THE NEW SUMMER BREAK

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With 62 percent of mothers in the U.S. work force, the old tradition of stay-at-home moms watching over their vacationing kids has gone the way of black-and-white TV.

Sports staffs now call on country club pros to serve as tennis instructors. And in some camp kitchens, where Army surplus fare used to be prepared, caterers now provide steak and Starbucks.

Daniel Ryan, a 14-year-old honors student from Arlington, Va., has a vision of his ideal summer vacation: He'd be a bum. He'd kick back on the couch, cling to a remote and watch lots of MTV videos and Simpsons reruns. If he felt energetic, he might drag himself to the computer and chat online with some buddies, or head for the refrigerator to scarf down a slice of cold pizza. Otherwise, he'd worship at the altar of Bart Simpson, sleep for 12 hours straight and then repeat the routine the next day. “Yeah, that would be cool,� Daniel says cheerfully.

Better luck next year, kid. This summer, the lanky and soft-spoken teenager finds himself engaged in a different kind of teen sport: structured programming. He's enrolled in a series of summer camps and organized activities designed to keep him physically and intellectually fit from June through August. His summer began with a counseling stint at a 4-H camp, followed by theater instruction at Camp Shakespeare, then a family vacation at the Atlantic shore and, to round it all out, this month he attends high school football practice geared to prep him for fall tryouts. Unlike previous summers that were completely structured, he lined up two unscheduled weeks this year in exchange for agreeing to attend what he calls “that Shakespeare thing.� As he puts it: “There's no time for boredom.�

Forget the hazy, lazy days of summer. Summer break, a three-month tradition that dates back to agrarian times, is changing. Your father's summer vacation may have involved afternoons playing sandlot baseball or dropping a fishing line into a creek. Today's American children are more likely to attend a series of camps and classes that have them traveling abroad, rebuilding dilapidated housing in inner cities and volunteering for internships in research areas just shy of human cloning. Kids who used to complain of ennui during drowsy summer afternoons now identify stress as their biggest concern, according to several survey firms. “The days of kids just going out into the yard and playing are disappearing,� says Chris Wilson, president of Simmons Market Research Bureau. “In many ways, they're just as busy as their parents.�

The over-programming of American children is hardly a new story. Many affluent kids race from school to violin lesson to chess club during the academic year, leaving them a weary mess. What's changing is that kids of all socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds now boast nonstop scheduling all summer long, fueled by their rising numbers and financial clout. Generation Y, the bulge of 71 million Americans under the age of 18, rose by 14 percent between 1990 and 2000 — a growth spurt rivaling the Baby Boom. (See chart below.) Recognizing the economic power of Gen Y families, an army of camp directors, travel agents and corporate executives has recently targeted this growing and lucrative market. Summer camp, once dominated by mom-and-pop operations, has become an $11 billion industry with a host of mega-corporations providing catered meals and trendy crafts to discerning campers.

With 62 percent of mothers in the U.S. in the work force, the old tradition of stay-at-home moms watching over their vacationing kids has gone the way of black-and-white TV. Haunted by the prevalence of violence, sexual promiscuity and drug abuse among today's youth, some adults look to organized programs as a safe haven for their children. Others feel guilty that they don't spend more time at home and compensate by sending their kids to pricey summer programs — a pattern children's marketing expert James McNeal terms DWI, or “deal with it,� spending. In an era when many children spend their free time alone, glued to TV sets and computer screens, parents are more than willing to open their wallets to get their kids out of the house and into group activities. “Parents still wag the dog during the summer,� says Rena Karl, publisher of Marketing to Kids Report. “Kids would just as soon do nothing all summer long, but there's that problem with child care. So parents fill up their time.�

Which leaves little time for kids to become couch potatoes, a trend that Daniel Ryan's father finds comforting. “We trust our son completely, but kids at 14 still need structure,� says Don Ryan, an environmental health advocate. This summer, The Simpsons will have to wait.

