Heading into summer 2020, the summer camp industry was flourishing. With close ties to overall economic indicators such as disposable income and leisure time, the robust economy of the last five years had led to substantial industry revenue gains. According to the American Camp Association (ACA)’s 2015 and 2018 Business Operations Study reports, mean profitability increased for both day and overnight camps, and well over half of the respondents to our latest Sites and Facilities Survey reported growth in their enrollment numbers. Although the market research firm IBISWorld estimated some 6,000 summer camps in the United States with a market size of more than $4 billion, we know those numbers were even greater. Based on ACA’s most recent reports, derived from ongoing research related to camp business operations, we estimate more than 15,000 camps across the country with gross revenues of almost $21 billion in a typical year. What’s more, our industry employed an estimated 1.2 million people and served more than 26 million youth. In a nutshell, business was booming.

The early spring onset of the coronavirus pandemic, however, cast doubt on the fate of the 2020 summer camp season and our industry as a whole. Pulse surveys of camp professionals conducted in April 2020 suggested that over half of overnight camps and a quarter of day camps were canceling in-person programming. As of June 2020, 20 percent of respondents to a second survey still did not know what their summer programs would look like. This heightened level of uncertainty was equally noted by camp parents: results from the third round of spring data collection for ACA’s Youth Impact Study revealed that 44.7 percent of day camp parents and 51.9 percent of overnight camp parents indicated camp might happen, 40 percent and 29.6 percent respectively said camp probably would not happen, and 57.1 percent and 50.9 percent respectively indicated not knowing if their camp would be offering virtual programming.

Months later, an August poll conducted by Morning Consult revealed that demand was indeed down. Of the 2,200 US adults surveyed, 67 percent of parents who typically send their children to summer camp said they did not do so in 2020. Of those, a whopping 96 percent said the pandemic was a factor in that decision.

For those parents still interested in providing a camp experience for their children, options were extremely limited compared to previous years and enrollment filled up fast. Initial analyses of our CampCounts 2020 survey data, distributed in late September 2020, revealed that 80 percent of overnight camps and 40 percent of day camps ultimately canceled their in-person programming in 2020. This translated to 80 percent fewer youth served and seasonal staff employed. And even though over half of camps received financial relief from the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, we still saw a dramatic industry-wide loss in revenue. (While actual numbers are still to be determined, early estimates predicted more than $16 billion in lost revenue in 2020).

Still, camp did run this past summer. And parents did send their kids away for hours, days, even weeks at a time. While 2020 camp may have looked and felt a little different, the bottom line was clear: some camp was better than no camp — whether that meant quarantining as a family for two weeks before an overnight camp, surrendering to daily temperature checks and hours in a facemask for day camp, connecting online over virtual campfires, or unwrapping one’s very own camp-in-a-box while safely at home. Now, with summer 2020 in the rearview mirror, we can take a look at some of the emergent trends and what that might mean in terms of planning for summer 2021.

Increased Needs for Specialty Camps and Educational Partnerships

Prior to the pandemic, specialty camps were perhaps the fastest-growing segment in the summer camp industry. Next to the more traditional concept of the camp experience, characterized by activities like cozy campfires, capture the flag, shooting bows and arrows, and horseback riding, we saw the rise of surf camps, acting camps, cooking camps, and countless other unique new camp concepts, all designed to meet the needs of today’s youth and families. Within this proliferation of specialty camps, we also saw the emergence of language camps, computer camps, and other academically oriented camps. And we may see more of this moving forward. 

While many will argue that summer is a time for technology-free, friendship-filled fun, pandemic-related shifts to online learning and shortened school years have led many parents to seek academic supplementation. What’s more, a recent brief by the Collaborative for Student Growth, leveraging research on summer loss, suggests major academic impacts from COVID-19 closures for students, particularly in mathematics. Anticipating some of these impacts — though not necessarily changing programming to reflect traditional schooltime learning — many residential camps have begun offering up their largely vacant sites as satellite campuses to support nearby schools in need of more classroom space and families looking for a safe place to send their kids for homeschooling while parents go to work.

