Today's summer camps are for profit as well as fun

Posted: May 09, 2011

Let's be honest about summer camp - it's no picnic.

Well, maybe there's a picnic at some camps. The ones that are still in the woods, by a lake, where the focus is on swimming and communing with nature.

But overall, summer camp has evolved into something decidedly less recreational. It's more like (ugh!) a classroom experience, where college and career preparation are the emphasis, not learning the breaststroke.

Some camps have had to resort to recruiting abroad to keep enrollment up, due, in part, to still-rough economic times. Costs for insurance and other operating essentials keep climbing. So do the demands of parents, who want the most for their dollars - and their ambitious offspring.

Or is it the parents who are ambitious? No matter.

Though it all sounds as appealing as a tarantula to an arachnophobe, Justin Lavner sees operating a summer camp as a small-business opportunity he hopes to build into a big one.

"I've always been a high achiever," said the 29-year-old owner of Lavner Camps & Programs of Bala Cynwyd, who barely looks older than a high school student but has the business confidence of a Trump.

Raised in Lower Gwynedd by a lawyer father and an educator mother, Lavner claims he was "born an entrepreneur."

He also was born with a talent involving a racket and a hollow, fabric-covered rubber ball.

"I dreamed of being a professional tennis player who actually made money on the tour," Lavner said in an interview at the Cynwyd Club, a private tennis and squash club now doubling as his company's home base.

He was off to a good start, reaching No. 2 status in singles, No. 1 in doubles, while playing for the University of Pennsylvania's varsity squad from 2002 to 2005. But a foot injury scuttled his plans to go pro.

So Lavner enrolled in law school at Villanova University, only to conclude during an internship at a local firm that "law was a bit dry. It wasn't exciting for me."

But poker was.

"I started doing extremely well online and in Atlantic City," he said, refusing to disclose his winnings.

Guilt over parental disappointment and a resolution of his foot problem led him to teaching tennis instead. He took a year off from law school to devote himself to his Lavner Tennis Academy, developing a client base of 100 within a year, he said.

Lavner would complete his law degree in 2009. By then, he had held his first summer camp, in Blue Bell, offering only tennis, followed by a similar program in summer 2009, when he relocated the camp to the Cynwyd Club to be more centrally located to his students.

One of his 9-year-old players would inspire him to branch out into nonathletic day-camp offerings. Lavner said he had asked the girl whether she would return the following week for more lessons.

"She said, 'No, I'm going to cooking camp,' " he recalled. "I said, 'Next summer, you'll come to my cooking camp.' "

He spent fall 2009 researching culinary camps, including asking his mother and grandmothers for recipes that would not be too complex for kids. He hired a sous chef from Le Bec-Fin to do the teaching, and put his brother, Michael, in charge of the cooking camp.

That winter, Lavner attended camp fairs to promote his tennis and cooking programs. For summer 2010, he signed up 50 youngsters for an eight-week culinary course, in which kids ages 6 to 16 learned how to cook pasta and shrimp dishes, prepare salads, even carve a chicken. As part of the process, the importance of teamwork and attention to detail were emphasized, as well as math skills.

This summer, Lavner's offerings - priced from $65 for a half-day to $440 for a week - will expand to include a camp where kids will build robots. A separate one-week lesson on entrepreneurship will cover the steps to opening a business and the importance of marketing.

Remember when the most rigorous part of summer camp was achieving an adequately squishy graham cracker/chocolate/marshmallow concoction?

That's not enough anymore, said Dan Zenkel of the Camp Professionals, a consulting business in New York. Traditional overnight summer camps, where kids stayed for four to seven weeks for as much as $11,000, emphasized self-reliance, responsibility, the ability to make friends and take risks - all "not so tangible" returns on parents' investments, Zenkel said.

"Now, there's a desire for some kind of quantifiable improvement in some aspect of their child's life," he said. "As a result, we're seeing a proliferation of programs in a variety of specialties."

At Julian Krinsky Camps & Programs of King of Prussia, which has been keeping up to 5,000 students a year busy for 34 summers, dozens of day and residential programs are offered.

They fall under four primary categories besides sports: the arts, math, science, and business and leadership. The average weekly day-program tuition is $500 to $700; residential is $1,500.

Like Lavner, Krinsky, 61, was a tennis player, from South Africa, when he embarked on a summer-camp career. Though the company is well-known in the industry, Krinsky's wife, Tina, its chief visionary officer, said it had had to work especially hard in recent years to maintain business. That has included soliciting international students.

"In the old days, the phone would just ring, it was really easy," Tina Krinsky said, predicting more industry consolidation in the future.

She called Lavner's small start-up, with more than 1,000 clients, "very ambitious."

Lavner said he is not intimidated by sizable competitors and defended his right to try to seize a chunk of the market.

"Years ago," he said, "Georges Perrier had one of the best restaurants in the area, and Stephen Starr came along and didn't ask Georges Perrier's permission."


The Business of Camping

Total U.S. summer camps: 12,000 (7,000 are residential; 5,000 are day camps).

Young people attending: 10 million.

Adults attending: 1.5 million.

Employees: 1.2 million.

Average weekly fee for residential camps: $325 to $780.

Average weekly day-camp fee: $100 to $275.

Source: American Camp Association


Contact staff writer Diane Mastrull at 215-854-2466 or dmastrull@phillynews.com.

 

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