How to Start a Summer Camp: The Ultimate Guide


·23 min read

Summer camp: a time of laughter, friendship, and endless adventures. For many of us, the mere mention of summer camp evokes a wave of nostalgia—the scent of campfires, the sound of singing, and the excitement of trying new activities. These cherished memories have a way of staying with us long after we've grown up.

But what if you could relive those magical summer camp experiences and create new ones, not just as a camper but as the creator of your very own camp?

Imagine the joy of watching children make lifelong friends, discover new passions, and grow in confidence, all within the nurturing environment you've brought to life.

Starting your own summer camp is an incredibly rewarding venture. It allows you to make a positive impact on young lives while building a fulfilling business. However, launching a summer camp from scratch can be daunting, especially if you're unsure where to begin.

  • How do you choose the perfect location?
  • What legal requirements and licenses do you need to obtain?
  • How can you ensure the safety and well-being of your campers?
  • And perhaps most importantly, how do you create a summer camp program that will keep children engaged, entertained, and eager to return year after year?

Let’s get you started down the path of creating your own summer camp – and how you can make memories for children, teens, and adults that will last a lifetime.

How to start a summer camp

What Kind of Summer Camp Do You Want To Start?

Before diving into the nitty-gritty of starting a summer camp, taking a step back and considering what type of camp you want to create is crucial. The kind of camp you choose to run will shape every aspect of your business, from the location and facilities to the activities and staff you'll need.

There are numerous types of summer camps, each with its unique focus and style. Some of the most popular options include:

  1. Outdoor Adventure Camps: These camps emphasize exploration and physical activities in natural settings. They often feature hiking, camping, swimming, and other outdoor pursuits that foster a love for nature and encourage personal growth.
  2. Overnight Camps: Also known as sleep-away camps, these programs provide an immersive experience where campers stay on-site for an extended period, typically a week or more. Overnight camps promote independence, social skills, and a strong sense of community.
  3. Day Camps: Day camps offer a structured program during the daytime, allowing children to engage in various activities while returning home each evening. These camps are ideal for younger children or those not ready for an overnight experience.
  4. Specialty Camps: These camps focus on specific themes or activities, such as sports, arts, music, or STEM. They cater to children with particular interests and allow them to develop skills in their chosen area.
  5. Special Needs Camps: Designed for children with physical, developmental, or behavioral challenges, these camps provide a supportive and inclusive environment that caters to their unique needs.

But it’s more than just the what of your summer camp. You also need to know why you want to create a particular summer camp option!

  • Your Passions and Expertise: Choose a camp theme that aligns with your interests, skills, and experience. Running a camp that you're passionate about will make the experience more enjoyable for you and translate into a more engaging program for your campers.
  • Community Needs: Assess the needs and interests of your target audience. Is there a demand for a particular type of camp in your area? Identifying gaps in the market can help you create a program that stands out and meets the needs of your community.
  • Location and Facilities: Consider the available locations and facilities that suit your chosen camp type. An outdoor adventure camp, for example, will require access to natural areas and appropriate infrastructure, while an indoor day camp may need a suitable building with ample space for activities.
  • Budget and Resources: Evaluate your financial resources and the costs associated with running different types of camps. Some camp types may require more significant investments in equipment, facilities, or staff, so choosing a model that aligns with your budget is essential.

Summer Camps 101: Planning Your Summer Camp

Starting a summer camp requires careful planning and attention to detail. In this section, we'll break down the essential elements of planning your summer camp, from defining your focus to creating a comprehensive business plan.

Defining Your Camp's Focus and Target Audience

Once you've chosen the type of camp you want to start, it's time to refine your focus and identify your target audience. Consider the age range of your campers, their interests, and any specific needs they may have. This will help you tailor your program, activities, and marketing efforts to attract and serve your ideal campers.

Some questions to consider when defining your camp's focus and target audience:

  • What age group will your camp serve?
  • Will your camp cater to a specific gender or be co-ed?
  • Are there any particular skills, interests, or needs your camp will address?
  • What sets your camp apart from others in your area?

