Interview with Katie Harrison
DR: Hello and welcome to another episode of campfire stories where we interview successful camp directors and consultants who share how they’ve launched and grown their camps. Very exciting today, I’m joined by Katie Harrison who’s the director and founder of Echopond summer camps based in Newfoundland. Hello and welcome Katie.
KH:Oh! Thank you so much for having me.
DR: My pleasure. I’m really interested to get into this because in the note I got here it says you fill your camp without doing any advertising or marketing and you fill it within hours of launching registration which sounds insane. I’d love to know how you’ve done it.
KH:Yeah, it’s pretty wild in the past we’ve like put up posters in a couple of schools but this year we did nothing but email our previous families and put some Facebook posts up and just watching the registrations roll in, on registration day we had over 100 registrations in ten minutes.
DR:Yeah. That’s amazing. That is clearly the dream for every camp director and camp owner. We certainly love to know how you’ve done that.
But maybe before we get into that maybe it would be good to just find out how Echo pondgot started and how you got it going in the first place.
KH:Yes. So the origin story for Echo pondis actually kind of magical. We’ve run out of the Brother Brennan environmental education center which is an environmental education center about an hour and a half out of St. John’s Newfoundland.
It’s been open since about the 80s. And they run overnight field trips for school groups in the spring and fall. So in the fall of 2014 myself and one of my co-founders Rebecca Smyth were both teachers- we both have backgrounds in camp and environmental education- and we got hired there as teaching assistants, and our first day we got there it’s this beautiful center. It’s got a bunk house and a cook house and a pond in the middle of our beautiful boreal forest just perfect for a camp. And we said what do they do here in the summer? And they said nothing.
They just got sporadic rentals and whatnot and we said why; there needs to be a summer camp here, it’s the perfect location. And then our third co-founder Laura Temple who had been working there for quite a few years sort of just stepped out of the shadows and she was like I’ve been waiting to start a camp for many years. And so we were all just there at the right time. That was the fall of 2014 and the summer of 2015 we had opened our first camp.
KH: Oh yes. So it’s just a perfect meeting of minds.
DR:That’s nice. That’s when you all comes together?
KH: Yeah. So the first year we aim to have five camps including a girls only camp which was Rebecca’s background. We didn’t get enough kids to fill that camp so we ended up running only four camps that summer. We basically just sent kids to camp for free. Anybody who would get on our bus we took them in order to fill our camps which now looking at how many kids we have at our camps. today, they were running at half capacity but we did it. We had a really great ratio like one to five at some points. Got ourselves a lifeguard and another camp counselor and we just ran four really fantastic camps and in year two we had plan to have five camps including a camp for 13 and 14 year olds, and we had to add an extra camp because we had so many kids who wanted to come. And then year three we actually ended up planning eight camps. So every year we just add a new program. So in year three we added camp Rainbow which is our camp for trans and gender diverse children.
And we also got funding to do a newcomer camp that was exclusively for new Canadian children, new refugees, that kind of thing. So we ran all eight camps.
And then last year, which was our fourth year, we added an overnight to our team camp and we also added a junior leader program, because now we have kids who are aging out of camp, who want to come back and have a leadership experience. And then for this year we’ve added an out trip camp. We happen to be on a pond it’s connected to many ponds so we can do a two night overnight cortege trip and we’re running that at the same time as one of our three day camps. We started really small. We have really kind of slow measured growth and we add one or two things each year and we just make them really solid and then we build on that the next year and then we just bring more and more people in. that is the origin story of Echo Pond.
DR:It is awesome. That sounds great.
I’ve heard from lots of people and I’ve had experience of these starting camps for the first time and just getting that initial traction can be really difficult.
I think you said you ended up opening up your camp just to get people in the end, just to make sure you have people come in. With that, were you able to still break even with numbers?
KH: Yes. Actually our first year we did manage to break even which I think is not a common thing with the first year of camp, at least that’s what I’ve been told.
DR: Yeah absolutely. We’re launching two or three this year and it’s breaking even if looking at maybe the best scenario. Yes, it so hard that first year to get the traction.
KH: Yeah! We broke even the first year and it’s just gotten better and bigger every year since, super cool!
DR:Yeah, that’s really awesome. In that first year how did you get that traction apart from just getting people out for free, what were the other things that you… how were you getting the message out here to people in the area?
