The most formative experiences John Dockendorf had as kid, were at summer camp, paddling rivers in canoes for days at a time, backpacking trails, climbing tocks, riding horses, and sailing boats. More than outdoor skills, John made lifetime friends, gained a love and appreciation of nature, and was exposed to powerful role models, many who lived a more vagabond life than his parents.
Perhaps the most important thing he learned at camp was the power of community, and the joy of doing more than your share and reaching out and helping others.
Growing up, he wanted nothing more than to own a summer camp. This was a hard nut to crack as most camps are family owned and passed down over generations. When a camp comes up for sale, it often costs millions of dollars, something far out of a reach of an idealistic young man devoid of financial resources.
Fresh out of graduate school with a master’s in hospitality management from, the Cornell School of Hotel Administration, John started Adventure Treks, a wilderness adventure traveling camp. Without the cost of a facility, the startup costs were not huge and in 1993 with financial help from a former employer, Frank Schell, john put his heart and soul and $25,000 into starting Adventure Treks.
He quickly created indelible experiences for teenagers. The secret to the young company’s success was the fact that for the early years he spent his summers in the field with the instructors and students, ensuring that everything was done to his exacting standards, In the process he trained many up-and-coming outdoor professionals, several who still remain in the outdoor industry today.
John ran adventure treks for 28 years, eventually selling it to his director, Dave McGlashan in 2021.
In 2011, John and his wife Jane reopened Camp Pinnacle, a closed and bankrupt summer camp. They worked without pay for five years growing the camp from 89 campers in two, two-week sessions the first summer to a camp of 880 campers during four, two or three week sessions in 2021, when they retired.
“When we started Camp Pinnacle it was decrepit. The camp had been closed for two years. The previous managers had declared bankruptcy, left town in the middle of the night, leaving families who had already paid for the summer ahead, high, and dry with no camp to attend and no refund on their payments.” We knew were walking into a mess. While some people said reopening a seasonal camp was impossible, we saw potential. We knew if we could navigate the first three years, we could make it!
John and jane honored the tuition lost by past campers, invested everything they had into remodeling the facility and generated tremendous word of mouth by delivering incredible camp experiences to the campers. They filled a void in the camp market through the creation of a truly unique two-week outdoor camp model where in a single session, every camper whitewater rafted, climbed a real rock, summited a 6,000 ft plus mountain, camped out overnight and learned to ride mountain bikes on forest trails. This was coupled with great food, a tremendous lake filled with water toys and over 40 exciting in – camp activities. “Because we were initially so small, our campers could do more in two weeks than most camps could offer in four weeks!”
How did you get started in this business?
I spent my college summers working as a camp counselor, working up to canoeing leader then an age group leader and eventually program director. After college, I worked year-round at my camp as Associate director focusing on programming, marketing, and sales. Beyond that, there wasn’t much upward mobility because the camp I worked at, Camp Mondamin like most camps was family owned. The summer camp business consisted predominately of small family-owned businesses with little opportunity for upward mobility.
How do you make money?
At Camp Pinnacle, We took on a partner for capital because the demands of remodeling the facility far exceeded our personal resources. We worked our first five years without pay, putting every ounce of profit and even next year’s deposits into improving the campus facility. We spent approximately 4 million dollars over ten years turning a once dilapidated summer camp into a state-of-the-art facility.
Unfortunately, camp tuition increases have been on the same upward trajectory as health care and college tuition, meaning it has significantly outpaced the rate of inflation. While this has finally made camping a profitable venture, it has also priced many deserving families out of the market.
We learned that underpricing the market, something we wanted to do to make camp more accessible to all families was not a viable strategy as a lower price point implied a lack of quality and when it comes to their children, people tend to want to invest in what is perceived as the best experience, not the least expensive. While piece doesn’t always equate to quality, first -time buyers are wary of a less expensive experience. We ended up matching the prices of the mid to high range camps and tried to make up for our high prices by offering many partial scholarships to deserving families.
Camping can be a tough business because you have only 8 – 10 weeks to make your living. We were able to extend our season by offering wedding weekends beginning in April and resuming in September and August once the campers were back in school. By offering outdoor education programs for schools, we were able to fill mid-week voids, getting a six-month utilization of our facility rather than just three months of summer. By marketing to southerners who got out of school in late May in the first half of the summer and northerners who returned to school after labor day in the second half of the summer, we were able to maximize enrollment all summer long.
How long did it take for you to become profitable?
Because we continued to invest in our once dilapidated facility it took seven years or until 2018 to become profitable. Just as things were looking good, COVID came in 2020, corresponding with our largest capital investment in our physical plant. While we were able to successfully operate during Covid, we had to reduce occupancy by 30 percent and shorten our season. We also lost 100% of our wedding and school group business resulting in a significant loss for the year. Camp became profitable again in 2021
When you were starting out, was there ever a time you doubted it would work? If so, how did you handle that?
The first year was scary – it was early January; before our first summer. We had already burned through $150,000 and we had just seven campers signed up for the summer. Three of those kids were our own! We had signed a 60-year lease with guaranteed rent payments. Somehow, we found another 80 campers for the summer and started to build our event business for the off season. Fortunately, we could rely on our other company, Adventure Treks to provide an income and share resources so we could keep overhead at Camp Pinnacle low. We worked for five years without taking a penny for ourselves. Somehow, by creating a great product, investing ourselves in the business and treating every kid as our own, word of mouth took over and now camp fills in October for the coming summer.
How did you get your first customer?
Our first customers were our own kids. They are tough customers, and we knew that if we could create a summer camp experience that they loved, then we really would have something special. They gave us great feedback in the early years. Many of our first customers were younger siblings of existing Adventure Treks students, people who already believed in us because they had seen our competence and caring in our other venture. Having camp age kids, we knew many families with kids from the schools, soccer fields and other activities. These friends were excited about the project and signed their kids up! Of course, families who had booked Camp Pinnacle when they went bankrupt and were gratified to get a credit for a future summer. These groups comprised the 89 campers we attracted our first summer.
