Site Seeing: Selected Findings From the Site, Facilities, and Program Survey

by Jon Malinowski, Ph.D.

The American Camp Association’s Committee for the Advancement of Research and Evaluation recently completed its triennial Site, Facilities, and Program Survey (SFPS). This lengthy and in-depth polling of 700 Association members reveals the great diversity — both positive and negative — of the industry’s camps.

Basic Camp Operations

At the most elemental level, the SFPS reveals the current state of basic camp operations. Residential camping was the most common offering of the participating member camps. Over 69 percent of camps reported offering a residential program. Day camping was offered by 51 percent of camps, suggesting that many members offer a combination of day and residential programs. Family camping was also relatively common, with 32 percent of camps offering a program, as was renting space for retreats (34 percent of respondents) or conferences (21 percent). Nearly 31 percent of camps offer a trip or travel program. Day use and special event or site rentals were also common with about a third of all participating camps. It’s clear that camp owners and operators have found a diverse combination of services to serve a wide audience and to stay financially sound.

Of the camps surveyed, 50 percent operate in the summer only, but nearly 42 percent report year-round operations (see Chart 1: Camp Operations). The likelihood of year-round operations is higher in warmer states for obvious reasons. For example, 48 percent of California and 60 percent of Texas camps in the survey reported being open all year, but in New York and New Hampshire the numbers are only 29 percent and 24 percent respectively.

Who do camps serve today? Of the camps surveyed, 11 percent serve only males, and 21 percent serve only females. Socio-economically, 24 percent of camps reported serving the poor, 48 percent serve low-income campers, 81 percent middle incomes, and 50 percent high incomes. Over 65 percent of camps reported serving a major city, 71 percent serve suburban communities, 41 percent serve rural areas, and 4 percent reported serving reservations. Only 1 percent of camps reported primarily serving international markets. In terms of race and ethnicity, 75 percent of residential camp populations in 2006 were white, 10 percent were black, 7 percent were Hispanic, and 3 percent were Asian. For day camps, 73 percent of campers were white, 12 percent were black, and other races and ethnic groups were similar to residential programs.

Session lengths between day and residential camps do not vary much. The most common length of stay for day camps in 2006 was one week or less, followed by sessions of seven weeks or more. Therefore, it is most common for day camps to serve campers for a short amount of time or nearly a whole summer. The most common session length for residential camps was also one week or less, which was reported as being the most typical session length by 21 percent of camps with a residential program. The next most common lengths were seven weeks or more.

Camps remain rooted in rural settings despite the highly urban landscape of the United States. Only 13 percent of camps reported operating in an urban or suburban setting. Rather, nearly 73 percent of participating camps described their setting as “rural, nature-based.” Over 42 percent of camps have access to a natural or man-made lake, making a lake the most common water body on a camp property. Just over 30 percent of camps have a pond on site, 9 percent have a river running through their property, 30 percent have a stream or creek, and less than 3 percent are on the ocean.

The typical camp served 919 youth in 2006. The maximum reported was 22,000 campers! Additionally, camps reported serving 1,060 youth in rental groups. Overall, the camps that responded to the SFPS reported serving an average of 1,980 youth. It was less common for camps to serve adults. The average camp served only ninety-three adults in day camp or residential programs, and 624 adults in rental groups. Overall, camps reported serving between 8 and 45,000 individuals during 2006, with an average of 2,696.

Getting a client to purchase a good or service more than once is important to nearly all types of businesses, and camps seem to be succeeding. Return rates in 2006 were 65 percent for youth and 68 percent for adults. Considering that a percentage of all youth may grow too old to return to a camp, these numbers seem to be fairly successful. About 73 percent of rental groups also return each year.

In 2006, camps with residential programs had full-time staffs averaging five people with an additional four persons serving as full-time volunteers. To supplement full-time staff and volunteers, residential camps hired an average of sixty-three seasonal staff members and thirty-two volunteers. The return rate for paid staff was 58 percent and just 30 percent for volunteers. Day camps employed six year-round staffers and three volunteers in 2006 and added an average of sixty-one paid seasonal workers and sixteen volunteers. Therefore, residential and day programs tend to average about the same number of paid workers, but day camps lag behind residential in terms of attracting seasonal volunteers. Return rates were 58 percent for paid staff and 27 percent for volunteers. The largest reported staff was 1,333 total workers for a residential camp and 1,113 for a day camp.

Facilities

A large component of the SFPS is to inventory what facilities camps have on their property. Dining facilities are obviously crucial to the operation of most camps, and not surprisingly, 56 percent of camps surveyed reported having indoor dining facilities with heating and/or air conditioning. Twenty-nine percent of camps reported having a facility without heating or cooling, and just 13 percent reported having no indoor facilities. Overall, 40 percent of camps report having some type of outdoor eating areas, including low-impact dining areas and campfire circles.

Lodging facilities show even more diversity. The majority of camps, nearly 65 percent, reported having on-site cabins. Lodges were the second most common type of lodging, reported by 27 percent of camps. Just over 25 percent of camps utilize tents. Other types of lodging, such as motel-style rooms, yurts, tree houses, and tipis were reported by less than 10 percent of SFPS participant camps. About a quarter of camps also reported maintaining some manner of tent camping on-site, but water, sewer, and electric hookups for the tent sites were rare.

