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Andy Wexler didn’t much enjoy his own childhood camp experience. The only part he liked was going on field trips. That’s why, as a 19-year-old junior at the University of California at Los Angeles in 1990, he borrowed $1,000 to start his own camp based entirely on daily excursions to Disney Land, Magic Mountain, karate studios, and more. “I thought it would be a fun thing to do, so I got a list of kids and called them up,” says Wexler. “I probably did about 1,000 telephone calls and convinced 25 parents to send me their kids.”
Within five years, his Southern California-based enterprise grew to more than 500 campers, and had revenues of more than $1 million for an 11-week season. Today, Wexler’s idea has evolved into Pali Overnight Adventures, a 74-acre camp complex offering 9-to-16-year-old attendees 16 areas of concentration ranging from Secret Agent sessions, where kids do things like soar down ziplines while firing paintball guns, to Hollywood Stunt Camp, where campers learn to jump from a two-story building, to a Culinary Institute where they receive instruction from professional chefs. Wexler’s camps cost almost $1,700 per week, as compared to, say, Camp Marston, a 90-year-old YMCA camp near San Diego, which costs $535 for six days. Pali’s revenue has averaged 10 percent growth annually over the past decade and rose 39 percent this year: “If we have a day where we make under $25,000, we’re in trouble,” he says.
Pali is one of a growing number of specialty camps that aren’t content with traditional pastimes like roasting marshmallows around the fire. North Carolina-based Broadreach runs travel camps for teens in over 35 countries, providing instruction in underwater photography, Hatha yoga, marine biology, and Caribbean cultural immersion, among other disciplines. At Cross Trail Outfitters, a Texas-based organization for Christian boys, 17- to 20-year-old campers pay $750 a week to “pursue giant alligators, bowfish for enormous gator gars, and hunt for wild boars (with pit bulls and bowie knives) and exotic Nilgai antelope,” according to CTO literature.
Tampa Liberty School, hosted by Tea Party affiliate group The 912 Project, teaches 8-to-12-year-olds “the principles of liberty, free markets, and limited government.” Jeff Lukens, 53, whose day job is at an auto auction firm, will run this year’s session. The first lesson will teach campers the difference between European tyranny and freedom in America: After walking into a room that’s “kind of dark and gray and austere … [and being made] to sit down, be quiet, and do what they’re told … we tell them, there’s this other place you can go to called the New World,” says Lukens. Once they’ve crossed an obstacle course representing the Atlantic, the campers arrive in America. “It’s colorful, it’s bright, it’s cheery—they get over there and we pop confetti in the air and it’s a party,” says Lukens. The kids later clean up the mess, so they know that “with freedom comes responsibility.” Other lessons teach campers about the gold standard and that “our rights come from God, not from government,” he says.
International youth increasingly want in on American camps. Pali last year drew kids from 17 nations, and Wexler says he’s started sending recruiters to China and France. “I think a lot of the Chinese and French really want to live the American lifestyle,” he says. He’s betting that Pali’s specialized camps with curricula such as Motorsports Extravaganza or Broadcast Journalism will let them do just that.
Still, summer camp historian Leslie Paris, a professor at the University of British Columbia, says that most people want an old-fashioned outdoorsy experience away from the distractions of modern life. Newfangled visions of camp, Paris says, will “never become the dominant model because they don’t represent what much of the client base of camping believes to be real camp.”
The bottom line: There are 2,400 accredited camps in the U.S. Increasingly, they’re offering specialized—and expensive—activities.