Adult Camp Groups at Your Camp: Look Before You Leap

by Catherine Hansen-Stamp and Charles R. Gregg
March 2017

I. Introduction

The offering of an all-adult camp in a traditional youth camp setting is a relatively new, and potentially lucrative trend for off-season use of a camp. Adult campers are not a new phenomenon. Camps, whether accredited by the American Camp Association (ACA) or not, have been directly offering family or special group camping experiences or renting their facilities and providing camp staff for predominantly adult groups — including weddings, reunions and corporate retreats — for a long time. Currently trending, however, is a camp experience which offers, in addition to some traditional camp activities, clearly adult recreation and entertainment, including free-flowing alcohol, uninhibited “swinging singles” social interaction among adults, adult games and the absence of any announced rules or restrictions on behavior. Organizations seeking to rent camp facilities for these purposes may offer significant revenue opportunities to camps agreeable to hosting these groups.

The following were taken randomly from Web sites of “adult camp” organizations specializing in bringing groups of (usually young) adults to a camp’s premises, as well as from media articles about those organizations’ activities:

  • “Games of Capture the Flag coexist with an open bar all weekend long as you’ll laugh louder, play harder and dance more exuberantly than you have in years.”
  • “Like a kid again, but this time with booze.”
  • “Without the curfews, roll calls, and single sleeping bunks.”
  • “Now replace the kids with adults — and change the swims to bikini volleyball, the bug juice to booze, the sing-alongs to dance parties and those lights-out chats to sexy pillow talk.”
  • “Dance parties with open bars.”

In fairness, while many websites emphasize the “no rules and party time” experience, others are as clear in emphasizing a return to “the camp we all remember,” a healthy opportunity to escape from the rat-race of the work week (“digital detox”), and/or prohibit alcohol and engage in some regulation of adult camper conduct. These camps represent an effort to capture the adult camp experience via wholesome and healthy back-to-nature outdoor activities, offer solitude, and re-create that magical “camp” time. Others are likely somewhere in between.

While some camps may offer their own “adult camp” (presenting some of the same concerns), the focus of this article is a camp’s rental to an organization, not affiliated with the host camp, which promotes and organizes adult camps in one or more areas of the country. The host camp is rarely identified in the organization’s marketing materials, recognizing a sensitivity, perhaps, to some of the issues we describe below. These organizations solicit adult campers, contract for the use of a camp, and provide some services (transportation from a common point, medical care, and security, for example). The organization will exercise varying degrees of control in managing campers’ scheduled and unscheduled activities. The organization may place its representatives in the cabins (which may be co-ed) and may use its security personnel to control movement about the camp after hours. Thoughtful management may supply “quiet cabins” or other alternate facilities for adult campers who choose a more restrained level of participation or social interaction. The host camp furnishes its facilities and likely provides meals and some camp staff facilitation, instruction, and/or supervision of certain camp activities.

Persons familiar with these camps — whatever the level of revelry and adult social interaction — comment on the fun of reliving those “golden days of summer,” being outdoors, and making new friends in a relaxed atmosphere. We have been told that reported incidents of misbehavior are few, and that participants regularly exchange promises that they will send their children to the camp (presumably to the camp’s traditional youth summer camp).

As will be clear from our discussion below, a camp must decide how closely it is willing to be identified with adult camps of a certain character. A camp leasing its facilities for an adult camp will likely be more vulnerable than one offering its own adult camp — to confusion about its true identity (including how it is viewed in its local community and by current and past campers), violations of ACA standards, and, perhaps, legal exposure for things that go wrong.

Accredited camps need to consider that, other than one-day events, ACA standards will likely apply to a camp’s facilities rental — including rental to these adult groups.1 In the past, we have written about standards applicable to accredited camps leasing to rental groups, and basic legal and risk management practices.2 We discuss these standards and practices below (as they are equally relevant for a camp contemplating rental to an organization offering an adult camp experience) — and provide some additional perspective. (Whether the camp is accredited or not, ACA standards and general risk management practices discussed here are valuable to consider in any contemplated adult camp rental arrangement).

