Written by: Hayley Fowler
Design by: Carolyn Bahar
High overhead costs for camps often have a direct impact on camper registration fees, making camp less affordable for the American middle class.
When Chloe Ganias was 8 years old, her mom made her a deal.
If she maintained three days of complete misery — meaning not one smile or laugh, or joy of any kind — at a week-long church sleepaway camp in northern California that summer, Chloe could call and Mom would come and get her.
“(Her older sister) Eleni had already been, and loved it, and I knew Chloe would love it,” Barbara Ganias says. “But man, she gave us a good fight.”
She never did call. And six years later, the Ganiases still have to plan their summer vacations around church camp.
For Barbara Ganias, the value of camp for both her girls has far outweighed the dollars spent.
But as increasing overhead costs for camps drive camper fees nationwide, something’s become apparent for most families — camp is a luxury.
A CHANGING LANDSCAPE
According to American Camp Association CEO Tom Holland, 62 percent of a camp’s revenue derives from camper registration fees.
He says for individual campers, the nationwide average weekly cost of attending day camp is $271, while overnight camps average $704.
Those weekly camper fees are factored into how much it costs to physically run the camp for an entire year, which can be anywhere from $790,000 to $1,300,000 yearly.
“Camp Lady” Patti Roberts,who has been helping families find camps for 21 years, says a lot of factors contribute to camper fees. Independently owned and operated overnight and day camps with better camper-counselor ratios, newer facilities and state-of-the- art equipment — in other words, luxury camps — often translate to higher camper fees.
“You’re talking about a socioeconomic class that can afford that kind of expense,” she says. “It definitely doesn’t cater to the mainstream of Americans — camp never has.”
Instead, Roberts says, local camps with corporate backing through the YMCA or Boys and Girl Scouts are more affordable. Those campers sleep in the woods with a tent and cook over a campfire, which doesn’t require the same amount of overhead costs as cabins with electricity and industrial kitchens.
But she also says camp looks a lot different today than it did 50 years ago.
Camp used to be just water activities, sports, art and theater. But now there are circus programs, water toys, climbing walls, recording studios and cooking lessons, too.
“Camps have changed with the time,” she says. “And with that, the price has gone up tremendously.”
That change also includes higher insurance premiums, upgraded technology — often required for sending emails from remote locations — and maintenance, says Leigh Longino, chief operating officer at Camp Corral, a free summer camp for military children headquartered in Raleigh, North Carolina, with programs nationwide.
“(The facilities) are rustic. That’s not the kind of thing donors want to spend money on,” she says. “It does drive up the cost of camp.”
On top of such costs, minimum wage requirements have forced camps to react quickly.
“It’s a hit they have to pass on to the registration process,” she says.
THE PRICE OF QUALITY
Ganias says while she hasn’t seen the cost of camp change over the years, it does vary among the different types.
Day camps through the city recreation department are reasonable, she says, and church camp — well under $1,000 for one-week, all-inclusive — is extremely reasonable.
But more luxurious camps with updated facilities, new cabins, better camper-counselor ratios and better quality food ask more of families willing to send their children there.
Roberts says she represents some overnight camps in the Northeast that cost between $8- and $12,000 for a seven-week program. Certain areas of New York also boast $6- to $7,000 day camps for various lengths of time — it all depends on what they have to offer.
Generally speaking, Roberts says the facility isn’t quite the same with lesser-priced camps.
“I’m always a believer in life that you get what you pay for,” she says.
Longino, who also spent 20 years working with camps for the YMCA of the Triangle in North Carolina, says at YMCA Camps Sea Gull and Seafarer off the coast
of North Carolina — where she attended as a child and sends her own children — the camp markets itself with first-class properties, facilities and programs.
For instance, every three years they rotate their fleet of boats — not because there’s anything wrong with them, Longino says, but because that’s the standard they established.
She says the cost of attending such a camp for one month is about $4,000.
“The program design can really cause the cost of camp to fluctuate,” she says.
But that cost can be deterring.
“I am not sure if the cost of camp is indicative of the value,” Ganias says. “But I do worry that some camps are prohibitive for some families.”
But in the last 10 years, some camps have found ways to adapt to higher overhead costs without putting the financial burden on families.
Because most camps function for a mere seven weeks, Roberts says they’ve had to be clever about finding additional sources of revenue.
Some overnight camps are winterizing their cabins and hosting retreats for religious groups, schools and sports teams during the school year.
She says there’s one camp in the Adirondacks that markets itself for weddings, parties and reunions in the off-season, and another that opened its dining hall as a year- round restaurant.
Others have used such off- season opportunities to waive individual campers fees.
At Columbus Youth Camp in Ohio, Camp Director Todd Harris says they charge families on a sliding scale based entirely on income.
The camp is a nonprofit, run in conjunction with the Boys & Girls Club, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Girls on the Run and others in the area. The organizations share resources and combine strengths to run the various programs.
Harris says the income-based summer tuition fees pay for lunches, snacks, direct service staff, transportation and supplies.
“When that is in balance, the cost of physically running a camp and
paying administrative staff is supported by donations and rental fees,” he says. Rental fees, he says, are secured from weekend retreats and weddings during the school year.
Some camps also offer camp scholarships, or camperships. Holland says 95 percent of
overnight camps and 88 percent of day camps offer some form of financial assistance.
“There is a camp for every child and every budget,” he says.
But Longino says the scale for camperships has shifted. They’re no longer available for welfare families, but rather dual- income families earning less than $100,000 a year.
Day camps also qualify for tax credits, as camp counts as childcare while parents are at work.
Longino says families who factor childcare expenses into their weekly spending during the school year are often prepared to transfer those costs to the summer as well.
“Day camps really are the essence of childcare,” she says.
A LUXURY WORTH PAYING
But as much as cost plays a role, Hildreth Stafford — a mom of two teenage girls in Georgia who attend camp in western North Carolina — says the luxury of camp is worth every penny.
“It is obviously expensive, and each year we have to budget to make it work,” she says.
Roberts says camp is an experience unparalleled to anything else.
“Being teenage girls, having a place where they wouldn’t get distracted by boys, worry about their hair, clothes or makeup was important to me,” Stafford says about Camp Kahdalea, the all-girls camp she sends her daughters to yearly.
The technology-detox — a factor even at some of the most luxurious summer camps — is important as well.
Ganias says she’d replicate her daughters’ camp experiences, all of them, in a heartbeat.
“Every kid deserves the opportunity to discover more about him or herself through a camp experience.”