The Hot Selling Season

The new summer break is altering recreational patterns that have endured for over a century. When Simmons recently surveyed 6- to 11-year-olds as part of its annual Youth Poll, the kids named soccer, Rollerblading and bowling among their favorite leisure activities. Fewer than a quarter enjoyed going fishing — about the same percentage as those who play miniature golf or go skateboarding. Of the 12- to 17-year-old respondents, volleyball and weight training increased by double-digit rates in the past two years and now rank higher than camping and hiking. Only swimming, a hot weather essential, attracts a majority of teens and children. The rest of their time seems to be spent multitasking among athletic, entertainment and intellectual pursuits. “The data we're seeing shows that kids today are just more active in more activities than those in the past,� says Simmons' Chris Wilson. “Their days are just filled up.�

Free time at summer camp also seems to be on the endangered list. Whereas some kids once spent an entire summer roasting s'mores at mountaintop retreats, they now flit between weeklong specialty camps, which may be housed at suburban malls. The number of camps has increased from 9,000 to 10,000 over the past decade, reports the National Camp Association (NCA). Attendance has zoomed from 4 million to 5 million youngsters in the past two years alone. Part of the growth is attributed to kids from other countries who want to experience the uniquely American summer camp experience; inquiries from overseas have increased by approximately 50 percent over the past five years, reveals the NCA. But the boom in summer campers is also credited to facilities now catering to a wide age range of kids — from those as young as 3 years old to 18-year-old high school seniors. Previously, those older teenagers used to work in the summer. But these days, many parents and children recognize that camp programs in computers and rocketry may prove more beneficial than having kids hone their grocery-bagging skills.

In most major metros, summer camps begin filling up in winter for specialty programs in musical theater, fencing, gourmet cooking and mountain biking. The recreation-minded bureaucrats of Montgomery County, Md., a suburb of Washington, D.C., offer local children summer sessions devoted to Japanese culture, cartooning, the Internet and soccer goal-tending (as opposed to another program targeted specifically for soccer strikers). Other capital-area camps feature $1,000 journeys to Native American ruins in Colorado and whale watching off the California coast. “There's so much competition that they want to use summer break as a constructive way to prepare for the future,� says Michael Wood, vice president of Teenage Research Unlimited (TRU) in Northbrook, Ill. “They'll do almost anything that will look good on a college application.�

The glut of new summer activities has prompted old-school camp administrators — and, frequently, their new corporate owners — to upgrade their facilities in an effort to lure discriminating consumers. NASCO, which delivers arts and crafts supplies to 7,000 camps, notes that campers demand more than lanyard and key chain projects these days; the current trend is making masks and flags à la Survivor. Sports staffs now call on country club pros to serve as tennis instructors. And in some camp kitchens, where Army surplus fare used to be prepared, professional caterers and food service corporations now provide a more wholesome cuisine. Sodexho Marriott, which began serving campers in 1987, currently offers vegetarian entrées and deli bars at 25 camps around the country. At some, “bug juice� has been replaced by fresh-squeezed orange juice and Starbucks coffee. At several facilities in New England, waiters serve steak or lobster on fine china. “The choices have expanded because the kids' tastes have expanded at home,� explains Dan Eusebio, a district manager for Sodexho Marriott. “They expect the same variety when they go away to camp.�

With “service� requirements now standard at many high schools, teenagers can also choose from a number of altruistic summer programs. Civic-minded teens can maintain wilderness trails for the Appalachian Mountain Club in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. For $125 a week, they lift boulders, build bog bridges and sleep in tents. “They get dirty, but they come back year after year,� says coordinator Allison Nelson. Another program, cosponsored by the Student & Youth Travel Association (SYTA) and Project America, brings teenagers to volunteer at a homeless shelter in St. Louis and help renovate dilapidated houses in Greensboro, N.C. “Service-oriented travel is becoming a minor boomlet,� says SYTA's Executive Director Michael Palmer from his offices in Lake Orion, Mich. “And it's certain to get bigger in the future.�

Diverse and Discerning Consumers

The transformation of summer break reaches across ethnic and socioeconomic boundaries. Asian American youth are even more programmed during summer vacation than other students, reports Saul Gitlin, vice president for strategic marketing services at Kang & Lee Advertising. Many attend academic classes or schedule time with tutors. Part of the reason is a cultural emphasis on educational achievement: According to the March 2000 Current Population Survey, 40 percent of Asian Americans held a bachelor's degree or higher, compared with 23 percent of the general population. “The emphasis on educational attainment cuts across all socioeconomic levels among Asian Americans,� says Gitlin. “The kids will try to catch up if they're recent immigrants, or get ahead if they've been here a while.�

But Asian American teens also seek out classes designed to help them preserve their cultural traditions — routinely doing so in their family's country of origin. Travel rates are high for Asian Americans: some 42 percent take foreign and domestic trips each month — a third higher than all U.S. households. It's so common for young people to return to their family's native land that Kang & Lee recently produced a commercial for AT&T long-distance services highlighting this trend in the Korean American community. In the spot, a Korean teen on one such trip calls home to wish his mother happy birthday in Korean. He concludes by saying he plans to speak to her in her native language when he returns stateside. “It was a powerful message to Asian families,� says Gitlin.

“Compared with their U.S.-born counterparts,� he continues, “a lot of Asian children reflect the aspirations of their parents rather than what they want to do. So kids will end up in classes for music and art rather than just basketball.�

Cultural traditions also play a major role in summer break activities within the African American community. While wealthy blacks have long spent their summers on Sag Harbor, Martha's Vineyard and Myrtle Beach, S.C., more downscale families traditionally send their kids to Southern communities to visit with relatives. So many blacks now gather for family reunions that hotel chains have begun assigning sales people dedicated to facilitating these events. And in recent years, Afrocentric tours have taken off, as students follow the Underground Railroad, tour historically black colleges or visit the homes of celebrated African Americans.

Still, the concentration of African American youth in downscale urban settings — the median income for blacks, $27,910, is 34 percent below that of whites — translates to a higher percentage working summer jobs rather than attending summer camps. But more black youth are participating in organized summer programs, reports David Watkins, manager for events marketing for the UniWorld Group, a Manhattan-based advertising agency. Kids who used to play pickup basketball at city courts now show up at community centers and summer leagues for structured games sponsored by public and private groups. The Rucker Streetball Tournament attracts thousands of kids each night to Harlem for basketball league games sponsored by Nike and Reebok. Other African American youth head to community centers and pools for programs sponsored by recreation departments. “The cities see the structured activities as a positive thing to keep crime down and keep kids from just hanging around all summer,� says Watkins.

Corporate America has also played a part in filling long summer days by sponsoring events targeted to young African Americans. “Marketers realize that these kids are at the top of the pyramid in trendsetting, and that they need to support them,� says Watkins. The summer sponsorship scene is now crowded with music companies, sneaker firms, beverage makers and retailers like Tommy Hilfiger, who's been sending kids to fresh-air camp for years. “It's a form of lifestyle marketing,� says Watkins. “You've got to be where the kids are, whether it's at the basketball court or the swimming pool.�

But companies marketing to minority youth aren't only hoping to establish brand loyalty, they're also looking for market share in rapidly growing population groups. Between 1990 and 2000, while the overall teen population in this country rose 17 percent from 24.3 million, the number of Hispanic teens shot up 43 percent from 2.8 million, according to TNS Market Development in San Diego. By 2010, census projects that Hispanics will represent 18 percent of the total U.S. population. Because Hispanic families tend to be younger and less affluent than the general populace — the median age of Hispanics in the U.S. is 26.6 years old, the median income, $30,735 (compared with 35.9 and $40,816, respectively, for the total population) — they're not as likely to pay the high cost of tuition at sleep-away camps or other pricey programs.