Ultimately, your camp may be tempted by the opportunity to expose its facilities to a new population and gain a new source of revenue; however, proceed with some caution.

II. Mission and Reputation Issues

What does “mission” have to do with this phenomenon? First of all, is your camp’s mission consistent with offering your camp for rental to groups that may not share that mission? Say, for example, your mission includes nurturing “healthy growth and development” or “building character and leadership skills in a natural environment.” Importantly, consider ACA’s goals for those camp programs it accredits:

“The ACA community of camps promotes active participation, caring relationships, and focus on the emotional, social, spiritual and physical growth of each individual. Camps vary in their purpose and desired outcomes, but each encourages risk taking, valuing the resources of the natural world, maintaining healthy lifestyles, and learning through a variety of fun and life-changing experiences….”3

And further, “[t]o be eligible for accreditation, an operation must [among other things listed]: deliver camp programs and/or provide camp facilities and services for other programs consistent with ACA’s mission of enriching the lives of children, youth and adults, through the camp experience.”  If your camp is ACA-accredited, does its rental to adult camps comport with these ACA values and expectations?

Adult programming offered by rental groups interested in (for example) pushing the limits on alcohol use combined with traditional camp activities, and condoning a “no rules” atmosphere can create serious risk management challenges and increase potential legal exposure. A camp wishing to increase its cash flow might be tempted to stretch or stray from its mission to justify rental to these adult groups. The camp may be operating with a reduced staff, or simply be in denial about its allowing activities so contrary to its stated mission. As a result, the camp may not investigate the rental arrangement sufficiently enough to understand the nature of the activities or the nature of the rental group’s oversight.

The camp may be tempted to insulate or distance its traditional camp programs from these adult camp activities by leasing to these organizations in the off-season, or not allowing these groups to use the camp name or actual location in their marketing materials. The camp may enter into a written agreement with the adult camp rental group, endeavoring, among other things, to secure legal protection for the camp in the event of an incident happening on the rental group’s “watch.” However, if a serious incident occurs (adult camper drowns in lake following evening “shot pong” party), chances are likely that the camp name will surface quickly as the place where the events took place. This can put the camp in the awkward position of attempting to clarify (to the media and to its local community) that the incident occurred during a rental group’s activities, and not during activities directly provided by the camp. Regardless of whether the camp suffers actual liability or financial loss, this scenario can severely damage the camp’s reputation as, perhaps, a traditional camp with wholesome values.

III. ACA Accreditation Standards, and Legal and Risk Management Consideration

A. General Scope of ACA Standards for Rental Groups

If an accredited camp chooses to rent its camp facilities to an organization (the “rental group” ) offering an adult camp — or to any other rental group — ACA standards provide some direction to the camp on orchestrating that rental. The standards don’t require that the camp make the rental group adhere to all standards. In fact, to require this of an accredited camp would potentially compromise a camp’s ability to declare that it was operating independently of the rental group (as it might be construed by a court that the camp, in dictating the manner and method of the rental group’s use, was responsible for any resulting harm). However, the camp must walk a fine line. ACA recommends that the standards be used as “guidelines” for rental group arrangements.5 Yet, in many cases, the standards — mandatory or not — require the camp to “advise the rental group in writing” … address certain details of use, and, if the rental group chooses to independently oversee an activity such as swimming or watercraft, to (e.g.) advise the group to provide an appropriately certified “lifeguard” or “watercraft instructor.”6 Similarly, other standards require either the camp or the rental group to address additional details – provision of emergency transportation or on duty and appropriately certified emergency care personnel, for example.7 A host camp should work with its legal counsel to comply with ACA standards in the context of an adult rental group arrangement while appropriately preserving the independence of the parties.

Specific to rental group arrangements, ACA standards do advise creation of a “use” or “rental group” agreement between the camp and rental group, addressing various issues such as who is responsible for supervision, first aid and emergency care and transportation, etc. In addition, as mentioned above, the standards contain direction for camps to “advise the rental group” on various aspects of its use, including rules of use.8 Frequently (as ACA standards acknowledge), a camp may have a use agreement that refers to (and may incorporate by reference) a rental group manual, outlining the camp’s rules for rental groups, as well as its guidelines or requirements (often aligning with the ACA standards under which it must operate) for various aspects of the rental group’s use.9 For example, the camp may prohibit the rental group from engaging in certain camp activities (“no use of the climbing wall,” “no alcohol”), or only allow the rental group access if the camp’s own staff is leading/instructing the activity (use of a zip line or a swimming pool, for example).

