The Words of the Profits — Highlights From ACA's Camp Business Operations Report: 2006

by Jon Malinowski, Ph.D.

As part of its efforts to better understand the needs of its members, the American Camp Association (ACA) conducts periodic research on business issues, the benefits of the summer camp experience, and youth development. In November and December 2005, the association funded a major survey on camp business operations. Each of ACA's 2,680 member camps was sent a survey, and 1,097 usable responses were received, a 41 percent return rate. The results indicate that the camp community remains a complicated family with a great degree of diversity among its members.

Resident Camps

Resident camps that responded to the survey consisted of independent camps (36 percent); agency camps (33 percent); and religious camps (24 percent). Among the independent camps, for-profit camps were slightly more represented than nonprofit camps (19 percent of all respondents compared to 17 percent). Among agency camps, the YMCA (11 percent of all respondents) and the Girl Scouts (8 percent of all respondents) were the most commonly represented organizations.

Summer Youth Camp Fees
Among the responding residential camps, the average weekly fee for summer youth camp was $597. The vast majority of residential camps, approximately 65 percent, charge more than $300 per week for summer camp, and 10 percent reported fees of $1,000 per week or more. Only 7 percent of respondents reported fees of under $100 per week. As shown in Figure 1, New England has the highest median summer camp registration fees, at $780 per week, while the Mid America states have the lowest at just $325 for the median fee. The term median means that 50 percent of camps are below and 50 percent of camps are above this number.

Not surprisingly, independent for-profit camps were most likely to report high weekly fees. Nearly 42 percent of independent for-profits reported fees above $1,000 per week, and another 42 percent indicated fees between $700-$999. Among agency-affiliated camps, only 2 of 223 respondents indicated fees above $1,000 per week, a number well under 1 percent. Similarly, only 2 percent of religious-affiliated camps and 4 percent of independent nonprofit residential camps reported weekly fees above $1,000 for camp. Overall, the average weekly fees by sponsor were $377 for agency sponsored camps, $566 for religious sponsored camps, $457 for independent nonprofits, and $952 for independent for-profits.

Because of the camp community's roots in service, camps continue to be generous givers of scholarships to campers or other guests at their facilities. Of the residential camps responding, the average amount given in scholarships during the relevant fiscal year was nearly $68,000 and the median was $17,000. Again, this means that 50 percent of respondents awarded more than $17,000 in scholarships, and 50 percent awarded less than $17,000. Independent nonprofit residential camps were the most likely to report scholarships of over $100,000 or more. Nearly 27 percent of respondents in this category reported doing so. Independent for-profit camps were most likely to report no scholarships. About 21 percent of camps in this category reported no scholarships, compared with just 10 percent of agency residential camps, 8 percent of religious-sponsored camps, and 8 percent of independent nonprofits.

Non-Camp Services and Months of Operation

A large number of residential camps reported offering services other than summer youth camp programs. Over 40 percent of respondents indicated that they offered either a retreat center, family camp programs, or outdoor/environmental education programs. Furthermore, over 30 percent of all residential camps offer weekend or daily rentals, site rental by other camps, day use programs, or trip and/or travel camp. Finally, about 25 percent of all residential camps reported conference center or day camp services. Regionally, retreat centers were least common in New England and most common in the Mid Atlantic and Mid America regions. Family camp services were most common in the Mid America and Western regions.

These findings suggest that a typical residential camp is much more than just a "summer" camp, and other aspects of the survey seem to prove this. As expected, over 90 percent of all residential camps report being in operation during June, July, and August, but the other months of the year are not being neglected. As shown in Figure 2, over 40 percent of resident camps report operations in January, February, March, and November, over 50 percent are operating in April and October, and over 60 percent operate in May and September. December is the least common month for operation, but even then a full 39 percent of camps reported operating. As might be expected, New England residential camps report the lowest winter operations, with only 13-16 percent of all camps in operation. Perhaps this shorter reported operating season is one reason that weekly summer camp fees are higher in the New England states.

