How to Start a Summer Camp in 14 Steps (In-Depth Guide)

Updated: February 22, 2024 is reader-supported. When you buy through links on my site, we may earn an affiliate commission. Learn more

The summer camp industry has seen steady growth over the last 5 years. According to a report by IBISWorld, the market size of the industry was $16 billion in 2018, up 1.9% from the previous year. With increasing disposable incomes and more dual-income households, parents are opting to send their kids to summer camps while they work.


When starting a summer camp business, there are a few key things you need to consider. This includes researching potential locations, hiring qualified staff, as well as designing fun and educational programs for campers. You’ll also need to think about amenities and activities offered based on the target customer segment.

This guide will walk you through how to start a summer camp. Topics include market research, competitive analysis, registering an EIN, obtaining business insurance, customer focus, and more.

1. Conduct Summer Camp Market Research

Market research is essential to start a summer camp program. Research offers insight into your target market, how to vet camp counselors, whether to choose a youth camp, day camp, or sleepaway camp, and more.


Some details you’ll learn through market research for your own summer camp include:

  • A major driver stimulating this growth is rising household incomes and dual-career families.
  • With median household income now exceeding pre-recession levels, more parents can afford premium services like summer camps.
  • Furthermore, with over 60% of households having both parents working, there is greater demand for supervised summer activities.
  • Expanding demand is also attributed to perceptions of summer camps providing social, emotional, and physical benefits.
  • With increased focus on youth development, summer camps are viewed as more than just childcare services.
  • Most camps tend to be small operations, with under $1 million in revenue.
  • Based on demographics, certain customer segments present the greatest opportunities.
  • Specialty camps focused on sports, arts or academics are also gaining traction.

The key to success in your own camp will be identifying a profitable niche, securing financing for initial investments, hiring exceptional staff, and continually enhancing the program based on customer feedback. With proper execution, there is sizable potential to develop a thriving camp business.

2. Analyze the Competition

Understanding the competitive landscape is crucial when starting a summer camp business. This analysis should evaluate both local brick-and-mortar rivals as well as the online presence of competitors.

To analyze nearby camps, try the following:

  • Drive around the local area to identify other successful summer camp facilities.
  • Speak with parents and researching community message boards can provide insights on perceived strengths and weaknesses.
  • Monitoring the social media of competitors can also showcase program offerings and enrollment rates.
  • Reviewing the websites of rival camps allows comparison in areas like pricing, staff qualifications, and curriculums.
  • Enrollment figures or waitlist status can indicate demand levels.
  • Industry reports from firms like IBISWorld and Statista benchmark performance metrics like profit margins, wages, and number of enterprises.
  • Online tools like Google Trends showcase search volume and seasonality patterns.
  • Social media sites provide broader visibility into parent feedback and satisfaction.
  • Rating sites like Yelp track customer reviews over time.
  • Analyzing all these data points allows camp entrepreneurs to identify potential gaps to fill and opportunities to differentiate.

Regularly evaluating the competition ensures strategic decisions are backed by marketplace realities rather than speculation or guesswork. Useful insights can elevate marketing, operations, and budgeting well beyond rival day camps.

3. Costs to Start a Summer Camp Business

When starting a summer camp, there are a variety of one-time start-up costs to consider before opening for your first season. These expenses lay the foundation for daily operations and delivery of your programs.

Start-up Costs

  • Facility – Leasing an existing site costs around $4,000-$5,000 per month depending on size and amenities included.
  • Staff – Plan for $8,000+ to bring on and prepare the necessary team.
  • Programming – Developing the various activities for campers comes with upfront costs as well. For example, an outdoor adventure camp may spend $3,000-$5,000 outfitting with kayaks, tents, etc.
  • Permits/Insurance – Securing proper business licenses, permits, and insurance will tally another ~$3,000 in start-up fees but reduce operational risk.
  • Marketing – Getting the word out about a new camp requires an initial $5,000+ marketing budget for items like brochures, web design, search ads, and signage.
  • Miscellaneous – Other common start-up costs range from office equipment ($2,000) to legal/accounting services ($1,500) for proper business formation.

In total, starting a well-equipped summer camp with a capacity for 200 kids could require over $100,000 in launch investment, not counting real estate.

