Date published: September 28th, 2017 | By James
If you’re reading this, you’re likely in somewhat of a state of bewilderment. 3 families have (in some capacity) owned Longacre for its entire 43 year existence, and now 3 new families will own it. I’d love to spell out who we are, why we bought Longacre, and what our intentions are for Longacre going forward.
Let’s start with who we are, and then I’ll get in to why we appeared in a puff of smoke and decided to purchase Longacre from Matt and Louise.
Who we are
Since I’m writing this, I suppose I’ll introduce myself first. My name is James Davis. My wife Taylor and I have three boys ages 1, 5, and 7. I believe in summer camp because, quite simply, it changed my life.
When I first went to camp as a teenager, I met other young people who loved me for who I was. Heck, they helped me discover who I was. An incredible counselor of mine took this a step further, and convinced me that I could potentially create the same magic that had so changed my life. I was skeptical, but decided to give it a shot. I wound up working at that camp for 8 summers (meeting Taylor along the way), ultimately serving as the Summer Program Director before I convinced myself that I needed to “grow up.”
Well, I wasn’t the greatest at growing up at first. I played poker professionally for 7 years, and my camp work was relegated to serving on the board of directors at the camp where I grew up. My wife taught at a private elementary school in Princeton, NJ during this time. We had our first son in 2010, and decided to finally grow up for good. We took a job running a small summer camp in Upstate New York, and ultimately were able to grow that camp from about 190 campers per summer to 467 campers in our final summer. While we loved that chapter in our lives, rural upstate NY was not going to be our “forever home,” and we decided to dream on other possibilities.
Right before our last summer there, I met Jack Schott (one of our other business partners in purchasing Longacre). He and his partner Laura had just gotten done visiting more than 200 summer camps across the country. With a combined age under 50, they had more knowledge about what was working at camps across the country than anyone in the world. They were (and still are) sought after speakers at all of the major camping conferences in the United States, and had started a well trafficked website to share their experiences (Camping Coast to Coast). We all hit it off, and decided to work together in the summer of 2014.
We had a terrific time, but realized would never be able to fully realize our vision in working at camp while working for others, so we decided to start a new camp. We launched Camp Stomping Ground in the summer of 2015, and by 2017 we had just under 400 campers attend. With the help of 3 other camp professionals, we also launched Go Camp Pro, a continuing education platform for camp professionals of all ages and experiences. To supplement our somewhat meager early camp income, Jack, Laura, and I continued to speak at conferences around the country, worked as camp consultants for a number of camps, and even traveled to several camps to perform staff trainings. Jack and Laura launched Bat Fish Creations to help camps with their digital presence and design, and Jack created The Summer Camp Society to help young camping professionals become the best version of themselves that they could be. He and Laura are the current directors of Stomping Ground.
Our third partner, Doug Norrie, is a lifelong camp person (who also happens to be my best friend). He is married to his wife Sabrina (who happens to be my wife’s best friend), has a 6 year old daughter, and is expecting another child this winter. We met at Camp Johnsonburg in NJ in 1998, and worked together until he ultimately worked there year round as the Assistant Program Director.
After working at Johnsonburg, he spent 13 years working as an elementary school teacher and realtor in New Jersey (and serving as a board member for Johnsonburg), before he created an advanced sports-centered statistical modeling system that we’d ultimately sell access to as a part of a current business venture of ours, DFSR. DFSR is the business that earned the money we needed to feel comfortable venturing into the space of purchasing another camp, and we have Doug’s ingenious, analytical, and data-driven mind to thank for that.
Doug will continue operations as the lifeblood of DFSR while Jack and I focus more of our attention to serve as the effective board (and interim directors until we hire someone) of Longacre. He will also lend his expertise in helping us to determine which business decisions have been working and which we need to work on, which campers we could better serve (based on our retention figures), and powering out all of the day to day decisions that are just better when someone with his grasp of numbers has an eye on them.
So why did we buy this camp?!
Well, we discovered Longacre was for sale somewhat by accident. Matt had made an anonymous post on a seldom trafficked ACA forum where people can list camps for sale. Jack had independently sent Matt a message without my even knowing about it because he was interested in touring the facility as a potential future home for Stomping Ground. Meanwhile, I had been approached by a large institutional investor in NYC about managing a portion of his fund that was going to invest in summer camps, and had messaged a number of camps about potential acquisition.
All of that changed when we realized the camp in question was Longacre. I immediately texted Jack, “Man – that camp for sale is Longacre!”
You see, Jack and I had known about Longacre for years. As I mentioned, Jack had toured the country visiting camps of all kinds, and Longacre was truly one of a kind. From crew, to group, to its technology policy, to the seamless integration of its farm, Longacre is somewhat “famous” in camp circles. I’m sure that to many of you Longacre is just “camp,” the place you or your teen has called home during the summers. You may appreciate it, or have a sense for how unique it is, but unlike many people who think that about their very normal camp, it’s actually true.
I excitedly approached the investor – “THIS is a camp worth investing in!” He gave me the go-ahead to investigate, so Doug, Jack, and I came out to observe a day of mini-camp, meet the campers and staff, and see if Longacre lived up to the reputation it had. It mostly certainly did.
