The New Economics of Summer Camp
When S’Mores Aren’t Enough: The New Economics of Summer Camp
By NATASHA SINGER
Published: July 9, 2011
MICKEY BLACK, in khaki shorts and a polo shirt, is pacing the crossroads at Pine Forest Camp.
Up to the flagpole, down the hill to the dining hall. Up to the basketball court, down to the infirmary.
On this cloudless late June morning, here amid the knotty pine bungalows and the electric campfire, Mr. Black is anxious.
He has the right: about 450 children — the happy and the homesick, the coiffed and the bed-headed, the hearty and the stuffy-nosed and the (God forbid) contagious — are about to descend on him.
And those campers, for better and worse, are Mr. Black’s customers, the under-10s and tweens and teens who will determine whether his multimillion-dollar-a-year enterprise prospers or, like so many others, struggles to survive.
Pine Forest Camp is about to open for the summer.
“This is the lonely, awkward time for a camp director,” Mr. Black says, as he awaits 18 busloads of campers from Philadelphia, Manhattan, New Jersey and beyond. Somewhere a woodpecker rat-a-tat-tats. A lawnmower executes a figure-eight.
The campers are due here in the Pocono Mountains in two hours. First impressions — an enthusiastic welcome from a counselor, say, or an unhappy bus ride — often determine whether a child goes home happy or disappointed, Mr. Black says. And that, in turn, can determine whether that camper, that customer, ever comes back.
The pressure is on as never before. The tight economy has made private traditional sleep-away camps like Pine Forest seem even more of a luxury, even for many upper-middle-class families who have sent their children to such programs for generations. All the usual business headaches — personnel, logistics, marketing, customer service — matter more than ever.
But beyond the slack economy is a profound change in the business of summer camp. As in just about every industry, slick, nimble upstarts are muscling in on the establishment. These newcomers hold out 21st-century promises: We can groom the modern organization kid, hone lacrosse skills, improve algebra, pad the high-school résumé.
No more the quaint summer idyll of lake and volleyball and s’mores. Today, former Brazilian pros coach soccer camp, Oscar winners officiate at film camp, computer game developers teach tech camp — all the better, the pitches go, to get Holly or Howie into Harvard, or at least to sharpen their skills.
All this at a time when the Pine Forests of the world are being squeezed on all sides. High or rising prices for basic items like food and gasoline are pinching profit margins. It is, industry analysts say, a matter of survival of the fittest.
Mr. Black, a lone figure in a temporarily unpopulated landscape, is waiting by the flagpole on this morning, the last Saturday in June, when the walkie-talkie on his belt crackles.
It’s the front office: traffic police in Manhattan are threatening to arrest the driver of a Pine Forest bus who has parked near the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It seems that the location is a no-standing zone.
Mr. Black foresees a big fine. Worse, he worries that the campers may get off to a bad start.
“I don’t even care about the money,” he says. “I just want to get them out of there.”
WHEN Mickey Black’s grandfather, Hughie, opened Pine Forest in 1931, a two-month summer session here cost $85, about $1,264 in today’s dollars. The Black family’s camp survived the Great Depression and World War II, polio scares and hurricanes, Vietnam and Woodstock, its own Great Dining Hall Fire of 1984, 9/11 and now the Great Recession.
But in an age of hyperparenting, Facebook and Twitter, texting and sexting, running a traditional camp is far more complicated and expensive than it used to be.
This year, a seven-week session at Pine Forest costs $9,700, a big-ticket price for a rustic canoe-and-campfire experience. (Some camps charge even more.)
And many parents, Mr. Black says, want something more for their money. They want their children to come home with a better tennis serve, say, or a stronger backstroke, or perhaps a better technique for making chocolate soufflé.
“It is not enough anymore to just go to camp to have fun and make friends and improve independence and self-esteem,” Mr. Black says. “Some parents want actual takeaways. They want to see skills, achievements, patches and certificates.”
And so traditional camps have had to step things up to compete with less expensive, specialized programs that run two or three weeks. That includes hiring professional athletics coaches.
