In the five years since Jed Dorfman has been running Camp Walt Whitman, a posh haven complete with waterskiing and private boats in Piermont, N.H., that charges as much as $9,450 for a seven-week stay, he has had to work out payment plans and extend deadlines to help one or two families. Until this year, that is. A few months ago, with the enrollment deadline fast approaching, he called the families of several kids who had been coming to camp for years but hadn't signed up yet for 2009. He heard details about grandparents who had footed the bill for camp losing their money to Bernie Madoff. He heard about parents who worked on Wall Street no longer getting a big enough bonus to cover camp. And the list went on. To keep his loyal campers coming back, he cut some deals: while everyone paid the same, more families than ever set up payment plans. "In the macro picture, we're in the same place we've always been, but in the micro picture, we've had families who have gone through real changes," Dorfman says.
With its registration levels near normal, Camp Walt Whitman is one of the lucky ones. Across the country, camps have reported drops of 10% to 20% in enrollment. Parents are also opting to send their kids for shorter periods.
Summer camp is big business, a multimillion-dollar industry that provides child care (not to mention a break for beleaguered parents) for more than 3 million campers every year. But much like buying a car or choosing a college, this year parents have been more apt to shop around and try to find the best deals. "We've seen a great increase in parents going to camp fairs," says Peg Smith, executive director of the American Camp Association. "We think that is encouraging, because generally the last dollar a parent is going to cut will be one they spend on their children."
Camps have been eager to negotiate. Some are even leaving it up to parents to decide what they can afford. In New York City, overnight YMCA camps have started a tiered-payment system in which parents essentially use an honor code to determine whether they need to get up to a $400 discount on the $1,397 tuition for the two-week sessions. As of June, 43% of enrollees had opted to pay the full amount, 13% took $200 off and 44% took all $400 off.
At Camp Yosemite Sierra, a Christian adventure camp in Bass Lake, Calif., executive director Sara Kuljis says she has been looking for different ways to help parents afford camp. Many children are coming for free in exchange for their parents working at the camp. Compared to years past, when a few parents worked as nurses for a session, this year parents are bartering everything from their skills as guest speakers to designing sets for camp plays. "It's been a way of working together just to get kids back to camp as much as we can," Kuljis says.
Not all camps can cut such deals. Because of NCAA regulations, many sports camps cannot give any type of financial aid to campers in high school because they are considered potential recruits. Sports camps, which are often held on a college campus and run by college coaches, have limited options to avoid economy-related enrollment drop-offs. Charlie Hoeveler, who runs U.S. Sports/Nike camps in 49 states (sorry, South Dakota) and Puerto Rico, says he braced for the worst when he saw the early enrollment numbers this year.
"Right now, we're probably 10% to 12% down, which I think is amazing considering how tough business is these days," Hoeveler says. But even a 12% decline is an improvement from the 20% drop-off he was predicting earlier in the registration period. "I think people are just waiting on the sidelines, wanting to sign up," he says. "They're just waiting for the right time."
And as the school year ends, Hoeveler, like many others in the camp industry, is happy to see that some parents are still slipping their children in after the relaxed registration deadlines. "As long as kids have summer vacation," he adds, "parents will need something to do with their kids."