Summer Camp Brokers Stake Out Costly Territory

TIMES STAFF WRITER

You've worked with real estate brokers. You've heard of yacht brokers. But are you ready for camp brokers?

Yes, the high-stakes world of high-end summer camps has breathed economic life into yet another urban profession.

Who would have thought summer camps that charge $1,000 a week would get as many bids as Westside homes at the peak of the market?

It is brokers such as Karenne Bloomgarden who help guide well-to-do Los Angeles parents through this brave nouveau world of drama camps, skateboard retreats--even "entrepreneurship" for fledgling capitalists--that is reshaping the landscape of summer camp.

Bloomgarden has become a national camp guru, and in the process, she has evolved into something of an amateur sociologist.

She can tell you about camps with landing strips where children step out of private planes. Camps where the children of European aristocrats are trailed by bodyguards. She tells of pampered little campers who balk at making the bed, and win leverage over less well-connected counselors by threatening litigation.

" 'I'll sue, I'll sue, I'll sue.' We have 6-, 7- and 8-year-olds who have been taught to threaten by parents," Bloomgarden said.

That is not Bloomgarden's cup of latte.

In fact, Bloomgarden says she tries to steer parents away from the opulent camp scene. Never mind that she counts the families of people like Hollywood deal-maker Michael Ovitz and software mogul Peter Norton among her past and present clients.

To Bloomgarden, camp for children of all backgrounds is about instilling values: grit, character and teamwork. And even some of her wealthiest clients ask for camps that are socially and racially mixed, "the way the world is," she said.

"If the parents want the neighbors to be impressed with the name of the camp they're sending the child to, they generally are missing out on some of the greatest benefits of the camp experience," she said. "Some of my most successful clients specifically do not want that kind of camp."

One of those clients is producer Carla Singer. Singer has her own production company that makes TV movies of the week.

"I'm a child of the '60s and all that means in raising my daughter," Singer said.

"It's about values. It's about, if you are privileged, not flaunting it. It's about trying to be egalitarian with other people and kids--even if you're a child of privilege. My daughter went to an Equal Rights Amendment march when she was 2 years old."

So when she consults on camps with Bloomgarden, "She'll say, 'That is not a camp for you,' knowing who I am," Singer said.

This year, Singer and her daughter Martine, 12, chose French Woods, a performing arts and circus camp in New York that will cost Singer close to $3,000 for three weeks. It offers horseback riding, theater and trapeze.

This array of amenities, unusual 20 years ago, is now common at specialty camps, places where voice coaches and drama instructors have replaced counselors who teach children to tie square knots.

Specialty Camps Evolved Over Time

In her 17 years in the business, Bloomgarden has watched this trend evolve, along with the proliferation of camp brokers, or as many prefer to be called, camp consultants, whose firms dot the East Coast from New York to Florida.

It's unclear just how many brokers there are, but Tips on Trips and Camps has 15 representatives, most of them in U.S. cities but also in China, Italy, France and Belgium, according to Los Angeles representative Murphy Litvack. Because of the international nature of her Westside clientele, Litvack also helps families in London and the Middle East find camps, she said.

Camp consultants such as Bloomgarden, who charges 7% to 15% of the camp fee, do the legwork many parents no longer have time to do. They meet with camp directors. They observe games and activities. They check out the children and general atmosphere.

Consulting a camp broker "does seem exotic," said Patty Shenker, a Pacific Palisades real estate investor who is married to a film location scout. But if she tried to find the right camp for their child, "the effort would have been unbelievable for me."

Parents who grew up in leaner circumstances are a little taken aback by today's camp options: private rooms for individual campers, unlimited calls home, or the practice of allowing children to select a menu of individual pursuits rather than group activities. One family flies their daughter's horse across the country with her.

Village Camps in Switzerland offers a film program designed by Canadian film director Jack Darcus. SuperCamp, based in Oceanside, sends 3,200 children to college campuses all over the world for a 10-day course that helps children build confidence, motivation, communication and learning skills for a fee of $1,895, plus air fare.

