At Texas-based Camp Champions, campers gather on Sunday evenings to reflect on tradition and character.

Coronavirus forced 62% of summer camps to close this year and early estimates predict the industry will take a $16 billion revenue hit


If you visited Lochearn Camp For Girls, nestled on the shores of Vermont's Lake Fairlee, during the summer months you'd likely hear the sounds of tennis balls hitting the court, horses trotting in the nearby corrals and girls laughing as they canoe in pristine waters.

But this year, the grounds are much quieter without the roughly 360 campers Lochearn welcomes each summer. Amid the coronavirus outbreak, camp director Tony Oyenarte and his team decided to close the overnight resident program for the 2020 season. "It was the hardest decision I've ever had to make as a camp director and as a businessman," Oyenarte tells CNBC Make It. 

"We've been open for 104 consecutive years. We went through the flu of 1918, both world wars, H1N1. But when June 1 came, and we had to make a decision for the summer, it was focused on: Are we gonna be able to deliver an experience that's going to be safe and is it going to be fun?" Oyenarte says. And the short answer, after much soul searching, was no. "At the end of the day, we just said it's not going to be the best experience for our campers and our staff."

Lochearn Camp For Girls sits on the shores of Vermont's Lake Fairlee and offers a number of water activities, including sailing. But this year, the camp opted to remain closed amid the coronavirus pandemic.

As of June, nearly two out of every three summer camps have opted to remain closed this year, according to CampMinder, which surveyed 885 programs on their plans for the season

Of the camps that are closed, about 68% are resident-based, overnight camps, while only 17% of day camps are shuttered for the season. About 14% of programs that operate as both resident and day camps have remained closed as well.  

That squares with what the American Camp Association is seeing, too. Tom Rosenberg, president of ACA, tells CNBC Make It that only about 20% to 30% of ACA overnight camps are operating this summer. The organization says a preliminary estimate of the direct revenue lost this summer because of the coronavirus pandemic is about $16 billion. Approximately 19.5 million children will not have camp experiences this summer and the closures translate into about 900,000 lost jobs. 

"I don't think people recognize how big the impact has been on the field of camps this year," Rosenberg says. "Your day-care centers will get to operate in September. Many, many, many camps will not."

Pandemic put everything 'on hold'

For Lochearn Camp, the decision to close their overnight resident program and family programs means that money will be tight in the coming months. "The loss of revenue is going to be really hard," Oyenarte says, but adds that the camp is working with state regulators and others to secure additional funding. And he's hopeful that there will be some federal funding made available. "We're optimistic for the future," Oyenarte says.

"We're looking at 2022 as the next source of revenue," he says, adding that because many families opted to roll their deposits over to next summer, the camp won't be receiving an influx of new funds until the deposits for summer 2022 come in.

For now everything is "on hold," Oyenarte says. To keep overhead low, he's had to let go some year-round employees and is helping his counselors find other summer employment. Yet a limited staff is working to maintain the properties — still mowing and painting — in preparation for when the girls can return. "One of the biggest challenges of running a summer camp is that it takes us all year to get ready for these two months," Oyenarte says.

Closing Lochearn Camp For Girls for the summer was "the hardest decision I've ever had to make as a camp director and as a businessman," says camp director Tony Oyenarte.

Some camps are offering new programs

Not every camp has closed completely. While Cheley Colorado Camps, located in the Estes Park Valley, Colorado, opted to cancel their summer overnight programs on June 8, the camp rolled out a new program to local residents and families earlier this month: Trigger Bill Tours. Groups of 10 can spend a few hours, a day or even a week horseback riding, complete with a guide, meals and even s'mores. 

"All spring, we were really trying to problem solve and figure out a route forward," says Jeff Cheley, camp director. But in the end, the overnight camping experience proved too challenging to pull off, including the mandate to keep kids in groups of 10 or less. Cheley normally offers campers the option to participate in two- to five-day backpacking adventures, which requires the camp transport the kids to nearby trailheads. "There's no way that we could put four campers in a vehicle with two staff and make those numbers work [with social distancing guidelines]," Cheley says. 

