August 14, 2022

When S’Mores Aren’t Enough: The New Economics of Summer Camp

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.

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