Gross Revenues
Respondents to the survey were asked to report an estimated gross revenue in their current fiscal year from all sources. The average for residential camps was $961,000 and the median was $540,000. Approximately 13 percent of camps reported estimated total gross revenues of over $2 million and 16 percent estimate between $1-1.9 million. At the other end of the spectrum, 8 percent of camps estimate gross revenues of under $100,000 for the year. New England residential camps reported the highest estimated total gross revenues, at $1.2 million. Mid Atlantic residential camps reported the next highest median estimated revenues, at $624,000, followed by Southern camps ($560,000); Mid America camps ($400,000); and Western camps ($331,000).

Well over half of all revenue reported by residential camps, nearly 59 percent, comes from summer camp registration fees. After these fees, group rental fees and contributions each account for about a tenth of the respondent camps' gross revenues. New England camps seem to be the most dependent on camp registration fees. In these states, nearly 76 percent of revenue comes from this source. Also, and as is to be expected, independent for-profit camps rely more heavily on camper registration fees. Over 89 percent of the revenue for independent for-profits was estimated to come from camper fees, compared to just 45 percent for independent nonprofit residential camps.

Residential Camp Expenses and Profitability
Labor is the largest expense for residential camps according to the respondents, accounting for 40 percent of outlays. The next single largest expense reported was food, at 11.4 percent of expenses, and program items and supplies, at 8.3 percent of all costs. Maintenance and insurance were the next largest expenses. Overall, average estimated expenses reported by residential camps were $896,000, with a median of $530,000. Independent for-profit camps have the highest expenses of all camp types, with average outlays of nearly $1.4 million. This was substantially higher than independent nonprofits ($955,000); agency-sponsored residential camps ($782,000); or religious-sponsored residential respondents ($638,000). New England camps have estimated median expenses that are over $350,000 higher than those of residential camps in any other region.

Based on the data provided by survey respondents, a simple measure of profitability was calculated by subtracting expenses from revenue. Overall, 19 percent of residential camps show no "profit"; 46 percent show a profit; and 25 percent of residential camps show a loss. Among camps that show a profit, 13 percent had returns of $300,000 or more, and 24 percent had profits of $100,000-$299,999. This means that the vast majority of camps showing a profit, nearly 63 percent, generated returns of less than $100,000. Among residential camps that reported expenses greater than revenues, nearly 19 percent had calculated losses of over $100,000, 49 percent had deficits of between $10,000 and $99,999, and 20 percent showed losses of less than $10,000.

Day Camps

A total of 305 day camps participated in this study. About 43 percent of the camps were agency-sponsored, and the vast majority of these camps are affiliated with the YMCA. Approximately 37 percent of the day camps participating are independent, divided roughly equally among for-profit and nonprofit entities. Religious-sponsored camps constituted just 6 percent of the respondents. Municipal or government day camps (7 percent) and day camps in multiple categories rounded out the respondents. Agency-sponsored day camps were more commonly from the Western or Mid America regions while the New England and Mid Atlantic states had more independent programs. Municipal- or government-sponsored day camps were more common in Southern states than in other regions.

Summer Youth Camp Fees
As expected, weekly fees for day camps are lower than for residential camps. Approximately 66 percent of day camps charge between $100-299 for a week. Only 3 percent of all day camps responding reported fees of over $700 per week. Overall, the average fee for a week at one of the participating day camps was $303. Agency-sponsored day camps reported the lowest average fees, at just $157, followed in order of increasing cost by religious-sponsored programs ($222); independent for-profit camps ($494); and independent nonprofit camps ($570). The fact that nonprofit camps have higher average fees is skewed a bit by a few programs with high fees. The median fees are $230 for the nonprofit programs and $400 for the for-profit day camps. Thus, while nonprofits have higher average day camp fees, the bottom 50 percent of day camps in this category charge less than the bottom 50 percent of camps in the for-profit category. Regionally, as shown in Figure 1 on page 18, median weekly fees were highest in the Mid Atlantic states ($275); followed by the New England and Western states ($193); the Mid America states ($160); and the Southern states ($100).

