Much has been written in the mainstream media about the prospects for summer camp enrollment for the coming, 2009 summer. The stories seem to be all over the place. This post explains the shifting media sentiment and assesses the reality of summer camp enrollments for the coming season.
On January 16, 2009, the New York Times Shortcuts section, ran a story titled, Portfolio in Ruins, It’s Time to Pay for Summer Camp. The story quoted one camp director lamenting that “people are wiped out” and can’t pay for camp while a psychologist opined that, “Camp is a luxury, not a core need.” In March, the Wall Street Journal reported, under the title, Cutting Back On the Kum Ba Yah, that the recession had kept some parents on the fence about camp and had caused others to forego camp altogether. The Journal cited a 10% to 15% drop in registrations at private summer camps with nonprofit camps seeing a similar percentage rise in registrations.
Two months later, the doom and gloom began to lift. On May 17, Crains New York carried a more even-handed report. The story reported that parents pinched by the recession are taking a closer look at their summer budgets and quoted a camp consultant’s estimate that national camp enrollment was down as much as 15%. It added that “camp directors from Canarsie to the Catskills are still scrambling to fill spots.” But the Crains story also included some upbeat nuggets. It cited, Gennifer Birnbach, who recently lost her job as a marketing executive and had planned to send her children to their low cost town camp instead of a more expensive private camp. Mrs. Birnbach told Crains that her parents stepped in to pay the $9,000 tab for her two kids to spend eight weeks at Summer Trails Day Camp, which they feel is worth it because of its rustic campus and “more traditional” camp experience.
The next story reflected an even more upbeat mood. On May 18, ABC’s Online Business Unit led with the headline, Recession-Proof? Summer Camps Charging $9,000 a Camper Sold Out — Laid-Off Parents Are Scraping Together the Money to Send Their Kids to Camp. The article went on at length about the same, Gennifer Bernbach. and sited five high-priced camps that are “at capacity” despite the recession.
Ten days later, the New York Times switched gears and reported that “even as consumers cut back on everything from taxis to Tiffany, families are scraping together steep fees to keep their children challenged this summer. At a time when the overall travel industry is in a slump, operators of camps, and educational and volunteer travel programs say they are surprised at the sustained interest.” As for parents, it said, many tend to echo the programs’ marketers and describe them in terms like “investment” and “value.” While the article centered on summer programs for teens, it mentioned a family from Oceanside, N.Y. who used a payment plan for a final year at Camp Scatico, for their 14-year-old son, who is pitching in to pay. “We all have to pitch in,” his mother said. “I think it makes camp all that much more worthwhile. He will remember, ‘I went and I earned it.’ ”
To the same mainstream media who considered camp a “luxury” back in the winter, declared it “recession proof” two months later. How do we explain the shift, and what really is the state of the summer camp enrollments as we approach the start of camp?
First, the shift. The fact is that the media loves a story. The story this past winter was the depth of the country’s economic troubles. What better way to highlight the severity of the downturn than to reveal that wealthy parents were chucking a luxurious necessity like summer camp. What a great story of gloom and doom, the theme selling papers back in the winter. Then, in the spring, the media mood took on a more upbeat tone, as did the summer camp story. Now, instead of cutting back, parents were scraping together their own resources, along with their childrens’ to get their kids back to camp. I do believe the media’s mood impacted the story. However, the big, relatively obvious factor was public relations. On the heels of the Wall Street Journal story, which many camp professionals considered a body blow to the high end camp business, a group of successful and entrepreneurial camp owners, organized a mult-hundred thousand dollar public relations push. The message was simple – summer camp, particularly private camp, is not a luxury, it’s a necessity and people will take whatever steps whatever they must in order to safeguard the experience. Even were I not privy to the discussions that preceded the PR campaign, it would still be pretty obvious. Does anyone seriously think that a reporter from Crains and a reporter from ABC News Online both dug up Gennifer Birnbach? I mean really.
