As kids nationwide dream of exciting camp days packed with boating, archery and swimming, the weak economy is casting a dark shadow over the traditional summer ritual.
Camp directors are reporting declining enrollments and soaring scholarship requests for the second consecutive year. Some lament that the situation has grown dire after another year of financial hardship.
More parents are seeking discounts, financial assistance or special payment options to cover camp costs. Some parents, nervous about whether they can scrounge up the cash for a luxury during a time of financial uncertainty, are sending their kids to cheaper programs, signing them up for fewer weeks or skipping sending their children to camp altogether.
The trend has left directors of some camps grappling for innovative strategies to lure campers. Some are trying more aggressive marketing tactics, altered schedules and programs, more flexible payment options and deeper discounts.
At the Buehler Challenger and Science Center's Space Camp in Paramus, Bergen County, the enrollment was declining until the staff expanded it this year to students as young as pre-K; the camp previously started at fifth grade.
"Over the past two years, because of the economy, enrollments have been down. People are being a lot more careful about how they spend their money now," Buehler camp director Kathie Klein said.
Nancy Siegel, the director of Caddy (Circus, Art, Dance, Drama and Yoga) Camp in Teaneck, also has added financial incentives to attract parents.
"People out of work are asking for financial aid," Siegel said. "I am willing to work with families because I know how hard times are these days."
She is giving discounts for campers who refer a friend and for siblings attending together. She also has added payment options for those who can't pay all at once. And her latest initiative is a day-by-day enrollment option for the week between school and camp.
The manager of Indian Hills Farm in West Milford, which runs a horse and pony camp, said that it is no longer requiring parents to pay up front. "We are allowing them to pay a deposit in the beginning of the summer and the rest afterwards," said Anna Gassiv, camp manager. "We are letting people pay by credit card, which a lot of other camps don't do."
Some camps that used to rely on word of mouth are now working harder to get their name out. Camp Discovery, run by Fairleigh Dickinson University, marketed its camp more aggressively this year than in the past.
"We attended more camp fairs and put out more advertising than usual," said Karen Nelson, senior program director at FDU. In the past, Camp Discovery generated a long waiting list. Not anymore, she said. "Families can't afford it now. Some are only doing two weeks or four instead of a whole summer." Others, she said, aren't coming at all.
Some parents with dwindling resources are finding less costly ways for their children to enjoy the summer.
One Bregen County mother pointed out that it is much less expensive to provide entertainment for the kids at home.
"I am going to save a lot of money this year by keeping them home," said Collette Dunn, who estimates that it will cost her $1,400 less than last year.
"I was laid off from my job because of the economy. So I'll watch them swim in the pool and take day trips with them."