Choosing a Location and Facilities

The location and facilities you choose for your summer camp will be significant in its success. When selecting a site, consider factors such as accessibility, safety, and amenities. Some options may include renting an existing campground, partnering with a local school or community center, or purchasing your own property.

When evaluating potential locations and facilities, keep the following in mind:

  • Is the site easily accessible for campers and staff?
  • Does the location provide a safe and secure environment?
  • Are there adequate facilities for your planned activities (e.g., sports fields, swimming pools, art studios)?
  • Will you need to make any improvements or renovations to the site?

The facilities will play an integral role in the overall experience of the campers. It is important to ensure that all facilities are properly maintained and can accommodate the planned activities.

Determining the Duration and Schedule of Your Camp

Deciding on your summer camp's length and daily schedule is another crucial aspect of the planning process. Will your camp run for a week, multiple weeks, or throughout the summer? Will it be a full-day program or offer half-day sessions?

When creating your camp schedule, consider the following:

  • What is the ideal length of your camp session to provide a meaningful experience?
  • How will you balance structured activities with free time and rest periods?
  • Will you offer any extended care options for working parents?
  • How will you accommodate different age groups and skill levels in your scheduling?

When considering the above, remember that the duration and schedule of your camp will greatly impact your program's cost, logistics, and overall success. It is important to balance providing enough time for campers to fully immerse themselves in activities and allowing them some freedom to explore and rest.

Offering a mix of structured and unstructured activities can also be beneficial. While structured activities provide a sense of organization and allow campers to learn new skills, unstructured activities allow them to explore their own interests and foster creativity. Make sure to balance these types of activities throughout the program.

Creating a Business Plan and Budget

A solid business plan and budget are essential for the success of your summer camp. Your business plan should outline your camp's mission, target market, marketing strategy, financial projections, and operational details. This document will serve as a roadmap for your business and help you secure funding if needed.

When developing your budget, consider all potential expenses, including:

  • Rent or lease payments for your location
  • Staff salaries and training costs
  • Equipment and supplies for activities
  • Insurance and licensing fees
  • Marketing and advertising expenses
  • Utilities and maintenance costs

Don't forget to factor in your revenue sources, such as camp tuition, fundraising events, and any additional services you may offer. This can also include partnerships with local businesses or organizations that may benefit from your camp's services.

As you navigate the planning process, remember that Pembee's comprehensive management system can streamline many aspects of running your summer camp. From automated daily registers and email confirmations to secure payment processing and customizable booking forms, Pembee's features are designed to simplify your operations, allowing you to focus on delivering an unforgettable camp experience.

Summer Camp Legal Requirements and Licensing

Before opening your summer camp, it's crucial to understand and comply with all legal requirements and licensing regulations. Failing to do so could result in penalties, fines, or even the closure of your camp.

Researching Local and State Regulations

Start by researching the specific regulations for summer camps in your area. These may vary by state, county, or municipality. Contact your local health department, parks and recreation department, and child care licensing agency to learn about the requirements for operating a summer camp in your location.

Obtaining Necessary Licenses and Permits

Depending on your jurisdiction, you may need to obtain various licenses and permits to legally operate your summer camp. These may include:

  • Business license
  • Health permit
  • Fire safety permit
  • Zoning permit
  • Child care license

Allow ample time to complete the necessary paperwork and inspections before your camp's opening date. The last thing you want is to run into unexpected delays or issues that prevent you from legally operating your camp.

Know Federal Income Taxes and Insurance Expectations

You'll need to make sure you understand and comply with federal income tax laws for your summer camp.

Depending on the structure of your business, you may need to obtain an Employer Identification Number (EIN) from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). It's also important to familiarize yourself with any labor laws that may apply to your employees or volunteers.

Operating a summer camp comes with inherent risks, so it's crucial to have adequate insurance coverage. This may include liability insurance in case of accidents or injuries on site and property insurance to protect against damage or loss of equipment. You may also want to consider additional types of insurance, such as workers' compensation, if you have employees.