Now, for the real question. What really is going on in the world of high end summer camp? The answer is not clear, and certainly is not made any clearer by the media, which, as far as I can tell, have not cited a single reliable piece of evidence supporting either the contention that parents are foregoing high end camps or that they are enrolling as if the economy was booming. The fact is that no such reliable information exists. Based on the data that I have seen, I believe that, overall camp enrollments are down anywhere from 5 – 10% on a total camper day basis. The number of children attending camp will likely be down 3 – 5%; however, campers are attending for fewer days. Thus, high end summer camp has proved itself to be relatively recession resistant. Aside from bankruptcy attorneys and mass market, value-priced retailers like Wal-Mart and the Dollar stores, most businesses have suffered sales declines far greater than 5 – 10%. But although camp may be recession resistant, it is not recession proof. Camps, like just about every other business, are suffering as a result of the severe economic downturn.
Some speculate that the worst may lie ahead, since many parents enrolled their children for the ’09 summer before the reality of the economic downturn hit home. I would shy away from any such projections. The fact is that we don’t know what lies ahead. Pent up demand is as likely to carry the day as economic woe.
On a final note, I want to make clear that I supported the PR push mentioned earlier and it clearly paid off. I do not think there is anything wrong with an industry trying to stoke the media. The fact is that the media can’t do all the research themselves. So they rely on the PR firms and publicists do it for them. For far too long, the summer camp crowd has let others define them. It’s about time, they took it upon themselves.
Links to the five reports referenced above are provided below. Abridged versions of each are also provided.
No. 1 — http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/17/your-money/household-budgeting/17shortcuts.html Shortcuts: Portfolio in Ruins, It’s Time to Pay for Summer Camp, The New York Times, January 17, 2009
No. 2 — http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123681189962801325.html Cutting Back On the Kum Ba Yah, The Wall Street Journal, March 12, 2009
No. 3 – http://http://www.crainsnewyork.com/article/20090517/FREE/905169989 May 17, 2009 5:59 AM, crainsnewyork.com Summer scramble: Camps see enrollments decline in recession
No. 4 — http://abcnews.go.com/Business/Economy/Story?id=7596475&page=1 Recession-Proof? Summer Camps Charging $9,000 a Camper Sold Out — Laid-Off Parents Are Scraping Together the Money to Send Their Kids to Camp, By SCOTT MAYEROWITZ, ABC NEWS Business Unit, May 18, 2009
No. 5 — http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/28/fashion/28teens.html?_r=1&scp=3&sq=summer%20programs&st=cse Summer Break? I’m Working on It, The New York Times, May 29, 2009
Abridged versions of each report follow:
Shortcuts: Portfolio in Ruins, It’s Time to Pay for Summer Camp, The New York Times, January 17, 2009, by ALINA TUGEND
It’s hard to think about this in the dead of winter, but now is the time for those of us with children to plan for, yes, summer camp. Many camps, at least here in the hypercompetitive New York area, start filling up over the next month. For families with full-time working parents, camp can be a necessity. Even for parents who can stay at home, the thought of an unscheduled child hanging around the house for more than two months is frightening.
But with the economy uncertain, camps say they are hearing from a number of parents who are wondering if they will be able to afford the tuition. Depending on the type of camp and where you live, tuition can range from a few hundred dollars a week for a day camp to about $1,500 a week for a residential camp.
The reality is that many families rely on summer camps to take care of, teach and entertain their offspring in the summer months. The American Camp Association estimates that about 10 million children attend camp annually, whether for a week or two or all summer long. But an informal poll of my friends found that many were thinking about ways to bring down the cost. One friend, who asked not to be named because she didn’t want to expose her family’s finances, said she and her husband had lost their financial cushion of stocks with the Wall Street collapse. So while her husband still has a job, and she is at home, they are being much more careful. Her oldest boy, who is 11, will go to the sleep-away camp he has gone to for the last four years, which runs about $8,000 for seven weeks. If things were as financially stable as before, she would have started her 7-year-old on a residential program. Not anymore. “Now I’m looking for day camps based on price,” she said. “Summer is definitely a concern.”
Another friend, Sara, said that her camp fees ran around $20,000 for her three children, who do a variety of programs, from studying in Europe to local day camps. “I would like not to send my kids, but I have no idea what I would do with them otherwise,” she told me in an e-mail message. “And frankly, it would be too hard a pill for them to swallow, but it was definitely being considered. With three kids, camp is a major, major expense.”
