Q&A: Chris Drake, Pine Cove Christian Camps
Chris Drake knows the transformative power of Pine Cove Christian Camps. He experienced it first-hand. In 2003, when he was 23, he accepted a job at Pine Cove in marketing, expecting to be there a few months. But as has happened to many others, the place grounded him. So he set roots. For more than four decades, Pine Cove has transfixed and transformed people with its summer camps, conferences and retreats in the Texas towns of Tyler and Columbus. And for the last several years, the Pine Cove staff has been taking its camps and ministry to other U.S. states and leading mission trips in Latin America. From the Tyler headquarters, Drake and his team lead Pine Cove’s marketing and event planning. Here’s how.
How are your seasons structured around conferences, camps and retreats?
At the end of every summer camp season, we take about two weeks to train our staff to go into event planning mode. Starting Labor Day weekend, we do conferences and retreats every weekend through about the first weekend of May. Then it’s back to summer camp mode and so on. Each camp has a director. In the non-summer months, there is a conference director who carries out our weekend events. And my department—marketing—does all the scheduling.
Stacy Colvin, our retreat manager, handles our retreat groups, and Brent Bertolio is our conference marketing specialist.
What’s involved with putting on other organizations’ events?
With a retreat, a group rents our facilities and plans their own event. [We] help them pick the best weekend and facility, find a package that fits their budget and facilitate the weekend for them. We set the meeting rooms up in the configurations they want, serve all the meals they want, clean up everything and run activities they want. They set their schedule, topics and speakers.
And what about conferences?
The conferences are Pine Cove events, [so] we pick the weekend we think will work best. We pick the age group and set up the speaker, schedule, programs and activities. With some conferences, we may have two or three church groups; in other cases, it’s open enrollment. There are lots of different events and possibilities.
How do you pick conference topics, speakers and activities?
It starts with catering to the audience. For example, for a family event, we’ll pick a speaker who can teach the moms and dads. For a youth conference, we’ll bring a speaker who targets the particular age group. Because Pine Cove has been around more than 40 years, a lot of our staff has served here, then gone on to serve in leadership roles at churches. Sometimes we can bring back former staff as speakers and complete the circle.
How big is the marketing department?
We have a team of five full-time staff and a part-time intern. And my boss, Phil Baker, is a senior director involved with marketing and several other areas.
How are the summer camps divided by locations?
On those properties we own [in Tyler and Columbus], there are eight summer camps: five youth camps and three family camps. Six are on the Tyler property, and two are on the Columbus property. We also have a program called Base Camp, [and those camps] take place in 44 different locations where we partner with churches in other cities. We bring Pine Cove to their communities, so instead of having campers come to us, we go to them.
When did the Base Camp program start?
2012 will be our third summer to do it. The first year we had 11 locations, and the second year we had 22. This year we’ll have 44. The beauty of base camps is we can go wherever we find a partner church. We’re in Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia and Oklahoma.
What is Camp in the City?
It’s a partnership between Pine Cove and the Boys and Girls Club of East Texas that takes place in the city of Tyler. It’s very similar to a Base Camp program. We go to their facility, but instead of being there for one week, we’re there for 11 weeks.
How do you manage multiple camps on the same property?
The camps in Tyler and Columbus have stand-alone facilities. Whenever we build a camp we want it to operate independently from the others. The main reason we do that is for safety. We don’t want, for example, the high school kids having to go over to the elementary camp to eat lunch or vice-versa. So each facility has its own cabins, dining hall, meeting space and activities. We have 700 acres in Tyler [and 800 acres in Columbus], and camps are spaced out from each other by some sort of physical separation such as a wooded area.
With all the events you put on, how big is the Pine Cove staff?
We have 165 full-time and part-time staff through the year. In the summer, we hire more. We’ll have approximately 1,250 college students working for us this summer.
What are the logistical challenges to planning so many events in so many places?
A camp of our size has some resources that smaller camps might not. But we are a nonprofit and operate kind of like a small nonprofit by sharing resources. For example, how can we pull off an event for 600 men at three facilities and an event for moms and daughters at another facility?
We have to share resources and determine what staff and audio equipment go where at what times. Another challenge is realizing no two groups are the same, and no two events are the same, even if we do them every year. We’re always learning about our repeat groups, and they’re learning about us. Hopefully, as our partnership grows, we’re getting better at serving them each year, and they’re getting better at communicating with us. Another logistical challenge is operating as one entity in two different parts of the state. We have to maintain the same vision and culture. There are people on the Columbus staff that I may only see once or twice a year, yet I have to maintain a great working relationship with them so we have the same vision.
Is it more challenging to maintain that vision and brand in the Base Camp program?
Whenever you partner with someone else, you often lose a little bit of the control of your brand. We’ve carefully selected the churches we partner with for base camps to make sure they are aligned with us in their ministry and wanting to do the base camp for the same reason we do, which is to continue to grow the campers in their relationship with the Lord. Pine Cove is a great place to share and hear the gospel. But we have campers for a short, seven-day window. At the end, we turn them over to their home churches, if they have one. But the beauty of the base camps is it is at their church location. At the end of the week, we can reintroduce them to their pastor, youth pastor and staff, and say, “They want to keep getting to know you.” We find churches that are willing to put that work in after camp is over. So if they send out emails with the wrong logo, call us by the wrong name or use a low-resolution photo from our website, that’s OK. Those things are so minor. For us, what is major is sharing the same ministry and concept we have.