Even before the pandemic, camp has long benefited from a close-knit relationship with the educational sector. Both academic camps and more traditional summer camps are viewed as enriching experiences that not only help stem summer learning losses, but also provide unique learning opportunities unavailable in the classroom. Many camps even run year-round educational programming with robust field trip opportunities for area schools.

But these, too, have been impacted by pandemic restrictions. During interviews for ACA’s Camps & COVID research study, geared at understanding the impacts of COVID-19 on camp from the camp director’s perspective across three different timepoints throughout summer 2020, one interviewee noted, “We run a huge environmental education program, but it only works when you can put kids on a bus. Typically, we host three to four thousand kids a year . . . and we’ve done things to stay connected. We have the curriculum and the classes. We know how to do 100 kids at a time. So we’re doing homeschooling now, and it’s great, but we can’t reach as many kids.”

Back to the Basics

Educational needs aside, the traditional camp experience isn’t going anywhere. In fact, one of the silver linings of summer 2020, as described by one camp director interviewed during the Camps & COVID research study, was this return to tradition: “This opportunity to evaluate the traditions and customs we’ve had in the past and have that blank slate was exciting. Making all of what we thought were going to be crazy restrictions, that we worried would make it not feel like camp. We made that part of the culture . . .. The biggest success felt like turning those restrictions into something fun. Sing a camp song while washing your hands, and so on.”

Another camp director shared, “This was an opportunity to go back to the essence of what we do. And to reevaluate, ‘What’s really important to me?’ When it comes to camp, so many of us get worried that we have to do something new every year, or bring in the hot new act. [. . .] Now, even camps that ran don’t have the same amount of money, so everyone is trying to trim the fat. [. . .] The situation now is an opportunity to go back to what we were before — before we were charging so much with all the bells and whistles and the one-upping.”

Still another camp director used almost the exact same language, stating, “Kids don’t appear to need all the bells and whistles that we had thought they did. Sure, it would have been great if we’d been able to open the ropes course and the pools, but they survived without it.”

Another pleasant surprise that came as a direct result of pandemic restrictions was related to cohorting. As one might expect, due to recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, state and local health departments, and the Field Guide for Camps (a collaborative effort between ACA, the YMCA of the USA, and Environmental Health & Engineering, Inc.), camps in 2020 were dominated by cohorts that did everything under the sun together. This represented a major shift for many camps that had adopted more of a free-choice approach in recent years, empowering campers to shape what their days at camp would look like. Last summer, however, those choices all but disappeared as campers moved from one activity to another with the same group of peers and counselors.

The surprising part? It worked so well that many camps are planning to keep those programming structures in place to some degree or another, even in a non-COVID summer. “Kids got to try out more activities and discovered passions for things they might not have chosen for themselves, because they were being pushed out of their comfort zones,” noted one camp director who plans to keep the cohorts intact for morning sessions, no matter what. Another camp director, talking about how their camp typically charged extra for trail riding lessons shared, “Because we couldn’t mix groups, we just got every child on a horse. They all went on an arena ride or a trail ride. And what we’ve discovered is they all love it. We’re going to keep that and not charge extra, which also makes it more equitable for the scholarship kids not to have to worry about that. We’ve already built it right into the next summer schedule — every kid on a horse.”

Concerns for Kids and Communities

Whether camps opened or remained closed in 2020, across the board there are growing concerns over campers’ (and staffs’) social and emotional health. Indeed, while many are quick to note that COVID-19 seems to be overwhelmingly affecting adults and sparing children, public health researchers increasingly cite children’s increased vulnerability to the social, economic, and psychological consequences of the disease as cause for ensuring public health containment measures. “I worry a lot about children and their safety and mental health” was a constant refrain in the Camps & COVID interviews across all time points. And just as we know that one size definitely does not fit all camps, no single response to this growing concern fit all camps.