Health and Safety Requirements

Your campers' and staff's health and safety should be your top priority. Familiarize yourself with the health and safety regulations for summer camps in your area, which may cover topics such as:

  • Staff-to-camper ratios
  • First aid and CPR certification requirements
  • Food safety and handling procedures
  • Waterfront and swimming safety guidelines
  • Emergency preparedness plans

Develop a comprehensive health and safety plan that addresses these requirements and train your staff accordingly.

Ensuring Compliance with Child Protection Laws

As a summer camp operator, you have a legal and moral obligation to ensure the well-being and protection of the children in your care. This includes complying with child protection laws, such as background checks for staff members, and implementing policies to prevent and report any suspected abuse or neglect.

Stay informed about your state's specific child protection laws and work with legal professionals to ensure compliance with your camp's policies and procedures.

You'll create a safe and responsible environment for your campers and staff by prioritizing legal compliance and licensing requirements. Pembee's customizable forms and automated records can help you manage important documents and ensure your camp remains compliant throughout the summer.

Who's In Charge? Staffing Your Summer Camps

Your staff is the backbone of your summer camp, playing a crucial role in ensuring your campers' safety, enjoyment, and growth.

Assembling a team of qualified, enthusiastic, and reliable staff members is essential for the success of your program. Remember those cabin leaders and camp counselors who made your summer camp experience memorable? Your goal is to create the same positive impact on your campers through your staff.

Determining Staffing Needs

To determine your staffing needs, consider the following factors:

  • The size of your camp and the number of campers you expect to attend
  • The age range of your campers and the level of supervision they require
  • The types of activities you plan to offer and the expertise needed to run them safely
  • The duration of your camp and the number of staff needed to cover all shifts

Create a staffing plan that outlines the positions you need to fill, such as camp directors, counselors, activity specialists, and support staff. These individuals are all stakeholders in your camp's overall experience, so it's essential to carefully consider their roles and responsibilities.

Recruiting and Hiring Qualified Summer Camp Staff

When recruiting staff for your summer camp, seek individuals with experience working with children, a passion for your camp's focus, and a commitment to creating a positive and inclusive environment. Some strategies for finding qualified candidates include:

  • Posting job listings on camp-specific job boards and local job sites
  • Reaching out to local colleges and universities with relevant programs (e.g., education, recreation, or youth development)
  • Leveraging your personal and professional networks for referrals
  • Attending camp job fairs and conferences

During the hiring process, conduct thorough interviews, check references, and ensure candidates have the necessary certifications and qualifications for their roles. As you go through the hiring process for summer camp staff, consider the following tips:

1. Clearly Define Your Camp's Focus and Values

When searching for staff members, it's important to clearly understand your camp's focus and values. This will help you attract candidates who align with your camp's mission and culture. Think about what sets your camp apart from others and highlight those unique aspects in your job postings.

2. Look for Relevant Experience

While certifications and qualifications are essential, experience can also be a valuable asset for summer camp staff.

Look for candidates with previous experience working with children, whether at another camp, as a teacher or educator, or in another relevant role. This can demonstrate their ability to effectively work with children and handle the challenges that come along with it.

3. Consider Personality and Attitude

Beyond just skills and experience, it's important to consider a candidate's personality and attitude when hiring summer camp staff. Working at a summer camp requires patience, flexibility, and a positive attitude.

Search for camp leaders who are enthusiastic, adaptable, and have good problem-solving skills. These qualities can help ensure a successful and enjoyable summer camp experience for both the staff and campers.

4. Conduct Thorough Interviews

Interviews are an essential part of the hiring process, as they allow you to get to know candidates more personally. Prepare a list of questions to give insight into their skills, experience, and personality. Some examples of questions could be:

  • Can you tell me about your previous experience working with children?
  • How do you handle conflicts or difficult situations?
  • What motivates you to work at a summer camp?
  • How do you handle homesickness in campers?
  • Can you give an example of a time when you had to be resilient and adaptable?

