplies. Also, don't forget to budget for camp management software. Luckily, it's not too expensive and can make the administrative tasks of running a summer camp a lot easier. 

Profit Goals – Your plan should also lay out how you are planning on profiting from this new endeavor. This includes how to improve profitability and essential details that any lender or financial institution will want to be made aware of before they hand over any funding. 

Building your business plan probably isn’t going to be the most fun experience you have when creating a new summer camp. Still, it will be the initial foundation that every other aspect of your summer camp is built on top of. 

Budget Tip: While it seems like a good idea to have multiple camp themes — keep in mind that you will need to buy additional materials and designs to match it. It's a better idea to stick to one specific theme when your camp is first starting off. 

Get The Required Licenses

The next piece of the puzzle goes hand-in-hand with finding a camp location, but it is something you’ll want to get taking care of as early in the process as humanly possible – and that’s getting your summer camp licenses. 

Before we get into the nuts and bolts of actually getting summer camp licenses, it’s essential to understand that every state and even every local municipality has different rules, regulations, and laws on the books regarding summer camp licenses. American Camp Associations has a great resource on state regulations for summer camps by state

In the state of Massachusetts, for example, you’ll need a summer camp license if your business is legally defining itself as a “summer camp.”

On the flip side, though, if your business is legally defined as a “summer program” and does not include horseback riding, hiking, archery, or a swimming program, no license is necessary. Similarly, something like sailing will require even more permits.

The odds are that your state and your local municipality are going to have different rules, regulations, and laws that you’ll have to abide by.

To begin the licensing process, it’s a good idea to directly contact the Department of Health to see if they can connect you with the individuals or offices that deal specifically with summer camps. You’ll likely be sent directly to speak with summer camp inspectors, professionals that can help guide you through the licensing and application process though they aren’t going to do the heavy lifting for you. 

These professionals will point you to the summer camp licensing application, giving you tips and tricks to effectively and efficiently fill it out. They then will help you understand how the rest of the application process shakes out from there. 

Most of the time, these applications require you to write up concrete plans regarding what you’ll do – and step-by-step detail – in the event of a variety of different emergencies that your camp may have to contend with. This is done to confirm that you have thought things through and are serious about building a successful camp in the local area.

You may have to secure a medical advisor for your camp during the application process as well. A lot of states and municipalities require nurses and sometimes even a pediatrician or a doctor to be a part of any summer camp program. This will help approve, at the very least medical plans you are submitting as part of your license application. It also helps to have advisors on hand to keep campers, counselors, and staff as safe as possible. 

The application will also require information and details regarding fire evacuation plans, natural disaster emergency plans, and a whole host of other information that you’ll likely want to go over with an official from the local fire and police departments. 

Most of the time these professionals – including the summer camp inspectors – are going to do everything they can to help you, as they want your summer camp to be as safe as humanly possible as well. 

Budget Tip: You can't really budget when it comes to licenses. Obtaining the necessary licenses is key to avoiding lawsuits and any issues with the government. 

Find & Choose A Camp Location

This part of the process of starting a summer camp is always going to go hand-in-hand with the licensing process highlighted above. Running through both the licensing and camp location will usually be done at the same time.

camp location

The vision that you have for your summer camp business will dictate what your camp needs to include and encompass, and that’s going to help you whittle down summer camp locations pretty quickly. 

You’ll need a physical location for your summer camp, and that usually means finding as big a chunk of open space as humanly possible – ideally, one with already existing summer camp structures and infrastructure built right in.

Believe it or not, local churches and religious organizations are almost always an excellent resource for finding “hidden gems” that you may not have discovered otherwise. The leaders at these types of organizations are very plugged into their local communities. They aren’t only going to be able to help you find land available to rent, lease, or purchase. Still, they can usually facilitate a meeting between you and the owners of those properties so that you can hit the ground running in a hurry. 

Local schools are another organization that you’ll want to reach out to for the same reason. Finally, local businesses and local real estate agents may be able to point you in the right direction as well. These can be a little more hit and miss – genuine estate agents that will have dollar signs in their mind when you request this – but they are still well worth reaching out to if you are having a challenging time finding the right space for your new camp.

There are a couple of features that you’ll want to look for in any summer camp land, regardless of the specific type of camp you are looking to create. These features include but aren’t limited to: 

  • Close proximity to plenty of room to play outdoors, as well as to a park or other outdoor entertainment space
  • Relatively proximity to public transportation or connected highways and byways that make getting to and from the camp relatively fast
  • Plenty of space for parking
  • Plenty of lodging (especially if you are going to be running an overnight camp)
  • Administrative buildings on-site to run and organize your summer camp without interfering with camper’s day-to-day activities
  • Adequate medical facilities as close to professional health clinics and hospitals 

You’ll also want to look for features specific to the kind of camp you are looking to run. Finding camp areas on the water can change the game entirely and an openable world of summer camp activities and opportunities. However, these kinds of camps will inevitably be a lot more expensive to rent, lease, or own outright.

