Before the Storm: A Summary of the 2009 ACA Camp Business Operations Report

by Jon Malinowski, Ph.D., and Amy Padowski, M.S.

The camp industry has faced tough economic times before. Nothing, not a Great Depression, two world wars, or numerous other recessions have seen the downfall of this great cultural innovation in youth development. But hard times require directors and camp professionals to make wise decisions. To that end, the American Camp Association (ACA) systematically collects information that helps its members understand the status of the industry. ACA worked with Readex (a market research firm) to survey members about business operations, including budgets, operating seasons, scholarships, and other financial issues for the 2009 ACA Camp Business Operations Report. The report is based upon 2007 budget data, which were collected from members in November 2008. Given the financial crisis that struck in mid-2008, these data serve as a valuable snapshot for where the industry was before the economic storm and will, a year or two down the road, allow us to make valuable before-and-after comparisons about the health of the camp industry.

This article summarizes select findings from that survey, which had 519 total respondents (38 percent response rate). A total of 295 camps indicated that their operations were primarily targeted towards residential programs while 158 indicated that they were primarily day programs. Although this article will break down camps based on whether they are primarily day or resident programs, few camps devote all their efforts to just one part of the camp market. Based on the responses, 18 percent of the camps were exclusively resident camps, 23 percent were exclusively day programs, and only 2 percent of respondents catered only to rental clients.

Before we break down the findings to focus on subsets of the camp industry, it is helpful to summarize the typical demographics of the camps involved with this survey. The typical ACA day camp, according to the survey, was thirty-five years old, and 78 percent had been operating for at least a decade. Nearly half (46 percent) of all day camps were agency-sponsored, and the YMCA was the most common sponsoring organization. Just under a third (34 percent) of all day camps responding were YMCA camps. Just over 70 percent of all day camps own their own property, but while 99 percent have programs in the summer, only 34 percent use their facilities in the spring, and only a quarter have fall or winter programs. This seasonality of the business is one issue that may continue to be a concern if year-round schooling increases in popularity.

Resident programs have clear distinctions from day camps in many areas. The resident camps in the survey were, on average, more than twenty years older than day camps, with a mean of fifty-eight years in operation. Only 5 percent of responding camps were less than 10 years old compared to about 11 percent of all day camps. Unlike day camps, resident camps were less likely to be agency-sponsored. In fact, the resident camps surveyed were fairly equally divided among agency (26 percent); independent for-profit (24 percent); independent nonprofit (27 percent); and religious camps (18 percent). Resident camps were also much more likely to have year-round operations than day camps. All resident camps in the survey had summer operations, but over half also had spring and fall programs (53 percent and 56 percent respectively) and 35 percent were open in the winter.

The differences among day and resident programs reveal how important it is to provide education and support services that recognize and address the differences in staffing, financing, and other business realities facing directors of different types of camps.

Day Camps

The business operations survey reveals real differences among different types of day camps and among camps in different regions. For example, agency day camps were more likely to offer programs in the spring, fall, or winter than religious or independent camps. Geographically, as shown in Figure 1, camps in the south and west were much more likely to offer fall and winter programs. For example, only 11 percent of New England day camps offered winter programs compared to over half of all Western camps (53 percent). While this fact makes sense given the climate, it also gives programs in these areas more options for revenue growth. This opportunity is clear when looking at the percentage of a camp's gross revenue coming from different sources. Camps in New England reported 86 percent of their revenue from summer camp fees, as did camps in the Mid-Atlantic (84 percent). In southern and western camps, only 70-74 percent of revenue was from summer registration fees; however, these programs reported an average of about 15 percent of revenue from "other, uncategorized sources." Presumably, these numbers could refer to off-season camper revenue. Comparatively, New England and Mid-Atlantic camps reported a mean of less than 4 percent of revenue from "other, uncategorized sources." Southern day camps also reported a higher percentage of revenue from school youth programs and group conferences than camps in other regions. Religious day camps were more likely to rely on contributions for their revenue, so it might be interesting to see if religious day camps have been more negatively affected by the economic challenges of the past year. Table 1 shows a summary comparison of day and resident camp gross revenues by source.

Weekly day camp fees also varied by type of camp and geography. The average weekly fee for all 158 day camps was $256, but agency camps reported a mean of just $175, while for-profit day camps were more expensive at an average of $473 per week. Geographically (see Figure 2), camps in New England and the Mid-Atlantic both reported averages over $300 for a week of day camp ($306 and $373, respectively), while camps in other regions were often $100 less expensive. This finding also makes sense given the higher reliance on traditional summer programs discussed previously. Day camp fees increased an average of 2.9 percent in 2007, with agency camps increasing 1.5 percent, religious and independent, nonprofit camps increasing just over 3 percent, and independent, for-profit camps increasing almost 6 percent. Cost of living and the cost of inputs were the primary reasons given for these increases.