Conducting Background Checks and Providing Training

Conducting comprehensive background checks on all staff members is essential to maintain a safe environment for your campers. This may include criminal background checks, sex offender registry checks, and education and employment history verification.

Once you've hired your staff, provide thorough training to ensure they can handle their responsibilities effectively. Training topics may include:

  • Child development and behavior management strategies
  • Safety protocols and emergency procedures
  • Activity-specific training and skill development
  • Diversity, equity, and inclusion practices
  • Camp policies and code of conduct

Managing Staff Schedules and Responsibilities

Effective staff management is key to running a smooth and successful summer camp. Use tools like Pembee's customizable forms and automated scheduling features to:

  • Create and communicate staff schedules, ensuring adequate coverage for all activities and shifts
  • Assign specific responsibilities and tasks to each staff member
  • Track staff hours and manage payroll
  • Facilitate open communication and feedback between staff and management

Regularly check in with your staff, provide ongoing support and guidance, and foster a positive team culture that encourages collaboration and growth.

Designing and Marketing Your Summer Camp Program

A well-designed camp program and effective marketing strategy are essential for attracting campers and creating a memorable experience. Let’s explore how to develop engaging activities and curricula while promoting your summer camp to your target audience.

Designing Your Camp Program

To create a successful summer camp program, focus on developing age-appropriate activities incorporating fun and educational elements. Consider the following when designing your curriculum:

  • Offer a variety of activities that cater to different interests and skill levels, such as sports, arts and crafts, nature exploration, and STEM projects
  • Plan special events and field trips to add excitement and novelty to your program
  • Ensure a balance between structured activities and free play to allow campers to socialize and explore their own interests
  • Adapt your program to the needs and abilities of different age groups, ensuring that each camper feels challenged and engaged

Incorporating Pembee's customizable booking forms and activity pages can help you streamline the registration process and provide campers and parents with a clear overview of your program offerings.

Marketing Your Summer Camp

Effective marketing is crucial for attracting campers and building a strong reputation for your summer camp. Start by identifying your target market and unique selling points, such as your camp's focus, location, or exceptional staff.

Develop a strong brand identity that reflects your camp's values and mission. This includes creating a logo, color scheme, and messaging that resonate with your target audience. Incorporate your branding across all marketing materials, including your website, social media profiles, and promotional items.

Your website serves as a central hub for information about your camp and should include:

  • Details about your camp's program, location, and facilities
  • Staff bios and qualifications
  • Testimonials and photos from previous campers and parents
  • Online registration and payment options, which can be easily managed through Pembee's integrated system

Utilize social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to promote your camp, share updates, and engage with potential and current campers. Join online directories and local parenting groups to increase your camp's visibility and reach.

Word-of-mouth marketing is a powerful tool for attracting new campers. Encourage satisfied families to refer their friends and offer incentives, such as discounts or priority registration, for successful referrals.

Managing Summer Camp Registrations and Payments

Efficient registration and payment processes are crucial for providing a seamless experience for your campers and their families. You can streamline these processes by leveraging online booking systems like Pembee and save valuable time on administrative tasks.

Implementing an Efficient Registration Process

A well-designed registration process should be user-friendly, informative, and customizable to your camp's specific needs. With Pembee, you can create custom booking forms that collect all the necessary information from campers, such as medical conditions, past experiences, and special instructions. This allows you to gather the data you need to provide each camper a safe and tailored experience.

Pembee's flexible activity pages allow you to beautify your camp's online presence with pictures, separated descriptions, and additional attachments. You can also offer multiple ticket types, such as course tickets, single-session tickets, and free trial tickets, with the ability to set limits for each type.

Utilizing Pembee for Seamless Management

Pembee's comprehensive features make managing your summer camp a breeze. The automated daily register keeps all customer records, cash payments, and attendee lists in one place, easily filterable and downloadable for your staff. Automatic email confirmations keep your campers' families informed with all the booking details, saving you time on communication.

Pembee's customizable system allows you to tailor almost every aspect to your camp's needs, from attendee forms and activity pages to social media profiles and email templates. The platform's flexibility ensures that you can create a booking experience that aligns with your camp's unique offerings and branding.