Budget Tip: If you can't initially afford to flat out buy land, look towards renting land. It's much cheaper and puts less stress on the financials – especially if your paying a large mortgage. 

Price Your Summer Camp  

We aren’t going to sugarcoat this – pricing your camp will take a lot of time, a lot of energy, and a lot of effort to get right. 

Without knowing the summer camps’ financials that you are competing with, which are details that will be next to impossible to get accurate if you aren’t close personal friends with the people running the camp, you’ll never know if the same prices will work for your business. 

One of the biggest mistakes that new summer camps make is pricing their experiences at or around the same price as their closest competitors. They do this to stay competitive – and it’s easy to understand why – without ever first realizing that they may be crippling their business’s success, the financials just don’t make sense. 

pricing camp

Yes, you’re going to want to know what your competitors and other regional summer camps are choosing just to sort of stay in the same ballpark (particularly if you are going head-to-head with them by offering a similar summer camp experience). But you don’t want market prices to dictate the costs that you are charging forward ultimately.

A lot of summer camps have had a tremendous amount of success with “sliding scale” pricing policies. You’ll have many families out there interested in your summer camp that make this kind of pricing work in their budget. Read our guide to help families find other ways of affording summer camps

At the same time, you advertise that you are willing to work with everyone and anyone regardless of their ability to pay “full freight” – and then you honor that commitment. 

Summer camps that have this kind of sliding scale pricing structure not only report having a lot more campers attend each year, but they also report that very few families ask for discounts greater than 50%. The majority of people are only looking for a slight discount (10% - 20%). 

Budget Tip: While it might be tempting to reduce your pricing with the goal of getting more campers, this isn't always the most wise business decision. Instead consider talk to other local businesses or even universities and ask if they'd like to sponsor some of your campers in exchange for free advertising at your camp or presentations. 

Keep Campers Healthy & Safe

There are a lot of moving pieces involved in making sure that all of your campers are as happy and safe as possible while they are attending your camp, as well as your counselors and administrative/support staff. 

child smiling

To begin with, you are going to need at least a camp nurse on hand to treat the inevitable bumps, bruises, lacerations, and other issues that can arise when you have a lot of active people in one place.

A team of nurses on hand is usually more than enough to staff most summer camps, though you might want to bring a doctor aboard if that fits your budget and make sense for your specific operation.

It’s also a good idea to ensure that all of your counselors and administrative support staff members have full CPR training and general first-aid. This is something you will want to hammer home, guaranteeing that every adult at your camp has the basic training necessary to provide emergency care around-the-clock.

From there, it’s always a good idea to get medical forms directly from the campers that are planning to attend for the summer.

These medical forms will outline a lot of core information that your medical team will need to provide proper treatment. This includes details like pre-existing conditions, medications and dosages, and allergies and sensitivities, and a whole host of other information that will help them have a safer summer under your care. 

You must zero in on things like allergies – particularly food allergies – as you will be responsible for providing meals all summer long.

You and your team will need to consider hygiene and sanitation details, fully understanding that a camp filled with children will get messy now and again. You are, though, running a business here at the end of the day, and you’ll need to meet particular hygiene and sanitation standards that guarantee a certain degree of health and happiness from your campers. 

You’ll need plenty of bathrooms and regular plumbing inspections to ensure everything is working the way it should be. This will also avoid major plumbing emergencies, shower systems that are ready to rock and roll, bathroom and shower facilities for disabled individuals, and the list goes on and on.

Depending on your camp’s size, you may even need to bring on a janitorial staff that handles the bulk of the heavy lifting, keeping things running smoothly in the hygiene and sanitation departments. 

If you can show the parents, you care about their children, having them sign up will be much easier. 

Budget Tip: When it comes to camper health, there is no budgeting. Even if you need to pay more upfront, it can end up saving a lot not only in monetary terms, but also in terms of reputation. 

Obtain Summer Camp Insurance 

camp insurance

One of your largest expenses annually is going to be the money that you invest in insurance – and make no mistake about it, that money is 100% invested in your future.

Right out of the gate, before you even start a summer camp, you are going to need to carry medical and liability insurances to guarantee that any accident is completely covered from top to bottom. The cold hard reality of running a summer camp is things aren’t always going to go as smoothly as you had hoped, and accidents may not be 100% preventable. Summer camp insurance is crucial for risk management.

You don’t want your entire summer camp to fall apart entirely simply because you cut corners on your insurance coverages. There is a lot of summer camp specific insurance policies that you will take advantage of. It’s a good idea to look at different insurance companies to see what kinds of plans they have available.

