Clubs that provide summer camps help children keep fit, give parents peace of mind and earn extra money during downtime.

The calendar on the wall may be flipped to February, but some working parents already have summer on their minds. In four months, school doors will burst open, and laughing children will charge out. It will be time for vacation - for the youngsters. For mom and dad, work doesn't end when the weather warms up, so they must arrange to have someone look after their children.

Many two-income families and single parents will choose to send their children to daycare. It's one of the few options available to them. However, it's not the only option. Some clubs give an alternative: summer camp.

From a business perspective, summer camps make sense for clubs because they frequently take place during downtime. Think about it: How busy is your aerobics studio in the late morning or early afternoon on a typical weekday? With a summer camp, you can take advantage of empty space and make a profit.

Not only do summer camps generate extra revenue, they help develop relationships with parents - you know, the people with the money who buy memberships. The best way to impress parents is to put together a camp that uses children's time productively. "Parents like the idea that kids can go in for a week or two and learn different activities, games, arts and crafts," says Pam Hasselbring of Minneapolis-based Fitastic Kids, a company that offers youth-related products, consulting and training.

That means putting children into an empty room with a television does not make a summer camp. Beth Berman, the children and family program director at Club La Maison in Wayne, Pa., points out that kids already get too much television and videogames at home; when they come to her club's camp, they won't find a television waiting for them. "It's great because we bring the kids in and they are so active," she says.

Since there are already many camps in the area, Club La Maison caters to kids between 3 and 7 - the youngsters other programs often won't take. Due to the differences in age, the activities are "developmentally appropriate," according to Berman. For example, the 3-year-olds may learn how to skip and hop, while the 7-year-olds play basketball.

No matter what a child's age, Berman breaks things up to keep the campers interested. The camp consists of an activity, then some quiet time, then another activity, and so on. For example, the children may start off in the pool, then break for a healthy snack, and arts and crafts. Afterward, they go outside to play basketball, then they have lunch.

In the Club La Maison's camp, activities can take place outside or inside. This is advisable. If you plan on keeping the camp outside, it's a good idea to have an indoor option available in case of rain. Also, during a scorching summer day, you don't want children running around in the heat for long hours. Club La Maison's air-conditioned interior gives the children a cool place to stay active.

The Blast! summer camps in Minneapolis also give children a variety of activities in which to participate - both indoor and outdoor. These camps are part of the Northwest Athletic Club's Blast! children centers. Currently, three Blast! centers offer the camps, although the programs are now spreading out nationally to the clubs owned by WellBridge (formerly CSI), Northwest's parent company.

The Blast! camps cap off at 60 children, ages 6 to 13. Even when at full capacity, however, the camps' programs never neglect anyone. "You always want a big group activity format so you can get all the kids involved," says Debra Regan, Well-Bridge's Midwest regional operations manager. You also always want a fallback activity for the kids who can't or won't participate.

In addition to physical activities, Blast! camps include educational and entertaining field trips three or four times a week. Campers may go to the zoo or a water park. Also, the three Blast! camps meet once a week so all the youngsters can join together. This is important because a good camp should encourage kids to make new friends. "It gives children that social element during the summer when they are off from school," Regan notes.

Realistically, your club may not be able to take children on a field trip, but you can still keep them entertained in your facility. All you need is a little creativity. For example, the Newtown Athletic Club in Newtown, Pa., offers a peewee summer camp for children 3 to 5. To hold the children's interest, the camp varies the activities with programs developed just for kids. One such activity is called Yoga Bear, a yoga class designed for children. During the yoga class, the camp counselors give the kids cues to which they can relate - stand like a tree or a bird, for instance. The counselors also speak softly, which keeps the children calm.

The peewee camp isn't the only children's program Newtown offers. In fact, most of Newtown's camps are actually sport-specific. While typical camps provide enough activities to appeal to a broad group of youngsters, sport-specific camps help junior athletes develop the skills necessary to progress to the next level in their chosen sport. Coaches and other experts often lead these types of camps.

Although Flagstaff Athletic Club in Flagstaff, Ariz., offers specialized sports camps for children age 10 to 14, most of the club's summer camps consist of noncompetitive activities for children age 6 to 12. Gwen Engel, Flagstaff's activities director, favors games without winners or losers. Instead, kids participate in activities that teach hand-eye coordination and team-building. One such activity is a form of tag called Octopus. The game starts off with one child who is "it." This child attempts to tag other children; children who are tagged become part of the octopus, whose goal is to tag other children. The last person to be tagged begins the next game as "it."

In addition to games, the campers enjoy other activities based upon a theme that changes every week. During "All About Aliens" week, for example, the children draw astronauts during arts and crafts.

With so many activities that can be incorporated, a camp can be as long or short as a club prefers. However, it's best not to drag out a camp just to fill time. Every moment should include educational and physical activities that keep the children busy. Again, you don't want to park kids in front of a television just to pad the hours.