One interviewee whose camp was able to open last summer shared, “In the midst of a pandemic that is certainly more than just the physical effects of COVID — there’s a social and emotional wellness crisis that was happening prior to summer . . . kids not in school, kids not with their friends, their sports canceled, their graduations canceled, all of the above in such a way that it has created a social and emotional mental health issue in youth and teens. And so the fact that we were able to play a role in combating that aspect of it, I think, was really important while also helping kids stay safe physically.”

For others, it meant closing the doors to their camp but opening up their kitchens to support local meal programs or offering a weekend stay in their empty cabins to families engaged with a nearby foster care and adoption organization. Regardless of what summer 2020 looked like, now there is definite increased attention to the mental health needs of campers and staff. Thinking about next summer, one Camps & COVID interviewee shared, “I had hired a school psychologist before, but now I might be looking at an occupational therapist for next summer, maybe even two, for the mental health of kids and staff.” Countless others mentioned upcoming mental health trainings, trauma-informed care, or searching for ways to support the social and emotional well-being of campers and staff onsite moving forward.

Looking Ahead

The growing consensus, at least for the foreseeable future, is that COVID-19 isn’t going anywhere. Even if a vaccine is ready, questions about widespread distribution remain (not to mention whether camps can or should require it). Thus, when asked about their approach to summer 2021, interviewees participating in the Camps & COVID research study overwhelmingly acknowledged planning for another COVID summer. That said — and assuming current COVID-19 conditions in participants’ states still exist — 87 percent of camps responding to ACA’s CampCounts 2020 survey reported current plans to open in summer 2021 (32 percent at full capacity, 42 percent at reduced capacity, and 13 percent with a new program in place). The predominant reasoning behind any “other” responses echoed the all-too-familiar uncertainty of springtime. Only five percent of camps said they did not plan to open.

What does this mean in terms of actual planning for summer 2021? Step one seems to be communication. And steps two and three? Communication and more communication. Communication with local and state health departments, with each other, and above all with the families camps serve. Over and over, interviewees in ACA’s Camps & COVID study stressed the importance of ongoing communication.

“Thinking about parent communication, and photos,” one camp director noted, “now parents will be more used to being with their kids than before, so being away for a week may be even harder. Even though pictures may seem like a luxury, I’m not sure it’s good to take that away.”

Another commented on the variety of communication tactics employed: “Keeping in touch with people is number one. And doing it through various methods . . . either virtual events, or for some people it was getting a newsletter, for others it was just sending an email kind of thing…”

When asked if there was anything they would have done differently, one camp director admitted, “Probably the first thing I would do differently is have more communication earlier on with parents. This didn’t negatively impact us, but back in March when all of this went down and it all hit the fan, we sent out a vague, ‘Here’s what we’re planning.’ But we held off on saying anything else. The crux of it was we didn’t know. I wish I could have gone back and said a little more frequently, ‘Hang in there with us. We don’t know what’s coming.’ We did some of that, but I wish we had been a little more transparent.”

In terms of content, still another said, “letting them [parents and families] know from the beginning that we don’t know what’s happening, but here’s what we’re thinking. Providing them with videos, clear options, and why. And keeping up with the community over the summer. Even if people weren’t going to be involved, they knew we were keeping it up and not going anywhere.”

And that’s the bottom line, isn’t it? We’re here, and we’re not going anywhere. As noted in the words and demonstrated in the actions of countless ACA camp professionals, we are experts in turning uncertain complexities into opportunities for learning. Camps have survived pandemics and economic downturns before, and we will again. Like always, trends in camp will continue to reflect the reality of our world, and camps will respond to emerging issues accordingly. And we will continue, as always, to bend and shift in ways that support our common purpose — enriching lives through the camp experience.

Taylor Wycoff is a research assistant for the American Camp Association and a master’s student at the University of Utah in the Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism. She has worked in the camp industry and youth development field for a variety of organizations in a range of roles, including counselor, instructor, and program manager.

Photo courtesy of Sunbury Urban Farm, Columbus, Ohio


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