Find policies that offer a perfect blend of protection and price – but always err on the side of caution and investing in more protection than you think you’ll need. You’ll also want to make sure that you have health forms and disclosure documents you send to every parent or guardian of all attendees, fully explaining your liabilities and your insurance details to know exactly what they are getting into. 

When you’re dealing with claims of negligence waivers, they become almost entirely worthless, but they can help you big time should the case move to arbitration. In a perfect world, you won’t ever have to worry about these documents. However, you’ll still want to plan for the worst possible scenario and then do absolutely everything in your power to avoid it from happening.

Budget Tip: Always get more than insurance quote. A difference of a hundred or couple hundred dollars can quickly add up. However, ensure you have the right policy depending on the risks of your camps. A horseback riding camp will probably need more coverage than a standard camp. Liability is not something you won't to worry about since it can ruin quickly lead to bankruptcy. 

Hire & Train Camp Staff 

Staffing is another massive piece of the puzzle that you’ll want to get right, as it becomes physically impossible at a specific capacity to handle everything you need to at your summer camp – and that capacity isn’t all that high, either. 

It’s not a bad idea to try and get some hiring and staffing tips and tricks from other fellow camps in your local area. You may find that many of them have counselor application “overflow” that they simply can’t bring aboard for one reason or another. Many of these organizations will be more than happy to send these applications your way. 

There are also many online portals and platforms that you can post counselor and staffing listings on. However, you want to describe the positions in as much detail as possible while always looking for experienced veterans of the industry to bring aboard.

Background checks are 100% essential, but you’ll also want information regarding your camp staff’s work experience. Any training that may apply to the job you are hiring them for and other details will help you make your hiring decisions a little more comfortable.

You’ll also need to figure out how you will pay your camp staff and how you will report this pay to the IRS. A lot of summer camps decide to go down the 1099s independent contractor route for a lot of their positions, which may or may not make sense for your specific situation. Speak to an accountant before you make any decisions in this department. Don't forget to factor in potential staff salaries to the operating costs.

Budget Tip: Training unexperienced camp staff can be expensive. Keeping a low turn over is an effective way of reducing the costs of training staff. Similarly, while background checks have an upfront cost, it can save you money in the long run by reducing the chance of hiring the wrong person. 

Market Your Summer Camp 

Getting the word out about your new summer camp is going to be a day-to-day mission of yours. It is not only in the early stages of its conception but every day for the first couple of years of operation. 

It’s always a good idea to start advertising and marketing your camp as early as possible, whether it's on social media or through Google ads. Some people begin advertising and marketing their camp even before they have settled on a final site or gone through the actual license application process. 

marketing camp

The internet is going to be your best friend when it comes to marketing your camp. Pay per click advertising, banner advertising purchases, email newsletter advertisements, joint venture marketing opportunities, social media, and a whole host of other avenues of finding new potential campers are going to be available to you digitally. You can also always post your camp in summer camp directories.

Traditional direct mail approaches and placement ads in magazines and targeted newspapers can also prove to be highly effective, though your mileage may vary. 

What you’ll want to do is think long and hard about the ideal camper and their parents that will fall in love with your camp at first blush and then create marketing and advertising specifically designed to bring them overboard. Once you have that down, place the marketing and advertising in the media, they are likely to consume. 

If you have the budget for it, it’s not a bad idea to bring marketing and advertising professionals aboard to help you hit the ground running. At the same time, you focus on other areas of building and growing your summer camp.

They’ll be able to give you the shortcut you need and keep things rocking and rolling until you have the time, energy, and inclination to take over more of the marketing responsibilities yourself. Whether it's through Google ads, Facebook Ads, Instagram Ads, or other social media, a professional will help you figure out what's best.

Don’t forget about camper retention marketing programs, either! A lot of smart and strategic summer camp owners ignore almost completely the campers that they have already been convinced to attend. Instead, they focus exclusively on getting new campers out of total strangers that don’t know or trust them yet. 

Make sure that you are marketing to former campers just as aggressively. This can potentially create generations of campers that get to develop lifetimes of memories with your help.

All in all, there’s a lot of work and a lot of heavy lifting that goes into planning a successful summer camp experience – especially if you are starting from scratch.

Focus on the core details we highlighted above before starting a summer camp and strategically moving through this process. You’ll find everything sort of falls into place without a lot of extra effort, headache, or hassle. 

Plenty of people have built summer camps from the ground up before, and plenty more will come in the future. There’s no reason you won’t be able to as well as long as you zero in on everything we’ve been able to share in this quick guide. 

Budget Tip: Hiring an SEO professional or marketer isn't exactly the cheapest thing. You should familiarize yourself with basic SEO and marketing concepts at the initial start of your camp. Once it has picked up some steam, then hire the marketers.