Now I know you people in other parts of the country are laughing up your sleeves at us nutty New Yorkers again — paying that much for summer camps? And certainly, there are families here and across the country whose children’s summers consist of going to the local pool, community center or public library. Our town also offers a reasonably priced camp — $430 for six weeks of camp from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. — which my sons attended for a number of years.
But some parents remember their own camp experience, particularly sleep-away camp, as one of the great highlights of their childhood, and would do anything to avoid taking that away from their own children. Shelley Weiner, who with his wife, Arleen, has run Camp Winadu in Pittsfield, Mass., since 1974, said one woman told him she was selling her wedding ring so her boys could attend the residential camp this summer. At a minimum of $9,500 for seven weeks (which is all Winadu offers), that’s a hefty commitment. And it’s one that some parents are hesitant to make this summer. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” Mr. Weiner said. “People are wiped out or overextended. They’re afraid to spend the money.”
Fundamentally, however, parents may have to rethink what is an essential and what is a luxury in these times, said Prof. William J. Doherty, a professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota. “In an economic downturn, we have to decide what is enrichment versus what is a necessity,” he said. And if you do have to scale back or cut out camp completely, you need to be able to tell your child that straight out. “If they’re old enough to go to camp, they’re old enough to understand about money,” Professor Doherty said. “Tell them there is not as much money around, or we need to be more careful with our money. We’re looking to do some fun things, but some things are going to be different.” Don’t apologize, he said, or promise to make it up next year or ask for their forgiveness. Camp, he said, is a luxury, “not a core need.”
Cutting Back On the Kum Ba Yah, The Wall Street Journal, March 12, 2009, By ANJALI ATHAVALEY
Last summer, Lisa Bailey put down a $650 deposit each to send two of her children this year to Camp Saginaw in Oxford, Pa. She and her husband, Doug, planned to pay the $12,100 total in camp fees out of the bonus and stock options they expected from his job as finance director at a pharmaceutical company. Then, about six weeks ago, Ms. Bailey, a 41-year-old communications worker for a Philadelphia cancer center, withdrew her deposit. “Options aren’t worth what they were, and bonuses are lower,” she says. “We are just trying to get by paying for what we have to.” The family has applied to the camp for financial assistance but hasn’t heard back.
For many families, camp is an annual tradition that teaches kids independence, keeps them busy during slow summer months and gives parents some alone-time in the house. But in this year of recession, some parents are still on the fence about whether they can afford the expense. Other families are seeking discounts and cheaper alternatives — or even skipping camp altogether.
“A number of camps say families are enrolling, but they are enrolling a little later this year,” says Peg Smith, chief executive of the American Camp Association, a nonprofit group that has 2,900 member camps across the country. Ms. Smith also says that more camps are anticipating greater demand for financial aid this summer. Still other parents are searching for day-camps, camps with shorter sessions or those run by nonprofits, such as the YMCA, which tend to be cheaper.
Bunk1.com, an online database of about 1,000 camps, says it has seen a 10% to 15% drop in registrations at private summer camps so far this year. On the other hand, nonprofit camps are seeing a similar percentage rise in registrations. The numbers are “directly related to the economy, no doubt about it,” says the site’s founder, Ari Ackerman. “People still want to give their children the opportunity to go to summer camp.” But this year, he says, they are looking for lower-priced options.
The decision of where to send the kids now is a difficult one for parents who have stuck to the same camp each year. For the past two years, Marian Marino’s 8-year-old daughter, Abby Lucier, has gone to Camp Pelican in Greenwich, Conn. This summer’s rate is $3,100 for four weeks of day camp.
Ms. Marino, an interior designer, and her husband, who works in banking, are prioritizing their expenses this year — and they’re not sure camp will make the cut. “What’s going on with the economy is forcing all of us to reflect where our values are,” she says.
Ms. Marino, 45, says she is delaying registration, hoping that the camp will have empty slots and be more flexible with its rates. She has also looked into cheaper alternatives, such as a day camp at a local church or an arts camp at the Bush-Holley Historic Site in Greenwich. Such options may be a hard sell to Abby if her friends are going to Camp Pelican, she says. But without camp, “it makes for a very long summer. Nobody’s around because everyone goes to camp.”