Ongoing Costs

On the flip side, once opened, overnight camps face a variety of ongoing monthly and annual expenses tied to regular operations. These include:

  • Rent/Mortgage – For leased sites, plan on that same ~$4k-$5k monthly. Mortgage payments could tally $3,500 per month for a $500k loan over 30 years.
  • Payroll – This will likely be the largest continual cost, with summer staff wages alone ranging from $50k for 10-15 positions. Include payroll processing fees.
  • Insurance – Expect to budget $10,000 per year for necessary policies to stay protected. Expanded programs or specialty activities may increase premiums.
  • Equipment/Gear – Anticipate ongoing costs for incidentals, repairs, and consumable items that enable activities. An average 200-kid campground may budget $1,500/month for this.
  • Facilities – Especially when leasing, factor in routine maintenance and utilities which could reach $3,000/month primarily in the operating summer months.
  • Administration – Year-round costs for aspects like accounting, licensing fees, and office expenses usually fall around $500-$1,000 per month.
  • Marketing – To attract campers annually, continue investing 4-6% of revenue into advertising, social media, and outreach campaigns.

By planning for both the major start-up costs as well as ongoing operational expenses, new summer camp entrepreneurs can launch and sustain a thriving business. Astute financial planning and cost control will be vital.

4. Form a Legal Business Entity

Before opening summer camp registration, selecting the right legal structure is key. The four primary options each have distinct advantages and disadvantages to weigh.

Sole Proprietorship

A sole proprietorship is the simplest but risky form. It involves a single owner operating under his/her name without a separate entity. Set-up is fast and inexpensive, but the owner assumes unlimited liability for debts and legal issues. This poses a major risk given exposure to children.


Partnerships allow multiple owners to share operations. Profits/losses are also distributed across partners. However, similar to sole proprietors, partners see unlimited personal liability making it generally unsuitable for camps.

Limited Liability Company (LLC)

Conversely, a limited liability company (LLC) helps shield personal assets from business obligations while avoiding double taxation. Start-up costs more but an LLC brings liability protections well-suited for camp operations. It also enables adding new co-owners smoothly.


A corporation also provides liability safeguards but faces double taxation. More paperwork makes corporations better suited once camps scale up. At early stages, LLC status is often preferable. Corporations are strong but expensive and have a lengthy application process.

5. Register Your Business For Taxes

An Employer Identification Number (EIN), also known as a federal tax ID number, uniquely identifies your summer camp business to the IRS. It functions similarly to a Social Security Number for individuals but is mandatory for any type of legal business entity including LLCs, corporations, and even sole proprietors with employees.

Even camps without paid workers often still need an EIN for handling taxes, banking, or licensing purposes. Having an EIN establishes business credit which can be useful when financing growth.

The good news is applying for an EIN is quick, free, and can even be completed online via the IRS website. The streamlined form asks for basic information like ownership structure, contact details, and responsible parties. An EIN can be obtained on the spot.

To apply, simply:

  1. Have owner identification ready like SSN or existing EIN if applying for an entity you already own
  2. Navigate to the IRS EIN Assistant
  3. Answer questions about your summer camp’s legal and ownership structure
  4. Provide contact information and specifics about your camp
  5. Get your EIN immediately upon submitting

In addition to a federal EIN, summer camps should register for any licenses or sales tax permits required in your state. Unlike the EIN, these may have nominal fees but are crucial for full legal compliance. Be sure to investigate whenever relocating camps across state lines.

Properly establishing your EIN and related state tax IDs may seem tedious but helps avoid major legal and tax headaches when operating a camp over the long term. The process is fast, free, and straightforward for most simple structures like LLCs.

6. Setup Your Accounting

Running a summer camp involves significant financial transactions from tuition payments to supplies, payroll, and more. Keeping clean books and accurate records is imperative for success. This makes leveraging technology plus external accounting support invaluable.

Accounting Software

For camps, proper accounting software helps track enrollment registrations and deposits across sessions. It also allocates expenses like food service and activity supplies to calculate true session profitability. Tight integration with bank feeds through solutions like QuickBooks simplifies reconciliation and reporting.

Hire an Accountant

Accountants offer expanded tax planning insights, ensure filings are error-free, and can represent camps during audits if they still were to occur. Their expertise is well worth the $150-$300 monthly investment.

Open a Business Bank Account

When launching a camp, also implement a dedicated business checking account strictly for deposits and disbursements. Keeping these transactions separated from personal finances simplifies reporting and prevents co-mingling which also raises IRS scrutiny during reviews.

Apply for a Business Credit Card

Adopting a business credit card locked to the unique tax ID streamlines tracking. It also helps build initial credit. Issuers like Capital One Spark provide cards to newer businesses based primarily on personal credit scores and income levels of owners initially. Limits grow in line with business growth.

