Photo: George Ploaie/Flickr
April 07–Sporting goods stores might want to stock up on sleeping bags, mosquito spray and hiking boots. And grocers may want to boost their marshmallow supplies.With an improving economy, enrollment in summer camps nationwide is surging, forcing some camps to hire extra counselors and build bigger facilities. And many camps are filling up much faster than in previous years, with the remaining spaces going quickly.
The growth in enrollment ranges from 5% to more than 30% among Southern California camps, with some camp directors saying they expect to reach capacity in the next month or so — nearly a month earlier than previous years.
At Pali Adventures in the San Bernardino Mountains town of Running Springs, enrollment is up about 34% for this summer, compared with the same time last year, said camp director Ian Brasset, who attributes the higher registration numbers partly to a stronger economy creating stable family budgets.
“People who have jobs and have money are more comfortable about how they spend it,” he said, adding that he is hiring about 15 extra workers and building a $5-million, two-story dinning hall to accommodate the growth.
The enrollment surge is a trend that camp operators across the country have started to see over the last few years.
Nearly 60% of camp operators responding to a national survey said enrollment increased in 2011 compared with the previous year, with about 21% saying enrollment was about the same, and about 21% reporting that enrollment had dropped, according to the American Camp Assn., an Indiana-based accreditation group for camps. The survey results for 2012 have yet to be released, but association officials say they expect the trend to continue.
Camp operators also attribute the rise in enrollment, in part, to a growing choice of specialised camps. Camps such as Pali Adventures and others offer choices such as secret agent camp, water sports camp and flying trapeze camp.
Summer camps are big business. About 8,000 of the nation’s 12,000 summer camps are run by nonprofit groups or religious organisations. But an additional 4,000 are run by private, for-profit companies, according to the American Camp Assn.
Amanda Pagliari of Los Angeles has been enrolling her 13-year-old daughter Valentina at Pali Adventures for years. But this spring she noticed that the camp sessions her daughter wanted to try were filling up fast.
So, instead of waiting until April or May, as she had in the past, Pagliari said, she signed up her daughter in late February to attend a week of culinary institute and a week of dance camp.
“When signing up for the session in the past few years, we were able to do it last-minute,” she said. “This year, it was already getting full earlier.”
Camps that routinely fill to capacity each year say they are filling up much faster this year.
On the banks of Huntington Lake, about 70 miles east of Fresno, Gold Arrow Camp is expected to fill all six summer sessions this month, which usually doesn’t happen until in May or June.
“We are definitely about to reach capacity,” said Alison Moeschberger, director of personnel and programs at the camp that serves a maximum of 260 children per session.
In another sign that families feel more confident about their financial situation, some camp operators say many parents are also registering to put their children in camp for longer sessions.
“We are definitely seeing a trend of parents not only signing up, but also signing up for more days at camp,” said Sarah Horner Fish, executive director of the Tom Sawyer Camp, a day camp in Pasadena that serves about 1,200 children each summer.
Barbara Griffith, a middle school teacher from Huntington Beach, said she signed up her 12-year-old son Cody for two weeks of overnight camp this summer instead of the usual one week because she felt secure about her job this year.
“This year our district sent out no pink slips, which gives me the luxury to say, ‘OK, let’s do it,’ ” she said.
Still, Griffith said she reserved a spot for her son in October to take advantage of a special discount for parents who register early. “We always sign up that early,” she added.
For good reason. Summer camp can be expensive.
The American Camp Assn. has not tracked average camp fees over the last few years. Still, the group’s most recent survey found that nearly half off all camps — both day camps and overnight camps — charge at least $500 a week, with 16% of camps charging more than $1,000 per week.
The increase in camp enrollment comes in contrast to the sharp drop a few years ago, when the nation’s slogging economy forced many families to forgo summer camp.
“In 2007, the big thing was that families were scared,” said Michelle Ferrara Peterson, program director for AstroCamp in Idyllwild, in the San Jacinto mountains, which serves about 425 youngsters each summer. “In 2007, they didn’t know how long they were going to be laid off and they wanted to clamp down on all disposable income spending.”
Throughout the country, there are 7,000 overnight residential camps and 5,000 day camps. Overnight programs suffered a bigger drop during the recession, while the decline was milder for camps that enrolled children only during the day. Overnight camps now seem to be bouncing back even faster, according to many camp operators.
During the recession, enrollment at the Catalina Island Camp on Santa Catalina Island dropped about 20%, said Tom Horner, executive director of the camp, which serves about 650 children a year.
Enrollment is up about 5% this year compared with last year and parents are registering much earlier, he said.
“In the past, people were afraid of getting laid off and they wouldn’t commit to a big-ticket item like camp until the last minute,” Horner said. “Now, most of the layoffs are done and people are more comfortable toward doing something for their kids.”
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