Still, evidence indicates that Hispanic teenagers are increasingly seeking out enrichment activities at home, observes Loretta Adams, president of TNS Market Development. Over the past five years, computer ownership has tripled to more than 40 percent among Hispanic families. “You're starting to see Hispanic teens indoors and off the streets,� says Adams, whose research firm conducts 500 focus groups a year, mostly with Hispanic consumers. “They're spending more time on the computer and less time on the corner.�

And more time in the classroom. A record number of children in the U.S., especially in low-performing, downscale urban districts, now attend school year-round. Nationwide, about 20 percent of the students in the 53 largest city school districts take summer classes. And in states with large Hispanic populations, like California, a whopping 60 percent of the students now attending school year-round are Hispanic. Like Asian American families, those Hispanics who can afford to do so are also taking time off during summers to take their children to their countries of origin. (The largest proportion, 17 percent, traveled to Mexico last year.) But larger families and a cultural emphasis on family togetherness may also encourage Hispanic children to play with relatives instead of heading off to camp with strangers. “If parents are working, you don't have to program their kids to occupy their time,� says TNS's Loretta Adams. “There's less need to go outside the family to find playmates and entertainment.�

The Summer Break Backlash

The emphasis on structured summers hasn't come without a price. Some youth-oriented researchers detect a growing backlash against the nonstop, year-round programming. According to the 2000 Roper Youth Report, one-quarter of 6- to 17-year-olds feel they don't have enough free time. Surveys by TRU have found that the biggest complaint among U.S. teens is anxiety from their overbooked lives. “We're hearing a lot of complaints from teenagers who recognize that they don't have as much time for fun as they used to,� says TRU's Michael Wood. Although numbers are sketchy, some parents of Gen Ys have begun to reject the scheduled activities and let their kids go free of organized programs during the summer. “The focus of the summer should be fun,� says Norman Friedman, a camp safety expert. “And not enough of that is happening.�

One repercussion of the structured summer break may be the rise of individual sports over team athletics. In the past, baseball dominated summer play. But the under-18 set can now choose from Nintendo 64 or Pokémon as well as extreme sports like mountain biking or rock climbing. Slower-moving sports no longer capture the attention of sensory-overloaded teens weaned on instant messaging and screeching video games. The top five sports for children, according to an online survey by research company Element, are swimming, bicycling, basketball, in-line skating and baseball. And analysts say that basketball and baseball made the list only because kids could play pickup games without having to drum up two complete teams. “Today's kids want self-expression,� says Mike May of the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, “where they can make up their own rules and can participate at their pleasure, not tied to other people.�

Few industries are more aware of this changing summer story than those involved in toy manufacturing. Aside from video games, toy sales are declining in North America. Toy makers are scrambling to develop games worthy of a place in kids' shrinking amount of free time. Many companies are peddling portable games and hand-held devices that can be played in family rooms at friends' houses or in cars on the way to day camp.

Take Pox, a new hand-held toy from Hasbro Games that allows players to battle each other's infectious agents using a radio frequency between devices. Targeting boys between the age of 8 and 12, Hasbro is banking on a viral marketing campaign to roll out the game this summer, distributing samples to thousands of hard-core gamers who are instructed to share the freebies with their friends. To identify these pint-sized influentials, Hasbro has hired market researchers to conduct phone interviews and mall intercepts, searching for talkative boys who enjoy reaching the advanced levels of a new game. Then the kids attend focus group sessions where facilitators dub them “Pox secret agents,� teach them how to play the game and send them home with a knapsack filled with 10 devices for their twitchy-thumbed buddies. “We're going after the early-adopter boys who like gadgety devices,� says John Chandler, Hasbro's vice president for marketing. “They're the ones who want to play first and be seen with a new game first.�

With a national launch date in November, Hasbro is hoping to gain some traction this summer “before the kids' social network is most active back at school,� says Chandler. Having introduced the game in Chicago last May, this month Hasbro brings Pox to suburban areas in nine metro areas — among them, San Francisco, Minneapolis and Atlanta. The firm has set a $25 retail price in order to appeal to both middle- and upper-middle-class kids. And Hasbro plans to supplement the viral campaign with a host of more traditional strategies, including 30-second commercials aired during wrestling and cartoon shows, and print ads placed in comic books and gaming magazines. Setting a sales goal of 1 million units in the first year, the company hopes that its marketing approach will repeat the success of other toys — like yo-yos, Pogs disks and Pokémon cards — which became winners through a word-of-mouth contagion. “You can never guarantee a summer hit,� says Chandler, “but if you can get the product to kids in their environment, like playgrounds and swimming pools, then you have a chance at success in the fall.�

Meanwhile, other toy companies are pushing wheeled toys — scooters, skateboards and Rollerblades — that give kids “a sense of independence from their schedules,� says Rena Karl of the Marketing to Kids Report. Last year's big seller, Razor scooter, is now being sold in a myriad of knockoff variations at prices that are a fraction of the $100 originals. “Today's kids are tired of being programmed,� says Karl. “Getting on bikes and scooters lets kids experience some freedom away from the confines of organization.� It also doesn't hurt that more communities are building skateboard parks and bike areas to provide kids with a safe place to enjoy such freedom.

Despite such individual pursuits, the number of kids in structured summer programs shows little sign of peaking. Even with the sagging economy, experts predict more group travel abroad and more structured activities sponsored by corporations. “The days of hanging out at the schoolyard are over,� says Karl. As incomes rise in minority communities, the rate of participation for Hispanic and Asian American youth in summer classes is only expected to grow. The future of summer camp looks promising. “Camp is rapidly becoming a serious educational business serving as a transition from high school to college,� says Jeffrey Solomon, executive director of the NCA. And the search for increasingly specialized programs continues. “If humans started inhabiting Mars, I wouldn't be surprised if some camp starts offering trips there,� says Solomon, his tongue somewhat planted in cheek. “And I'd imagine some parents would want to negotiate a one-way trip for their kids.�

Throw in pizza pies and Simpsons reruns, and maybe even kids like Daniel Ryan will want to sign up.

GROWTH SPURT

The under-18 population is growing in size and diversity. Since 1990, the number of American kids has increased 14 percent, while the percentage of Hispanics has shot up 40 percent. The rising numbers have fueled increased competition in school and recreational activities, prompting youngsters to enroll in summer-break programs for education and enrichment — anything that will look good to college admissions officers.

NUMBER % OF TOTAL POPULATION RACIAL/ETHNIC COMPOSITION OTHER***
WHITE BLACK HISPANIC**
1970 70,272,809 34.9% 85.0% 13.6% 6.0% 1.4%
1980 63,314,951 28.2% 82.5% 14.9% 8.8% 2.7%
1990 63,606,499 25.6% 80.1% 15.4% 12.2% 4.6%
2000 72,293,812 25.7% 68.6% 15.1% 17.1% 13.0%****
2010* 72,100,723 24.0% 58.9% 14.1% 20.7% 6.3%
* MIDDLE SERIES CENSUS PROJECTIONS.

** HISPANICS MAY BE OF ANY RACE

*** ASIAN AMERICANS DOMINATE THIS CATEGORY

**** INCLUDES MULTIRACIAL REPORTING
SOURCE: U.S. CENSUS BUREAU

WHERE THE KIDS ARE

America's children are found not just in the nation's largest metros, where the population is growing in family-filled suburban neighborhoods. They're also concentrated in markets with disproportionate numbers of racial and ethnic minority groups, whose families tend to be larger than non-Hispanic whites, and in markets of large geographic size — such as Salt Lake City, Phoenix and Albuquerque-Santa Fe — which include most of the residents of their states.

GOING SOLO

More and more American kids name individual rather than team sports among their favorite athletic activities — a trend that's helped to popularize extreme sports. Some experts explain the growth in solo sports as a reaction to kids participating in too many structured activities.

