After a lost summer, demand for camp is “through the roof”
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Summertime is just around the corner, and many sleep-away camps are preparing to reopen after being forced to shut their doors last year because of the pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released guidance specifically for day and overnight camps.
“Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal spoke with Kevin Nissen, the co-director of Friendly Pines Camp in Prescott, Arizona. Friendly Pines is a coed sleep-away camp for children ages 6 through 14 that was founded in 1941. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Kai Ryssdal: So what are you looking at for Friendly Pines this coming summer? You guys going to be busy?
Kevin Nissen: We are going to be very busy. The pent-up demand is through the roof for summer camp. So add to that a large population of kids along with a whole host of new procedures that we’ve never done in 80 years. It’s gonna be a busy summer.
Ryssdal: I bet it is. And I apologize for chuckling, but, you know, pent-up demand is something you hear in you know, industrial contexts and consumers looking for retail stuff. You don’t hear much for summer camp. But I imagine after last summer when none of these parents could ship their kids off and you couldn’t employ a bunch of people, there’s real eagerness in getting as many kids in those bunkhouses as they can.
Nissen: I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve been here for just about 40 years. And our wait lists are long. The closest thing I’ve ever seen to this was after 9/11, when parents decided they weren’t going to travel, they weren’t going to go on vacation, so everybody went to summer camp. So it’s just been through the roof.
Ryssdal: I bet. So let me run you through a couple of things here that go along with pent-up demand. No. 1, you need counselors when you got a lot of campers. How’s your hiring going?
Nissen: That is our biggest challenge right now. In the last week, we have seen more applications. But we don’t have access to international staff, which for us comprised about 20% of our staff every year. We don’t have that this year. So all of our staff are domestic.
Ryssdal: How you’re going to get them then? I mean, are you bumping up pay? What are you doing?
Nissen: Well, we pay fairly high to begin with. So we thought that that would take care of the problem. Because of Arizona’s minimum wage laws, we pay about $630 a week, which is extremely high for a summer camp. But even that, the number of applications just aren’t what they used to be. So a lot more advertising, being a lot more aggressive. You know, normally you just waited for it to come to you. But now you have to go out after it.
Ryssdal: All y’all open soon, right? When you open doors, are you going to be staffed and are you going to be ready?
Nissen: We feel as though we are. Our staff arrive next Monday, and then our first campers arrive May 29. Now that’s a small camp. So we’re ready for that. But as we get through the summer, our groups get a little bit bigger. So I could see us hiring right up until the day that kids get here and even hiring supplemental staff throughout the summer.
Ryssdal: Last thing, sir, and then I’ll let you go. I understand that this is going to be your last year at Friendly Pines after something like 40 years, and after a lost summer last year, which I imagine you as many other small businesses got through by, you know, hanging on by your fingernails. How you feeling? I mean, you leave this job after 40 years …
Nissen: That’s a good question. I imagined that this year, my last year, I’ve trained staff to take over my position. I thought this year would be easy, you know, hanging around with the kids. But I’m faced with a big challenge. And on the one hand, it does give me a greater sense of purpose to make sure that we not only reach our 80th summer but the 81st summer is something that’s going to happen as well. So I’ve taken it in that vein.
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