I spent the weekend pouring over the retention numbers at Stomping Ground, the camp I run. I think I decided retention is overrated.
For context, I have believed retention to be the number one indicator of great camps for the last 5 or 7 years. I am huge fan of Camp Augusta, who boasts above 90% retention every year, maybe 95% I can remember the exact number. I love James Davis’s model on the economics of retention. I believed retention to be the best indicator of camp success.
This weekend I lost my faith.
Ok, I am being dramatic, but I dug deep on our retention and found some interesting facts that are leading me to think differently about retention. I think retention can be incredibly valuable but is just one metric.
This week in The Summer Camp Society Semester we were talking about the value of retention. The ethics of using staff to convince kids to come back for another year and different tactics for increasing the rate kids might return to camp. We discussed progressive programming, connecting with parents, awards, and more. Then we started talking about the numbers.
Retention isn’t just one number it is a combination of an uncountable number of variables. Male vs Female return rate, ages that return at different rates, what about new campers vs old campers.
This got me thinking. I hadn’t calculated our retention at Stomping Ground since our first summer in 2015. There goes my weekend.
I put together a bunch of spreadsheets, why CampBrain doesn’t do this with a click of a button is fascinating. Rob if you are reading this let’s talk. I did this in the most straightforward way. No aging out or removing kids for any reason. If they came to camp one year and came back the next they counted. This matters because you can play with these numbers in a million ways. Here is what I found.
2015 (our first summer) - 44% of kids returned for 2016
2016 - 58% of kids returned for 2017
2017 - 66% of kids returned for 2018
What the heck does that mean?
I don’t know, but I went to school. 44% is for sure failing. 66% is failing but a little better. It seems like an improvement. I did a bunch of other math. I won’t bore you with all of it, but I found that our retention rate for male and female campers is essentially the same. That we have the highest retention rate for 6 year olds (our youngest kids) and the lowest for 14 year olds (our oldest main campers), but in the middle everything is basically the same. I found that rain has less impact on retention than I thought, but good counselors have much higher impact.
I am happy to run these numbers for you for a donation to camp. Ok, I’ll donate it to camp, but a donation can’t be quid pro quo so you have to pay me then I donate to camp. Laws. Not for profits. Math. Send me an email.
Most importantly I found growth. Over that same time period that our retention failed, never breaking 70% we also 10x-ed the size of our camp. We went from ~60 kids the first summer to ~600 camper weeks this last summer. What was happening?
I definitely don’t have all the answers, but I have an idea. I found two other interesting tidbits.
While our retention rates mostly stunk our retention rates for returning campers are pretty good. Last year ~90%. So if someone had been to Stomping Ground before and came back at least once, the chance that they would return again was very high. Camp Champions has a person dedicated to first year camper retention for this reason.
Campers that were returning were signing up for more weeks. A lot more weeks, in some years averaging almost twice as many.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN!?!!?!?@!?!!?!?!@?
Growing a program isn’t about retention it is about growth. Of course, it is. But this matters!
We made Stomping Ground up. It never existed. We have messed up, tried things, tried other things. Our first summer we didn’t have bedtimes. ← real life.
The best way to grow fast isn’t to be pretty ok for most of our small number of campers it is to be hecking awesome, best place ever, life-changing, for the right families.
When we do that we grow like mad. When we blow every other place that specific families have ever worked with out of the water they send their kids back for longer and tell everyone they know.
SWING FOR THE FENCES
I think this is interesting and I think it changes huge parts of the way we do business. This rewards swing for the fences commitment to mission and encourages us not to round our edges for parents that don’t get what we want to do.
We let kids play with hammers and nails at camp. Kids choose how to spend their days all day every day. They get in arguments and we don’t kick kids out just for fighting. We do weird stuff. We do it safely, but for the right families, this is what they are looking for.
This math is pushing me to double down on what makes us weird. Pushing me to put ourselves more out there for what we believe in and then not compromise our program to please parents that “don’t get us”.
This doesn’t mean we should listen to parent concerns or stop trying to get better and change. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care. Just the opposite. It means we should really care. We should really care about what we really care about. We should double triple quadruple down on connecting our mission to our program, because when we do that, the right people love it and they tell their friends. There are lots of “regular” camps out there.
Trying to be a “great” regular camp is a bad long-term strategy.
I got excited at the end there, but you get the point. Retention isn’t bad, but it isn’t always good either. I need to keep figuring out what Stomping Ground cares about and then do more of that, explain why, and the right people will care. Or they won’t.