MALE FEMALE WHITE BLACK HISPANIC ASIAN
Swimming 76% 84% 82% 69% 80% 80%
Bicycling 63% 55% 59% 63% 56% 59%
Basketball 54% 45% 43% 64% 64% 56%
Jogging/running 47% 49% 47% 56% 43% 55%
Skateboarding 46% 19% 34% 21% 38% 31%
Baseball/softball 43% 36% 40% 35% 45% 33%
In-line skating 40% 50% 45% 40% 47% 47%
Soccer 37% 32% 33% 34% 44% 26%
Surfing 27% 17% 24% 12% 24% 23%
Tennis 21% 32% 26% 25% 29% 40%
Roller skating 16% 27% 16% 35% 31% 27%
SOURCE: ELEMENT, BASED ON AN ONLINE SURVEY OF 1,143 13- TO-19-YEAR-OLDS, THE WEEK OF MAY 14-21, 2001

TAPPING THE KID TRAVEL MARKET

When it comes to summer travel, kids rule. Estimates vary, but several researchers calculate that children in the U.S. spend as much as $200 billion a year directly on products and services, and influence an estimated $600 billion on total household spending, including summer travel. What's more, that sway on spending begins at increasingly younger ages: The NPD Group reports that 90 percent of mothers with children ages 6 to 10 say their kids influence their buying decisions. James McNeal, an expert in marketing to children says that kids as young as 2 years old influence their parents' choices in everything from hotels to restaurants to theme parks.

The travel industry is taking notice. The number of young people who travel each year is growing at a 21 percent clip, thanks to hotel chains like Days Inn, Days Hotel and Days Suites offering “Kids Stay and Eat Free� programs to children under 12. A host of travel companies now offer summer tours for teens to hike the national parks in this country and take language classes abroad. “When you look at the growing kids' market, businesses have a lot of impetus to come out with a product or service that they'll like,� says Michael Wood, vice president for Teenage Research Unlimited. “Kids are always looking to be entertained.�

Thanks to summer travel becoming a lot more kid-friendly, nearly two-thirds of all K-12 students traveled in 2000, according to the Student & Youth Travel Association of North America (SYTA). And despite the economic downturn and high gas prices, Michael Palmer, SYTA's executive director, foresees the touring horde continuing this summer. “Kids are traveling farther and farther distances at younger and younger ages,� he says. Observers like Palmer attribute this spike to the fact that the Internet has made students more aware, and able to discover foreign sites worth visiting online.

But Lalia Rach, dean of the Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality and Tourism at New York University, believes that a more “fundamental shift� is at work in the way Americans view youth travel. “Travel is no longer a benefit but has become a right of American children,� she says. “We now have children at every age and at every economic level traveling.�

Since 1996, Holiday Inn has opened more than 1,000 so-called “kidsuites� at properties around the country, featuring rooms with bold graphics, TVs, PlayStations and video players with the speakers by the bunk beds. “We took kids out of the living room sofa and gave them their own setting,� says Terry Whaples, who developed the concept and is president of the Holiday Inn Family Suites Resort in Orlando, Fla. “The premise is that kids need their own space just as much as parents.� (The two-bedroom suites cost a little more, at $159 a night, but Whaples maintains that her 81 percent occupancy rate tops all the chain's Orlando hotels.)

To capitalize on a largely untapped market of leisure ships catering to kids, Disney Cruises launched its first family cruises in 1998. It now operates two 3,000-passenger ships. The price isn't cheap: a weeklong cruise for a family of four costs about $5,000. But unlike the couples and seniors cruises that promote unstructured leisure, Disney designates an entire deck for nonstop children's activities. Parents sign up their kids to an hour-by-hour itinerary of computer games, crafts or play-acting — all under the watchful supervision of instructors and roaming Disney characters (naturally). This year, both Disney ships sold out their 875 staterooms throughout the summer, months before the ships weighed anchor.

“Family cruises are booming,� says Sarah Green, a Disney sales agent. “Ten years ago, if parents wanted to take a family cruise, they had to bring nannies with them to occupy the kids.�

— Michael J. Weiss

ARE AMERICAN KIDS OVERBOOKED?

The experts may debate whether American youth are overbooked, but one thing's certain: Parents are clueless about how their children feel. Kids are three times as likely to feel time-deprived as their parents believe.

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