KH: Well, we mainly targeted schools. We had two age groups that point; we had a free day camp for 7 to 9 year olds and five day camp for 10 to 12 year olds. So we made posters and we put them up in schools.
One of the first things that we decided to do was to shell out the money and have like a professional company do our branding for us. So they made a professional web site for us. We got all the logos and everything. So when parents looked us up they could see a nice polished professional image which I think is really important. And the thing about living on the Avalon is that there are few overnight camps like this. I can think of two other ones and they’re both church camps. So not only are we a really unique kind of nature program but we’re also one of the only secular camps on the Avalon. So we wanted to have that nice professional image so that parents could trust us.
We also benefit from running for a program that also run school programs. So you know the three of us are planning camp but we’re also running field trips for kids who are in our age range. So these kids are coming they’re doing their science curriculum but they’re also like having campfires and sleeping over and we’re telling stories. And at the end of it we’re saying if you really like this you can come back we have a summer camp and that got us a lot of kids and we had a lot of teachers who have been bringing their kids too our school programs for many years, we would send out messages to parents. So mainly going through the schools is how we got our first kind of batch of kids and then in the following years they just all brought their friends and came back and brought their siblings. So that’s where we got a lot of our traction.
DR: Yeah. And I think that’s really important for the first year is to like give a taste of the experience of what it is and who’s running it and what it’s gonna be like. I think like just having a digital presence it’s not really enough initially. Parents need to see it, feel it, trust it, know it and only then they’re going to trust that you should look after the kids, I think that is a really nice way into it.
KH: Yeah. And with it because the brother Brennan Center has been around for 30 years a lot of the parents actually went there when they were kids and so they’re familiar with the space and the programs I think we benefited from that as well.
DR: It’s great. So the first year… I remember running camp for first year and it just being utter carnage, was it the same sort of experience for you?
KH: It was definitely a learning experience. We’re really lucky. I grew up running very similar types of camps. Rebecca used to work at the really big YMCA camps in Ontario and we’ve all had experience with kids and we’re all teachers. So that part wasn’t too hard. We really benefited from having those small numbers in the first year. We always tell a story about how on the very first day of camp like we have done all of this planning, we were so prepared, we were all nervous. We had to like take a cab to get on the bus because we bus the kids out there and we get there on the first day. And there was a torrential downpour. And of course we get lots of rain in Newfoundland but it doesn’t usually rain like that hard. And we just had to switch all of our plans and that kind of set the tone for the rest of the summer.
We are super flexible in our planning and that’s kind of been the backbone of how we run our programs; having like a schedule skeleton and then we kind of fill it in based on the kids that we have in front of us. So I think being able to be so flexible and having all the experience that we have really helped us overcome the carnage of a first year. And yeah, it was really good.
DR: Yeah, I think that’s a nice way to do it like to start small and grow it. We ended up… we were kind of taking over from a camp who hadn’t been going very well. Kind of re-launched and we did all the programs and we had quite a lot of kids the first year, with a new group of Staff.
But then just get easier and easier after that, about now it’s like clockwork.
KH: So yeah it’s a different kind of hard now.
DR: So yeah, you’ve got your camp starting very soon?
KH: Yes. Our first camp, Camp rainbow, starts on July 2nd and then our first regular set of camp starts on July 8th.
KH: So we’re in the homestretch now.
DR:Yeah. Nice place to be. And where are you finding your challenges now, I guess it very different from the initial year of getting started. What are the main challenges you facing?
KH: At this point. I think we’re slowly growing beyond our physical means.
What I mean by that is that like for example the bunkhouse building that we have was originally built by the Catholic school board that we used to have in Newfoundland. So it’s two wings so you would have a boys’ wing and a girls’ wing just very gendered and outdated. It makes it difficult for us to take on as many campers as we’d like. For example I have one camp where I have 24 beds in one wing and I have more than 24 girls, so trying to figure out those kinds of problems.
Wait list. We have kids who would love to come to camp and we just don’t have space for them. We just don’t have enough weeks in the summer to run as many camps as we would like and finding staff that are either male or non-binary is always a challenge as I hear from other camps. So that’s been a challenge this year but everything is overcome-able.
DR:Yeah sure, it’s funny not enough male staff comes through. We have the same problem here in Switzerland. Just doesn’t seem like there’s as many male involved in the summer camp industry.
