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Summer camps turning from leisure to learning

Some entrepreneurs have replaced the traditional getaway of swimming, crafts and making s'mores with single-focused experiences such as a sport, cooking, math and the arts.

June 04, 2011|By Diane Mastrull
  • Justin Lavner, left, coaches during his tennis camp in Pennsylvania. Lavner also offers programs on robots and on entrepreneurship.
Justin Lavner, left, coaches during his tennis camp in Pennsylvania. Lavner… (Laurence Kesterson, Philadelphia…)

Reporting from Philadelphia — 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 a classroom experience, where college and career preparation are the emphasis, not learning the breaststroke.

Some camps have resorted to recruiting abroad to keep enrollment up, partly because of 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.

Although 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, Pa., who barely looks older than a high school student but has the business confidence of a Trump.

Lavner completed his law degree in 2009. By then, he had held his first summer camp, offering only tennis, followed by a similar program in summer 2009.

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 Philadelphia restaurant 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 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 risk-taking — 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, Pa., 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 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 has 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.

Mastrull writes for the Philadelphia Inquirer/McClatchy.

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