As we discuss below, thoughtful development of these use agreements is a critical element of the camp’s rental arrangements as it allows the camp an opportunity to consider and articulate the respective responsibilities — and liabilities — of the camp and the rental group. Prohibiting the rental group from engaging in certain activities, such as drinking alcohol or requiring the group to stay in same-sex dorms or cabins, may be ways to manage the risks of such a group — both the risk of injury/ loss to the adult campers, and to the camp. However, doing so may deter the group enough from ITS goals (to have more of a loose and fun adult camp “free for all”) that the rental group seeks a different location to organize its camp “fun.” Essentially, too many regulations or limitations may cause the adult camp rental group to go elsewhere.

Requiring adult campers to engage in certain activities that are led or instructed only by camp staff may allow the camp opportunities to directly manage risks, particularly the risk of injury to the campers. While this strategy may ultimately challenge the host camp’s efforts to distance itself from the rental organization, it may also allow the camp to strike a balance in considering campers’ welfare in the leasing arrangement.

These are not easy decisions for the camp, but each camp must examine its mission, and weigh the prospect of financial or other gain against the reality of (likely) increased risks to both the adult camper, and to the camp — including the risk of personal injury, financial loss, and damage to the camp’s reputation. Importantly, though, if the camp has evaluated the adult camp rental group and believes the use is reasonably consistent with the camp’s mission, etc., what else should it consider in its effort to understand and manage risks, including the potential risk of loss?

B. Legal and Risk Management Considerations

The uniqueness of even the most conservative all-adult camp requires special attention to risk management and to the documentation of the parties’ respective operating responsibilities and legal accountability for things that go wrong. Expectations for a family camp may be somewhat similar to those of a traditional camp weekend. Weddings and corporate retreats present a few different challenges. Adult camps likely extend farther from the traditional camp experience, as we have suggested above. Camp management must understand that adult visitors are not traditional summer campers, thus requiring some different risk management strategies.

As with any new venture, before the camp decide s to offer its premises and staff to third parties, it should assess the visit and use from a risk management perspective by asking the following: Why do this? Is the proposed use consistent with the camp’s mission, core values and reputation? If there is some uneasiness about the proposed use, can the rental group be sufficiently separated from the camp’s usual operations so that the host camp is insulated from the fall-out of bad incidents? Can the camp manage the risks of hosting events and populations with which it may not be familiar?10

No camp experience — traditional or otherwise — is risk-free. In a written use agreement between the camp and the rental group, a prudent camp will endeavor to reduce the chance of losses, and, in the context of third party use, will define and allocate, among other things, responsibilities for various aspects of the visit, including the maintenance

and well-being of the adult group members. The host camp should work with its legal counsel in developing these agreements. The camp should not allow activities and access to the camp facilities unless the associated risks can be reasonably managed by the rental group, the camp, or some combination of the two.

Adult camp liability issues may not vary greatly from those associated with a traditional youth camp operation or other uses, but exposure to claims may be increased by the nature of the adult activities and the relative lack of supervision and regulation. Further, allowing alcohol consumption may increase the risk of serious incidents, damage to the camp’s reputation and, depending upon the jurisdiction, the camp’s legal exposure. Allowing adult camp group activities to proceed simultaneously with traditional youth camp programming presents obvious risks — increasing the potential for claims of sexual abuse, simply with the presence of adult third party visitors. A practical solution might be to eliminate the risk by running the adult camps at times when youth camp programming is not in session.

Rental Group Agreement

The following is a description of possible elements of the agreement. It is not intended to be comprehensive, but points out some important considerations:

The rental group “use” agreement must identify the parties to the agreement (the camp and the rental group) and be signed by their respective authorized representatives. In the case of the rental group, this person is typically a representative of an entity who is financially and otherwise responsible for “the group.” It behooves the camp to investigate the nature of the rental group “entity” to assure it is legitimate.