Whether the beds are in a cabin, tent, or yurt, camp sizes are certainly larger than they were when the industry was young. The average camp in the survey reported maintaining 239 beds during 2007. A 2003 ACA survey showed that camps reported an average overnight capacity in the summer months of 297. Whether the latest survey indicates that camps are smaller is not clear, it is worthy of more research. Enrollment surveys, which have been reported here, show that some areas of the country have been gaining campers while others have been losing, so perhaps there have been changes in maximum capacity.

Specialized facilities vary widely among camps. Some types of facilities and amenities are common. For example, 74 percent of camps own playing fields and 71 percent have an arts and crafts area. Just over 69 percent also have hiking trails. These facilities were by far the most common. Pools were owned by just over 49 percent of camps. Just a couple of decades ago, there were hardly any camps that offered ropes courses or climbing walls, but these are becoming much more common. According to this tally of the membership, 43 percent of camps reported owning a climbing wall, 37 percent had a high ropes course, and a majority of camps, 51 percent, stated that they owned a low ropes course. Less commonly owned were skate parks (5 percent); theaters and dance studios (18 percent); and computer labs (14 percent).

Obviously, not all camps can afford to own or build every facility they need, so many camps rent or lease facilities for programming, although the number of camps doing so tends to represent only a fraction of all member camps. The most commonly rented or leased facilities included pools (9 percent of respondents); playing fields (8 percent); high ropes courses (6 percent); and horse riding rings (6 percent).

What are camp directors and owners planning on building or expanding in the next few years? The most common response was lodging (see Chart 2: Percentage of Camps Planning Expansion). About 11 percent of camps reported plans to expand on-site lodging. More campers in bunks means more campers to feed, and therefore, it’s not surprising that 9 percent of camps reported plans to expand dining facilities. New nature centers are also planned by 11 percent of camps participating in the study. Kids will also enjoy more ropes courses and climbing walls. Nearly 10 percent of all camps reported plans to expand low and high ropes courses and climbing walls. After they swing from the trees, campers at 6 percent of the respondent camps will be able to swim in new or expanded pools. Gymnasiums also seem to be a growth area with 8 percent of camps reporting plans to expand gyms.

While camps have always had to worry about brick and mortar, the Internet era has brought new infrastructure needs necessary to keep campers, staff, and parents connected. But computer access for campers or other program participants remains relatively uncommon. Only 19 percent of the camps participating in this survey provide computer access for their campers. However, 79 percent have computer availability for staff. When Internet connections are available, DSL is the most common type of access available.

Programming

The SFPS collects detailed information about what program activities camps are now offering and gives a glimpse into what it means to be a “camp” in the modern age. As shown in Table 1, in the area of sports and recreation there are few surprises among the most commonly offered activities.

Arts or hobby-related activities also remain common. Arts and crafts were offered by 92 percent of all camps in the study, making it the most common activity in the industry. Theater or drama activities were the only other activity in this category offered by over 50 percent of camps (54 percent), but activities such as dance (44 percent); music (44 percent); ceramics (31 percent); and photography (28 percent) are common. Academic instruction seems to be rare and is, in general, only offered by less than 10 percent of camps.

Because many camps rent their facilities to outside groups, the SFPS asked camps to indicate the most popular activities among rental groups. The clear winner was challenge or ropes course activities, which was on 12 percent of respondent lists (see Chart 3: Popular Activities Among Rental Groups). Swimming was the only other activity that stood out from the pack. These findings indicate that being able to offer renters a variety of activities may be a successful strategy for commercial success.

Camps and the Environment

Land management and environmental education was a particular focus of the SFPS this time. The role of camps as stewards of the environment is clear when looking at the amount of land that the industry controls and uses. The average camp in the SFPS reported having 287 acres of land with 190 acres available for programming. Camps reported nearly 72 acres, on average, set aside for conservation or restricted for development. Extrapolating nationwide, this means potentially that ACA member camps may be responsible for well over 170,000 acres of undeveloped land, an area 30,000 acres larger than Zion National Park. When you consider that forests can be found on 58 percent of camp properties, meadows or prairies on 42 percent, and over 30 percent of respondents reported wetlands, the diversity of camp-controlled environments is truly remarkable and highlights the need for a continuous focus on environmental education and land management.

But, camps do not universally embrace the need for dedicated staff in the field of nature or environmental education. Just over 86 percent of camps reported having no (73 percent) or just one (13 percent) full-time paid staff member for nature or environmental education. Furthermore, almost no camps reported having any full-time volunteers for this purpose. The situation is a bit better when looking at seasonal staff. About 20 percent of camps reported hiring five or more seasonal staffers for nature or environmental education, and 13 percent or more also had volunteers on staff for this activity. The only environmental activity taught by a majority of camps in the survey was fire building (53 percent). Only 36 percent of camps offer conservation education, and only 38 percent teach environmental ethics. Just under 22 percent offer weather education, and under 20 percent offer any type of activity with wildlife study.

Finally, the survey asked camps to report on their recycling activities. Almost 17 percent of camps reported no recycling efforts, but most camps do recycle to some degree. Nearly 68 percent of camps recycle aluminum cans and over 55 percent recycle cardboard. Between 30 percent and 40 percent of camps recycle glass, and about 50 percent recycle white paper. Mixed paper and newspaper are recycled less commonly.

Jon Malinowski, Ph.D., is a college professor, author, and member of the American Camp Association’s Committee for the Advancement of Research and Evaluation.

Originally published in the 2008 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.

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