Many summer camps also offer early-bird discounts, which have allowed parents to pay lower rates if they register by a certain date, usually in March. The discount was a selling point this year for Tom Maeglin. Mr. Maeglin, 41, a lawyer from New York City, has sent his 12-year-old twins to the nonprofit Berkshire Hills Emanuel Camps in Copake, N.Y., for the past five years.
And some would-be campers are doing a little fund raising themselves. Fourteen-year-old Sarah Bailey, whose parents withdrew their deposit from Camp Saginaw, has been working weekends at a local beauty salon for kids to defray the cost of Camp Saginaw this year. “You become so close with the girls, and it feels like a second home to you,” she says.
Some families say that not committing to camp this year has allowed them to explore new options. Last year, Barbara McMurray, 49, of Laguna Beach, Calif., sent her two children to Mountain Camp on Ice House Lake in Northern California. The cost for a two-week session for two kids is $4,700 — not including transportation and incidentals. This year, “it’s a bit of a stretch for us,” says Ms. McMurray, who works in public relations. “When we sit back and look at how our retirement accounts are dwindling, it would be kind of foolish.”
Now, the McMurrays are considering vacation options that would cost less than camp fees and allow for more family time, such as a car trip to southern Utah. Ms. McMurray says she is still looking at local day-camp options to keep her kids busy — especially her 13-year-old daughter. “Otherwise she’s going to sit around and do Facebook and texting all summer long, and that just won’t do.”
“Summer Scramble: Camps see enrollments decline in recession” crainsnewyork.com, May 17, 2009. By Betsy Wangensteen
For many New York children, summer means heading to camp—whether it’s seven weeks of swimming and sports in Maine or seven hours of daytime programs in Central Park. For many New York parents, summer camp means their children are safe, engaged and out of their hair. But this year, parents pinched by the recession are taking a closer look at their summer budgets. National camp enrollment is down as much as 15%, according to Norm Barrie of Camp Connection, a service based in Floral Park, L.I., that helps New York area families find the right camps for their kids.
More than 210,000 New York area kids will go to day or sleepaway camp this summer, projects the American Camp Association. Yet camp directors from Canarsie to the Catskills are still scrambling to fill those spots, visiting fence-sitting families, offering more flexible session lengths, working with parents on payment plans and devising innovative discounts to close the deal.
Suzanne Webster’s son, Michael Evans, 11, can’t wait to go back for his third summer at the YMCA camps. After some soul-searching, Ms. Webster, an administrative assistant, and her private investigator husband decided to cut back on end-of-summer vacation plans, as well as her summer shoe budget, to pay the highest rate—about $400 more than they paid last year—even though they are keeping a much closer eye on their summer dollars because of the recession.
“We just feel it’s such a valuable experience, we want to help other kids have it,” says Ms. Webster. In fact, she adds, one of those kids is Michael’s best friend, who, without the subsidy, would not be able to go back to camp this summer.
Oasis Children’s Services, which runs a mix of 27 subsidized and private-pay programs in and around New York City, is also experimenting with discounts to retain the 6,000 campers it served last year. Along with its early-bird, union-member, sibling and “bring a buddy” discounts, Oasis this year introduced a “loyalty discount” for returning campers.
Gennifer Birnbach, who recently lost her job as a marketing executive, last year had no qualms about sending her 6-year-old daughter, Remi Hoffmann, to Granite Springs, N.Y.-based Summer Trails day camp, where Ms. Birnbach went as a child. This year, Ms. Birnbach, now a freelance copywriter, and her husband, a freelance graphic artist, had planned instead to send Remi and her 4-year-old brother, Owen Hoffmann, to their town camp in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., which costs a fraction of the $9,000 for two kids to spend eight weeks at Summer Trails. “A lot of my friends did make that decision,” she says. In the end, Ms. Birnbach’s parents stepped in to treat their grandchildren to Summer Trails, which they feel is worth it because of its rustic campus and “more traditional” camp experience.
While few parents are willing to give up entirely on camp for their kids, many are considering the price more than ever. Even camps catering to the most affluent New York families are affected. At Camp Mohawk in Westchester, which costs $7,300 for seven weeks and offers high-end sports and swimming instruction, director Barbara Schainman has added a first-ever shorter session in response to calls from parents who want to send their kids back to camp but want to cut back on cost. She also reports a bump in enrollment of older campers this year. Why? More families have been holding off on sending their older kids to pricier sleepaway camps, she figures.
