Liberty Lake Day Camp in Bordentown Township, New Jersey invites over 1,000 kids each summer to its grounds to horseback ride, swim and play away the hot summer days . To ensure both the busy summer months and off season run smoothly, the back office must have a plan — and a contingency plan — for any hurdles that may come its way.
We spoke with the president of the American Camp Association and founder of Liberty Lake Day Camp, Andy Pritikin, to find out the surprising financial challenges that come with running a summer camp and how he prepares his business for battle every year.
When does planning begin for summer camp, usually?
We plan more than a year in advance because our cycle involves early enrollments. This is a 10-week period that goes from mid-June through August. In order for that money to sustain the organization through the year, we do an early enrollment that starts August 1st.
Beyond that, I'm on a 60-acre facility that needs to be constantly maintained, even in the off-season. I have to manage staff, hire 200 people, constantly be re-enrolling. In the midst of the summer, we have 1,100 kids that come through our doors for the camp and we have to be ready.
When is your peak season and when is your off season?
In the camp industry [peak season] is the two or three months leading up to the first day of camp and the next ensuing 10 weeks [during camp] are very hard. The metaphor I use is that I'm assembling an army. People are dropping out and people are dropping in and you're training people. Meanwhile, at the same time, people are still signing up for camp. Then once camp starts, it's like going to war. There's almost a sense of relief once camp starts .
Leading up to this really busy season for you – "going into war," as you said – what kind of issues arise?
As president of the American Camp Association, I talk to camps all across the country. For 95 percent to 98 percent of camp staff, it's just seasonal work. So the commitment level very often is low even for people who have been there for years.
This year I had about two dozen people bail out on me two or three weeks prior to the start of camp after they had been hired for six months and we had been planning. Some of them had gone through lots of training.
Camp used to be one of those kind of things where people just love it so much that they would drop everything and do it even though they get paid less. It's very frustrating for business owners now. I try to hire lots of extra people because I anticipate this to a degree. But when some of the people you rely on bail out on you, that just hampers you tremendously.
You mentioned that you hire extra people, but how do you budget for that?
Prior to the recession, it was a very predictable enrollment process. Now the norm is for 300 or 400 people to sign up a month prior to camp, which makes it unbelievably difficult to staff and budget for.
A full-time staff person, even at minimum wage, is $2400 for the eight weeks, and that adds up quick. So you can't overhire too much, but at the same time, you can't underhire either.
When it all dies down, how do you manage your off-season?
Well, in a way, it doesn't stop. Springtime is stressful regardless. This year, out of nowhere, I needed a new septic system: $200,000. But I know those things. They're inevitable.
But when it comes to, OK, I want to put in a new ropes course or I want to create a new program for the preschoolers, or I want to build a new playground, that stuff should get done in the fall.
One of my friends who was in the advertising industry — he was an advertising executive and became a camp director, and he was blown away by how hard it was. He said, “I feel like I'm constantly juggling. I'm juggling these eight balls, and some of them are rubber and some of them are glass, and I just have to make sure I don't drop the glass ones."
To learn more about Liberty Lake Day camp visit libertylakedaycamp.com