In total, the average day camp reported $649,000 in expenses in 2007, but great variations existed. For example, at the lower end, agency camps listed expenses at $362,000 while independent, for-profit camps had expenses averaging $1.8 million. A breakdown of expense percentages by category for both resident and day camps is found in Table 2.

Geographically, day camps in the Mid-Atlantic states reported expenses nearly twice as high as any other region and four to five times as high as Mid-America camps, the region with the lowest average expenses. Mid-Atlantic camps were more likely to report a higher percentage of expenses going to sales or property taxes. Not surprisingly, for-profit camps reported the highest profitability, with over half of these day camps reporting a profit of over $136,000. Half of all agency camps and independent, nonprofit camps reported a profit less than $25,000, and the median (mid-point) for religious camps was zero, meaning that half of all religious day camps lost money. Because of differences in expenses, agency and for-profit day camps had nearly the same profit margin in 2007, around 13-14 percent. Independent nonprofit camps lagged behind with average profit margins of about 8 percent. Camps in the Western states reported the highest average profit margins while Mid-America camps averaged a profit margin of less than 2 percent.

Resident Camps

The findings from resident camps show many of the same patterns as day camps, but some findings were unique to resident programs. One of the most striking differences was the disparity in the average length of camp among types of resident programs. For example, more than 50 percent of agency and religious camps offer a program of a week or less, but only 3 percent of independent, for-profit camps offer such short sessions. Conversely, 41 percent of for-profit camps have a program that is seven to eight weeks, but only 17 percent of agency and 15 percent of religious camps offer these long sessions. The average length of stay for agency and religious camps was two weeks, a week longer for independent nonprofits, and five weeks for independent for-profits.

There are interesting differences in the ethnicity of the campers among residential and day camps. At day camps, religiously-affiliated programs have the highest percentage of Black campers (31.4 percent), but religiously-affiliated resident camps have very low enrollments of Black campers (6 percent). Conversely, independent, nonprofit day camps have low Black enrollments while nonprofit residential camps have the highest average percentage of Black campers (17.4 percent). Even though Hispanics make up about 15 percent of the U.S. population and generally have high birth rates, no type of camp in any region averages 15 percent Hispanic or Latino campers. Resident camps in Western states have the highest percentage of Latino campers (over 13 percent), but these states also have much higher percentages of Hispanics in the population. California, for example, is about 36 percent Latino or Hispanic. If the industry is to thrive as the country becomes more and more Hispanic, the percentages of campers from Hispanic and Latino families will have to rise.

Resident camp fees averaged $622 a week in 2007, but naturally these varied widely by type of camp (Figure 1 on page 55) and region. On average, religiously-affiliated resident camps were the least expensive at just $351 a week. Slightly more expensive were agency camps ($380 a week), but this fee was substantially lower than independent nonprofits ($565) and independent for-profit camps ($1,129). Geographically, camps in the Mid-America region (including the states of Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Indiana, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, and South Dakota) were the least expensive, averaging just $409 a week. New England and Mid-Atlantic camps in the northeast were the most expensive, on average, at $860 and $753 respectively. The mean increase in fees between 2006 and 2007 was 3.3 percent on average for all camps.

In terms of profitability, for-profit independent camps reported a 9 percent average profit margin in 2007, representing an average profit of $216,000. Half of all agency camps had a profit of only $1,000 or less, and not surprisingly, most nonprofits and religious camps had no profit. For-profit independent campers were awarded the lowest number of scholarships in 2007 with 23 percent of residential for-profit camps reporting they gave no scholarships at all. Independent nonprofit camps reported the highest average amount of scholarships with half of all independent nonprofits giving over $40,000 in awards during 2007. Over half of all campers in 2007 received either a scholarship or a discount at independent, nonprofit resident camps responding to the survey.


As with past surveys of a similar nature, the results show that the camp industry is a diverse one. To truly meet the needs of all camps, ACA and other organizations involved in the camp movement must carefully tailor education and member support materials to not only address average trends, but also the realities of mission and geography. It simply is not enough to have best practices for all camps. We also need to understand and address the needs of subsets of the camp community. For example, the media has been full of stories of the struggles of camps during the recession, but time will likely show that certain types of camps in certain regions have been more deeply affected, and generalized conclusions about the industry are simply not adequate.

Jon Malinowski, Ph.D., is a camping author and trainer and serves as a member of the American Camp Association Research Committee.

Amy Padowski recently received her master of science degree in recreation from SUNY Cortland.

Originally published in the 2009 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.