Recent And Emerging Camp Industry Trends

Recent and Emerging Camp Industry Trends, by Daniel Zenkel

Several trends have emerged over the past 20 years in the camping industry. Highlighted below are the trends that have most impacted the camp business.

Increasing Demand for Camp Reflects Parental Desire for Supervision of their Children During the Summer
Many adults now in their 40’s, 50’s or 60’s spent the summers of their youth riding, swimming, fishing or playing ball with friends. Today’s parents are less willing to give their children this type of freedom. Summer camp provides an envelope of safety and supervision that today’s parents desire. Consequently, demand for all sorts of supervised summer activities – largely camp related – has grown.

Increasing Demand for Camp Reflects Parental Desire for Childhood Enrichment Programs
Today’s parents are far more likely to seek to enrich the lives of their children through supervised, structured instructional and enrichment programs. Thirty years ago, few if any children were introduced to supervised sports or paid sports instruction before the age of 9 or 10. In contrast, it is quite common for today’s 4, 5 and 6 year olds to take tennis lessons and play in soccer leagues. The demand for child supervision and enrichment fuels demand for camps of all sorts.

The trend extends to teens and pre-teens (now often referred to as “tweens”). Summer academic enrichment programs geared to children 12 to 17 years of age have proliferated on college campuses and prep schools in recent years. In addition, for-profit community service programs have multiplied to serve parents seeking to give their children an edge in the increasingly competitive college admissions process.

Steady Demand for Premium Traditional Resident and Day Camps
As noted above, over the past 25 years, the number of traditional resident and day camps declined. Beginning in 1989, the United States experienced an “echo baby boom.” Birth rates rose to their highest levels since the original, post-war “baby boom.” As a result, beginning in 1996, demand for traditional resident and day camps started to rise. Indeed, demand outstripped supply so that those camps that continued to run quality programs increased capacity and raised prices.

The Growth of Shorter Session Residential and Day Camping
Demand has increased in recent years for traditional resident and day camps offering sessions of one to four weeks. These camps appeal to a broader segment of the population because of their lower price points.

The Growth of Specialty Camps and Non-Traditional Day Camps
The ACA attributes most of the growth in summer camps over the last 20 years to growth in specialty camps and non-traditional day camps. These camps typically occupy facilities where camp is a secondary use such as prep schools, colleges and universities and public and private recreational facilities such as tennis clubs and indoor athletic complexes. The growth in this type of camping is fueled by low barriers to entry as well as demand by owners of such facilities for additional summer income. Hundreds of colleges and private schools now run their own summer programs or lease their facilities to private operators. The same goes for tennis clubs and indoor athletic complexes which used to be empty during the summer.

The growth in demand for day camp is largely fueled by demand for summer day care. Many of the newer “day camps” are really summer childcare service providers masquerading as day camps. Day camps that are sponsored or set up by corporations seeking to become more family friendly fit this description.

Volatility in the Not-For-Profit Camp Sector
Many traditional not-for-profit camps that operate on their own land have fallen victim to the same economic phenomena that affected their for-profit brethren. Although not-for-profit camps are typically exempt from real estate taxes, they must still comply with a complex web of governmental regulations and competing demands for the real estate which they occupy. Moreover, they are often partially or completely dependent on charitable contributions. After the tragic events of September 11, 2001, donations to many charities that operated camps declined, and these camps suffered substantially. Many had no choice but to sell their land, discontinue operations or sell their camp to better managed, not-for-profit or for-profit operators.

Year-Round Use of Traditional Camps
As the fixed costs of operating a traditional camp have risen, many owners and operators have sought to bolster their revenues and profits by expanding their business into the off-season. According to a recent survey, more than half of ACA accredited camps rent their facilities to outside groups during the off-season. An increasing number of traditional camps are winterizing some of their facilities to make them suitable for year round rental.