7. Obtain Licenses and Permits

Before welcoming the first campers, it is crucial new summer camp businesses apply for necessary licenses. Find federal license information through the U.S. Small Business Administration. The SBA also offers a local search tool for state and city requirements.

One major license to secure is a food handler/safety certification if providing meals and snacks onsite for campers. Both owners and staff involved in prep or serving require accredited training in safe storage, prep, and contamination avoidance. Certifications must stay current through refresher courses. Non-compliance risks health violations and fines.

Camps serving as transportation providers between central pick-up locations and camp facilities also need US DOT registration and compliant buses meeting safety requirements like seat belts and emergency exits. Drivers may require commercial licenses and vehicle insurance. Overlooked transportation approvals threaten children’s safety and lead to steep sanctions.

Specialized camp activities also often necessitate permits like those for swimming, archery, and ropes courses. Trained lifeguards with CPR certification must actively supervise pools. Archery and challenge course gear must undergo a third-party safety inspection before opening. State-specific waivers are also required from all guardians.

Depending on location, enhanced background checks and fingerprinting for all staff including counselors and volunteers may be mandatory as well. Many states prohibit those with records of violence, drugs, or sex offenses from working with children regardless of position. Owners can face charges for negligence.

Insurance policies will also mandate site visits to issue final certificates showing all standards met from facilities to emergency protocols before doors officially open. Planning early enables addressing gaps.

8. Get Business Insurance

Given the hands-on nature of summer camp operations, having proper insurance is imperative to financial preservation. Various policies help safeguard against major loss events that could otherwise sink camps lacking protection.

Without adequate liability coverage, incidents from food-borne illnesses to child injuries/accidents quickly create massive legal exposures. Six-figure settlements are common with serious bodily damage. Standard policies with a $1 million minimum per occurrence are essential.

Likewise, the lack of properly structured property insurance leaves facilities and expensive specialty gear vulnerable to storms, fires, floods, and theft. Just one major event could require extensive, out-of-pocket repairs or full replacement of destroyed assets. Camps may never financially recover.

Another consideration is business interruption insurance providing some income replacement when forced closures from covered events occur. This helps offset ongoing expenses despite zero revenues coming in while rebuilding facilities/operations.

The optimal approach for securing appropriate policies involves first documenting all current camp assets and projected programs. This outlines coverage requirements. Next, connecting with a qualified commercial insurance broker streamlines comparing plans from top-rated providers like The Hartford or Travelers. Brokers simplify securing tailored protection at affordable premiums.

9. Create an Office Space

Operating summer camps generates substantial administrative work from enrollment processing to supply ordering/inventory and staff management. Having a dedicated office area for securely accessing camper records, managing calls/emails and planning programs is extremely beneficial.

Home Office

A home office offers a convenient and low-cost option for small summer camps run by home-based childcare centers. Expect around $100 per month for items like storage, supplies, and utilities specific to the office area used exclusively for camp work. Taxes get more complicated.

Coworking Office

For more collaborative environments, co-working spaces like WeWork provide flexible access to office infrastructure, conference rooms, and administrative support starting around $300 monthly. However, privacy restrictions related to sensitive camper data may be problematic in public spaces.

Commercial office

A small standalone office may warrant the greatest investment upfront but enables designing the layout solely focused on camp needs. Commercial spaces average $1-2 per square foot in monthly rent plus around $10 per square foot. for initial build-out costs. Multi-year leases are often required for the most favorable terms.

10. Source Your Equipment

Successfully delivering summer programs requires having the right mix of facilities, gear, and supplies on hand. For new camps, equipping everything from office technology to activity stations with limited startup budgets is key. Multiple acquisition approaches exist.

Buy New

When buying new, specialty retailers like Campmor offer one-stop access to common items like tents, sleeping bags, mess kits, sports gear, and apparel at bulk pricing. An estimated $15k can outfit a 50-person camp. Big box stores also work for basic tools and craft materials.

Buy Used

Gently used goods via Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace and eBay help stretch dollars further. Expect 50%+ discounts off retail prices. Create saved searches and monitor new listings for the greatest availability as demand is high. Vet sellers thoroughly and inspect items before purchasing.

Rented and Leased

For more intermittent needs or trialing new activities, leased and rented equipment brings flexibility. National companies offer specialty activity rentals from climbing walls to waterslides with delivery/pickup. Basic packages start at around $150 daily.

11. Establish Your Brand Assets

Developing a recognizable brand identity helps summer camps stand out while fostering trust and familiarity with parents selecting programs. A strategic approach to core brand assets makes connecting with and converting ideal customers easier over time.