“Expectations for a top-quality camp became higher,” says Richard Gersten, the executive director of Brant Lake Camp, a boys camp in the Adirondacks, in upstate New York, that has been run by members of the same family since 1917. “We had to hone our skills and teaching to match specialty camps.”
Established private sleep-away camps have enjoyed a built-in client base: the children of alumni. Many used to have waiting lists. But lately, many of the doctors, lawyers and small-business owners who make up this base have cut back, Mr. Black says. Some have turned to grandparents to help cover the cost of camp.
“You can’t rest on your laurels anymore,” he says.
More than 11 million Americans, primarily children, will attend camp this year, according to the American Camp Association. There are about 4,000 privately owned camps, the group says, and about 8,000 nonprofit camps nationwide. But since 2007, many camps, both private and non-profit, both overnight and day, have seen their enrollments dip, says Ann Sheets, an association spokeswoman. Around the country, she adds, a handful have closed.
Many camps that were struggling before the economic downturn now find themselves in even worse shape, says Daniel Zenkel, a camp owner and a partner in the Camp Professionals, a consulting firm.
“Some of those may not be able to get out of the negative spiral they got into,” Mr. Zenkel says. But well-managed camps, he says, should prosper: “If they are running well, they will survive and thrive.”
Mr. Black and his wife, Barbara, have fared better than some of their peers, but they still feel vulnerable. In addition to the co-ed Pine Forest, the Blacks own the nearby Lake Owego Camp for boys and Camp Timber Tops for girls.
All three were booked solid until 2008, when the economy teetered. Then, in 2009, enrollment fell 5 percent, Mr. Black says. This summer, he has seen a rebound to 98 percent enrollment — with about 900 campers, ages 7 to 16, across the three camps.
“We’ve been able to keep it healthy and strong,” he says. “But it’s fragile.”
ON the day before camp opens, Mr. Black checks in with his key staff members. Over at Camp Timber Tops, a counselor who wasn’t the right fit has been let go. Here at Pine Forest, some of the paddle boats have not arrived. The music teacher, a classical pianist, wants a better electric piano.
Managing a summer camp might seem like running any other small business. But it’s not quite the same. At camp, the management, the employees and the customers — the campers — live together for nearly two months. Some social engineering is crucial.
“You work together on sunny days and rainy days,” Mr. Black says. “You know who people are.”
In our litigious times, health and safety are Job 1. Staff training, for example, includes discussions about how to avoid body contact — never initiate a hug with a camper — and how to recognize an eating disorder.
It all used to be so simple. You shipped the kids off, dropped by on parents’ day and welcomed them home in August. Now camp directors field phone calls and e-mails from helicopter parents. There is medication to manage and food allergies to accommodate.
In the first half of the 20th century, principals and teachers like Hughie Black started overnight camps all over the Northeast as a way of making extra money. For many of them, camp was a summer gig.
During its first summer in 1931, Pine Forest Camp had 25 children from the Philadelphia area, all of them Jewish and half of them related to the camp owners. Year by year, thanks to word-of-mouth, enrollment multiplied. Hughie Black expanded his camp as nearby land came up for sale.
In the late 1940s, Hughie’s son, Marvin Black, and Hughie’s son-in-law, Ted Halpern, both schoolteachers, joined the business. But the pair gave up their teaching jobs in the 1960s when they decided to open two new overnight camps: Lake Owego and Timber Tops. The camps offered what was, at the time, innovative pricing: full season or half-season.
Today, the three camps, each with its own lake, swimming pool, pine cabins and adventure climbing course, dot 1,000 acres of fields and forests.
When Mickey and Barbara Black joined the business in the 1980s, the camps offered 20 different activities, including tennis and riflery, arts and fishing. In the 1990s, they took out loans and used camp profits to pay for new cabins and to upgrade the bunks, dining halls, roads, swimming pools, tennis courts and waterfronts. Now, there are more than 40 activities.
All that is expensive. Here is a rough, annual breakdown:
• Salaries. $1 million. The camps employ about 500 people, or roughly one adult for every two campers.
• Food. $500,000. The dining halls feed 1,400 people, three times a day.