KH: Yeah. I think that probably goes hand-in-hand with why there’s not as many male teachers or childcare workers or that kind of thing but the male staff that we have had this year and in the past has been fantastic role models, so we love having them.
KH: Our staff that we have lined up for this year is phenomenal and I can’t wait to work with them.
DR:That’s great. And tell me about Staffing so you’ve got Staff which return each year?
KH: Yes and no. In the past, this year is kind of different, we’ve had the three of us I and Rebecca and Laura in a more of a leadership position. Laura has always kind of run the food aspect of camp. We eat a lot of local food a lot of healthy food. Our food camp is a whole food culture camp that Laura has kind of handled over the last few years. We have the three of us and then we usually have three other camp counselors one of which is a lifeguard and then we also have a full kitchen staff.
This year is a little bit different where the three of us are kind of moving on in our lives on to different things. This year I’m running as the camp director and more of a leadership position. We’ve hired a head camp counselor which is returning from last year, she’s fabulous Amy. And then we’ve hired three new staff, four new staff, many new staff including a lifeguard. And then we have one of our male staff returning from last year. And we’ve hired a new kitchen director. And then we have the regular kitchen staff as well.
KH: So we usually have a better one. We only have 36 kids Max at a camp so even with me now on a ratio it’s about a one to six which is really nice. So kids get the attention that they need.
DR: Yeah that’s great.
KH: It makes it a lot easier for us.
DR: Yeah. What have been the key of retaining Staff keeping Staff come back to?
KH: It’s just a really great place to work. It’s a super, positive, inclusive space. We put a lot of emphasis on self-care, taking breaks, eating really good food. We just take really good care of our staff. So we’ve had two ways to re-staff; where we hire university students they tend to move on and do different avenues of education so we did lose quite a bit of our staff last year.
But that’s really it. It’s just a really happy place to work in a beautiful setting. So I think that’s how we’ve held onto the staff that we’ve had. But like I said they, because they’re mostly university students they move home or go on to other things.
DR: Yeah. That is understandable. I read you’ve got a 66 percent returner rate with this with the campers.
KH: Yes. That’s correct. That’s the highest was last year I think it was about 60 and the year before it was 50 percent. We only let kids come once per summer. So that 66 percent is like per child, no doubling up. And a lot of them bring their friends.
I’m at the point where making the room list is like playing a really hard game of Tetris because I have sometimes I’ll get like 14 kids who all sort of know each other and want to be in the same room and there’s diagrams and arrows; so I think that is the greatest reason why we don’t have to do a lot of marketing because we have kids who come they love it, they go home they tell their friends and then they just bring all their friends with them and then they grow up and their siblings come and they bring their friends. So it’s really like an echo pond family.
DR: Yeah. That is awesome. That’s really nice. So making them love camp that’s the key. How do you make them love camps?
KH: Having a really good staff to campers’ ratio is really important like I mentioned before then being able to get lots of personalized attention. Camp is just really fun, like I said before with our flexible planning every week at camp looks different based on what kids are there. They don’t just come and do the same thing every week we might see that they’re getting really into one activity and we’ll offer that more or the weather will be different and we’ll kind of manage for that. They get lots of choice in their activities, in their food and what they’re doing day to day. They have a lot of autonomy in what they’re up to. We have a no electronics policy which sounds like a bad thing for kids but I think a lot of them get a lot out of not having their phones there and having that really genuine interaction not only with their peers but also with the staff.
Yeah. We just do a lot of fun Staff. And we have this sort of ritually things that summer camps often have; we have with our middle camp, our 10 to 12 year olds, we have a game called Roxy Boxing which, is basically to capture the flag. It’s a game that the Staff that we had in the first year kind of just made up off the top of their head and now it’s like a yearlong thing, once a year thing. The kids capture the flag… the kids call them silver potatoes, it’s rocks like wrapped in tinfoil we paint their faces and we have like… with characters show up who are like champions of Roxy boxing… it’s this whole big thing that we like ramp up toevery Thursday in that camp. So we have things like that that are really special. And I think because they only get to come once per summer it makes it even more special.
DR: But what you’ve explained means they only can do one week or one session.
KH: Yeah. So our sessions are five days or three days for our junior camps and they can only attend one of those par summer
DR: Right, okay. That’s impressive to fill it with quite strict. A good technique is to just get these campers to spend their week and not limit them to once.