David Miskit, who runs Camps KenWood and KenMont in the Connecticut Berkshires, which cost $6,400 for a four-week session, had grown accustomed to eager parents visiting him at camp in the off-season. But he “hit the road” at the start of this year, personally meeting with 60 families in their homes. Most of them ended up signing up, yet the camp still has a handful of open spots. Mr. Miskit hopes to fill them with a few more scheduled family visits. “This time of year,” he says, “it’s usually over and done.”
Despite some recent inroads by consortiums buying up properties in major markets, the vast majority of camps remain family businesses, often passing down the director’s whistle from generation to generation. And they are a pretty safe bet to survive, even in a bleak economy, because over the years they have amassed little debt but lots of loyalty and nostalgia. Parents are loath to deny their kids the summer fun—and themselves the freedom—that camp represents, perhaps even more so in an uncertain world.
Recession-Proof? Summer Camps Charging $9,000 a Camper Sold Out — Laid-Off Parents Are Scraping Together the Money to Send Their Kids to Camp, ABC NEWS Business Unit, May 18, 2009. By SCOTT MAYEROWITZ
Some of Gennifer Birnbach’s fondest memories come from her childhood in summer camp. So this summer, despite being out of work for more than a year, she and her husband are paying $8,000 to send their two children off to camp. Despite being laid off, Brinbach and her husband are still scraping together the cash to send their kids off to a camp like the one depicted here.
As the recession forces families to make difficult choices, parents across the country seem generally reluctant to cut spending on their kids and many summer camps, which are a rite of passage for some, appear to be holding their own, especially at the higher end.
Birnbach spent eight years at Summer Trails Day Camp in Westchester, starting in 1974 when she was 4. After two summers at sleep-away camp, she returned to work there as a counselor. Her daughter Remi Hoffmann — who turns 6 next month — started at Summer Trails last summer. Her son Owen, who is about to turn 4, will start this summer.
“Ever since I was too old to be a camper and needed a real job, I’ve spent every summer sad that I’m not at camp,” Birnbach said. “In my 20s and early 30s, I just couldn’t wait to get married, have kids and relive camp all over again.” Birnbach was laid off from her jobs in publicity, ad sales and marketing in December 2007. She has tried to do freelance work ever since. Her husband, Philippe Hoffmann, is a freelance graphic designer, but work has slowed with the economy.
With a little help from their families, however, they have scraped together enough money to pay for camp. ”It did such wonders for her,” Birnbach said of Remi. “She was painfully shy. I wanted her to have the experience of having fun and learning what it’s like to branch out.”
At the Timber Lake Camp, an eight-week residential facility in New York’s Catskill Mountains, all 460 spots for this summer are filled. The cost: $9,850 for each camper.
Jay Jacobs, who has spent 30 years in the camping business and owns five camps, says he has seen growth in first-time campers. At his Tyler Hill Camp in Pennsylvania, all the spots are full. Again, the price for eight weeks: $9,850. ”When you’re setting the priorities as to what to cut back on, your children’s social education is not going to be one of them,” Jacobs said. “You’ll cut the new car or the private plane for your trip to someplace. You might cut a lot of other luxuries. You won’t buy that new diamond necklace this year, but when it comes to what the children will do, you’re going to take care of them.”
Several other high-end camps around the country are also at capacity, including: Camp Towanda in Pennsylvania ($9,150 for seven and a half weeks); Camp Greylock in Massachusetts ($9,850 for seven and a half weeks); Lake of the Woods Camp for Girls in Michigan ($4,600 for four weeks, or $7,700 for eight weeks); and Indian Head in Pennsylvania ($9,450 for seven and a half weeks).
Peg Smith, CEO of the American Camp Association in Martinsville, Ind., said that the economy is coming up in discussions continuously, but that a majority of camps are showing the same or higher enrollment. That doesn’t mean that some aren’t suffering or waiting for later-than-normal enrollment. But at this point, she said, the trend is not much different from last summer. Final enrollment numbers don’t come in until the fall.
