The New York Times - May 30, 1999
A Getaway for Parents? Try Summer Camp
Four years ago, the Snowshoe Mountain ski area in West Virginia looked into ways to tap the rich markets of the Northeast and the mid-Atlantic states in the off season. Mike Valache, a manager, settled on a mountain-biking camp for 12-18 year-olds. He set up breathtaking downhill runs and seneca winding trails to appeal to the young and gonzo, and he made sure to have plenty of insurance and safety regulations to reassure their parents. But as it turned out, the parents were not anxious when they dropped of their progeny. They were envious.
"A lot of parents came up here and saw the deal - the biking setup, that we put them up in regular hotel rooms, with good food and all the comforts - and they said, 'Why can't we have an adult camp like that?'" Mr. Valache recalled, "I had a lot of people asking that question."
This August, the parents will finally get their fair share of thrills and bruises: $750 a person or $1250 a couple, food, lodging and Band-Aids.
Time was, summer camp from the adult perspective meant sewing nametags onto a duffel-bag worth of shorts and T-shirts and then waiting for the homesick calls from the wearer. But as Mr. Valache discovered, that is ancient hat. Nowadays, people old enough to remember the words to Allan Sherman's "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh!" may well be heading off to Camp Granada themselves for a precious vacation from work, home and family.
The camp industry in general is booming. The American Camping Association, which inspects and certifies camps for youngsters across the country, says it has seen an 8 to 10 percent growth yearly since 1992 across the country and expects 8.8 million young people to go to some kind of camp this year.
Numbers for adults are more elusive, because their camps are less regulated. But people in the field say the growth is astounding - and often unexpected.
For instance, Nancy Diamond, a Florida business woman, started a Web site in 1995 dedicated to summer camps for youngsters. "As that was developing," she said, "we started to receive E-mail from parents, saying, 'What a great resource,' and 'Are there any programs for adults?'"
She and her partner, Kim Bregman, found a couple of hundred adult camps, most of them in the well established genres of golf and tennis instruction, and fantasy baseball, where grown-ups live out their childhood dreams of playing in the major leagues. With just those listings, they put up a Web site:
And then they watched as hundreds of camp operators found their site and asked to be listed, too.
"We just think it's going to grow and grow," Ms. Diamond said.
(Caveat to surfer when hunting for camp information: a general search using the word "adult" in it usually yields a shockingly high proportion of X-rated sites.)
People seem to be using camps as a way to approach their vacations with true vocation, instead of crowding beaches and drinking margaritas while sunburned.
This region alone has camps for potters, quilters, and knitters, and gatherings where day after day adults head out to bird-watch or perfect their cycling skills or their butterfly stroke.
Exclusive estates offer marksmen elegant lodgings and flocks of clay pigeons. Painters, anglers and equestrians crowd into their own camps in New Jersey's rolling fields and New York's cool forests. Intensive retreats have to turn away roller skaters, ballroom dancers and wannabe jazz musicians.
"We're constantly getting forms for new camps," Ms. Diamond said. "And the camps themselves are getting more sophisticated. They are winterizing and putting in year round facilities, having Mom weekends, Dad weekends, corporate weekends."
Some of the new camps started as simple seminars, but people just didn't want to go home. Camp Stitches, a knitter's paradise coming in June in Silver Bay, N.Y., started of as classes given at trade shows, said Ted Anderson, the marketing director of XRX, the publisher of books and magazines for the knitting industry.
"We took that and built on it, introduced something of a vacation element," he said. "And they sell out. We've gotten just tons of great feed back."
Long-established camps are swelling, too. At Rich Hilsinger's 19 year-old place in Brooklin, ME., about 700 people come through between the end of May and the beginning of October, nearly double the number from just a few years ago. What is the draw? Lessons in how to build wooden boats, in sessions that last a week or two.
Jazz Vermont was created 15 years ago when a young lawyer and amateur musician named Byron Siegal returned from a bicycle tour and saw a Charles Kuralt broadcast on fantasy baseball camps.
"The light bulb went off," he recalled, "and I said, 'Maybe there are doctors and lawyers who want to play music.'" Now his camp in Stratton for musicians who just never got the chance to go pro fills three big bands during its one-week run.
As might be expected, theories about the reasons behind the new picture of the perfect vacation cover a considerable range.
Some of the interest in camps for adults might be fueled by a certain kind of guilt, particularly for athletic pursuits. Mike Fraysse has run a sports resort in the Catskills for six years that can transform entire bicycle clubs into competitive, serious teams.
"There has been so much hype about diet, exercise, getting fit," he said, "so that people, even if they don't do it, they have it in their mind that they should do it." Then they get on a bike, he said, and try to ride with their local club.
That's when they discover that they can't ride a straight line, that they are nervous riding close to people, that they are confused about when to shift gears. Camp helps them catch up to their peers.
Other people use camp as a way to hang on to their youthful proficiency. The 20th annual camp at the Big Wheels Skating Center in Stroudsburg, PA., is Aug. 15 through 20 this year, and the 150 or so expected to attend will probably be mostly in their late 50's and early 60's, the centers manager, Lou-Anne Rinker, said, "These are the artistic skaters, figure skaters," she said.
Mr. Valache said he thought the pace of everyday life had something to do with the boom. When people go for vacation, he said, "they like to relax and do physical fitness and other activities they don't have time for in regular life."
Karen Lancaster, whose company, Cross Country International, operates a world-class equestrian center in Millbrook, N.Y., drew the connection even more clearly.
"The best way to relieve stress is by taking a learning vacation," she said, "because you have to concentrate on something else."
Other explanations invoke the power of the whims of the graying postwar population bulge.
"The baby boomers are finally admitting they're adults," said Pete Dunne, who runs three-, four- and five-day bird watching sessions out of the New Jersey Audubon Society's Cape May Bird Observatory. "It only took 50 years."