Steven Sudduth is the owner and co-director of Wyonegonic Camps in Denmark, which was founded in 1901 and purchased by his parents in 1969. The camp for girls on Moose Pond operates from late June to mid-August, and about 190 campers attend, roughly half of whom attend for the whole eight-week season. Sudduth said there are about 85 employees in the summer when camp is in session, and six mostly full-time, year-round employees who spend the off season opening and closing the camp, promoting the business, recruiting summer workers and communicating with current and former campers and families. Sudduth, who was just elected president of the American Camp Association, New England, joined the family business in 1993 after graduating from the University of Vermont and spending seven years with Keystone Resort in Colorado.
Q: What’s the state of the summer camp industry?
A: Healthy, but cautious. We’re out there, but we are still seeking the visibility (associated with being) part of the youth development process. In Maine, we’re at about 200 licensed camps in the state. Over time there has been shrinkage – 40 years ago there were probably 400 licensed camps.
Q: It would seem to be a pretty difficult business to get into.
A: There are restrictions, based on land and waterfront property. Camps exist because back at the turn of the century, there was a need to get city kids outside, and waterfront property back in the day wasn’t considered choice because there wasn’t timber to harvest. It’s not like the number (of camps) is going to grow, but we hope to have growth in the quality.
Q: It seems like kids aren’t going to camp as long as they used to.
A. It used to be an all-summer event and many of us in the residential camping end of it ran eight-week programs that eventually became seven-week programs and over time, became shorter sessions. Many of the traditional residential camps that were seven or eight weeks now offer half of that, four-week or three-week sessions that go back to back. We have a family camp after our camp (session) for kids. It’s not for a family vacation, it’s a marketing opportunity to promote the camp: Come to Wyonegonic to learn what camp might be like in Maine. It gives you a sense of what happens. Some camps in Maine run family camps and some, like me, use it as a marketing tool.
Q: There seem to be a lot of camps that focus on specific activities. Is that happening in Maine? And what about at Wyonegonic Camps?
A: There are specialty camps – some that focus on a sports program or an arts program or something very specific – and others that maintain the traditional variety.
Our physical property is waterfront-based and the kids choose an activity on a weekly basis, with swimming lessons and sailing and windsurfing, tennis and archery, dance, drama, music and horseback riding. You run the gamut, and the hope is to provide some things that kids can try perhaps for the first time or things they wouldn’t do at home, maybe because of peer pressure. We offer a lot of different activities. We feel that’s a component of life skills for communication and participating and cooperating with others, rather than just being an individual. The tennis court, for instance, is just a component of teaching those skills. We also offer out-of-camp experiences, like running the Allagash River.
Q: How many of the kids who come to your camp are the children of people who went to your camp 20 years ago?
A: In our case, it’s very common. Our best ambassadors are the families that have been with us. We might hear, “my mom went there,” “my great-aunt went there,” or “my grandfather went to Camp Winona,” our brother camp (for boys) on the lake. Those kinds of combinations are very common and we get kids from 30 states and 11 countries on average.
Q: What are the difficulties you face, including the fact that you operate for a very short period of time each year?
A: It’s a very confined piece of time, but you operate when attendance is available. There are models out there trying to change that, but in general, you’re dealing with a 12-week window. There are regulatory pressures, like immigration issues for international staff and just the burdens placed on small businesses with one fee or another. It can be challenging to some; a lot of how you withstand it is based on the size of your business. There are issues with transportation, out West there are issues with access to public lands, and there are other challenges that apply to everybody in the private sector. And tax reform in Maine has been an issue. A service tax could eventually sweep up the concept of a tax on tuition and that would put us at a severe disadvantage with other states nearby.
But there are some positives, like a group of Maine camps that collaboratively promote themselves together as the Maine Camp Experience. It’s a moving target with the ebb and flow of how many children participate, but we have a unique industry that it is collaborative in its thinking. We compete with each other, but we’re not competitors in some respects because each of us has a unique property and we’re all slightly different.
Q: How difficult is it to wrest the cellphones and iPads from kids?
A: I’m not going to say it’s easy, but it happens and it happens at the beginning. I’m not going to say there’s not mop-up work, but something magical happens when you don’t have access to an electrical outlet: eventually the batteries run out.
Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: