Creating opportunity
The business of fun: How this 108-year-old summer camp stays relevant
Free Enterprise Staff | May 31, 2016

There are more than 7 billion people in the world. Yet, depending on whom you ask, the inherent differences among them can be boiled down to one of two distinct types of people: Those fortunate enough to have gone to camp, and the unlucky, non-campers among us.

What makes summer camp such a formative experience for so many people? As former campers will attest, there are plenty of reasons. From helping form lifelong friendships to fostering independence and resourcefulness, summer camps provide an almost unparalleled setting for young people to discover who they are, and how they relate to the world. There’s a lot of demand for this kind of support: According to the American Camp Association, the 12,000 U.S. camps comprise a $15 billion industry.

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Offering this experience in a cost-effective way is no easy challenge, and it’s something that camps across the United States are grappling with. Many were hard-hit in the wake of the recession, with attendance levels falling amid economic uncertainty. Like countless other businesses, camps had to cope with the new normal; for some organizations, this meant restructuring and job cuts.

Yet many camps have weathered this transition period smoothly. Notable among this group is Camp Pemigewassett, which bills itself as the oldest camp in the U.S. still owned and managed by the families that founded it. Located in New Hampshire, Pemi—as staff and alumni affectionately refer to it—has offered summer programs to boys aged eight to 15 since 1908.

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What’s Pemi’s secret to longevity? While there’s no formula, there are certain steps and attitudes the camp has championed over the years that have positioned it for success, explains Dottie Reed, the camp’s head administrator. “One of Pemi’s more interesting aspects is that, ever since its beginning, the owners have never depended on the camp income as their sole income,” she tells Free Enterprise.

“Pemi’s owners have always had other professions going on, which has really allowed them for well over 100 years to base their decisions against the camp’s mission. So, it has always been run in a financially smart and savvy way that supports what the camp stands for.”

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That mission, which has remained the same since the camp’s founding, centers on supporting its young campers by helping them “find their own distinctive paths in becoming self-reliant, caring, and successful young men with a passion for all that they do.”

To make good on such lofty language, Pemi employs a mix of the old and the new. “One of the things about Pemi being so old is that we’ve always been open to new blood, so to speak,” says Reed, whose husband Tom’s family co-owns the camp. “Even though many of our counselors also used to be campers, we know that new people bring a different kind of energy and enthusiasm that’s so important for any old institution.”

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This formula has worked well thus far for Pemi, which routinely draws a robust applicant pool. For this coming summer’s three sessions, Reed says, all of the camp’s roughly 255 available slots were accounted for by the holidays, with more than 85% of campers from the prior year returning. The camp’s audience is also geographically diverse: At any given time, some 25 states and nearly 10 countries are represented.

To accommodate this influx of youngsters every summer, Pemi employs around 85 in-season staff members; Reed is among a handful of the camp’s full-time, year-round workforce. Though it may seem unusual considering the camp’s success, Pemi does not have a dedicated marketing and advertising professional.

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“We only market by word-of-mouth,” Reed stresses. “We do have an active alumni pool, and one of our full-time employees does devote a substantial amount of his time to alumni development. That has really kicked in just over the last couple of years, though. We have events for them like gatherings in key US cities and also at camp. Our pre-season alumni weekend was a huge success last year. For that, many alumni who are in the working world volunteer to come to Pemi for a weekend, and they stay in the cabins and volunteer their time to the camp.”

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Perhaps unsurprisingly, Pemi’s alumni are the source of much of the camp’s positive word-of-mouth. “Many of our alums have traveled and settled elsewhere, so we’ll have their sons, grandsons, and even great grandsons coming back,” she says. “We’ve also noticed geographic trends that sprout when current families and alumni move, and then they introduce their new friends who come.”

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As its alumni will attest, Pemi has been successful because it offers an incredibly broad program for campers, one that allows them to create their own schedules based on their individual interests while exposing them to activities they might not yet have experienced. The camp is also unplugged: It has a policy that restricts access to smartphones and other connected devices, something that Reed and the rest of the camp’s executive team think is exceptionally important. “Camp gives young people the chance to try new things, explore new areas, and develop skills that go far beyond how to kick a soccer ball,” she says.

“They are in a world that’s a community, and they have to work together to make it a successful experience. And, throughout it all, the key factor is that all of this is happening away from parents. That’s all the more important now because, again, parents and kids are so connected to one another with devices that even when apart, parents understandably want to swoop in to provide answers and pave the way. Kids often don’t have the freedom to make decisions, to face life’s inevitable challenges and figure things out on their own. And what better place to develop those essential skills than at summer camp, a place designed for that very purpose?”

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