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Summer Camp Brokers Stake Out Costly Territory

Leisure: Consultants help parents get their children into exclusive programs. Some offer special activities in exotic locations.

July 05, 2001|ANNE-MARIE O'CONNOR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

You've worked with real estate brokers. You've heard of yacht brokers. But are you ready for camp brokers?

Yes, the high-stakes world of high-end summer camps has breathed economic life into yet another urban profession.

Who would have thought summer camps that charge $1,000 a week would get as many bids as Westside homes at the peak of the market?

It is brokers such as Karenne Bloomgarden who help guide well-to-do Los Angeles parents through this brave nouveau world of drama camps, skateboard retreats--even "entrepreneurship" for fledgling capitalists--that is reshaping the landscape of summer camp.

Bloomgarden has become a national camp guru, and in the process, she has evolved into something of an amateur sociologist.

She can tell you about camps with landing strips where children step out of private planes. Camps where the children of European aristocrats are trailed by bodyguards. She tells of pampered little campers who balk at making the bed, and win leverage over less well-connected counselors by threatening litigation.

" 'I'll sue, I'll sue, I'll sue.' We have 6-, 7- and 8-year-olds who have been taught to threaten by parents," Bloomgarden said.

That is not Bloomgarden's cup of latte.

In fact, Bloomgarden says she tries to steer parents away from the opulent camp scene. Never mind that she counts the families of people like Hollywood deal-maker Michael Ovitz and software mogul Peter Norton among her past and present clients.

To Bloomgarden, camp for children of all backgrounds is about instilling values: grit, character and teamwork. And even some of her wealthiest clients ask for camps that are socially and racially mixed, "the way the world is," she said.

"If the parents want the neighbors to be impressed with the name of the camp they're sending the child to, they generally are missing out on some of the greatest benefits of the camp experience," she said. "Some of my most successful clients specifically do not want that kind of camp."

One of those clients is producer Carla Singer. Singer has her own production company that makes TV movies of the week.

"I'm a child of the '60s and all that means in raising my daughter," Singer said.

"It's about values. It's about, if you are privileged, not flaunting it. It's about trying to be egalitarian with other people and kids--even if you're a child of privilege. My daughter went to an Equal Rights Amendment march when she was 2 years old."

So when she consults on camps with Bloomgarden, "She'll say, 'That is not a camp for you,' knowing who I am," Singer said.

This year, Singer and her daughter Martine, 12, chose French Woods, a performing arts and circus camp in New York that will cost Singer close to $3,000 for three weeks. It offers horseback riding, theater and trapeze.

This array of amenities, unusual 20 years ago, is now common at specialty camps, places where voice coaches and drama instructors have replaced counselors who teach children to tie square knots.

Specialty Camps Evolved Over Time

In her 17 years in the business, Bloomgarden has watched this trend evolve, along with the proliferation of camp brokers, or as many prefer to be called, camp consultants, whose firms dot the East Coast from New York to Florida.

It's unclear just how many brokers there are, but Tips on Trips and Camps has 15 representatives, most of them in U.S. cities but also in China, Italy, France and Belgium, according to Los Angeles representative Murphy Litvack. Because of the international nature of her Westside clientele, Litvack also helps families in London and the Middle East find camps, she said.

Camp consultants such as Bloomgarden, who charges 7% to 15% of the camp fee, do the legwork many parents no longer have time to do. They meet with camp directors. They observe games and activities. They check out the children and general atmosphere.

Consulting a camp broker "does seem exotic," said Patty Shenker, a Pacific Palisades real estate investor who is married to a film location scout. But if she tried to find the right camp for their child, "the effort would have been unbelievable for me."

Parents who grew up in leaner circumstances are a little taken aback by today's camp options: private rooms for individual campers, unlimited calls home, or the practice of allowing children to select a menu of individual pursuits rather than group activities. One family flies their daughter's horse across the country with her.

Village Camps in Switzerland offers a film program designed by Canadian film director Jack Darcus. SuperCamp, based in Oceanside, sends 3,200 children to college campuses all over the world for a 10-day course that helps children build confidence, motivation, communication and learning skills for a fee of $1,895, plus air fare.

"Maybe richer kids went to these kinds of camps before," said Singer, the producer, "but I certainly never saw them."

Another surprise is the competition for space.

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