Putting Down Stakes at the Family Camp

By April Hall

The sleep-away camp nurtures generations of families in two ways. Many camps are family-owned. On the flip side, there are many families who have sent multiple generations of youngsters to the same camp.

At Cheley Colorado Camps in Estes Park, Colo., boys and girls rock climb, ride horses and hike into the mountains.

Jeff Cheley, a fourth-generation member who shares executive director duties with his sister, Brooke Cheley-Klebe, says he grew up at the family’s camp and is proud to keep the business going.

“There’s a lot of campers whose parents I went to camp with,” Cheley says. “It’s a family tradition thing. We call it a ‘mixed family’ when one parent went to camp [elsewhere] and one went to Cheley. They have to decide where their kids are going to go.”

And because owners and campers alike love tradition, little has changed over the years.

“Campers are still riding trails and hiking in the woods,” Cheley says. “Technology is not impacting the experience too much.

“One of the pressures we have is that one of the main reasons they’re sending their kids to our camp is to have the same experiences they did.”

Even so, technology now plays a role. Cheley says it’s more “behind the scenes” in operations, like being able to track where hiking parties are with GPS or making it possible for campers to call back to base if someone gets injured or falls behind.

The American Camp Association told Family Business in 2005 that 22% of accredited camps were family-owned. A spokeswoman said this week the statistic has not been updated since that time.

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Cheley says that families often hold on to their camps for generations not to make a mint, but for the lifestyle and atmosphere.

“There are a couple of larger corporations buying camps. Sometimes that next generation is ready to be done or not making ends meet,” Cheley says.

“There’s no real economy of scale for a camp. A lot of people are in camping because they have a passion for it, but the financials may not be as appealing as some industries.”

The fifth generation is currently bustling with Cheley’s three sons, ages 4, 6 and 8, and Cheley-Klebe’s three daughters, ages 5, 9 and 11.

The boys are too young for camp at this point – campers start at age 9 – but Cheley says his oldest is champing at the bit.

“Our oldest son would start camp tomorrow if we would let him, but we’re keeping the rules for us just as we would for anyone else.“

Might he take over the camp someday?

“I would love it. He even talks about it; he’s a ‘camp kid’ to his core,” Cheley says. “He already talks about what he wants to do when he runs the camp.”