Get a Business Phone Number

Acquiring a unique phone line via providers like RingCentral centralizes communications while presenting a professional image from initial outreach onward. Call routing, voicemail, and SMS capabilities keep sales momentum strong.

Design a Logo

A custom logo also helps camps stick in parents’ minds. Services like Looka translate summer memories into iconography for stationery, signage, apparel, and websites. Bright palette logos resonate across kids and adults choosing camps.

Print Business Cards

Professionally designed business cards from Vistaprint then make staff identifiable while simplifying referrals during community networking or school visits. Table banners and fliers extend visibility at local events and school fairs where many enrollment decisions happen.

Get a Domain Name

A domain name is an important part of any new business. It helps consumers find you and recognize your brand. Securing matching domain names via Namecheap then provides a modern storefront where families review programs.

Design a Website

A website is a must-have for any new day or overnight camp. Building sites through user-friendly platforms like Wix or custom development via marketplaces like Fiverr conveys expertise in delivering specialized offerings. This drives enrollments.

12. Join Associations and Groups

While running summer camps is deeply rewarding, creating well-rounded programs, hiring exceptional staff and keeping facilities compliant takes knowledge and insight. Connecting with industry peers both locally and nationwide accelerates growth by learning best practices.


Local Associations

Joining accredited associations like the American Camp Association (ACA) and state-level groups provides access to operations benchmarks, staff training, and discounts on gear. Meetings also enable networking with regional owners to trade insights on marketing, activities, or vendor relations unique to your area.

Local Meetups

Attending local small business trade shows via sites like Meetup showcases innovations and service partners tailored for camps. Many events also feature seminars on legal compliance, insurance, accounting basics, and other critical back-office facets beyond front-line programming.

Facebook Groups

Peer discussion boards like the Summer Camp Professionals 2.0 with 602K members offer round-the-clock access. Join national operators for troubleshooting, idea sharing, and trend spotting. Leveraging real owners accelerates solutions.

13. How to Market a Summer Camp Business

Implementing ongoing marketing is pivotal for summer camps to fill sessions year after year through positive word-of-mouth and supplemental programs awareness building. Tailored outreach conveying the life memories created taps into motivated parent groups seeking meaningful summer experiences for their children.

Referral Marketing

As an inherently social and relationship-based business, prioritizing referral growth from delighted families remains invaluable. Offering loyalty discounts for trusted referrals or complimentary extra sessions for the friend they brought in incentivizes more recommendations. This personal advocacy sells.

Digital Marketing

On the digital side, several efficient customer acquisition channels should be leveraged to sustain awareness and enrollments:

  • Google Ads geo-targeting local searchers of kids’ summer activities to convey specialized programming
  • Facebook/Instagram ads spotlighting photos/videos of fun offerings to reach regional parents
  • Email nurture sequences that build anticipation for summer and highlight registration windows
  • Collection of video testimonials showing impactful camper experiences to publish on-site/Social
  • Summer prep informational blog updated 2x/a month to assist decision making decision-making

Traditional Marketing

Secondary channels providing additional exposure include:

  • Sponsoring a local youth sports team or community event to gain visibility
  • Running a summertime radio promotion for a free extra half-day session at camp
  • Leveraging printed yard signs around schools/youth hotspots before and during prime enrollment
  • Occasional direct mail postcards to existing network announcing new themes/activities

The blend of word-of-mouth, digital, and select traditional outreach focuses attention on the life-enhancing camp offerings best matching each child’s needs. This multi-channel approach meets families however they research and elevates familiarity across the community.

14. Focus on the Customer

In the competitive summer camp industry, delivering exceptional customer service can be the difference maker when parents select programs for their children. How staff and ownership treat campers directly, communicate with parents, and resolve issues builds loyalty that fuels referrals year after year.


Consider an example scenario where a first-time 9-year-old camper becomes homesick and anxious two days into a 2-week overnight adventure program. If counselors spot this early and update the parents while providing extra nurturing and encouragement, the child could go on to have an amazing experience overall.

If signs get ignored and the situation escalates, early pick-up and a poorer perception of camp occur. Though refunds or discounts may be provided, disappointed families will be unlikely to return or refer others.

Yet when handled effectively out of genuine care, camps create promotors instead. Thankful parents have straightforward stories to share locally about how the camp compassionately supports children through challenges. This compelling advocacy convinces many nearby families to enroll for years to come.

With so many options competing for a finite summer window, delivering thoughtful care, energy, and communication from the staff at all levels inspires the trust that builds enrollment momentum and longer-term loyalty. The camp experience itself convinces families, but the customer service experience convinces entire communities.

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