Pali in Cali


Pali Outdoor Adventures

Lake Arrowhead, Calif.

One-week residential: $1,000

Three-week specialty: $3,000

Ages: 9-16

California is teaming with attractions that lure the population in droves, especially kids. Despite this atmosphere, a new camp has arrived on the scene that's establishing itself as a go-to destination for kids from Southern California and beyond.

How Pali Outdoor Adventures, a camp embarking on its third year, is able to do this is the result of the creative free thinking of its founder, Andy Wexler.

Still a student at UCLA in 1990, Wexler founded a day camp in the Pacific Palisades area of Los Angeles called Pali Camp. So successful was this day camp that it soon found itself hosting dozens of movie stars' kids.

Pali Day Camp capitalized on the myriad Southern California attractions by basically operating as a tour group and ferrying various age groups (3-15) to the best field trip locations imaginable.

In 1995 Wexler also founded a magazine called Los Angeles Family, which touts a monthly circulation of 150,000 and a readership of about 450,000. Building on the success of these ventures, Wexler looked east to the mountains surrounding Los Angeles.

Pali Day to Pali Overnight

Pali Entertainment Group, the parent organization for Wexler's businesses, bought a 74-acre former overnight camp site near Big Bear Mountain in 1999 to fulfill Wexler's vision of a residence camp.

Virtually re-built in 2000, Wexler called the property Pali Mountain Retreat and Conference Center. Nine months out of the year it operates as a conference center for corporations, church groups, reunions, weddings and other gatherings, averaging about 100 people per night on the weekends.

During the three summer months it's Pali Overnight Adventures, a residence camp for kids 9-16. During those three months Pali runs two one-week traditional camps, with three three-week specialty camps sandwiched between.

"On the West Coast three-week camps are a bit unusual, because there are so many competing interests," says Mark Benhard, director of marketing and public relations for Pali Entertainment. "But we have strong repeat business and we're seeing kids go from the one-week traditional to the three week specialty camps."

The three-week specialty sessions are certainly special, as they provide an eclectic mix of programming, much of which is unique in children's camping. The specialty portion is done in the morning, then campers have a number of traditional programs to choose from in the afternoon.

Pali offers 11 different specialty camps during the nine weeks of specialty terms, which run concurrently. The camps include Secret Agent Camp, Modeling Academy, Skating, Whitewater Rafting, Water Sports, Acting Academy, Scuba, Leadership Training, English as a Second Language, Horseback Riding and Film Academy.

All of these specialty camps are organized with the Pali flair, utilizing experts in their respective fields to run the programs.

For example, Secret Agent Camp has the expertise of an ex-Navy SEAL to show the kids the ropes of what it really takes to be a secret agent.

"They rescue hostages, repel, play paintball, have overnight adventures in the woods where they live off the land and make contraptions from household items," says Benhard. "We have an unbelievable ropes and zipline course that's close to 10,000 square feet; 20 kids can be on it at one time. At the same time they're learning leadership, team building, discipline, independence and self confidence."

This attention to detail and scale carries over to the other specialty camps. The skating program features a 12,000 square foot skate park for skateboarding and roller blading.

In scuba camp, kids are certified and go to Catalina Island to complete their training. At the Film Academy, the kids learn film theory and test it out by making films of their own. Modeling Academy campers meet with agents and get real Hollywood experience.

All of these specialties are, again, taught by experts, some of them rather famous, like the head of Acting Academy who just did a stint on The West Wing.

What it Takes

The scope and breadth of this programming alone should be enough to fill the rolls every summer, and it practically has. Going into just its third summer, Pali Outdoor Adventures is close to realizing full capacity.

But Benhard says simple word of mouth is not enough, especially as the camp adds more cabins and programs in the coming years. Word of mouth through aggressive public relations efforts to media outlets is high on the priority list.

"It could take months or years to get media attention, but when you're with an organization for a long time it explodes on you," says Benhard. "Everything you do compounds the exposure you get, because there's more people who learn about you, and more reporters who want to talk to you. We've just been contacted by KTLA News in LA because of the story NBC did on our Secret Agent Camp."

But this media attention does not "explode" simply because you exist. Benhard emphasizes the importance of developing relationships with and feeding newsworthy items to reporters and media outlets to make this explosion of coverage happen.

"It's very easy to establish relationships with reporters -- using press releases and press kits, organizing media events, and meeting with them to develop that one-on-one relationship," says Benhard. "Provide newsworthy information to them and make their jobs easy. Then when it's time for them to talk about camps -- which will eventually happen -- they'll know that this camp has already delivered to them and they'll use you as a source."

"Reporters are always on a deadline, and if someone can feed them information they know will be helpful and it saves them a lot of time, that's usually an interview they'll go after," adds Benhard. "A lot people make the mistake of sending them garbage. We always try to provide information that's useful to them to make their jobs easy."

Benhard recommends keeping a record of each reporter you deal with -- their habits and what they like best -- and work within those parameters. Reporters often change beats and jobs, and it happens quickly, so it's also important to track the changes at whichever media outlet you deal with.

Pali Outdoor Adventures also gets the word out through parenting and family magazines, direct mail, radio advertising and camp-related Web sites. On the Web specifically, Pali makes sure they pop up quickly on general Internet search engines.

"We usually come up in the top 10 when parents are looking for camps. One day last week we had 340 requests for information via e-mail in one day -- that's high and unusual, but it gives you an idea of the volume," says Benhard. "You can get kicked up a notch if you pay a nominal fee to search-engine placement companies. You're paying a few cents for a strong lead, so it's really cost-effective."

Bryan BuchkoComment