Campers at the International Riding Camp will spend up to six hours a day on horseback this summer — more than any other riding camp in the country, the director says — and their parents will pay handsomely for the equestrian immersion. A full nine-week session there costs $18,500, and parents can also pay for extras like polo lessons ($250 for 90 minutes).
But Baltimore mom Emlyn Stancill likes sending her teen daughter to the costly camp in Greenfield, N.Y. for a surprising reason: the down-to-earth setting, complete with a musty-smelling (but attractive and clean, she noted) dorm, she told MarketWatch in 2017. “I don’t want [her] to hang out all summer at a country club,” Stancill said of her daughter. “I want [her] to deal with a smelly roommate and just be normal.”
Parents are paying more than ever for all camps — not just the faux rustic ones. A weeklong sleep-away camp accredited by the American Camp Association cost an average of $768 in 2015 — up from $397 in 2005, a 93% increase. Prices for sleep-away camps vary considerably, from under $200 a week to more than $1,500 a week at the high end. More than half of camp leaders say they worry about generating enough revenue “while not being too expensive for parents,” an ACA survey of camp directors found.
‘These are wealthy families, but these kids are not living in the lap of luxury’
People who can afford exclusive retreats that also offer less-than-fancy living conditions say they offer unexpected benefits: they give well-heeled campers a taste of rustic living, teach them mundane tasks such as doing laundry and cleaning their rooms, and let them savor simple pleasures. At one elite arts camp that costs $8,500 for six weeks, a $1 ice cream cone is a prized treat for campers.
“It’s not super fancy for the price you’re paying,” Stancill said of the International Riding Camp, where her daughter spent five weeks for $10,500. “These are really wealthy families, but these kids are not living in the lap of luxury. They’re in a house that smells a little mildewy. I appreciate that very much.”
She added, “[W]hen your kids go to private school or you’re sort of affluent, you get this feeling after a while: ‘It doesn’t all need to be so fancy all the time.’…I want them to have a normal environment and like that these camps are like that.”
This $11,300 camp is ‘an opportunity to be anonymous’ for VIP kids
Parents of kids who attend the 90-year-old Camp Robin Hood in New Hampshire give similar feedback, owner and director David Cole told MarketWatch in 2017. The fee is on the high end — $11,300 — for a seven-week session filled with classic camp activities such as archery, arts and crafts and water skiing.
The camp caters to Wall Street heavy-hitters and other VIPs, Cole said. Goldman Sachs president David Solomon is a partner in the camp, and the children of former Goldman president and Trump economic adviser Gary Cohn, Spike Lee, Christie Brinkley, Heidi Klum, Larry David and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. have all bunked in its plain cabins, which campers clean themselves.
Campers are encouraged to wear “simple” clothes, which gives the children of celebrities a welcome respite from the spotlight, Cole said.
“It is an opportunity for them to be anonymous,” Cole said. “You would have never known whose kids Gary Cohn’s were. Everybody’s the same. It’s important to the parents that their kids are just like every other kid. They all have chores, they all have to make their beds. It’s important for these families. It’s hard for these kids to live a normal life.”
It’s $4,915 for two weeks — and campers have to do their own laundry
At Explo, a summer career exploration program on the campuses of Yale University, Wellesley and Wheaton College, teens can do a two-week cooking course where they learn knife skills from professional chefs ($4,915) and 11- and 12-year-olds can learn to intubate robot patients in an emergency medicine program (also $4,915 for two weeks). But in addition to the top-notch enrichment, parents appreciate that the kids learn some basic life skills too, executive director Moira Kelly told MarketWatch 2017.
She vividly recalls one mom writing in to say how pleased she was that her daughter and roommates had gone out to buy cleaning products to tidy up their own rooms after it dawned on them that no one was going to do it for them, Kelly said.
“Overwhelmingly, parents are thrilled when I tell them that their children will have to do their laundry while they are with us and if their children don’t know how to do it, we will teach them,” Kelly told MarketWatch. “Over the years, my experience has been that parents — affluent or not — want their children to develop independence, be responsible, and not take things for granted.”
A $1 ice cream cone is as coveted as a diamond
That’s one reason parents choose the elite arts camp Interlochen in Michigan, which offers pre-professional training in music, dance, acting and more. Alumni include Josh Groban, Norah Jones and playwright Sarah Ruhl. The six-week high school-level program costs about $8,500. Campers spend it in a cabin with 11 bunkmates, Jerrod Price, director of admission and financial aid, told MarketWatch in 2017. “We do have a number of folks, high net-worth clientele, who very much appreciate that their son or daughters get this rustic experience,” Price said.
Campers wear uniforms and maintain a rigorous schedule of rehearsals and performances. The stripped-down atmosphere lets campers savor small pleasures that probably wouldn’t mean much in their regular lives, Price said. Counselors sometimes reward campers with coupons for ice cream cones from the camp ice cream shop. They only cost $1, but campers treat them like they’re priceless, Price said. “You’d think you were giving someone a diamond when it gets to be halfway through the summer,” Price said of campers’ reactions to the cone coupons.
This story was updated on June 12, 2018.