• Maintenance. $600,000 to $700,000. This includes upkeep of the land and dozens of buildings.
And then there is capital investment. Last year, Pine Forest built an 8,400-square-foot indoor-outdoor gymnastics facility. This year, there is a new, even larger indoor-outdoor basketball center at Lake Owego.
When the economic downturn hit, “we wanted to send a message: we were strong, we were here,” Mr. Black says as he walks through the gymnastics hall. “It’s always good to build something big when you want to make a statement.”
With enrollment at the three camps nearly full, the business over all remains profitable, Mr. Black says. He declines to be more specific. But he does say that profit margins are narrowing in the face of increased expenses for new buildings and new programs, along with the rising cost of food and gas for water-skiing boats.
“Even though fees have gone up,” he says, they have “not kept pace with the increasing costs of running a camp.”
The economics may change, but the camp’s culture essentially remains the same.
No swearing or bullying. No cellphones, iPads or Internet. Parents can call twice and visit once. Although the camp offers individual and team sports competitions, everyone is a winner.
It is the kind of old-timey experience that Michael D. Eisner, the former Disney chief executive, celebrated in a memoir titled “Camp,” about his summers at camp in Vermont. “Nobody fails summer camp, a nice respite from winters of fortune and misfortune at school,” he wrote.
In a sense, that view captures the ultimate marketing strategy of summer camp. For many, these camps sell future nostalgia, the prospect of happy memories, the promise of best friends maintained for decades to come. That, at any rate, is the value proposition that separates the endless summer of sleep-away camp from the skills and drills of their specialty counterparts.
THE traffic fine for the Pine Forest bus in Manhattan comes to $95. “The cost of doing business,” Mr. Black says. “Who knew?”
It is a small price to pay to liberate a busload of kids. When they pull up a few hours later, he rushes aboard. Each child gets a pat on the back or a handshake, along with a personal greeting — “Happy birthday, Bella!”
Mr. Black seems so natural that it’s easy to forget that camp is a business. But he can concentrate on the campers because he has hired managers to handle day-to-day operations. He spends time during the first few days meeting new campers, memorizing their names and calling their parents with updates.
“Frankly, I think that makes the difference between a successful camp and a camp spinning out of control,” Mr. Black says.
By noon, the earlier morning calm has been broken by the shouts of hundreds of children. Counselors bellow welcomes and help new arrivals carry guitars and tennis rackets to the bunks. Returning campers see old friends and shriek.
Mr. Black senses the omens of a successful summer.
“Now,” he says, “it feels like camp.”
Down the hill, Jonathan Schwartz, the general counsel for the investment bank at JPMorgan Chase, is dropping off his daughter Lindsay, 9, for her first summer. He shows her “The Old-Timers’ Tree,” a twisted trunk with nearly 400 metal plates bearing the names of children who attended camp for a decade or more. Mr. Schwartz, in a weathered T-shirt that says “PFC Alumni, Circa 1980,” points out his name and those of his friends.
“Sending Lindsay to Pine Forest is like sending her to extended family,” he says.
Here at camp, Mr. Black says, it doesn’t so much matter that Mr. Schwartz graduated first in his class at Stanford Law School. Or that he clerked for Thurgood Marshall at the Supreme Court. What matters is that, one summer, Mr. Schwartz served as a general in a sports contest known until recently as “the color war,” a three-day, all-out competition that splits the camp into two rival teams: blue and gold.
Mr. Black knows because he used to be Mr. Schwartz’s bunk counselor.
Mr. Black estimates that as many as a quarter of the campers here are the children — or grandchildren — of alumni. He walks a delicate tightrope, looking for the right balance between innovations that draw new campers and traditions that alumni relish.
“You have to honor, respect and celebrate the fact that they are alumni,” he says. “But you can’t become so insular and cliquish, because you need new families every year.”
THE sign on the table at the back of the bustling dining hall says “Reserved for the Black Family.”
Mickey Black and his father, Marvin Black, 86, the camp’s director emeritus, traditionally sit at the table with their backs to the wall, the better to monitor the controlled chaos before them.