Do you have an on-site role during any of the events?
Myself, no. My team schedules the groups and interacts with them during pre-planning. On their weekends, we pass them off to their guest relations coordinator for retreats or their conference director. So it is an interesting dynamic for my group because we work with groups for a long time, but then pass them off to someone else.
How did you land at Pine Cove?
After graduating from college, I thought God was leading me into politics. I was trying to get to Austin, but having no luck getting a job there. After about a year of that, I became really frustrated with God. At the time, I was battling a lot of entitlement issues over things I felt God owed me. While struggling with that, I answered an ad for a part-time, temporary position at Pine Cove. I had never been there before. While interviewing, the guy told me “We actually don’t want you for this part-time position. We want you for a full-time position in marketing that just opened up yesterday.” Given my passion for marketing, I said, “Yes, I would love [it], but I probably won’t be here but two or three months because I’m trying to get moved down to Austin.” He smiled and said, “That’s fine, we’ll take you for as long as we have you.” And that was almost nine and a half years ago.
What has kept you there?
It’s been fun. I can look back now and see that God broke me down because of a lot of pride and entitlement issues I had. And he placed me in an environment where he could build me back up. I was a 23-year-old single guy, but was able to be discipled by guys speaking about family life and how to be a good husband and person. I was able to be around some of these camp directors who are wise, godly men, and it has helped me be a better husband and father.
Did you study marketing in school?
My degree is in speech communications. But while finishing up school and wanting to get involved in politics, I started volunteering for a couple campaigns in the area. It was 2002 and mid-term elections. I met the Republican party chairman for our county, and he set me up with a job with the state Republican party. It was a short-term gig until the election was over, but I got to be the advance guy for events all over Texas. Whenever one of the top-tier guys from Austin came to a town, I would set up the event, making sure the members of the press got there, the room was set up and campaign signs were in the background for photo ops. It got me working on events and marketing strategies, and when the Pine Cove marketing position came about, it was a natural transition.
What is the largest event Pine Cove puts on?
The largest event is our Free Family Days, which is basically an open house. Families can come out to Pine Cove, see what we do, experience the activities, meet our staff and attend an outdoor concert. And it’s totally free. It allows us to reach out to the communities that we’re a part of in Tyler and Columbus, and not only have fun, but have them get to know us. We’ve been doing them for five years in Columbus and three in Tyler. And we’ve found that people will come out, have a good time and then register as campers. Free Family Day in Columbus averages about 3,000 attendees, and Tyler about 7,000 attendees.
When and why did Pine Cove Global Ministries start?
We started doing Global Ministries in 2005, and we take college kids on mission trips in Latin America to work with campers who are elementary to high school age. We partner with a facility in Latin America for three consecutive years. In year one, we go down with our team, put on a camp and train the staff at that facility. In year two, we do a little less of the program, and their staff does more. In year three, they do the majority of the program, and we’re just there to help facilitate what they want to do. We partner with an organization called Christian Camping International, and they have a Latin American branch that finds these facilities.
How did The Forge come about?
The Forge started in 2005. Our chaplain on staff was super passionate about a leadership development program. We have all these college students coming through each summer, and some go back to their colleges, but some don’t. So for those who don’t, we wanted to make sure some could stay on at Pine Cove [for eight months] during the school year and get to learn and practice leadership and invest in their spirituality and understanding of truth and scripture. This is actually one of those where we learned from another camp. There’s a camp in California that was doing a similar program and [the chaplain] researched what they were doing and talked to them, and was able to put it into practice for Pine Cove.
What role does social media play in your events?
We have Pine Cove Facebook, Twitter and YouTube pages. We want to stay engaged and connected with our audiences, and that’s really how we see these platforms. We can put things up—a camp cheer, a question of the week, ministry tools such as books or videos, speakers and topics, photos from events—and really stay connected with them even after the events are over.
What role does traditional marketing play?
Being a nonprofit, we have a very small budget. But we have a very loyal camping audience, so our biggest referral is word of mouth. It’s a friend telling a friend about it, or a mom telling another mom, “This is a great camp. You’ve got to send your kid to it.” So we try to spend our time, effort and budget helping people tell other people about their great experiences here. We’ll give them a platform to share that through a testimonial online or a video, or having a radio personality or print publication do an interview with them.
Where do you see Pine Cove in 10 years?
A lot more base camps. And we would love to have a Pine Cove facility in the southeast U.S. We have a lot of campers come from Tennessee and Georgia, so it would be great to have a camp in one of those states. We’re going to open our ninth camp in Columbus in summer 2013. That might be the last camp we open in Texas. We will have pretty well built out the properties in Columbus and Tyler, so any additional facilities would have to be on land that was donated or purchased.
What is your greatest lesson learned from nine years at Pine Cove?
I’m naturally a very task-oriented person, but one of the important things I’ve learned here is how much relationships really matter. And that has taught me to not be so task-focused, but to really spend time investing in my staff. I’ve also learned from some of the senior leadership and some of the guys who have discipled me, the importance of keeping God first—in my marriage, with my kids.
Is there one piece of advice you would give to faith-based event planners?
Help your attendee share why your event is special. Give them platforms. It’s their testimonial that is probably going to be the most impactful, so give them that opportunity to share.