In terms of scholarships, agency-sponsored camps report the highest level of giving, with a median amount of $14,600. Religious-sponsored day camps and independent for-profit camps both had median scholarships of $10,000, and independent nonprofits indicated median scholarships of $5,000. Overall, 100 percent of religious, 98 percent of agency, 80 percent of for-profit independent, and 77 percent of independent nonprofit day camps provide scholarships.

Non-Camp Services and Months of Operation
Day camps are less likely than residential camps to offer other services beyond youth camp programs. The most common services offered were outdoor or environmental education programs (23 percent of respondents); trip or travel camp (23 percent); and day use programs (22 percent). Site rentals, community centers, and daily rentals were reported by 7-9 percent of the respondents.

Given these findings, it's not surprising that we see a more limited calendar of operations for most day camps (see Figure 2 on page 19). While 93-99 percent of all day camps were in operation during June, July, and August, in no other month did the percentage of day camps in operation crack 30 percent. April, May, and September were operating months for between 25-29 percent of day camps, and all other months were only times of operation for between 16-24 percent of responding day camps. Thus, "summer camp" is a much more accurate term for most day camp programs than for residential programs that more commonly offer services beyond youth camp programs over the course of the year.

Gross Revenues
With their lower weekly fees, it's not surprising that day camps have lower gross revenues than residential camps. The average gross revenue for the participating day camps was $637,000, but half of all day camps reported revenue of less than $268,000. Independent for-profit camps have the highest grosses, averaging $1.6 million. Independent nonprofits reported average revenues of $615,000, followed by religious day camps ($600,000) and agency-sponsored programs ($274,000). Geographically, Mid Atlantic camps reported the highest gross revenues, $600,000, and Southern camps indicated the lowest figures, just $60,000.

Because day camps offer fewer programs other than youth camp programs, it's not surprising that revenue for day camps comes largely from camper registration fees. In fact, the day camp respondents to this survey reported that over 80 percent of their gross revenue comes from camper fees. No other single source accounts for even 5 percent of the average gross revenues of the responding camps. This makes day camps particularly vulnerable, when compared to residential camps, to economic, social, or legal issues that might reduce camp enrollment. For most day camps, a 10 percent reduction in enrollment translates to about an 8 percent loss of revenue. For the residential camps participating in this survey, that loss would be more in the range of just 6 percent of revenue.

Day Camp Expenses and Profitability
Day camps spend a higher percentage of their budgets on labor (54 percent) compared to residential camps (40 percent). Program supplies and transportation costs are the next largest single budget items, accounting for 10.2 percent and 7.6 percent of expenses, respectfully. Overall, day camps in this study reported average expenses of $522,000. Independent for-profit camps have the highest expenses, averaging nearly $1.4 million, followed by religious day camps ($588,000); independent nonprofits ($461,000); and agency programs ($230,000). Reported expenses were highest in the Mid Atlantic region and lowest in the Southern states.

As defined as revenue minus expenses, only 13 percent of the day camps participating show a loss while 60 percent indicate a profit. Nearly 21 percent of all day camps in the study report profits of over $100,000. Conversely, only 2 percent of all day camps have an estimated loss of over $100,000.


In addition to providing statistics about the operating status of current ACA members, this study highlights the diversity of the association's membership. Expenses and revenue vary widely by camp type (day or resident); camp sponsor (agency, independent, etc.); and geographic location. Because of this, the national and regional leadership of the association must continue to carefully evaluate the needs of all members and to work together to insure that national policies meet regional and local needs whenever possible.

Jon Malinowski, Ph.D., is the co-author of The Summer Camp Handbook, a camp consultant and staff trainer, and a member of the American Camp Association's research committee.

Originally published in the 2006 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.