How The Summer Camp Experience Can Last A Lifetime

camp nebagamon entrance

Summer is the best time to enjoy the great outdoors. And more specifically, for many lucky kids, summer means getting the summer camp experience.

Camp creates memories, experiences, friendships for a lifetime, and really teaches you the things that you need to know to go out into life — independence, and confidence.

Businesses can learn a lot from the planning that goes into creating those experiences, both the intentional parts and those that just “happen” because the setup is right.

Adam Kaplan is the Director of Camp Nebagamon in Lake Nebagamon, Wisconsin. He was also my cabin counselor when I was an eighth-grade camper.

Dan Gingiss: I’ve been so excited to talk with you. You know, there’s some guests where you just get really, really pumped for the conversation. Every time you send out an email to the parents of campers, it makes me want to go back to camp again. And I know that that comes from the passion that you have for camp. So, tell us a little bit about your background and how did you come to own the camp that you used to be a counselor at?

Adam Kaplan: Yeah, well, I’m really aware of the fact that I’m living out lots of former campers’ dreams by getting to do this. I started it in Nabagamon in 1977 as a 10-year-old boy. So, you can do the math if you want to. And I stayed at camp all through my years that you could be a camper, went right into being a counselor, and in the back of my mind for a while and then eventually in the front of my mind I always thought, “gosh, I would really like to do this.”

But, you know, I grew up and stayed at camp for most of that growing-up phase. And then I got married and my wife said, “that’s enough for you and camp.” But I showed her, didn’t I? Anyways, I went on to be a teacher for about ten years, teaching all the different ages of the kids who go to camp so that I had some experience with all those guys and then wound up getting a great opportunity to run another summer camp out in the San Juan Islands, which was a terrific experience and allowed me to, once the Nebagamon opportunity came along, have had some other things to pull from and some other experiences to make me do this job even better.

And then the call came. “Do you want to run Nebagamon?” And that was a pretty easy answer to that question.

Dan Gingiss: What’s amazing is Camp Nebagamon recently celebrated its 90th birthday, and you are the fourth owner of the camp. So there really has been so much tradition and each of the owners has put their stamp on things.

Now I don’t have a don’t have anything back to 1977, but I do want to bring you back to 1988 and there in the Iowa sweatshirt is Mr. Adam Kaplan. And that guy with all the hair in the front, I don’t know who that is. Second from the right that would be his camper, Danny, as I was called back then. So I wanted to make sure we brought the photographic evidence that we’ve been here before.

Adam Kaplan: And what’s amazing is that is that you and I look almost exactly as we did. Exactly.

camp photo of 8 kids and 2 counselors

Dan Gingiss: Exactly. I mean, you can hardly tell the difference between back then and us today. And also, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that I made sure that a second generation of Gingiss would attend camp.

Adam Kaplan: You know, it’s funny. I’ve been thinking about how we weren’t able to run last summer because of the world. And I’ve been thinking I haven’t seen these guys for a couple of years and how different they’re going to look. And, Mark, you look quite different. You’ve definitely grown up some. And now at least I’ll be able to recognize you when you get off the bus, because I’ve got this preview. So, thanks for being here.

Dan Gingiss: One of the things I think is so cool, one of the many, many traditions of camp, is that because Mark is a is a son of a former camper, he has his name up in in a certain special area of camp. Can you talk about that and the importance of the multigenerational families?

Adam Kaplan: Yeah, so certainly and I know I’m talking to a marketing guy so you can tell me what you think of our marketing plan. But the best way that we are able to connect with new people is through our alumni, through our word of mouth, through our current families. They’re the folks who are talking about camp to people that they know and sending their own kids.

And so, when a guy like you, Dan, who went to camp sends their kid to camp, we have a little plaque that puts Mark’s name up and that gets put in a really prominent place right in our rec hall, which is where we eat all of our meals. And so, the kids, when they first get to camp, get a chance to look up there and say, boy, look at that. I’m part of a tradition here. I’m part of something that connects us.

And like I said, when it relates to our marketing scheme, our current marketing scheme is I sit here at my kitchen counter, and I wait for the phone to ring for people who are interested in camp. And we’re really lucky because we’ve got 90 years of alumni who connect us with people and send their own kids and things like that. But maybe by the end of today you’ll give me some ideas about how to maybe do that better than just waiting for the phone ring.