Handling Payment Processing, Refunds, and Balance Reminders

Pembee's integrated payment system, powered by Stripe, ensures secure and reliable online transactions. You can easily handle payments, refunds, and track outstanding balances, all within the platform. The one-click refund feature allows you to cancel part or all of a booking and process the refund simultaneously, saving you time and effort.

For offline payments, such as cash or bank transfers, Pembee lets you record these transactions and organize your financial records. The platform also sends balance reminders on the day a payment is due, eliminating the need for manual payment chasing.

Generating Attendee Lists and Sending Automated Confirmations

With Pembee, you can easily generate attendee lists and send automated email confirmations to campers and their families. The platform keeps all customer and attendee details in one place, making managing your camp's enrollment simple.

Personalized system emails and customizable filters help you provide a tailored experience for your campers, ensuring that they have all the information they need before arriving at camp.

Tips for Running Your Summer Camp

As opening day approaches, finalizing all the necessary preparations is essential to ensure a smooth start to your summer camp. This section will guide you through the key steps in preparing for opening day and running your camp successfully.

Preparing for Opening Day

To ensure a successful opening day, focus on the following tasks:

  1. Finalizing logistics and supplies: Double-check that you have all the necessary equipment, materials, and supplies for your camp activities. Confirm transportation arrangements, meal plans, and any other logistical details.
  2. Conducting staff orientation and training: Provide comprehensive training for your staff, covering topics such as camp policies, emergency procedures, and activity-specific instructions. Foster a positive team dynamic and ensure everyone understands their roles and responsibilities.
  3. Communicating with parents and campers: Send out welcome packets, camp schedules, and any necessary forms or waivers. Provide clear instructions for arrival and departure procedures, as well as guidelines for what to bring and what to expect at camp.
  4. Setting up emergency procedures and protocols: Establish clear emergency plans and protocols, including fire drills, severe weather procedures, and medical emergencies. Ensure all staff members are trained and prepared to handle any situation that may arise.

By thoroughly preparing for opening day, you'll set the stage for a smooth and successful summer camp experience.

Running Your Summer Camp

Once your camp is up and running, focus on the following aspects to ensure a positive experience for everyone involved:

  1. Ensuring smooth daily operations: Use tools like Pembee's automated daily register and customizable activity pages to keep track of attendance, manage schedules, and communicate important information to staff and campers.
  2. Maintaining open communication with parents and staff: Keep parents informed about their child's experience at camp through regular updates, photos, and newsletters. Encourage open communication among staff members to address any concerns or issues promptly.
  3. Addressing any issues or concerns promptly: Be proactive in identifying and addressing any problems that may arise, whether they relate to camper behavior, staff performance, or facility issues. Maintain a positive and solution-oriented approach to ensure the best possible experience for everyone.
  4. Gathering feedback and evaluating success: Regularly collect feedback from campers, parents, and staff to assess your program's strengths and weaknesses. Use this information to make data-driven decisions and continuously improve your camp's offerings.

By focusing on these key aspects, you'll be well-equipped to run a successful summer camp that creates lasting memories for your campers.

Leveraging Pembee's Features

Pembee's comprehensive camp management system can greatly streamline your daily operations and communication efforts. Some key features that can help you run your camp smoothly include:

  • Automated daily registers to track attendance and manage schedules
  • Customizable activity pages to communicate important information and updates
  • Secure online payment processing and balance reminders to simplify financial management
  • Automated email confirmations and personalized customer interactions to keep parents informed and engaged

By utilizing Pembee's powerful tools, you can save time on administrative tasks, ensure smooth communication, and focus on providing an unforgettable summer camp experience for your campers.

Tax Deductions and Financial Considerations

Running a summer camp comes with various financial considerations, including potential tax deductions. Beyond just paying your federal income taxes, you'll want to know if your summer camp's tax-deductible status applies to your particular class and any ways you can reduce summer camp costs with tax savings.

What potential tax deductions are available for summer camps?

