The Financial Feasibility Of Growing A Camp

By Daniel Walker
Photos Courtesy Of: Daniel Walker

Camp is an exciting place—a place of growth, learning, trying new things, testing the waters, searching, and wonder. Is it so difficult to imagine why camp leadership loves to build or try new concepts? But a camp cannot afford for opportunities to get in the way of a successful operation. Therefore, it is important to determine the costs of growing a camp. From starting a new program to hiring additional staff members to building a state-of-the-art auditorium—what does it cost?

Add Up The Costs
In determining the feasibility of an idea, for example, consider the return on investment, additional staffing that may be needed, infrastructure, and the costs of buildings that sit empty. As far as the return on investment, be as accurate as possible in determining annual revenue on a new program or a new building. The potential for life-changing decisions is sometimes priceless, but if it leads to bankruptcy, then the ability to continue offering a space for life change is likely terminal. Will the generated funds pay for any potential loans? Will the new revenue pay for additional staff members to market the program, and also pay for operations? Don’t forget about maintenance and additional utilities like water, electricity, propane, sewage, and trash. Telephone lines, internet/network, and security systems also will be needed. And, insurance costs will most likely increase.

Fill Existing Bunks And Buildings
One possibility to consider: Instead of a new building, try filling existing buildings. What is the current occupancy rate? (Total the number of pillow spaces available and multiply by 365 nights. This is the total number of guest nights in a year that you can potentially have. Divide the existing number of guest nights by the potential number of guest nights. That will reveal the percentage of occupancy.) Actually, most hotels must maintain an average occupancy rate of 80 percent; otherwise, they will likely close. Camps may want to keep this figure in mind, even though they may rely on donations as part of their revenue.

Give Campers What They Want
To attract new campers or bring former campers back for additional sessions, adjust existing programming. Are current programs meeting the perceived needs of today’s children and youth? Bows and arrows may no longer be among the trends in recreational activities. Do you have specialty camps that attract kids who want to start their own band or program mobile apps? Is there an opportunity for campers to create and edit videos? Perhaps they can take turns serving drinks or food at the camp snack shop—this is good training for customer service and merchandising. Kids like to feel important. Giving them some responsibility in the operation just may raise their interest and provide a little training at the same time. What about service trips on which teens volunteer in a soup kitchen or thrift store? Have a parents’ day, allowing them to purchase meals and a day pass, which gives them the opportunity to participate with their child.

Readjust The Schedule
To add a few more dollars to the budget, reconfigure the number of weeks available in the summer. Consider this … start summer camp on Memorial Day Monday and end it on Friday, or host a rental group starting Friday night that ends on Tuesday, and begin the next summer camp on Tuesday afternoon, thereby filling all summer nights. Ten traditional weeks of summer equals 40 nights of guests. But filling all summer nights from Memorial Day through August 1 increases the number to nearly 70 nights. For camps that charge $45/night/guest and can accommodate 100 guests, that’s an increase in revenue of $135,000. Or, extend camps by only one more night each and give staff a day between each incoming group.

Increase Occupancy
Another way to grow financially is to add a few more beds. Does your lodging space have room for one more set of bunks in each room? Adding 10 more beds to an existing week of camp can provide at least $2,000 per week to an operation—and for those camps that operate in a 10-week timeframe, that’s an additional $20,000 in one summer.

Examine Costs
Increasing the bottom line also can occur by reducing expenses. Being part of a purchasing group can help save thousands of dollars. Those camps paying full price to a food purveyor are paying too much. There are tiered rates food providers can use. Also, does the camp take advantage of energy rebates when purchasing appliances? Take time to visit your utility provider’s websites or offices, and learn about certain advantages. Are unoccupied spaces being heated during the winter? Consider heating only the area where pipes need to be kept from freezing. Installing a second heat source for a bathroom can reduce energy consumption by 90 percent in one building. Utilizing this approach, our camp saved $3,000 last winter in one building. Purchasing items in bulk typically will save fuel and/or transportation costs—and save time throughout the year by only placing one order.

When deciding what is best for a camp, weigh your options carefully. Invite parents and campers, both current and past, to tell you what they like and what they would like to change. A new building may actually be the right choice. Adding beds may be integral to having a full camp. Extending stays may give campers more of a sense of belonging. Providing new activities may provide new excitement. Reducing costs may get you through the winter. Most importantly, do what makes sense for your particular camp. The bottom line will be grateful.

Daniel Walker has served as a professional camp manager for 17 years with camps ranging in capacity from 80 to 1,800, and with projects ranging in cost from a few hundred dollars to $18 million. He currently serves at Hesperus Camp outside of Durango, Colo. Reach him at .