What is one marketing strategy (other than referrals) that you’re using that works really well to generate new business?
The best strategy was to identify what parents in the digital age wanted and needed and creating a camp program that helped them become better parents. We gave kids a legitimate break from technology, which parents and ultimately the kids appreciated. We gave kids a chance to learn and explore a variety of outdoor activities that could be hard for parents to facilitate on their own like whitewater rafting, mountain biking and backpacking. We also provided a source for great role models, camp counselors, something that parents greatly appreciated.
As stated earlier, we were able to fit the benefits and experience of a four-week camp in just two weeks. This was appreciated by busy families who had full summers and didn’t have the time or more realistically, couldn’t afford to pay the tuition of four weeks of camp. We did a good job with digital marketing, used videos effectively where we let campers tell the story and built an excellent website. Ultimately, by making Camp pinnacle a place that felt like a second home for many kids, we earned a consistent 70 percent return rate, making marketing relatively easier. Parents also appreciated a $200 discount for referring families. Our happy campers told the story, and the camp enrollment grew every year until Pinnacle reached its 225-person capacity and began a wait list.
What is the toughest decision you’ve had to make in the last few months?
The hardest decision I ever faced in my 43 years in the outdoor and summer camp industry was deciding whether to open summer camp during the first Covid summer of 2020. Only 18 percent of camps operated during Covid, so we were in the minority. While we always put the health and safety of our customers first, not opening meant perceived horrific financial losses. Especially before the government PPP and ERTC programs were announced. Having spent years building a great team, the risk of laying them off and possible losing them to another job was something we had to avoid. These folks were family, we couldn’t lay them off, but we worried we would have to pay them out of our retirement savings. Because camp was outdoors and healthy, we felt if could be the perfect vehicle to give kids a much-needed escape after quarantine and online school. We felt compelled to find a way to serve our campers and make camp happen. Just the thought of being able to attend camp in the summer was all that was keeping many kids hanging on through lockdown. We saw how much our own kids were suffering from lockdown and how much they needed a camp-like experience to get them out of their COVID funk.
We watched most of the camps in our area announce via video that they weren’t going to operate that summer and we heard how saddened their campers and staff were. We resolved to find a way to make camp happen! We studied the virus, figured out new systems, changed our program and worked with our local health department, the NCDHHS, other camps who were trying to open and the American Camping Association to generate the new best practices for COVID. The advantage we had was that mentally, we were still in camp star- up mode. We were used to constantly changing and improving our program every single year. We weren’t relying on tradition and rolled out new ideas all the time. Thus, readjusting for Covid was not a challenge for our culture but just another form of adaptation. We quarantined and locked down our staff, reduced camp size, shortened our season, installed giant fans in our screen cabins, ate in shifts, ran the program in cohorts and successfully operated camp pinnacle in 2020 without a single case of covid.
What do you think it is that makes you successful?
The depth of caring we had for our camp families, a quest for constant improvement and a belief in the power of the camp experience to build skills in kids that will help them thrive in the 21st century. Parents were looking for what we were offering and when they know how much you care and how hard you try and how much you emphasize safety, they were willing to forgive us any small mistakes.
What has been your most satisfying moment in business?
Getting to know so many amazing families who quickly became friends and knowing we had significantly affected our campers lives by delivering a powerful learning and growing experience that was almost always the highlight of most kids’ years. The other joy was working with the counselors, giving them appropriate responsibility and watching them grow and improve their leadership skills. We built an incredible year-round leadership team that took as much pride as we did in doing good work.
What does the future hold for your business? What are you most excited about?
Well, we just sold Camp Pinnacle to our business partner. We had done the hard work building the camp and it was now a mature business. It was now more about managing and less about creating. Jane and I have spent a year slowly phasing out, but leaving has been hard, though it’s the right thing to do. The staff we had grown over the years were ready to run the camp on their own. It has been a wonderful but exhausting ten-year run and it is time to take some personal time, work on skiing and other skills we have neglected and decide what if any business venture should be next. We will forever miss eating, sleeping, and breathing, Camp Pinnacle, but we are loving watching our staff step up and continue its legacy of excellence. Our departure created wonderful opportunities for them!
What business books have inspired you?
Thomas Friedman’s The Age of Acceleration which demonstrates recent societal trends and emphasized to us how we didn’t need to create the summer camp we wanted but create one that would help parents raise kids in this accelerated kids in this accelerated world and give them skills they needed for success that schools weren’t doing, and parents would have a hard time doing themselves. Many camps, being family owned, did things the same way year after year, emphasizing tradition. Few people were looking at camp as a unique vehicle that could deliver the 21st century skills of communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking better than almost any other vehicle. I build my leadership style with lots of practice and the help of now very dated Tom Peters and Warren Bennis’s leadership books. Tom Peter’s a Passion For Leadership offered invaluable insight to me when I was a young manager.
Being a successful leader in the outdoor industry is about inspiring your employees, demonstrating a sense of purpose, praising great results, articulating your vision to parents and counselors, providing the right training and tools so everyone can excel at their jobs and above all demonstrating that you care about everyone’s success.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Take more time to smell the roses and don’t do all the bookkeeping yourself. Sometimes being penny wise is pound foolish and while it’s a strength to know every aspect of the company, sometimes you can delegate things to great people, and you don’t have to work quite so hard. And can keep a better focus on the big picture and moving things forward.
Are you willing to be a mentor? If so, how should someone contact you?
Always, especially now that we are taking some time to plan the next act – just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org