“The last dollar a parent cuts is the dollar they spend on children,” Smith said.
The Birnbachs didn’t stop there, instead sending their children to camp as if this will be like any other summer. ”Camp provides a platform for kids to really be themselves and actually find out who they are,” Gennifer Birnbach said. “They are exposed to so many activities and through that … they don’t have to sit down and be quiet the whole time. … They can just be real kids.”
Summer Break? I’m Working on It, New York Times, May 28, 2009, by MANDY KATZ
KISTEN BARNETT, a high school sophomore in Sherborn, Mass., hoped to multitask this summer, combining outdoor adventure and Spanish-language practice with meeting her school’s community service requirement. A volunteer tour to Costa Rica run by Global Works Travel fit the bill perfectly. But the price — more than $4,500 — did not. “We’re more nervous than we have been in the past” about finances, said Leslie Barnett, Kristen’s mother, who owns a small business and whose husband works in software. The solution? Kristen will cover half the fee with baby-sitting, refereeing youth soccer and cash from her grandmother, while her parents will stint on upkeep. “Our house needs to be painted, our driveway should be paved, and the cars need work,” Ms. Barnett said. “We are really stretching to make this work.”
A tight job market and recession budgeting may fall hardest on high school students who depend on summer job income. But now they pose a challenge even for affluent teenagers, as families that might once have readily paid for service-travel, precollege courses or sleep-away camps reconsider their options.
Still, even as consumers cut back on everything from taxis to Tiffany, families like the Barnetts are scraping together steep fees to keep their children challenged this summer. At a time when the overall travel industry is in a slump, operators of camps, and educational and volunteer travel programs say they are surprised at the sustained interest. As for parents, many tend to echo the programs’ marketers and describe them in terms like “investment” and “value.”
Service programs like Global Works, with trips ranging from 20 days in Nicaragua for $3,195, to a 27-day French home stay for $6,195, report interest only slightly below last year’s. Global Leadership Adventures, which runs tours to Africa, Asia and Latin America, has enrolled 50 percent more students this year than last, and B’nai B’rith Youth Organization is filling seats on its Israel tours. The American Camp Association, with 2,800 member camps, predicts that, after a late start to the enrollment season, bunks will be nearly full.
The difference in 2009, program operators say, is that parents are deliberating longer and seeking discounts. They are also picking shorter, cheaper versions of programs. To offset the costs, many parents are also asking children to contribute and cutting back their own vacations.
“When you have a 16-year-old and he’s excited about doing something, you encourage it,” said Jill D., a lawyer in New York who asked that her surname not be published. She and her husband have canceled a family trip and their own summer vacation to free up $5,000 for their son’s Caribbean scuba program.
Some travel programs also offer subsidies. Global Works gives occasional $1,000 discounts as well as a few full-tuition grants, and increased such outlays by 30 percent this year, said Craig Fahey, an owner and director. The company also pushed back its March 1 deadline for nonrefundable deposits by a month. “We have a lot more questions about payment plans” from parents this year, Mr. Fahey added.
Natalie Lupowitz, a teacher from Oceanside, N.Y., and her husband, Howard, used a payment plan for a final year at Camp Scatico in Elizaville, N.Y., for their 14-year-old son, Lewis. As his contribution, Lewis has been working with his father at flea markets on weekends, saving the family the $120-a-day cost of an outside employee. “We all have to pitch in,” his mother said. “I think it makes camp all that much more worthwhile. He will remember, ‘I went and I earned it.’ ”
Last night, I attended a Q&A session sponsored by Business Week Magazine. One of Business Week’s senior editors spent over an hour asking Mr. Collins about his new book discussing how and why great companies fail. It occurred to me that camps, more than almost any other enterprise, go from good to great to failure over the course of a number of years. The “good to great” phase usually takes 3 to 5 years followed by sustained greatness of 10 – 30 years, followed, many times, by failure. The reasons for failure are numerous and perhaps Mr. Collins’ new work will shed some light. Last night, Mr. Collins said that complacency is generally not the cause of failure. Companies that fail spend a lot of time trying to innovate. However, their innovations tend to be outside of their core competency. I confess that I have yet to read the book, but my hunch is that companies fail not for failure to innovate but for failure to innovate within their core competency. Once they become great at what they do, they don’t look hard enough at what they do to figure out how to do it better. By contrast, the great camps never cease to try and get better in every area – whether it be staffing, program, facilities or technology. They never accept that they are good enough. The world is changing. What worked 10 or 20 years ago will not work tomorrow, or may work tomorrow but will not work 20 years from now. Correspondingly, those that fail generally keep close tabs on the camp’s operations, never truly inviting younger associates into their inner circle. This insulates them from new, novel ideas and further leads them down the path to ruin. Eventually, the camp falls off the cliff and either gets purchased for real estate, or, hopefully, gets purchased by a new operator and the cycle begins again.
