Summer camps not feeling pinch of weak economy
CAPITAL REGION When finances are tight, one might expect luxuries like summer camp to be cut from family budgets. The truth seems to be the opposite, however: While many industries suffer, summer camps are doing well.
This year, according to a national survey conducted by the American Camp Association, 80 percent of respondents said their enrollment has either grown or held steady since last year, with similar statistics each year since 2009.
“Enrollment is actually great for us,” said Billy Rankin, director of YMCA Camp Chingachgook on Lake George. “We’re filling our programs. We’ve even had to put some people on waiting lists.”
Chingachgook will serve roughly 2,000 campers this summer with weeks of sailing, hiking and adventuring. Rankin said he’s training nearly 150 recent staff recruits, inspecting dozens of watercraft and docks, cleaning the grounds and maintaining the cabins.
All of this work could be a financial challenge for the nonprofit camp, especially considering Rankin’s “no child turned away” goal.
But the 99-year-old camp is doing well, even with its potentially risky financial gamble on parental generosity.
“Last year we set up a three-tiered payment system,” Rankin said. “Parents can choose from three payment levels, each separated by about $100. They just choose how much they want to pay to send their kids here. It’s the same experience. We don’t even know who paid what.”
The gamble paid off, with more than 70 percent of parents choosing the most expensive payment — $1,130 for a week and $1,790 for two weeks. The camp even had enough extra to resurface the basketball courts and build three new yurts over the past few years.
“When finances are tight in a family unit, the last things to get sacrificed are the things that are good for the children,” said Betsy Thamert, executive director of the American Camp Association’s upstate New York’s chapter. “That’s why we haven’t seen as much of a loss as other industries.”
Recent camp changes have had more to do with shifting culture than the tight economy.
At Camp Chingachgook, for example, all campers still spend three days of their week on long hikes and they still have to trade in their cellphones for paddles and backpacks, but they’re also offered more programming in dance and even yoga.
Forest Lake Camp, near Chestertown, expects between 290 and 300 kids for the summer season, up from last year’s 270. The camp uses shorter, more flexible schedules rather than new programs to entice campers. This year’s most popular slots are only two or three weeks long, down from the camp’s historically long stays.
“It’s a challenge,” said camp director Gene Devlin. “People aren’t committing to long stays like they used to. Ten years ago, kids came for the whole summer. Now, with the achievement culture, parents want their kids in a diverse academic setting.”
More kids are choosing niche art and academic camps, offered by such organizations as Drama Kids, over more traditional adventure camps.
Thamert said, “Specialty camps have only been around for about 20 years. They’ve been evolving to meet the current needs of parents.” She noted one concern of today’s parents is the amount of academic knowledge children lose over the summer — a problem some camps help to solve.
Deanna Stickles-Bach, director of Capital Region Drama Kids, started her business six years ago, getting the idea to offer summer day camps when her students told her they didn’t want to break for the summer.
“We never have a hard time filling camps,” she said. “The only problem I have is finding enough teachers.”
This season Stickles-Bach is offering two-week day camps in Colonie and Clifton Park. Both are capped at 50 students. She credits the program’s success to its great teachers and learning-based approach, but there is one other substantial factor.
“I only charge $225,” she said. “The kid is with us from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. for five days. That’s less than a baby sitter, and you’re not getting some high school kid. Your kids are being taught by actors with master’s degrees.”
The Jewish Community Center in Schenectady, which hosts several summer day programs, is launching it’s own niche camp this summer, based on the popular television show “Glee.”
“We thought of ‘Glee’ camp because we’re trying to expand,” said Andrew Katz, JCC camp director. “We’re looking to give new opportunities to teens that see sports camps or adventure camps and maybe want something else that’s still a positive experience.”
The JCC already has about 300 kids in day and travel camps, along with sports, drama and art camps.
“ ‘Glee’ camp is something we can maintain,” Katz said. “Running this camp simultaneously with our other day camps will get more people involved without hampering any of the programs.”
Aside from being inexpensive in comparison to many overnight camps, day camps also provide flexibility.
“Lots of kids still have evening commitments all summer long,” Katz said. “Families take vacations, we can schedule around that.”
In fact, that flexibility has helped grow this year’s JCC summer camp enrollment by 20 percent in regular day camps and 60 percent in travel camps.
Thamert said, “Traditional camps are still the most popular, but even they are changing for the times.”