Related: Why Customer Experience Leads To Word-Of-Mouth Marketing

Dan Gingiss: And just estimate how many of those plaques are up just to give people a sense of legacy campers. It’s hundreds, right?

Adam Kaplan: Oh, it’s definitely hundreds. Yeah, I bet it’s three hundred or four hundred.

Dan Gingiss: Yeah, that’s amazing. That’s awesome. All right, Mark, I’m going to put you on the spot. What are some of your favorite parts of Camp Nebagamon?

Mark Gingiss: Well, I love everything about Camp Nebagamon, but in general, I go to riflery a lot. Water skiing is one my favorites. They have an amazing waterfront, so they have a few sailboats. It’s an amazing place. The swimming is really fun there, too. They have a lot of nice staff that help everyone learn how to swim. It’s really nice and has a nice diving board.

Dan Gingiss: And you also are particularly drawn to the trips. What are some of the camping trips that you’ve taken?

Mark Gingiss: So, two years ago, last time I was a camp, I took two trips. I took a six-day hiking trip, which was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in my entire life. Every day on Lake Superior was great. And then I took a five-day Boundary Waters trip, which was canoeing. And that was also amazing.

Dan Gingiss: Kicks your butt a little bit, though,

Mark Gingiss: It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

Dan Gingiss: That’s awesome. All right. Well, I know you’ve got to get back to school. Thank you for joining us.

Adam Kaplan: Good to see you, buddy.

Dan Gingiss: All right. So, speaking of plaques, Adam, I want to show you another set of plaques that is so emblematic of camp development. And I want you to tell us about what are we looking at here?

Adam Kaplan: So, this is one of the first things that you see when you walk into camp, when you get to our camp office, this is right outside. And what it says is in the top middle, you probably can’t see it unless you really have much better eyes than me, is “this shall be a place of welcome for all.” And all the other plaques you see say this in the language of somebody who has come, in their native tongue. So, we’ve had people who have come from, I think there’s about 40 plaques up there right now, people who speak 40 different languages, who have come and spent their summer at camp.

So not only is that a way to kind of recognize those people for taking a pretty significant risk in coming to a place where the native tongue is different, but the words are really kind of our guiding principle at camp when the whole ethos surrounding camp development is making the place a place of welcome for all. And with every decision we make, every programmatic change we make, every counseling technique that we teach, that’s at the heart of it, is trying to make sure that everyone who comes to camp feels like this is a place that I belong. This is a place that appreciates me and that I’m welcome here. It’s a big deal to us, that sign.

"This shall be a place of welcome for all" sign

Dan Gingiss: And it’s so relevant today, maybe more than ever before, that it’s a place where it doesn’t matter what you look like or where you come from or what your income level is or what country you’re from or what religion you are. There’re boys of all types, shapes, and sizes that go to Nebagamon, and they all have a fantastic experience. And at least the part that I really remember is that especially if you grew up in an area that maybe is a little bit more homogeneous, you go to camp and you start to meet people from all over the place that are very different from you and yet share the same passions for the activities and being outdoors and all that sort of stuff. And I think that is one of the key components of key memories that I had of camp was just meeting different people that maybe I wouldn’t have had a chance to meet.

Adam Kaplan: Right. So, a couple of things I would say on that. First of all, when I went to camp in 1977, you know, you’re kind of right. Everyone looked a lot like me and was from the same neighborhood that you and I were from, not everyone, but it was a fairly homogeneous kind of a place. And over the course of the last 35 years or so, the place is really focused on broadening that camper base so that it’s not all guys who have the same background and come from the same thing.

And the other thing that you said that I think is so right is that today this should be a place of welcome for all is even more important to us, I think, than it’s ever been before, because we live in a world sometimes where people divide themselves and don’t make each other feel welcome. And if we can create a place in a community where that’s the focus of it, then maybe those people who live in that community can start to spread that message further outside of our boundaries and make a difference. It’s a lofty goal, but we shoot for it.

Dan Gingiss: That’s awesome. So, how did you pivot last year with the pandemic? Camp, unfortunately, I think for the first time in its history, wasn’t able to go last summer. But you are full on this summer. Tell us about the planning behind that.