Cheley Colorado Camps, located in the Estes Park Valley, Colorado, opted to cancel their summer overnight programs on June 8

And while the new program isn't likely to replace the revenue lost from closing the overnight camp, Cheley says the camp will endure. "This was going to be our 100th summer, and throughout our history, we've really used the programs to develop our mission of building resiliency and character in a challenging and nurturing natural environment," Cheley says.

Other camps are opting for a virtual experience. Of the camps that are closed, Campminder found that 27% are offering some type of online activity for their campers, and that includes the Maine School of Science and Mathematics' annual summer camp. Located in Northern Maine, the joint overnight and day camp program usually welcomes 140 kids a week for summer sessions focused on bolstering STEM learning. Typically, the camp has hands-on learning programs that range from building programmable drones and model rockets to learning about programming and circuit boards. 

Instead, the school will offer a virtual summer camp this year that will have a mix of live demonstrations and pre-recorded videos on topics like calculus and programming. "We had to create this virtual summer camp from scratch at the last minute with no planning and no money, says Ryan McDonald, the summer programs director. And to add an extra layer to the challenge, the staff wanted to make it affordable. "To make it accessible to as many people as possible, we just made it free," McDonald says. 

But while McDonald does understand that kids may be sick of all the screen time and Zoom classes, he's hoping to bring some of the camp's magic into homes. "The thing I'm most excited about is how all the videos from our virtual camp, not only the live ones, but the recorded ones, are just going to open so many doors," he says, adding he'd love to surprise and excite kids like they do at the in-person camps. Have them respond to the videos saying: 'I didn't know this existed. I can do that? This is real?'

Kids at the Maine School of Science and Mathematics' annual summer camp typically participate in a number of hands-on activities, including building a 9-foot trebuchet.

Other summer camps are pushing forward

Just outside Austin, Camp Champions decided to open its doors to overnight campers on June 7. But the decision came with a lot of anxiety and debate as well. 

The Marble Falls, Texas-based camp may be open, but executive director Steve Baskin says it was a long road to get to a point where he felt his staff and the kids could be safe. Baskin says he spent months talking with epidemiologists from the Mayo Clinic, Harvard, Yale Medical School, as well as pediatricians and health officials to develop a 75-page operating guide. 

Those new protocols included setting up guidelines about eating in shifts, implementing daily temperature and health checks, keeping cabins together for activities, mandating that everyone wear masks when necessary and requiring counselors and employees remain at camp for the entire summer to limit interaction with those outside of camp. In fact, Baskin had counselors and staff arrive and quarantine two weeks before the first kids arrived. And he is also requiring campers to either quarantine for 14 days before arrival or quarantine for seven days and have a negative Covid-19 test before getting to camp. 

"I've done this long enough that we could have lived a year without running camp — I could have secured the loans or I could have liquidated assets, I could have done what I need to do to keep camp alive. This is not a business decision. And if I thought for a second that a child or counselor would be hurt, I would not have done it," Baskin says. 

Kids attending Texas-based Camp Champions normally choose from a variety of activities to fill their days, including ceramics and pottery.
Steve Baskin

But with the number of Covid-19 cases on the rise in Texas, Baskin is watching the situation very carefully. "My counselors think we've gone this long and we haven't had a case, so there's a tendency to think that means we're in good shape and they don't see what's happened on the outside," Baskin says, adding that he has protocols in place if a camper does start to exhibit symptoms.  

Yet even with the camp open, the finances are tight. "This will not be a record year financially for us," Baskin says, adding that if the camp is forced to shut down early, it could be worse financially than if it had simply remained closed for the season. 

But at the end of the day, Baskin says it comes down to ensuring that kids are resilient through all of this. "Why am I doing this crazy experiment? Because when we get back to school, there are going to be a lot of anxious kids. And someone has to be the one that puts his or her arm around their friends and say, 'It's OK, I'm here for you.' And I think they will be my campers," Baskin says.

Don't miss more in this series: 

Coronavirus and summer camps
Coronavirus and summer camps