Business is cyclical. Growth is followed by recession. Seldom, throughout history, have we seen periods of sustained growth lasting more than 10 years. Why should we expect a camp, which is, after all a business, to remain at the top of its game for 30 years under the same leadership? The enlightened leader recognizes that he can not lead forever. He may well have valuable roles to play and contributions to make, but, if he truly loves his camp, he should step down and transition out before the inevitable downturn destroys his camp.
visit http://www.jimcollins.com for more information about Mr. Collins, who I consider the greatest business writer of the 21st Century. Peter Drucker takes the 20th.
This article appeared in the July 1, 2007 Boston Globe. Here’s a quote from the article:
Though they own valuable recreational real estate in the region, the families who run summer camps in New England aren’t anxious to cash out to the highest bidder when they retire and see their properties redeveloped into luxury resorts or vacation getaways. Many owners instead would like to keep the camps in the “family,” — their children, other relatives, or former campers for whom the camp experience is integral to their lives.
And apparently it’s not hard to find them. For every privately owned camp for sale, there are about 30 potential buyers available who are interested in keeping them as camps, said Jim Earley, owner of New England Camp Realty in Westwood. Early said most owners would rather sell to other camp owners to continue the camp’s mission. “I’ve never met a camp director who just wanted to bail out for the top dollar,” he said. “Then there’s the emotional factor . The owners would hate to see the campfire bulldozed.”
Later, the article highlighted CampGroup and referenced me. Here’s the pertinent excerpt “There is another alternative besides selling within the camp family or on the open market. CampGroup LLC is a family-owned company that buys and operates camps throughout the Northeast. Started in 1998 by the father and son team of Bruce Zenkel, 73, and Dan Zenkel, 48, now the firm’s chief executive, CampGroup has 10 camps in its portfolio. If a camp is financially sound, Dan Zenkel said, the company keeps original owners on as directors. CampGroup focuses on the business side — bookkeeping, budgeting, purchasing, legal issues. The company views its role as “relieving the stress” so the former owners can “continue to act as owners,” he said. The Zenkels too camped in their boyhoods. Bruce Zenkel attended Camp Winadu in the Berkshires, which his company now owns. Dan Zenkel attended various camps for nine years. Still, CampGroup’s place in the industry is unsettling to some.”
So, what would the writer say now. The article was written at the height of the economic boom, when loans were easy to come by and the stock market was flush. Are their 30 buyers now for every seller? I doubt it. I think there are many fewer camp buyers and many more sellers. Also, the real estate development cash out alternative is no longer there (at least for now), since the banks don’t seem to want to lend. So there better be some willing camp buyers or these properties are going to go fallow. Then, where are the kids going to go. Whatever you think of CampGroup, it saved a lot of camps and made the industry stronger. To the extent it was unsettling, it was because it arose, in part, from a recognition that the mom and pop business of camp, was not going to survive much longer. Too bad there aren’t more CampGroup’s out there.
I have done a lot of thinking about the direction of the summer camp industry. Traditional private camps and, in particular, resident camps, typically provide a wide variety activities and attempt to foster character development, intelligent risk taking, leadership, responsibility, empathy and other important values. Camps do so, in large part, through having campers live together in cabins with several young adult counselors who serve as role models and leaders. There are also many camp-wide activities, such as campfires and all-camp competitions, songfests and the like, that foster the same values.
