Full cabins, few counselors: Michigan summer camps weighed down by rising costs

Full cabins, few counselors: Michigan summer camps weighed down by rising costs | Pro Club Bd

At Camp Roger, the noon bell has just rung and the campers are queuing in front of the canteen.

They line up and take a seat at large, round wooden tables with their cabin names engraved on the centerpiece: Red Maple, Pottawatomie, Tamarack, White Oak, and Chippewa.

Advisors serve ground beef and taco shells to campers.

Campers sit particularly still, trying to balance cups on their heads while their handler pours water.

This 285-acre oasis on a long, winding driveway off Belding Road in Rockford has been a staple of Michigan summers for more than 100 years. This summer marks the first in Camp Roger history where every single session is 100% booked.

Summer 2020 takes a break from nature hikes, zip lines, and campfire stories. But Michigan camps are back and booming.

Survival and resuscitation were not without hiccups, however. Camps face staff shortages, price hikes and increasing separation anxiety.

High enrollment is associated with high anxiety

Nationwide, overnight camps reported a 64% increase in campers in 2021. Those numbers also surpassed pre-pandemic numbers. According to the American Camp Association, there was a 22% increase compared to 2019.

Camp Roger had waiting lists of 20 to 30 people as of April, Director Doug Vanderwell said.

With all that excitement came some nervous jitters.

“We’re seeing more and more parents struggling to get their kids to camp,” he said.

With so many new campers, Vanderwell staff have made it a priority to call first-time parents to discuss their expectations.

The pandemic may have uncovered, aggravated or triggered mental health problems; Vanderwell sees the camp experience as one of those healing solutions.

“Being an intentionally healthy, caring community for a summer can be even more valuable than it was five or 10 years ago,” he said. “It’s an important developmental experience for children, but also for high school and college-age employees.”

On site, the camp also goes a step further to alleviate the anxiety of caregivers and campers. This summer was the first with a dedicated social worker on campus. Additionally, a Human Resources Manager in a newly created position focuses on the mental, emotional, physical and spiritual health of employees.

Cole Hook, 24, took on the role this year after working at the camp since 2018. He said in a few months he sees advisors changing.

“[They leave] as young adults who are much more mature than they were, just growing in their ability to communicate with other people, their ability to work with other people. And her confidence just went through the roof at the end of the summer.”

Lack of staff prevents the camps from growing

Similar to other seasonal businesses, summer camps have had trouble filling their staffing roster this year.

Consultants in particular are difficult to get, as most are between 18 and 22 years old and will soon be doing an internship or starting a career. Losing just a summer of returning employees, like in 2020, is slowing hiring momentum.

According to the Camps Association, 43% of overnight camps nationwide said they could not meet their staffing needs in 2021, and dwindling staff can quickly close a camp.

In Traverse City, the city canceled its day camp this year after failing to meet Michigan’s required ratio of one employee for every 10 children.

In an April press release, the Secretariat noted that wages for a warehouse coordinator have risen nearly 50% from a year earlier and consultants’ salaries have risen by more than 20% in an effort to hire more staff. Ultimately, the city received two applications.

Matt Henry, director of Camp Skyline in Almont, said he’s seen wage increases across the camping industry. He laughs that “room and board included” isn’t a big selling point when it’s part of the job requirements.

“We haven’t been as proactive as other industries, and that’s because a lot of the camp industry is nonprofit, and nonprofits in general are lagging behind in that regard.”

Related: Only a third of teenagers have summer jobs. They miss seasonal shops.

Given that the job is 24/7, most camp counselors are paid weekly or on a summer stipend rather than hourly. At Camp Newaygo, counselors who stay through the summer receive a $500 loyalty bonus on top of their $300 weekly salary.

This addresses a different problem. Last year, 71% of overnight camps reported early layoffs of staff, according to the camp association.

Even with better wages and more free time, camps need to remain relevant as many opportunities compete for the attention of young workers.

During a college careers fair, Camp Newaygo principal Jalisa Danhof said her team’s recruiting tactic is not to promise a summer of zip lining and water activities, but rather a summer of leadership, mentorship, and independence.

Her camp was “overcrowded” this summer, she said.

However, it is not the students who need to hear the pitch. More often, they push against parents’ vision of a productive summer, Danhof said.

“We need to teach parents that this job is more impactful than scooping ice cream and flipping burgers,” she said.

Camp Newaygo offers internships in art and music education and has expanded into non-traditional areas such as fashion design and business internships.

For Camp Roger program director Peyton DeRuiter, 24, the experience put her educational degree into practice. Being a counselor was DeReuiter’s first job after her freshman year at Michigan State University and solidified her decision to become a teacher.

“I learned most of the skills I learned for teaching here,” she said.

Are increased operating costs passed on to the campers?

Inflation is hitting summer camp budgets hard. It’s difficult to cut gas and food costs when serving a weekly group of 100 or more campers.

Vanderwell estimates that food costs at Camp Roger increased by $30,000 this summer.

Fluctuating gas prices strain Danhof’s budget to drive RVs to remote hiking spots or tow tubes on speedboats.

And Henry still expects consultant salaries to double in the last four years.

“When prices are changing the way they are right now across the economy and we have to set prices six months in advance, that’s a bit of a dice roll,” Henry said.

Average per-person daily rates across the country increased 113% from 2020-2021 costs, according to the Camp Association. Inventory prices are expected to rise across the board in 2023 to keep up with inflation.

Most camps, often non-profit organizations affiliated with religious organizations, share a deep philosophy of welcoming campers of all backgrounds.

Camp Roger introduced an honor system five years ago. The actual cost for a six-day, overnight camp experience is $650, but families can pay anywhere from $210 to $570. The rest is offset by donations and income from the camp’s thrift store.

“We were very concerned about how people would handle it,” Vanderwell said. “Surprisingly, we found that few people choose the bottom rail or bottom line on the chart because, by and large, people treat them with integrity.”

Even with flexible pricing and financial support, there is a general fear that lower-income families will be overpriced. The camp directors remain steadfast, saying they would rather fundraise during the off-season than significantly increase fees.

“It makes us all the more grateful that at a time when families don’t have available dollars to send their children to camp, families are investing in this experience first and foremost because they see the value,” Danhof said.

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