Whether a camp runs long or short, you may want to consider offering daycare services before and after the program for the convenience of working parents. For example, the Blast! camp starts at 9 a.m. and ends at 4 p.m., but kids can arrive as early as 7 a.m. and stay as late as 6 p.m. Someone is there to look after them.

Parents not only want people who can look after their children; they want assurances that their youngsters are in safe hands. Whenever you sign up a child for a camp, get his pertinent medical history and write down whom to call in case of an emergency. Keep this information handy at all times. And make sure your camp is equipped with first aid kits and bags of ice for bumps and bruises. "Kids will always get hurt," says Andrea Biernbaum, Newtown's youth program director.

If your camp includes activities that require children to move from area to area, make sure your counselors know how to keep an eye on kids. Keep the children contained and never let them wander around the facility alone. If the children must walk long distances between activities, position employees to hold doors and usher the campers along. At the end of the day, make sure that the children leave with an approved guardian.

When it comes to safety, your camp counselors are the best line of defense. Still, a single counselor can only look after so many youngsters. The number of employees required to handle a camp depends on the number of participants and their ages.

At the Blast! camps, there is one employee for every 15 children; furthermore, the regular staff at the Blast! centers keep an eye on the kids. For Newtown's peewee camps, Biernbaum prefers two instructors per 10 kids. Flagstaff's Engel hires one counselor for every 15 children; however, she points out that you must have a minimum of two counselors (one male, one female) to work with both boys and girls.

As far as Berman is concerned, you can never have enough counselors. "You'd rather have more staff covering all of the kids," she says. "The parents love that."

Sheer numbers aren't enough. The staff must be qualified to work with children. Since many colleges students will also be on break during your camp, look for employees who are studying elementary education or something that you feel is applicable to your program. At the very least, employees should be CPR-certified and have knowledge of first aid.

High-school students who are looking for summer jobs can also make excellent camp counselors - if given the proper training. Many of the employees in Club La Maison's camp come from local high schools. Berman, who has a master's in early childhood special education, walks them through everything: first aid; how to discipline a child; how to compliment a child; how to work with kids who don't want to play; and so on.

Training is only one component to a successful camp. Another factor is marketing. Although summer may seem far away, clubs with camps tend to do their marketing around this time of year. They post notices in-house and send direct mail to anyone who ever signed a child up for a club program.

Newtown's marketing begins in the fall. Biernbaum calls all of the school districts to find out when their summer vacation begins. Then she decides when to kick off the camps. By the first week of January, her brochures are ready to go. This may seem extremely early, but Biernbaum points out that parents prefer to prepare sooner than later. "Most of the parents want to know what they are doing with their children in advance," she says.

Berman disagrees. She finds that many parents wait until the last minute to decide what to do with their kids. "When school ends, parents are frantic," she says. For that reason, Berman does whatever she can to accommodate them. If space allows, she'll still accept kids weeks after the camp has begun. She also begins her camp one week before other area camps start and keeps it going a week after other camps have finished; this capitalizes on the fact that parents need a place to take their kids.

Going an extra mile to help out parents can pay off. If the parents are nonmembers, your service may give them the incentive to join. And if their kids are happy with the camp, you may even wind up selling a family membership. This can add more revenue to the profits you pull in from the camp, which can be quite substantial in its own right. "[Our] camp itself makes $30,000 a year after all of our expenses," reports Flagstaff's Engel.

Before you can reach that level of profitability, however, you may need to try different approaches. Biernbaum had to rely on trial and error before she discovered that her clients were more interested in sports camps than day camps. "I've been here eight years," she says. "It took almost four years to figure out this was the way to go." That's why she suggests that clubs experiment with their camps and build something based on their strengths. If you do, you're sure to find yourself surrounded with happy campers.


Pooling Together

Not every camp program needs to take place on dry land. Some aquatic activities can give your campers much-needed variety.

At the Newtown Athletic Club, the pool provides an excellent break for the children in the sport camps. For example, the kids who are improving their roller-hockey skills can't be on skates all day, so they get time in the pool.

In addition to using aquatics for its own camps, Newtown rents out its pool to camps that don't have pools of their own. These camps use the pool for swimming lessons; Newtown also puts a floating, 60-foot obstacle course in the pool that the campers can play in.

The number of children the camps bring determines how much Newtown charges. This can really add up, since some camps bring multiple busloads.

In exchange for its fee, Newtown provides lifeguards and swim instructors. And since the camps bring their own counselors, the children are always safe.

While some clubs may be afraid that renting out their pools would displease their members, keep in mind that camps often take place during downtimes. At Newtown, the outside campers arrive at midday, when the pool is nearly empty. So if your pool sits still during the day, you may be able to earn a little extra cash with a summer rental.

- J.J.