Adam Kaplan: Well, we weren’t able to run last summer, but we still felt it was important to keep that community. And we know that for our community, that was a big loss. And so, we felt it was important last summer to try and keep that community connected and make sure that people felt like still like something was still there and something was still going on. So, we did lots of live things at camp. We have a special program on Sunday nights called Council Fire, and that’s kind of the heart and soul of every week, if you will. So, we did several of these council fires that we broadcast to people’s living rooms all across the country. And that was I think it was helpful to them. It was helpful for us, to be honest with you, to just kind of be able to connect with our people and to engage in some of that stuff that we were missing so much.

For this summer, yeah, tons of planning and tons of wrinkles that have been thrown our way in order to be able to make sure that we pull the summer off safely. And so, we have been engaged in that planning really since we canceled camp last summer for how we can make sure that we can do it this summer. And we’ve worked with other camps that ran last summer, some that succeeded and some that didn’t do so well to kind of learn from what they did. We’ve been engaged with medical professionals with, believe it or not, the actual CDC, and the American Camp Association has lots of guidance on it as well. So, we’ve tried to formulate a plan that will allow us to make camp feel as normal as we possibly can make it feel, but also to make sure that we’re keeping everybody safe. We can tell details of that if you want to, but I mean, you got the email, it was four pages long and that was just that was just the broad brush of it.

lakefront at camp nebagamon

Dan Gingiss: Exactly. Well, yeah. So obviously there are a lot of details. Give us just an example, because there’s lots of companies and organizations are having to do things differently because of the pandemic, of course. So, give us an example of just something that you took that was an experience that was important to camp, that you had to adapt so that you’re not getting rid of the experience. You’re just doing it in a different way to keep it safe. But it allows you to still kind of have a little bit of both worlds.

Adam Kaplan: I guess the best example would be eating right? We’re feeling like we’re wanting not to be indoors whenever that’s possible this summer. We’re trying to be outdoors because we know from all kinds of research that’s the safest thing to do. So having said that, if you scattered the whole camp and ate outdoors, that wouldn’t feel right, because meals are a huge part of everyone’s day at camp. Meals are when the whole camp gets together, it’s when we have announcements and the whole camp gets to engage with each other in fun ways during those announcements. So, we wanted to make sure we kept that intact. We have an amazing caretaking crew and they’ve built us 40 picnic tables and we’re going to be setting up a rec hall style feel for everybody so that they can still have that community feel during meals and we can still have our fun announcements, but we can do it in a way that makes us feel like we’re taking care of making sure everyone’s as safe as we can.

Dan Gingiss: That’s great. And for sure, mealtime for many reasons, was one of the best parts of camp. You also mentioned in your email that there is some advantage that you are outdoors, your camp is outdoors. And so that does give you a little bit more freedom than maybe some other businesses. Tell me a little bit about sort of why the outdoorsy part is going to be so important this summer, both because it’s critical to camp, but also because it is it allows you to do some of the things that, again, maybe some other businesses can’t do.

Adam Kaplan: Right. So interestingly, the very first night the kids arrive at camp, I give a pretty similar talk every year. And that’s not just because I don’t like to make up new material, but it’s because it’s some stuff that’s really important. And part of that talk is I tell the boys that when you get to camp, basically you’re going to be spending four weeks or eight weeks outdoors. And that’s a really special and unique thing. Part of that is because our cabins are 90 years old. And so even if you’re indoors in one of those cabins, let’s just say they breathe pretty well. So, it’s a pretty porous place. So, you’re even when you’re in your cabin, you’re still pretty much outdoors.

And I guess one of the things that I’ve really always believed, and camp is a beautiful place, one of the things I’ve always really believed is that when you take people and you put them together in beautiful places, in particular the outdoors, something just kind of happens in their heads that allows them to do most things more deeply, for lack of a better word, that the ways you connect with people, the ways you play, the things you challenge yourself to do just are deeper. And the thoughts that you have, the things that come into your head, if you’re looking at some beautiful expanse or sitting around a campfire outdoors, the things that pop into your head, the things that you want to talk about, the things that you wonder about, those are just heavier and more significant things, I think, when you’re outdoors.

So, we’re where we’ve always been lucky that we’re outdoors all the time. And this summer, the added benefit of it being the safest place to be is outdoors. We’re in great shape.

Dan Gingiss: So, I want to share two particular memories that I have of camp and then ask you a question related to the memories that are created at camp.

Adam Kaplan: I’m a little nervous about this.