KH: Well because we have such special things in it that if you knew they were coming it kind of ruins it for the other kids. In the past we haven’t been super strict about it. So a couple of kids have kind of snuck in for a second time and then we’re fine with it but now we’re really strict about it especially because we have more and more kids who want to come. And we just believe that having a summer camp experience is such a classic important childhood experience and we want the most amount of kids feel to have that experience. And we know that if we just open it up to anybody we would have kids who would be coming three or four times a summer and then it just won’t be as inclusive. We know that we have kids that would love to spend their whole summer there but we feel this is the best way to let the most amounts of kids have that experience.
DR: Yeah, awesome sounds great. I think you mentioned one camp traditional you have here, you called it silver potatoes?
KH: Yes. Silver potatoes for Roxy boxing
DR: What other camp tradition do you? You should tell us more
KH:All of our camps make tree cookies. So a tree cookie is exactly what it sounds like. So on the first day of camp right after lunch they all gathered together and they get to decorate their tree cookies.
All of our staff wears tree cookies. We also have earth names which kind of make camp a special place. So we all go write these nature names and we wear our tree cookies with our nature names on it. And so the kids get to make their own. And then on that first night we have our opening camp fire. Some of our staff will put together a little archway and they’ll transition from what we call city mode into nature mode. So we’ll do this little spiel about how you know when you go into nature mode; you move slower and you look closer and you kind of listen as sort of military vibe. And so as they step through the archway they receive their tree cookie and then they join us at the first camp fire which is always… Staff like really sweet.
So we have kids like their fifth year coming and they’ll come with all of their tree cookies from every year around their neck. And they’re so proud of them.
Another camp tradition is magic spots. This is a really traditional environmental education activity. So kids will get a spot along the pond with their crew and their spot is for the whole week and try to visit that spot at least once a day sometimes in the morning sometimes in the afternoon and for like a good like 20, 25 minutes there. They just sit there. They can bring a book or a notebook sometimes they draw. And it’s just a time to be nice and quiet and reflective and meditative in nature which some kids do really well with. Some kids do not. OK, but we have kids who come back sometimes with their schools who request their magic spots or they’ll come back from camp and they can remember the stump that they sat on. Three hundred and sixty five days ago and they would like that spot back because it’s really special to them which I always find really sweet.
DR: That’s really nice.
DR: So. I mean leading up to this question of how you filled your camp in a day. I’m sensing that it just comes really from running a fantastic camp. Kids love it. They want to come back. They bring their friends. You tell them about it pretty by e-mail and then instantly they jump in because they know slots are scarce. So they’ve got to act quickly to jump in. I’ve got that right?
KH:Yes. Yeah. We usually send out a couple of e-mails to our echo pond family the kids who have been here last two years leading up to registration day. We release our dates in January and then we’ll do a little bit of Facebook posts on our Facebook page and that was it for this year. And I think because… what happened is that last year nobody expected, like last year filled up pretty quick as well and I don’t think parents were prepared for that. So everybody was prepared for this year. And it was just like wild like my phone makes a little ding every time you get an e-mail and it’s just like ding ding ding ding ding ding. Yeah. So it’s all it’s all word of mouth. It is Kids having just a super positive experience and just bringing their friends, bringing their siblings year after year.
DR: That’s great. Do you incentivize word of mouth at all?
KH:What do you mean?
DR: like a referral discount or something like that.
KH:We do not.
DR: OK. That’s great, that’s nice. It’s yeah. When you’re younger campers word of mouth happens anyway. Anything has happened after which you would like to speak about?
KH:Yeah I would love to talk about one of our core value statements which I think is super unique to us and really important and what it is- is that we support ecological and human diversity. That’s what we have in our Echo Pond banner. That’s what we have on our Facebook page and everything. And basically it’s the idea that you know we’re an environmental education camp. You know we’re having kids have these really positive experiences in nature so that when they grow up they’ll feel a kinship to it to, want to take care of it, protect it. So you know the idea that ecological communities are obviously stronger when there’s greater diversity. We know that that’s a fact. And we know that human communities are stronger when they are also full of diversity. So that has kind of been a core value for us since day one. And we do a lot to make sure that kids who are marginalized, kids who are underserved in our communities have the chance to come to camp.
So you know in our regular camps we have kids who with autism spectrum, we have kids with ADHD. We often have kids who are trans or gender diverse. We support kids by having a pronoun check at the beginning of every camp which is where you go round and you just say which pronoun you are most comfortable with using. We modeled that ourselves as; as camp counselors we have a place on our registration form to announce your pronouns. So we’re talking to kids the way that they would like to be spoken to.
