Summer camps cope with parents' spending cuts

For many parents, summer camp is more necessity than luxury, a place where kids can be happily and safely occupied while they're at work.

The recession changed that for some, camp directors  say, causing them to at least trim the number of weeks they attend programs. In turn, camp operators are more closely managing costs in response to lower demand.

Trade associations could not say how many of the nation's 12,000 camps have been forced out of business during the downturn, but they say traditional overnight sleepaway camps generally have continued to prosper, as have well-managed specialty camps.

"It's been somewhat of a challenge," said Sean Nienow, a director of the National Camp Association. "There was a spike in interest in shorter stays. Families don't want to tell their child they can't go, but they're still looking at ways to save money."

With sleepaway camps running around $1,000 a week, and specialty camps around $200 to $300 per week, cutting back can save a family money.

Erica Rohrbacher, executive director of the southeastern section for the American Camp Association, said the vast majority of camps offer scholarships to help offset the cost.

The camps are run by a mix of operators, and include for-profit family businesses as well as large non-profit organizations like the  YMCA. Schools and local governments also  are in on the action, filling empty class buildings and community centers while providing seasonal work for coaches, teachers and other instructors.

Joey Waldman and his wife, Lori, run a traditional overnight camp in Georgia. Blue Ridge Camp in Mountain City, about two hours northeast of Atlanta, has been around for 31 years. Waldman's parents operated a camp in Florida before that, so he grew up in the business.

He's seen plenty of changes over the years. Where kids once had no contact with their families other than the occasional letter from home, today there are regular email communications, even if cell phones are still banned.  And even traditional camps like Blue Ridge now offer specialized programs, mimicking specialty camps that focus on everything from skateboarding to circus performing.

Waldman said the 250-acre camp's 400 beds are booked.

Last year, the camp had some openings. So, Waldman said, "We altered our marketing plan."

He turned to Internet-only advertising, expo and trade show marketing, and incentives to people who referred other campers. That's helped drive business even with people more budget-conscious.

"We have done very well," he said.

The camp lists its charge as $3,850 for a four-week session.

Blue Ridge, which draws from as far away as Europe as well as up and down the East Coast, boosts its business with a retreat and conference center at the site.

Sleepaway camps have special needs and expenses,  requiring bunks, more staffing and more extensive dining and recreational facilities. But all camps face some of the same costs. One of the largest, owners said, is insurance. There are also the costs of building rental or maintenance, equipment, promotion and employees.

Tim Dwyer is in his 17th year running Circus Camp, which has locations in Decatur and Dunwoody. His wife, Samantha, who had  worked  in corporate entertainment and special events, wanted to have a business of her own. He had been in medical sales.

Their camp, which will have about 1,600 attendees this summer, had "grown every year until last year and then we felt the effects of the economy," Dwyer said.

Circus Camp lists its charges at $235 per week-long session in Decatur, and $275 per session in Dunwoody.

Dwyer said he was able to adjust costs in anticipation of fewer campers, particularly with staffing.

"We were down a good 20 percent last  year," he said. "This year is not as good as two years ago, but we are seeing an increase (from last year)."

Parents, he said, are "a lot more selective while not taking camp completely away from their children."