"Maybe richer kids went to these kinds of camps before," said Singer, the producer, "but I certainly never saw them."

Another surprise is the competition for space.

Singer put down deposits at French Woods and two other camps in January, "and I was already a bit late," she said. "Some camps are full-up in October. It's sort of like applying to college."

At the 15 or so most coveted camps, Bloomgarden says, 90% of the spots are already spoken for by children who attend each year.

If parents don't sign up by September, they may not get into camp for summer 2002, Bloomgarden said, adding, "This is the first year that is happening."

If her experience is common, that may be because there are more children in camp.

In the 1970s, 6 million to 7 million children went to camp; today there are 9 million or 10 million, said Connie Coutellier, director of professional development at the American Camping Assn., which accredits U.S. camps.

The increase mirrors the influx of women into the labor force and the children of America's latest baby boom, she said.

Competition is fierce at lower-priced camps, too, but today more Americans can afford expensive camps. Nearly 20% of American households now have annual incomes of $100,000 to $500,000, according to the U.S. census. These affluent ranks have risen 11% a year for five years.

To Susan Smith, an assistant professor in the School of Social Work at USC, the high-end camps further the national divide between the rich and poor.

"Summer used to be a time when kids mixed," Smith said. "Now they're driven off to their highly structured, highly segregated activities. It keeps children from interacting with children who are in different socioeconomic backgrounds or ethnicities."

Fancy Camps Not Always the Best

Experts caution that paying more does not necessarily mean that your child will have a better experience than one bunking at a $250-a-week Girl Scout camp.

"Having a camp that has an airstrip meets the needs of that parent, but it may not meet the needs of that child," Coutellier said. "Maybe it's a five-star hotel, but you really need to look at what they offer besides the amenities."

Hildy Hill, a producer married to a well-known Los Angeles film director, has used Bloomgarden as a camp scout for her two daughters for seven years, because she thinks the camp expert can sift the glitter from the gold.

Last summer, Bloomgarden found a camp for her daughter Joanna, 14, in which campers live on a boat that travels from one Caribbean island to the next for a month, learning to dive and sail. She said the camp, Broadreach, cost her about $4,000.

"Broadreach wants kids with very good values, not kids who want to be pampered," Hill said. "There are a lot of camps that are more manicured and country clubbish."

This year, her daughters are attending Med-O-Lark, an "artsy" retreat in Maine equipped with a sauna and a video-editing studio. The June 24-July 19 session goes for $3,295.

Bloomgarden "could have suggested a lot of very chichi places," Hill said. "But she didn't."

Bloomgarden's experiences in the world of postmodern camping have made her an insider social critic. She dispenses her opinions in the conspiratorial tone of a real estate agent who decries the ungainly but lucrative monster mansions she sells.

Take the world of expensive camps for "troubled teens."

"Many of them are for the wealthy, which is telling us something," she said. "A good percentage of our kids are not being raised by parents. They're being raised by caregivers, nannies and baby-sitters. Summer camp is that community that we've lost in the real world."

Nowadays, she notes, the camp experience often seems to revolve around status-driven parents.

Many wealthy parents, seeking new camps with novel experiences, discourage their children from returning to the same camp, preventing children from developing long-lasting relationships with other children, she said.

Some camps mirror parental networking. One exclusive program in Europe is open only to a handpicked clique of the children of extremely wealthy parents.

"The idea is, the future leaders of the world are making connections worldwide as teenagers," Bloomgarden said.

Parents of children with an exaggerated sense of entitlement are more inclined to insert themselves into camp life, she said.

At one of the camp training sessions Bloomgarden sometimes conducts, she encouraged counselors to insist that children participate in group activities and cleanup duty.

A counselor told her, "We can't do these things because the campers will call their parents and get the counselors fired."

There's more.

At one camp, a child had an accident and needed stitches. Before the camp director could contact the parents, they had airlifted their child home.

A European couple brought their two children to camp a week late. The mother cleaned the cabin and hovered for days.

"The kids were fine, having a great time, but the site was way too rustic for the parents," Bloomgarden said. "They called, faxed and drove us crazy."

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