We Sold the Drama Barn

Date published: February 22nd, 2017 | By Matthew

I am writing to tell you, we sold the Drama Barn back in September.

(We’re a little behind on our updates.)

Everything’s ok! I promise. This is a happy email. I’m writing to explain everything.

We Used to Have Three Farms

Let’s start with some clarification about the land situation here.

“The farm” (as folks call it) is (was) three farms combined. Those three farms were jammed together over 42 years.

Farm #1 is the main farm — the one you probably think of. It’s 120 acres. It has the farmhouse (which Susan and Roger live in), all the barns, the farm animals, the pastures, the garden, the cabins, the kitchen, the dining hall, the Octagon, the Quilt Room, the Wood Shop, the Art House, etc. This farm is where farmers spend most of their time (we call our campers farmers).

Farm #2 is at the bottom of the lane, across the road. It’s 10 acres, and home to the winter office, the summer infirmary, the Office Barn, the horsemanship program, and all of our horses (we have 14 right now, with little Rosie).

Farm #3 was the Drama Barn: 50 acres along Robinson Road, next to our friends, the Schreibers.

Now We Have Two Farms

We sold Farm #3 in September — just #3 — which means we’ve moved out all of our horses and all of our stuff, and we’ve handed the keys over to the new owners (a very nice Amish family).

Why?

Good question.

The short answer is, we have some ideas for the main farm, and ideas cost money.

The long answer is … a little bit longer.

Below, I’ll explain how in recent summers we were using the Drama Barn less and less. And then I’ll explain how selling the Drama Barn fits into our (Louise and my) plan for the long-term future of Longacre Leadership Camp.

It’s All Part of Our Ten-Year Plan

Last year, when Louise and I bought the camp from my mom and dad, we created a wish list. We wrote down everything we wanted to build (and renovate) in our first ten years.

We’re now calling it our ten-year plan.

To make that ten-year plan a reality, we need lots of money, both up front and along the way. So, we developed a plan for raising it. That plan has five steps.

We’re calling it our five-step plan.

(That’s two plans: a ten-year plan, which is like a wish list, and a five-step plan, which is like a funding strategy.)

Susan and her five partners (Biff, Muggs, Mel, Chris and Rog) created an amazing thing here. Louise and I never could have done it. The combination of strengths they had … it was unique.

Moving forward, our responsibility is to take what the original partners created and steward it until the next ownership group comes along (hopefully not for another 42 years or so). And, as Louise and I look to the future, we foresee a need to adapt — to modernize parts of our program and parts of our campus. (The word adapt works for this explanation, but it’s not exactly what I mean. More on this in a later post.)

Which Relies on a Five-Step Plan

Here’s our five-step plan for making our ten-year plan a reality.

Step #1: Sell the Drama Barn

Selling the Drama Barn was sad. It definitely hurts me in my heart.

But the truth is, the farmers had been using it less and less in recent summers. It used to have four functions: horseback riding, drama productions, the Talent Show and the Square Dances. We used it every day.

Then, when Susan bought Farm #2, we shifted many of our horse activities to the Office Barn, because it was within walking distance and the Drama Barn was not. Then, after the farmers renovated the Office Barn and built an Olympic-size riding ring next to it, not only was the Office Barn closer but it was also better equipped.

Regarding drama productions, sadly, we haven’t done one for two summers. There just hasn’t been much enthusiasm among the farmers, despite our best efforts to drum it up.

The Talent Show and Square Dances are vital, but they take up only three nights a summer, and we can find another venue for them.

My point is, selling the Drama Barn was an emotional hit but not a programmatic one. Programmatically, we’ll be better off in short order.

Ultimately, we decided to sell the Drama Barn because we needed a catalyst for the rest of our five-step plan. Now, with proceeds from the sale, we’ll be able to fund important investments for the next 3-4 years.

Step #2: Invest in Infrastructure

Investments in this context means two things. First, infrastructure. Moving forward, we plan to build something or renovate something every offseason. This way, the farmers’ experience will improve in tangible ways every year.

Step #3: Invest in Marketing

Investments also means marketing. At first blush, marketing doesn’t seem to concern you; but I can explain. We have increased our capacity twice in recent years by lengthening our summer calendar. The first time was in 2013 when we added a 10-day MiniCamp for children and tweens. The second time was in 2014 when we added a second start-date to our leadership camp. Combined, those changes added 50% to our capacity, without changing the number of beds.

Since those increases, enrollment has grown but not to capacity. Filling to capacity is important because it means we can invest more in infrastructure, which benefits everyone.

Step #4: Raise Prices

(Somewhere in business school they probably teach you not to draw attention to this. But we never went to business school.)

We raised our prices for 2017, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Here’s an excerpt from our August 2016 note to parents:

These rates reflect a price increase of 3% over 2016 — 1% for inflation and 2% for camp improvements. Louise and I are committed to making Longacre Leadership Camp one of the top summer camps in the world. Susan passed onto us a world-class program, and we are very fortunate for the opportunity, but still it will still take a financial investment. Raising prices is part of that financial investment.

“Camp improvements” means infrastructure investment. When we invest in our infrastructure, we improve the camp experience in tangible ways, and therefore give ourselves license to charge a little bit more for tuition.

There’s another rationale for raising prices, however — a theoretical one. When you look at the tuition rates of the top traditional camps in the country, you see figures of $11,000, $12,000, even $13,000 for seven weeks. Unbelievable. At $7,209 for six weeks, it’s a wonder Longacre is competing at all. Although we may never match those camps’ tuition 100%, Louise and I have to close the gap if we're going to properly steward this business for the next 42 years.

Step #5: Increase Retention

Longacre’s retention rate fluctuates between 50% and 60%. Until recently, we've been happy with that. It gives each summer a good balance of returning and new: returning farmers bring the tradition, and new farmers bring the curiosity and enthusiasm, giving each summer its own character.

I said “until recently” because when comparing our retention rate with those of the elite camps mentioned above, we found that their rates were much higher than ours, like in the 80s and 90s.

Now, we wonder if Longacre might benefit from a higher retention rate.

Longacre Leadership Camp is a niche product. And since summer camp is a niche industry, that means we’re a niche within a niche! Finding families who want a leadership camp on a farm in Pennsylvania is a complex challenge. And when it comes to marketing, complex means expensive.

Retaining families, on the other hand, costs very little. Every family we retain is one less we have to find, which means we can afford to invest less in marketing and more in infrastructure (which benefits everyone).

As it turns out, increasing retention is not a simple thing. We are talking to families, and to colleagues at other camps, about changes to make that are effective but stay true to our mission and values.

One example I can give you is developmental progression. Developmental progression means that farmers get more independence and more responsibility as they age, instead of everything all at once. Pre-2017, a 12-year-old and a 17-year-old had the same of both. This summer, that structure will begin to change a little.

In Closing

There’s a virtuous cycle to this five-step plan (you may have noticed). Infrastructure investment supports raising prices and retaining families, both of which support infrastructure investment, and so on. Louise and I are hoping to get caught up in that virtuous cycle and see where it takes us.

I think this is a good stopping point. If you’re still reading, first, thank you, and second, I hope we were able to put the sale of the Drama Barn into some context for you.

The sale was necessary. More than that, it was the catalyst for making our ten-year plan, and ultimately our long-term vision, a reality.

Our mission is to offer a multi-year growth experience, with a focus on communication. Sometimes, in a funny way, I feel like the multi-year growth experience applies not just to the people but to the business itself. I welcome your comments on this. You can always reach me at 717-567-3349 or matt@longacre.com. Thanks for reading :)