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 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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.