Is your summer camp tax deductible? Whether you run an overnight camp or a daytime youth camp, your camp program can benefit from potential tax credit considerations. As a summer camp operator, you may be eligible for several tax deductions, including:

  • Business expenses: Supplies, equipment, rent, utilities, and other necessary costs for running your camp
  • Employee wages and benefits: Salaries, payroll taxes, and benefits for your camp staff
  • Marketing and advertising costs: Expenses related to promoting your camp, such as website development, brochures, and social media advertising
  • Travel expenses: Costs associated with traveling for camp-related purposes, such as attending conferences or visiting potential camp locations

It's essential to keep accurate records of all your expenses to take advantage of these deductions.

How can I determine if my summer camp qualifies for tax-exempt status?

Your summer camp must be organized and operated exclusively for charitable, educational, or religious purposes to qualify for tax-exempt status under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Consult with a tax professional to determine if your camp meets these 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status requirements and to guide you through the application process.

What is adjusted gross income, and how does it relate to summer camp taxes?

Adjusted gross income (AGI) is an individual's total gross income minus specific adjustments, such as alimony payments or student loan interest. While AGI doesn't directly impact your summer camp's taxes, it's essential to understand the concept when dealing with your personal taxes as a camp owner.

If you operate your summer camp as a sole proprietorship or partnership, your income and expenses will be reported on your personal tax return, affecting your AGI. Consult with a tax professional to understand how your camp's financial performance may impact your personal taxes.

How important is it to keep accurate financial records for my summer camp?

Keeping accurate financial records is crucial for the success and compliance of your summer camp. Detailed records will help you:

  • Monitor your camp's financial performance and make informed business decisions about taxable income
  • Prepare accurate tax returns and support any tax deduction claims
  • Comply with federal, state, and local tax laws and regulations
  • Provide transparency to stakeholders, such as investors or board members, regarding your tax liability

As usual, the lower your income and the higher your expenses, the more you can save on your summer day camp or overnight camp. Use accounting software or work with a bookkeeper to ensure your financial records are organized and up-to-date.

When should I consult with a tax professional for guidance?

Consulting with a tax professional is recommended in the following situations:

  • When starting your summer camp to determine the most appropriate business structure and tax obligations
  • When applying for tax-exempt status or navigating complex tax issues
  • When preparing your annual tax returns to ensure accuracy and compliance
  • When making significant financial decisions that may have tax implications, such as expanding your camp or acquiring new property

Embark on Your Summer Camp Journey with Pembee

Starting a summer camp is an exciting and rewarding venture that allows you to make a positive impact on young lives while building a fulfilling business. Following the steps outlined in this comprehensive guide, you'll be well-equipped to navigate the challenges and opportunities of launching and running a successful summer camp.

As you embark on this journey, remember that you don't have to do it alone. Pembee, the ultimate online booking system for group activities, is here to support you every step of the way. With its comprehensive suite of features, Pembee simplifies and streamlines the management of your summer camp, allowing you to focus on delivering unforgettable experiences for your campers.

Pembee's automated daily registers, customizable booking forms, and flexible activity pages make it easy to manage attendance, collect necessary information, and communicate with parents and staff.

By leveraging Pembee's powerful features, you can save time on administrative tasks, ensure smooth operations, and provide a seamless experience for your campers and their families. From personalized customer interactions to automated email confirmations, Pembee's flexible system is custom-made to suit your summer camp's unique needs.

Try Pembee Today!

As you take the first steps towards creating your summer camp, remember the magic and joy that inspired you to embark on this path. With dedication, hard work, and the support of tools like Pembee, you have the power to create a summer camp that will make a lasting impact on the lives of your campers and your community.

So, what are you waiting for? Start your journey today and discover how Pembee can help you bring your summer camp vision to life. Sign up for a 30-day free trial and experience the difference Pembee can make in managing your summer camp. With Pembee by your side, you'll be ready to tackle any challenge and create unforgettable memories that will last a lifetime.

Your summer camp adventure awaits – let's make it a success together with Pembee!

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