Happy Campers

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By July, the novelty of having the kids home for the summer has worn off, and otherwise loving parents and children are ready to get away from each other. And like they've done for decades, summer camps around the country will gladly provide respite for millions of parents -and 8.8 million campers.

According to the American Camping Association, the first summer camp dates back to 1861 at The Gunnery School in Connecticut, where students returned for a two-week trip of hunting, fishing, and camping each year.

The Gunnery School no longer exists, but several of the earliest camps are still in operation today and thousands more have opened: There are currently nearly 10,000 camps in the United States; more than 60 percent are classified as residential, or "sleepaway."

Based on its 2,200 member camps, the ACA projects that nearly 25 percent of all camps are privately owned and operated; 75 percent are run by nonprofit organizations such as the YMCA, YWCA, Scouts, and Camp Fire Boys and Girls. Some 19 percent of all camps are religiously affiliated, says the ACA.The average camper will join approximately 190 other children for a one-week stay at a cost of between $76 to $200, if attending a not-for-profit resident camp (54 percent of all not-for-profit camps fall within this price range). The most common session length at for-profit resident camps is four weeks at a cost between $201 and $350 per week (28 percent of for-profit camps fall between this price range).

According to ACA surveys, the median age of campers is 11.2 years. Approximately 11 percent are minorities and 55 percent are female; 6 percent of all campers are disabled. The industry expects to continue to see an annual increase in enrollment between 8 percent and 10 percent.

As for the parents, Michelle Klein, director of the National Camping Association, says, "Parents don't want their kids on the street or in day care. Camp is a much safer environment." NCA figures show campers are most often the children of two college-educated, working parents, living in middle- to upper-level income homes in urban areas. Approximately 75 percent of today's parents have had some camp experience themselves.

But don't wander too far, mom says. "Parents prefer to keep their kids within safe driving distance of themselves," says Klein. "Typically, children attend camps within a two- to four-hour drive from home." So it's no coincidence that three of the top five cities that campers call home are in the Northeast, and nearly 60 percent of all camps are located on the East coast.

Still, geography plays a role, as well. For instance, children in Florida are likely to travel further from home to attend summer camp in the Carolinas or Georgia, to escape the summer heat.

While traditional, outdoor-oriented camps continue to flourish, the industry has diversified with a steady growth of specialty camps for children with special needs, such as weight loss, illnesses, and learning disabilities. At least 45 percent of camps now serve children with physical or mental challenges.

Then there are special interest camps-featuring sports, arts, and adventure-which have been strong the past five years as well, especially with older campers ages 15-to-18-years-old. "A lot more children are leaving at age 13 to 15 after attending general camp and want to focus on specific activities," says NCA's Klein. These special interest camps come from the industry's realization there are approximately three to five years before campers trade in their knapsacks for college-emblazoned laundry sacks. To compete with the hundreds of new special interest camps, traditional camps (nearly 75 percent, according to the ACA) have been forced to add new activities to their programs, like mountain biking, photography, in-line skating, travel camp, golf, and youth in government courses.

One camp in Utah successfully attracted some special interest campers by targeting teenage boys. Known as Hummer Camp, this pee-wee version of a testosterone-fest allows boys ages 13 to 18 to camp out, go rafting, cook their own meals, and play paintball with night-vision goggles. They also get to do some major off- roading on world-famous trails in a slew of all-terrain vehicles and the ultimate adventure vehicle, the Humvee. Price for the bragging rights of attending a two-week session? $2,740, limited to ten campers per session. All spots for the 1999 season are filled. Better luck next year, when enrollment for Hummer Camp will double.

Another trend is arriving from outside the country: It's en vogue for children from other countries to come to the United States to attend summer camp, ready for complete immersion in American culture. The NCA reports that inquiries from overseas have increased nearly 50 percent over the past five years. To accommodate such interest, some camps now offer ESL programs in addition to their many new activities. Jen McCormick of the ACA reports that in 1998, 1.4 percent of all campers were from outside U.S. borders, mostly from Colombia, Venezuela, Mexico, France, and Japan.

Trying to get a piece of this $15 billion industry are companies like Sealed With A Kiss (SWAK). This Baltimore-based company, founded in 1984 by Julie Winston, offers unique prix fixe "care packages." Winston says she came up with the idea to make it easier for working mothers to send care packages to their kids at camp. "Most parents now are working," she says. Currently in its 16th summer of operation, SWAK expects to exceed sales from last year of 15,000 packages. Cost per package: $26.

Galyan's Trading Company in Plainfield, Indiana, also caters to the camping crowd. Joan Hurley, vice president of marketing, says that the camping season begins in March for the chain's 14 mega-sized active lifestyle stores. "We see an impact on sales of disposable cameras, film, insect repellent, after bite, backpacks and sleeping bags," says Hurley.

But in today's changing world, don't be too surprised to find a laptop tucked into one of these bags as well.

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