Thursday, August 24, 2006

How To Make A Few Million Dollars Transproting Kids Luggage From Summer Camps

Stuart Seller Story

This week, thousands of kids will be returning home from summer camp -- without suitcases, duffel bags, tennis rackets, or even their dirty clothes.

Much of the baggage will be delivered back to their homes by small firms that have made a business of transporting campers' bags to and from the camps.

Typical is Camp Trucking, based in Denver. Employing an army of college students on summer break, the firm picks up baggage at the homes of campers and delivers it to camp just before a session begins. It charges a flat rate, with no restrictions on size or for bulky athletic equipment and duffel bags that sometimes weigh more than 100 pounds. At the end of the session, bags are returned -- with some parents even arranging drop-offs at laundries and dry cleaners along the way.

"We really are service companies that happen to be trucking companies," says Camp Trucking's 39-year-old owner, Stuart Seller.

The service is useful to the camps, too. They receive bags for a session all at once, a few days before the kids arrive, allowing the camp staff to focus on getting kids settled in, rather then keeping track of arriving luggage. The services often deliver the bags directly to a bunkhouse and the bunk assigned each camper.

For younger children, the camps have a chance to unpack the bags, and make "them feel like they're coming home," says Cole Kelly, director of Camp Wicosuta, a girls' camp in Bristol, N.H., which uses R&B Camp Baggage, of Plymouth.

There are 10 million children attending about 12,000 resident summer camps around the U.S., according to the American Camp Association, a nonprofit industry group, but Camp Trucking, and firms such as R&B, and Camp Baggage, of Tequesta, Fla., concentrate on serving higher-end camps where parents can spend thousands of dollars for a full summer session.

The camps are concentrated in the Northeast where the population is denser, making it more economic for the firms to serve, especially with the high price of gasoline. Campers from outside the region usually have their bags shipped by other delivery services, but the companies do pick up baggage for a growing number of kids in Florida who attend summer camps in New England.

Although based in Denver, Camp Trucking is the largest camp-delivery operator in the Northeast, and Mr. Seller expects that by the end of summer his company will have transported 30,000 to 35,000 bags for 12,000 to 15,000 kids attending several dozen camps.

With the average delivery price ranging from $120 to $150 a child, Camp Trucking's revenue will be $1.4 million to $2.3 million.

Mr. Seller has seen steady growth since he took over the business in 1998. "It used to be you didn't need to turn on your phones till April and then turn them off in September," he says. "Now it's almost a year-round business," talking to camps and sending out mailers in late November, and starting hiring in January and mapping routes in May.

At R&B, Rick Bogin, 52, started his business 37 years ago with his brother Robert, using the family station wagon and a U-Haul trailer to tote 60 bags. This year, R&B will transport 7,500 bags for 3,200 kids at 14 camps, at a cost ranging from $145 for New England residents to $175 for Florida families. A smaller operator, Camp Baggage, founded by former camp counselor Hal Sheppard, 45, in 1993, will transport more than 2,000 bags for 1,000 kids across eight camps, for an average cost of $150 a camper.

The firms usually have agreements with the camps, and, although campers aren't required to use the services, the camps either recommend them exclusively or include information to the campers in their packets. The firms don't charge camps anything; in fact, says Camp Baggage's Mr. Sheppard, shippers give the camp owners a commission in exchange for exclusive access to camp rosters. The other companies didn't disclose contractual arrangements.

With nearly all of the delivery work in the summer, the companies mainly use temporary employees. At Camp Trucking, much of the work is done by college students. Camp Trucking starts first-year drivers at $115 a day. Mr. Seller has a summer crew of 120 to 150, of which a quarter are women. Camp Baggage pays college students $115 to $200 per day depending on experience.

R&B's main staff of 35 is made up of educators, former executives and other professionals who have been with the company for a decade or more.

All three companies place a driver and navigator in trucks rented from companies such as Ryder System, Penske Truck Rental and Budget Truck Rental.

For camp haulers, one hurdle for the businesses has been streamlining the baggage-tracking process with its mounds of paperwork trailing from doorstep to bunk and back again.

Technology has made the process easier over the years, with computers, walkie-talkies and cellphones, to software and GPS systems to map out the runs.

It used to take R&B workers four days to pick up bags for 40 campers, but now they can pick up 80 to 90 campers' baggage per truck each day.

As the season nears an end, the work at R&B provides a separate benefit. Yesterday, Chuck Lenahan, head football coach at New Hampshire's Plymouth Regional High School, and his assistant coaches, put aside their game plans to direct nearly 100 football and baseball players on loading camp-baggage trucks. They'll receive a $4,000 check for their only fund-raiser, and, Mr. Lenahan says, they know that today he'll give them an easier practice.

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