I called the investor again, and he was interested, but at a price point that wasn't going to get the deal done. All of a sudden, this felt a whole lot more real than an abstract “let’s find some camps, fix them up, and make some money!” plan.
Jack, Doug, and I got on a conference call to discuss it. We didn’t have the money to purchase the business and the property, but we really believed in the business.
What’s more, we really believe in Longacre. You see, as people with our finger on the pulse of the camping industry, we’ve observed an unsettling trend. Way more camps close every year than open. For every Stomping Ground that gets launched, 10 small camps close after struggling to make ends meet. As time passes, there are fewer and fewer organizations that are dedicated to helping kids get out of doors and learn to love themselves a little harder.
And that’s just regular old camps. Longacre closing would be a travesty. While it’s sad when any camp closes, Longacre closing would be like losing the only living member of an endangered species. Not only did Longacre have a unique place in the camping industry, it also had really special people. The mini-campers we met were out of this world. There were young people glowingly explaining to us how they loved to chip in on cleaning the animals’ pens, how they loved helping do dishes, and how they loved learning to communicate with one another.
No, we decided, we couldn’t just walk away from this. We had to come up with something else.
We called Matt and Louise and explained our situation.
We were interested in moving forward without the investor, contingent upon the following terms:
1) We needed Louise. We believed (and still believe!) that Louise is a one of a kind force in camping (again, as people who are qualified to make that claim). Her unique mix of warmth, strength, community connections, and knowledge of operations would be impossible to replace in a time of transition. If she was out, we were out.
2) We’d buy the business, and lease the property for as long as Longacre was in existence. This would leave us the working capital to make some much needed improvements (more on those in a minute), and have enough cash on hand to invest in good opportunities for the camp as they arose, rather than having to wait until Spring when more campers signed up.
3) The would-be investor was out, but we were in. We’d put our money and time on the line to make this work. We believe in Longacre’s rich tradition and one of a kind program, and we also believe in our ability to fine tune the business itself.
Well, our little group and the then-owners of Longacre had a meeting of the minds. Louise (who will be sharing her feelings soon) was in to stay, Matt and his family were moving on to Wisconsin, but all of us would do whatever we could to give Longacre the maximum possible chance to exist in perpetuity. We’ve seen nothing but wonderful things from both Matt and Louise as they’ve helped us try and figure this out.
So what will Longacre be like going forward?
You read the part about how much we loved Longacre, right? Longacre will be like Longacre going forward.
As for specifics, our plan is to spend the next several months speaking to as many families and campers as humanly possible to continue to learn what makes Longacre tick. I’ve already had the opportunity to speak to a number of families, and I’m blown away by this community already. Each person I’ve talked to has been thoughtful, brilliant, and welcoming, and I can’t wait to get to know more of you.
As we get to know the Longacre family, we will also be hiring a full time director to work alongside Louise. We have put out feelers among our personal contacts and reach out to the broader camp community and have already fielded about 40 resumes. We have some FANTASTIC candidates that we’re interviewing, and Jack mentioned to me today how sad it is that we can only hire one of them. We can’t wait to introduce whomever we hire to you, though this process might take up to a month. We’ll certainly keep you in the loop there.
Once a director is hired, we will come together as a team (the director, Louise, Jack, Doug, and I) and go through Longacre’s programmatic offerings with a fine toothed comb to make sure our offerings are meeting the needs and desires of our community.
The core of Longacre will go on as you have recognized it. The farmers will choose their own activities, each individual at camp will be accountable to the community to make sure camp can run (via Crew), we will facilitate intentional discussions between community members so they can learn to advocate for themselves and give and receive feedback of all stripes, and we will maintain the rustic charm and farm-centered community that people have enjoyed for decades.
We do hope to add some of the things we’ve learned along the way that can make camp even more fun and engaging. While we are dedicated to offering as deep a growth opportunity as Longacre has been in the past, we are very confident that we can add things that will help teens and mini-campers enjoy their time at Longacre even more.
We have also developed a prioritized list of facilities improvements that we will begin breaking ground on right away. Louise has been in discussions with local contractors about replacing “Clive,” the unfortunately smelly Clivus Multrum toilets near the cabins, with fully functioning flush toilets. These will be in place by next summer. We also have plans to improve upon the dining facility, and perhaps even make the on-site pool swimmable by next summer. These are currently “reach” plans, but could happen if we meet our more aggressive enrollment goals (or we find some other way to finance them).
We hope that the facilities improvements and the other activities we can add to Longacre just improve the context where the magic really happens at Longacre – the interactions between the people there. We will not do anything to jeopardize this essence of Longacre, and take the preservation of the spirit as Longacre as seriously as we can given that we haven’t actually been on site for a whole summer.
Where do we go from here?
Well, if you’ve made it this far, you really care about this place. If that’s the case, I figure you might be interested in talking with one of our team. Louise has been chatting with camp families around the clock, and both Jack and I are available to talk to anyone that is interested. We hope to talk with farmers, parents, supporters, alumni, staff, really anyone who cares about Longacre.
We are also very open to feedback and support. I’ve seen incredible things come from camp communities who rally around transition.
If you’re interested in chatting, helping out, or asking questions, don’t hesitate to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.