Dan Gingiss: No, they’re both good memories. You mentioned the first day and my first day at Camp Nardie and Sally Stein were the camp owners and I remember being pretty nervous. It was my first time away from home. I had met one of the campers, Seth, in the airport on the way. So, he was the only person I knew, and I didn’t know him very well, only for a few hours. And we went to the rec hall. We are having our first meal, and Sally Stein got up on the microphone. As you mentioned, there’s a lot of interaction that goes on. And at some point, and I found out later that this was a little bit of a shtick that I didn’t realize, but at some point, she got up and I know there was soup as part of the first meal, and she made a point that they were out of spoons.

And so, here’s this woman that, we’ll call her a mature woman, compared to the 9-year-old boys and 10-year-old boys running around. And she says, this is how we eat soup at Camp Nebagamon, and she picked up her bowl of soup and she just slurped it right into the microphone. And I was dying laughing. And I remember that moment. It was like all of the stress and all of the worry of going away, it just disappeared. She did that on my first night and I was like, yeah, I’m going to really enjoy it here.

And that memory stuck with me however many years later. And I think it’s amazing. When I saw her at a recent event there a couple of years ago, I told her about that. And she mentioned to me that they weren’t really out of spoons, but it was good to it was it was one that stuck with me.

The other memory that has always stuck with me is my first-year cabin, which were called Swampers. All of us, for whatever reason, were huge baseball fans. And so, we played softball up on the upper diamond all the time. We played just ourselves, we challenged other cabins, we spent half the summer up there. And I remember distinctly that we challenged one of the Lumberjack cabins, which are the oldest kids in camp, and that we had this big battle of a softball game that we just barely lost, and we really thought we were going to win. And it was only many years later that I realized that that might have been a setup, too.

Adam Kaplan: Yeah, we don’t have a ton of 15-year-old cabins that are going to lose on a regular basis to the 9-year old’s. So, there was a little craft involved there.

Dan Gingiss: But boy, was it a great memory for me. And what I wanted to ask you, though, was, when we’re in the business world and we think about customer experience, it’s often a very proactive thing. You have to design experiences in a certain way so that they’re memorable so that people get something out of them. Obviously, there’s a ton of planning that goes into designing the camp experience. And yet those two examples, sometimes it just feels like the experience happens to you basically just by being there it is. You sort of said just by being outdoors, the experience comes to you. Can you talk a little bit about that trade off of how much do you have to plan to create an experience versus you just put 200 boys in a camp outside and experiences are going to happen?

Adam Kaplan: Certainly just the physical environment that we’ve created lends itself to really special things happening. But one of the things I say to the staff during our staff orientation week is that when you are a camper, you believe that camp is just magic. You just are sure that there’s something that’s magical about it. And then what I go on to tell the counselors is now what you’re going to learn is that that magic that happens at camp is the result of a lot of effort and hard work and thoughtfulness about everything that we’re going to do. But then I go on to say, but the good news is, what you’re going to find is that the magic is actually still real, that even though that magic comes from all that hard work, the sum is so much greater than the parts because when we all get together and we work on this thing together and we have this community that we build together, the magic really happens.

And more specifically, to your point, yes, you do have to always be nimble, and you have to be able to see what’s going on and recognize the moment that’s a moment you really want to capitalize on, and it’s becoming a special moment all on its own, and then what you can do to augment that and make it even more special. But then you also build in some things that you know will create, in the kids, this feeling like, wow, this amazing thing just happened and sometimes they’ll realize it was planning and sometimes it’ll be planning and they won’t realize it was planning, but it kind of doesn’t matter because like I said, all those things mashed together are just so much bigger than even the planning and the work that goes into it.

Dan Gingiss: Yeah. And you have a distinct advantage of the first time you see your customer on day one, you get to tell them that they’re s’mores later that night, and you already have big fans. But that’s awesome. Well, Adam, have an amazing summer. I am envious of all that will be there because I know how amazing it will be. So have an awesome summer.

For those that are interested in Camp Nebagamon, please go check them out at their website. I can certainly vouch for it. It is an amazing place to be looking for a place to send your boys for the summer, please do so. It is amazing. And my daughter goes to their sister camp,  Camp Birch Trail, which is right up in the same area in northwest Wisconsin, also a fantastic camp for girls.

So, Adam, thank you so much. Keep up the good work and keep the fires burning.

Adam Kaplan: You too, man. Great to have some time with you.

This interview was edited for length and clarity. You can watch the entire video on The Experience Maker YouTube channel.