At camp we have gender neutral washrooms. We partner with groups like transport and L and the Association for New Canadians. So in the past we sponsor about six to eight kids from the ANC to come to camp every year for free. Sometimes these kids are Muslim; sometimes those kids are refugees who have just come to Canada who have had a really hard life. They can come to camp; they can have this great childhood experience. They can be with other kids. We march in our local pride parade every year. And we have a camp Rainbow, which I think I mentioned before, which is our three day camp for trans and gender diverse youth. So we do a lot to make sure that we have a diversity of kids at our camp and that we’re supportive and open to all of them.
DR: Awesome. That sounds great. Very Open and diverse which is really nice. And in our camp we have like 40 different nationalities coming in and that makes it different sort of diverse but it’s just fantastic when it went together pretty well.
KH:And it’s so nice to have these especially with the kids from the ANC to have these like organic moments for kids who might not otherwise get the chance to interact with them in their everyday lives. I remember the story from like, I think it might have been a year or two, we had a couple of Muslim sisters who were at camp and so they come and they need to pray so many times a day. So we would put aside one of the bedrooms for them to do that whenever they needed to. And we also had a girl there from Bell Island which is a small island kind of just off the coast Newfoundland. You have to take a ferry to get to, it’s a smaller community. And she was in camp and I remember she ran up to Rebecca after swimming one day she was glue berry She was saying you won’t believe what I just saw in the other room and she said that she was in there with one of the other girls from the ANC and were hanging out or doing each other’s hair and the Muslim child had come in and she had started to pray. And so this girl from Bell Island She sets her back. She was you know I’m all for diversity and everything but- and of course we don’t know what’s gonna come next as she goes- that was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. What a lovely organicmoment for that child to have. You know, that might not happen in her everyday life.
I know that the kids who came home to our two year one from the ANC they taught this rock game some of them I think were from Africa. And it’s kind of like Jaxwhere you like throw up a rock, you have to pick up a rock. And they had all the kids play it we just find these piles of rocks like all over the camp. And I remember the next year we had kids who were at that camp, who were not from the ANC, come and the first thing they did once they got settled in was go and collect their rocks and pass that game on. And so those girls have not been back to camp since they’ve moved but that game pops up every year. So it’s kind of just woven its way and it was just so cool.
DR: Awesome so. I guess you came up with this mission and core values from your background environmental teachers before that. And how did it come about that you all had the same core values and what was there big brainstorming beforehand and you all settled on it all.
KH:I think the three of us are just really similar. I think it just worked out really well. We did a lot of brainstorming before we started the first camp about you know what would it look like when we were successful? How would we feel at the end of the summer if we did a really good job? How would our kids feel? How would our parents feel and how did we want to stay true to you the core mission of the Brother Brennan Center which is an environmental education center. And Brother Brennan who was the head of the Catholic school board back when they created the center. His whole shtick was you know if you teach them to love nature then they’ll stick up for it. Those are not his words but that’s the gist of it right. If you get kids to have these positive experiences in nature they’re gonna grow up; they’re going to love it they’re going to care for it. That’s my background. I’m originally from Halifax Nova Scotia and I grew up doing environmental education camps to a similar tune. So that’s a lot of my background. Rebecca and the Laura grew up here in Newfoundland are both very outdoorsy and have love in the environment as well which is probably why three of us ended up working at an environmental education center doing that kind of programming. So I think it was just a perfect storm. And the three of us just had you know these similar core values.
DR: Yeah that’s great. That’s really nice. And then everything built around that. So if you’ve got the core values right and they’re all aligned and everything makes sense around that then it just grows nicely and evolves and it’s a really nice way to do it. So it’s been really nice to hear your story. Hear about how it got founded, how it’s developed so thanks so much for sharing it with us.
KH: Thank you.
DR: Great. Well we’re going to end at that but thanks a lot for everyone who’s been listening. If you want any more information where can they reach out to you if they’d like to know more Katie?
KH: Our website is www.echopondsummercamp.com. We are on Facebook under the same name and we are also on Instagram @echopondsummercamp.
DRAwesome! Thanks so much Katie and all the best for that camping this summer. I hope to get you very soon.
KH: Great. Thanks so much.