Over the past few years, many parents and campers have begun to discount the character growth that traditional camps offer and instead have sought out experiences that provide some sort of immediate benefit. While some, including me, view this as unfortunate, it seems to reflect the reality of our increasingly competitive and specialized society. Parents want to know how camp will help their kids in the short term by improving their skills in a particular area, whether it be soccer, web design or movie making. Campers want to pursue their own interests, not be forced to partake in activities that they’ve never tried and have no interest in trying. As a result, the growth in camping has been in specialty camps which focus on one particular activity. Unlike the vast majority of the traditional camps that I have described, the specialty camps are generally located in facilities, like colleges and secondary schools, where campers are housed, 2 x 2 in dorms. These settings do not allow for cabin life with counselor role models, and therefore can not promote character development in the same way that a “traditional” camp can.
I believe that summer camp must be transformed to meet the market demand for specialized or affinitized experiences while, at the same time, exposing as many children to what is best about camp. Many who would not consider a “traditional” camp are likely to consider and attend a “specialty” camp which is also traditional. In this way, camps can evolve and grow.
http://acacamps.org/becauseofcamp/CA ACA has just this new PSA titled “Because of Camp.” It consists of two videos (though I could only find one) containing fourteen celebrities discussing how their lives have been changed… Because of Camp…™ . The first video is fifty seconds in length and includes appearances by Emma Roberts, Hill Harper, Lisa Loeb, Kerri Strug, Michael DeLorenzo, Justin Chambers, Paul Adelstein, James Pickens, Blair Underwood, Sharon Lawrence, Frank Sesno, Glynn Turman, Ashlan Gorse, and Lisa Raye. I’m not sure if all of these people are real celebreties, though I guess nowadays pretty much anyone who appears on a reality show on a cable channel qualifies. But I think the spot is great. Kudos to my friend and colleague Dayna Hardin who brought such a degree of professionalism to the project, along with Marla Coleman and Gwenn Thurmen (sp?), without whom this would not have been possible. I think it’s a great step in the right direction for camp. This is what ACA should be doing, getting people to go to camp. The next step is getting them to go to ACA camps. But you have to start somewhere, and this is a great start. Visit http://www.acacamps.org/becauseofcamp/ to view the PSA.
The above article originally appeared in the September/October 2006 issue of Camping Magazine, the magazine of the American Camp Association. I have learned some things since, but people have told me (unsolicited) that they have referred to it frequently to help them run their camp. I hope it helps those who come across it here.
Here’s a brief excerpt from the article:
Running a summer camp is a noble endeavor. Summer camps impart skills and values to all types of children. Nevertheless, every summer camp, small or large, private, religious, nonprofit or for-profit, is a business. If a summer camp takes in less money than it spends, it will eventually fail. Not coincidentally, summer camps that run well as businesses are usually effective in executing their mission. The same talents and skills required to run a business—focus, persistence, attention, and intelligence—are also required to run a quality summer program.
We have devoted much of the past eight years seeking to learn how to best manage summer camps. We certainly do not have all or even most of the answers. But we do have some ideas and suggestions. This article compiles many of the ideas and tips that we have developed ourselves and adopted from veteran camp professionals.
The tips are organized into four categories: Revenue, Operating Expenses, Facility Management, and Miscellaneous. Not every idea or suggestion applies to every camp. Some apply only to traditional camps—those that occupy real estate, the primary purpose of which is for use as a summer camp. Other suggestions apply to nontraditional camps, which occupy real estate used primarily for noncamp purposes such as schools, churches, and community centers.
This Blog is intended to keep up with the latest trends and happenings in the world of summer camps. Not just so-called “traditional” camps, but all camps, of which there are thousands upon thousands. Over the past 11 years, I helped found and then oversaw the creation of CampGroup, LLC, which, as far as I know, is the largest for-profit camp concern in the world, at least as measured by revenue. During that time, I not only did my best to build CampGroup and to do so in an ethical and positive way, but also to build bridges to others across the camp world. On February 11, 2009, I resigned as CampGroup’s President and CEO. This was entirely my choice and was largely precipitated by a desire to develop and run a company that I could truly guide and lead. I am currently exploring a variety of options both inside and outside of the camp world. In the meantime, I have decided to enter the world of blogging, not sure exactly what will coming of it, and hoping that I can figure it out. Stay tuned. Stay tuned. Daniel Zenkel