Barbara Black, a cool blonde in a camp logo blouse, is stationed in the middle of the hall, ladling tomato sauce onto pasta for a crowd of girls in jean shorts and tank tops.
A blue and gold banner hangs nearby. “Pine Forest Camp’s 81st Summer,” it reads. “Same Family Ownership.”
If Mickey Black is the camp poet, responsible for campers’ spirits and souls, his wife is the camp pragmatist, in charge of their stomachs. She directs the food program, overseeing purchasing, recipes, cooking and meal service at the three camps.
Last summer, the dining halls served more than 28,000 meatballs and 35,000 pizzas.
“It’s like a cruise ship,” says Ms. Black, the camp’s co-director, pointing to the campers lined up at the all-you-can-eat buffet stations and salad bars.
Ms. Black has taken on the job of catering to increasing numbers of campers who have food allergies or special diets. The dining halls offer vegetarian options and gluten-free options and kosher options. Then there are special items for children who are allergic to onion powder or peaches, and for kids who won’t eat anything but potato bread or croissants or organic granola bars.
A couple of girls approach Ms. Black at the salad bar, asking her to store salad dressing they brought from home. Earlier, one mother gave Ms. Black a hunk of Parmesan cheese for safe-keeping.
“We have noticed how many more dietary issues there are with campers — allergies, special requests,” Ms. Black says. Some other camps, she says, don’t accommodate individual diets. But, she says, “I think that’s our job.”
Even with such personal attention, signing up new campers — and keeping old ones — takes some effort.
In the 1960s, Marvin Black visited prospective families at home in the off-season. He’d show up with a projector, show home movies of camp life and sign up new campers on the spot. “In those days,” he recalls, “we did it the old-fashioned way.”
Now it typically takes five, six or seven separate encounters — phone calls, camp tours, open houses, e-mails — before a new family commits, Mickey Black says. After the economic downturn, he stepped up marketing efforts.
In the off-season, there are informational bowling nights and alumni get-togethers in various cities. In the summer, there’s a new offering, “Explorer Program,” for prospective campers to stay overnight in a special bunk and kick the tires of camp life.
But, in today’s world, Mr. Black may be swimming against the current. Campers, he believes, should experience life live — rather than post a status update about it, or share a photo, or tweet. Going to Pine Forest is like entering a time warp. Mr. Black even drives around in a brown-and-ivory 1949 Willys Jeep station wagon.
Still, this is a bittersweet moment in the history of Pine Forest Camp.
Mickey and Barbara’s daughter, Anna Black Morin, 28, a longtime senior staff member in the summer and a former schoolteacher, has officially joined the business full-time as assistant director. Their son, Lee Black, 25, who has also been involved with the camp, currently works as a marketing coordinator at the Independent Film Channel in Manhattan.
But the couple have conflicting emotions about the idea of the fourth generation eventually taking over.
“We would like it to continue on for the next generation, but only if it’s good for them,” Mr. Black says. “We are not so sentimental about this business that we don’t see that it has its dangers, that it has its challenges.”
AT dusk, Mr. Black makes his rounds. He visits the cabins and says good night to the youngest campers. Boys’ bunks are named after trees (Birch, Linden, Aspen). The girls’ cabins are named after flowers (Iris, Honeysuckle). Screams come from the basketball courts. Laughter rises along the footpaths.
“That sound you hear, of kids having fun, is a constant symphony,” Mr. Black says. “I love that sound.”
He walks up the steps and opens the screen door of Bunk Tulip, checking that everyone is tucked in under the pink and purple comforters.
“Did everyone brush their teeth, I hope?” he says.
He stands at the steps of another cabin and yells up.
“Sunflower, is everybody dressed?” he says. “Can I come in and say good night?”
Good night, Bunk Petunia. Good night, Bunk Lilac. Good night, Bunk Rose.
All 18 buses have arrived — even the one from Newark airport, with new campers from Spain. The nurses in the infirmary have sorted out personal medications. The night watchman is on duty.
“Good night, Bunk Fern.”
Mickey Black can relax for the moment. But the business of summer has only just begun.