Summer camps welcome surge in reservations with industry optimistic about the season

Summer camp owners and families in southwestern Ontario are hoping to return to in-person programming after what was a bleak summer without for many. Day camps can run, but overnight camp is another story, contingent on whether or not camps get the green light from the provincial government to run. 

Day camps can run, but overnight camps awaiting government stamp of approval

A campfire glows orange, with a lake in the backrgound.
A cozy campfire glows just after dark on Lake Joseph in Ontario's Muskoka Region. More than 400,000 children attend more than 450 summer camps in Ontario every season in what's estimated to be a $630 million business. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

Summer camp owners and families in southwestern Ontario are hoping to return to in-person programming after what was a bleak summer last year. 

Some businesses say they're planning to open up for day camps. Overnight camps are another story, contingent on whether or not they get the green light from the provincial government to run.

"Overnight camp is kind of a dream and a hope right now," said Nigel Tracy, general manager of Circle R Ranch in Delaware, Ont. "But we do need to start planning it if it's going to run." 

To date, camp staff have been ironing out the details for reopening their day camp program this summer. It didn't run last year — the summer of 2020 was the first in 65 years that the family-run business didn't have a camp season due to pandemic restrictions.

But with the hope that the government will reach a timely decision on allowing overnight camps, the ranch is taking tentative reservations. 

"There's a real surge in interest for outdoor activities and experiences in general," said Tracy, adding Circle R ran a popular cross-country skiing program this winter for Londoners that sold out on more than one occasion.

General manager Nigel Tracy said the ranch plans to hold out as long as they can for a decision from the government, but the sooner it comes the better. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

The business is now seeing a greater than normal surge of tentative bookings for overnight camps, with many of their sessions already full after opening the reservation system two weeks ago. 

"We're seeing a lot of that same excitement for overnight camp," said Tracy.

Forest Cliff Camp near Kettle Point is experiencing a similar spike in tentative bookings. As of last week, the Lambton Shores summer camp had seen more than 1,550 campers reserve a spot — what the camp's executive director Tyler Shaule said was 70 per cent of the camp's historical capacity.

Camps association optimistic overnight camps will run

Both camps are accredited by the Ontario Camps Association (OCA), a non-profit that represents over 450 camps across the province that commit to meeting government regulations.

The OCA has already published health and safety day camp guidelines for 2021 and is running virtual training sessions on managing COVID-19 risks. Those guidelines point to a focus on hand hygiene, outdoor activities and smaller group settings. 

Some camps are better equipped to meet the criteria than others, said Thomas Appleyard, a member of the OCA's COVID-19 task force. Last year, some day camps managed to operate, providing this year's day and overnight camps with a case study on how to run safely.

For overnight camps, the non-profit has been working closely with public health and the provincial government to establish protocols. Every camp wants to open, as long as they can do it safely, said Jack Goodman, the task force's chair.

"We're on the edge of our seat," he said," and we're optimistic that overnight camps will find their way to open and operate responsibly and carefully." 

Last year, many summer camps lost a year's worth of revenue that Goodman said they'll never be able to recoup.

The public health guidance relating to overnight summer camps is currently under review. The OCA says it's working with the government to see camps re-enter the province's COVID-19 response framework and anticipate more information will become available later this month.