The agreement should describe the nature and dates of the event. So, too, the agreement should specify the areas of the camp premises and facilities to which the rental group will have access during the program. The camp should specify any minimum or maximum capacity in terms of the number of visitors and should clearly address the cost, manner and method of payment, and any cancellation or refund terms.11 Definition of certain terms may be appropriate — “camp premises” or the adult rental group “program,” for example.

Specifying a beginning and ending point to the program will help establish limits on the camp’s responsibilities. The camp may want to articulate conditions and responsibilities regarding early arrivals or “holdovers,” and may choose to disclaim any responsibilities for these persons. The camp may choose to turn away early arrivals and escort visitors off the premises at the end of the program. This may not be a significant concern if the adult camp organization arranges for transportation of the campers to and from the host camp.

Will the camp prohibit or limit access to certain areas of the camp? Is the waterfront, pool, challenge course, or remote or otherwise hazardous areas of the camp premises “off-limits” or to be used only under certain conditions and with described supervision? If, for example, a lifeguard is required for water activities, or a trained specialist required for the climbing wall or other facilities or equipment, how will this be handled? Will there be a curfew, pertaining to moving about the camp, or “lights out”? How will these be enforced? Will the rental group be responsible for property damage or destruction caused by its campers or attending representatives? For clean up? As discussed above, the agreement may address some of these details, and may refer, as appropriate, to a rental group manual that outlines rules, prohibitions, and guidance for rental groups. The agreement may include a promise by the rental group to adhere to the manual and to reinforce its contents with the group. For accredited camps, the agreement or manual might incorporate or refer to applicable ACA standards.

How will the use of alcohol, if allowed, be controlled? The wise host camp will assign this responsibility to the visiting group, but may wish to set some ground rules of its own, regarding when and under what circumstances group members may consume adult beverages. The rental group may contract with a third-party vendor for the furnishing and service of alcohol. Camps should consult with their legal counsel to understand applicable laws regarding the camp’s legal liability and responsibilities around the serving and consumption of alcohol on camp premises.

What services will the camp provide? Typically, a camp might provide overnight accommodations, meals, and camp staff to provide instruction or oversight of certain activities. Will it provide security for the premises or for the visitors? Around the clock? What about routine or emergency medical care and transportation?12 These and other issues should be addressed in the agreement and allocated between the parties, with appropriate attention, by accredited camps, to the ACA Standards. If the adult group will supply these or other services, the host camp should, for the protection of its own interests, be reasonably satisfied with the group’s plans and competencies.

The agreement should state that the camp will hold a camper orientation, and, concurrently, require of the rental group that all of its visiting campers and staff must attend. The camp should carefully consider the scope and nature of this orientation, appropriately tailored to the adult rental group (elements of which could match and/or simply be incorporated into the rental group manual). The visitors should be advised during orientation of, for example, the camp’s safety and emergency procedures (evacuation, lock-down, etc.); restrictions on certain activities or use of equipment; natural or physical hazards unique to the site, including any restrictions on use of the premises and other matters.13

The use agreement should establish the conditions under which the rental can be terminated and give the camp discretion to dismiss (with or without consultation with the rental group management) a rental group staff member or camper if they present a safety, behavioral, or other concern.

The respective responsibilities of the camp and visitor staff must be clearly defined, for those will set the parameters of accountability if something goes wrong.

Importantly, the agreement should clearly define responsibility for adult camper supervision or oversight.14 The camp may take responsibility for certain services and specialty activities, and make clear that, otherwise, group representatives will have full responsibility for the activities, supervision and welfare of the group both on and off the camp premises.

Having outlined the responsibilities of each of the parties, the use agreement should specifically provide who will bear legal responsibility for injury or loss to an adult camper or others. The agreement might provide that the rental group (or other financially responsible individual) agrees to protect (indemnify) the host camp from all claims arising from the program. Alternatively, the parties might agree to ‘mutual’ indemnities, which spell out the limits of the parties’ respective liabilities — commonly tied to their respective responsibilities as identified in the agreement.

The Use Agreement should require the adult group to furnish proof of adequate insurance coverage for the event, and a certificate identifying the host camp as an additional insured under that policy. The rental group’s insurance should cover its agreement to indemnify and protect the camp. The camp should consult with its insurance representatives regarding these and other insurance issues pertaining to the rental.

Participant Agreement

Adult campers should understand that the camp environment, facilities, gear and conduct of fellow campers present hazards and risks of injury. This is important for their own — and the camp’s — protection. An appropriate vehicle for conveying this information, including warnings, is a camper agreement, which typically describes the general nature of the activities and the inherent and other risks, contains an acknowledgement and assumption of the risks, and requires (among other important provisions) the camper to release and indemnify the host camp and its staff from liability for any loss suffered (including losses resulting from the camp’s negligence). As explained above, a camp’s existing camper agreement (for its traditional camping programs) likely will not suffice. These agreements should be developed in coordination with the camp’s legal counsel, consistent with applicable law. Such agreements provide important information for campers who voluntarily choose to participate — regarding the activities, risks, and campers’ responsibilities. Importantly, the camper agreement provides the camp with another layer of potential legal protection (in addition to, for example, its rental group agreement and the camp’s liability insurance coverage). The rental group agreement should identify the rental group’s responsibility for having its adult campers and staff sign and submit these agreements before the start of the program.

Camp Insurance

Even though the use agreement may require the rental group to have or secure liability insurance and add the camp as an additional insured on its policy, the host camp should review its own liability insurance coverage to assure it has appropriate insurance in place, in sufficient amounts, to protect it from claims that might arise from the adult camp experience. Incidents and claims will differ from those ordinarily foreseen in a youth camp environment, wedding, or retreat. Consult with your insurance professional regarding coverage issues.15

IV. Conclusion

If you are contemplating offering an all-adult camp, either directly or by rental, consider the risk management and legal liability issues carefully, and the implications for the camp’s reputation. This is likely new territory for you, and requires the careful and collective thought of your management group, and your legal and insurance professionals.

*This article contains general information only and is not intended to provide specific legal advice. Camps and related organizations should consult with a licensed attorney regarding application of relevant state and federal law as well as considerations regarding their specific business or operation.

Charles R. (Reb) Gregg is a practicing attorney in Houston, Texas, specializing in outdoor recreation matters and general litigation. He can be reached at 713-9828415, or e-mail rgregg@gregglaw.net; www.rebgregg.com.

Catherine Hansen-Stamp is a practicing attorney in Golden, Colorado. She consults with and advises recreation and adventure program providers on legal liability and risk management issues. She can be reached at 303-232-7049, or e-mail reclaw@hansenstampattorney.com; www. hansenstampattorney.com.

1ACA Accreditation Process Guide, Introduction, p. 19, Glossary definition “rental or lease programs”, p. 289 and (e.g.) Standards OM.14-15; PD.40
2Contracting with User Groups, Revisited, ACA CampLine (Winter 2011)
3ACA Accreditation Process Guide, Introduction, pp. 11 and 13
4 ACA Accreditation Process Guide, Glossary, p. 289, defining “rental group”
5 ACA Accreditation Process Guide, Intro to PD Standards (‘Applicability’, #6.), p. 148; but see PD.40, contextual education, paragraph 4, arguably recommending something more
6ACA Standards OM.14-15; PD.40 and PA.3.2 and PA.20.2
7ACA Standards TR.1 and HW.26
8ACA Standards OM.14 – 15, PD.40.1, HW.26-27, HR.15 (contextual education) and notes in intro to PD standards, for example
9See ACA Standard OM.15, contextual education
10ACA Standards OM.1
11ACA Standards, OM.14
12ACA Standards, OM.15
13See, e.g., Standards OM.4, 7, 8, 9 and OM.15.1.D., PD.18 and 40, PA.8-9 and PA.26
14ACA Standards OM.15 and HR.15, contextual education
15ACA Standards OM.3 and see OM.15.E