Few experiences rival summer day camp for building skills, new friends and fun through age-appropriate activities. Local Camp Directors Andrew and Arianne VanDerWege own and operate Go West Camps and have welcomed thousands of kids to their Colorado Springs 21st Century camping experience since 2014.
When COVID-19 hit the region, the couple looked to the Pikes Peak Small Business Development Center, American Camp Association and their local bank to make a heart-wrenching, but crucial pivot canceling their 2020 season to ensure the long term success of their business.
“By February, most of our camp sessions were full, which is typical for us,” said Arianne, Education Chair for the American Camp Association Rocky Mountain Region and a longtime leader in professional development for the Colorado camp industry. “Summer 2020 was shaping up to be our best season at Go West with 160 campers in each of our camp sessions.”
The couple work year-round to plan, prepare, staff and train to ensure a safe and meaningful experience for campers, ages 5-14, for a 9-week camp season. Today, in the middle of camp season 2020, mountain biking, rock climbing, paddle boarding, art, gardening and teambuilding aren’t happening at Go West Camps.
In late February, attending an industry conference in San Diego, there was discussion about the coronavirus in connection to their industry for the first time. Andrew contacted his insurance provider to discuss how Go West’s insurance coverages would relate to the (then) little-known virus. Their insurance carrier communicated that the coverages Go West had, including a communicable illness policy, would not provide insurance protections in relation to the growing pandemic.
“The camp industry has always been a leader on health issues,” said Andrew, “Arianne and I were concerned; camp the way we do it at Go West looks and feels like this: children and staff close together in small and large groups, personally, and powerfully. Playing, laughing, hugging, riding in vans, and building relationships. Go West is the opposite of social distancing. The benefits of it are tremendous and magical,” said Andrew. “All of that is in contrast to precautions necessary for a ‘COVID-safe’ environment that the camp industry eventually provided guidance on. After weeks on an emotional roller coaster, we had to make a very difficult decision.
“Ultimately, our industry was authorized to remain open this season. The question shifted from, ‘can we operate?’ to ‘should we?’ Our number one priority is the health and safety of the kids in our programs. This summer, we also needed to ensure the health and safety of parents, grandparents and our community,” said Andrew.
In late May, Andrew and Arianne contacted their Summer 2020 camp families to announce the closure of camp for the season and the plan to return pre-paid camper tuition – representing all of the camp’s annual operating funds.
“Many of our camp families chose to roll over their tuition and apply it to Summer 2021,” said Andrew. “We have very loyal alumni and we’re very appreciative for the families who are helping us in the most tangible way to prepare for camp season 2021.”
At the same time, the Pikes Peak Small Business Development Center, a longtime community partner, reached out to assist the small business owners in applying for pandemic-related Small Business Administration and local relief funds.
“We were proud that we had started our business debt free but understand that part of being business owners is doing what we need to do to fund our business in this time of need,” said Andrew. “We were worried; but the process was made easier with the help of the Pikes Peak SBDC and ABC Bank. We received an SBA Paycheck Protection Program Loan and Economic Injury Disaster Loan, both of which will help us through these difficult times.”
“Go West Camps is a perfect example of a business making a timely and informed decision to close for the season,” said Aikta Marcoulier, Pikes Peak SBDC Executive Director. “The season itself is the main source of income for the businesses each year. Closing was more than a tough decision for Andrew and Arianne. Keeping kids, families and their business safe took priority. No doubt, this decision will ensure support and loyalty from their customers. This smart decision allows Go West Camps to support adventures for years to come.”
Combined with cash reserves from pre-paid summer 2021 tuition, Go West Camps is confident they have the funds to survive the pandemic, yet also plan and prepare for future seasons serving Pikes Peak area youth.
“We know we made the right decision for the safety of our campers and their families,” said Andrew. “We feel incredibly blessed for the support we continue to receive from this community.”
Pikes Peak SBDC has been helping local small business owners plan, prepare, recover and grow from the unexpected since 2012. Learn more: Pikes Peak SBDC
Go West Camps is taking reservations for Summer 2021. Learn more: gowestcamps.com