The pandemic tested Michael Rouse. The CEO and cofounder of ESF Inc., a Bryn Mawr-based company that runs day camps in five states that include Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Maryland, and Connecticut, Rouse saw the company he founded as a teenager teeter on the edge of collapse.
In the confusing early days of the coronavirus outbreak last year, Rouse, 53, grappled with canceling the summer camp season. When he eventually announced that the summer plans would be shelved, he came under intense scrutiny from critics for a refund policy that involved returning funds in installments.
Rouse, however, drew on the lessons imparted by his father to weather the crisis. ESF launched in 1982 after Rouse’s father refused to hand over $3,200 to finance the younger Rouse’s summer competing on the national tennis circuit. “He said there’s no handouts,” Rouse recalled. Rouse’s father, instead, pushed him to put his tennis skills to work and open what would become his first camp. “God bless my dad for that,” Rouse said.
Last year, a group of 15 investors helped ESF stay afloat with a $4 million injection of capital. The group were mostly friends of Rouse with ties to the camps, Rouse said.
“It was really incredible people who had their own established family offices, who have been philanthropic in other great causes,” Rouse said.
After a rocky 2020, on Monday, June 21, the vast majority of ESF’s day camps will open their doors. At the ten core camp, campers ages 3 to 16 will enjoy activities that range from sports to arts to STEM classes, at an average cost between $500 and $650 per week. Families enroll for an average of four to six weeks per summer. Across the 10 sites and ProTeam sports camp locations as well, ESF is slated to serve more than 4,000 families. “It’s been a year that we’ll never forget, I can tell you that,” he said.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and space concerns.
I find people in the C-suite interesting in normal years. But this past year in particular I think everyone can write a book. How have you managed?
This time last year, we were, more or less, trying to look at all the data that we were getting. No one had the magic answer whether we should run or not. So it was something that I was seeing evolve right in front of me from a public health standpoint. And I personally did not feel like we were prepared enough to do our best version of what we do. And that decision, which we came to, obviously sent shock waves across the various different states that we were in because we had a small but mighty group of parents who were very upset that we just disrupted their summer plans. And some were very vocal on social media, some were very upset with us. And so we had that mad rush of people at the end of May, basically saying, ‘I need my money back.’
There was a point where it seemed like it was up to debate [just] how bad the pandemic was. And it seemed like, one of the signs that it was really serious, was in fact, that camp was closed.
It was super, super emotional for all of us. Over a year ago, like most companies, we were dealing with the unimaginable due to what the pandemic was doing to impact the entire world. And unfortunately, our industry, the camp industry, was probably one of the hardest [hit], just like the restaurant businesses and other small service-oriented companies. We had to rescind offers for all of our staff that were working seasonal … over 1,000 people that were promised jobs. It was the first time in my history that we’ve ever had to cancel summer. We didn’t actually lay off anyone, we furloughed our [39-member full time] team in phases.
Looking forward, how has the pandemic reshaped the season that’s coming up? What kind of changes have you made and lessons have you learned?
So we’re definitely dialing up the character development piece in our programs so that we can help kids become the best versions of themselves. So that’s part one, which makes me really excited because our entire curriculum is all based around that. Part two is we have done a great job in really putting together an incredible medical team. So we have created this COVID action plan to mitigate it from ever coming on campus. And so we actually ran several camps in three different states for about 1,000 children [in August] completely COVID free. And it was an incredible four weeks of camp. And it really gave us the confidence to know that 2021 will be possible. We kept children, we kept staff, and we kept families all safe, COVID free.
What are some of the central aspects of that action plan?
We knew that we needed to limit enrollment. We really wanted to operate about 30% smaller than in a non-pandemic year. Part two, we had a medical clearance, which before you would come on campus, whether you’re a staff member or a parent or child, you would need to just provide us with this daily survey which takes 30 seconds to let us know if there are any type of signs of illness whatsoever. Next we really wanted to add several key tips for our staff to work through this with our children. We knew that kids were going to come to camp anxious, worried, fearful, feeling like they haven’t been social enough because they haven’t seen friends. And so we’ve been working with some top children psychologists. Our training is about 15 hours before the first child comes to camp. And we have about four of those hours all built around health and safety because of the pandemic.
How has the pandemic reshaped your balance sheet as far as costs?
So, three areas. One, we’re fortunate when we read these headlines about staffing, especially seasonal staff, everybody is scrambling. We are obviously still hiring. And that’s always a concern. But we have been so fortunate to have 70% of our veteran staff from 2019 back. From a seasonal standpoint, that is unheard of. That helps us because then we don’t have to spend additional dollars trying to recruit or find people. Part two, when you reduce the size of a camp down, you are obviously reducing the amount of staff that you need. And so we’ve been able to reshape our staffing model. We were able to refinance our bank relationship. We went from a big bank to a smaller bank. Because, you know, I was not happy with the big bank we were at. I felt like we were almost like, ‘grab a number and wait your turn.’ And so I said let’s look to refinance.
I wanted to get a sense of how many kids have gone through your programs over the 40 years.
So we have an alumni base of over 250,000 since 1982. We have been fortunate enough to have some incredible relationships. So, yeah, we’ve been fortunate enough to have loyal and supportive school partners and professional teams. We actually kept tuition the same price [from last year], we did not want to gouge our customer base. We wanted to be as transparent as possible. We know these are difficult times. We really focused on our side of really trying to reduce costs.
Are vaccines going to be required?
We aren’t requiring our team members to be vaccinated. However we are over 95% of team members are vaccinated and [we] anticipate getting to 100%. As far as the 12 and older campers, we aren’t requiring that as well — we are encouraging but not making it mandatory.