For Lee Pinstein, summer has always been synonymous with camp. This may be true for many New Englanders, but for Lee and his family, the connection goes much deeper. In 1961, Lee’s parents, Sandy and Hal Pinstein, purchased a 30-acre plot of land in South Easton, MA. Both school teachers at the time, the newlyweds had a modest dream of establishing a summer day camp. Little did they know that they were laying the groundwork for what would become Maplewood Country Day Camp and Enrichment Center, a successful, year-round business, catering to the health and wellness of children from birth through middle school.
Today, along with his sister Susan, Lee oversees all aspects of Maplewood Country Day Camp from keeping the camp buildings maintained, to hiring top notch counselors and swim instructors, to marketing and supporting local non-profits. In the following interview, you will read how Lee’s day to day responsibilities all serve and feed into his primary mission in life: to help children thrive and enjoy their childhoods, while also preparing them for future success.
How did you get started in the camp business? What inspired you to take over Maplewood Country Day Camp?
It’s hard to think in terms of “starting” in the camp business. In many ways, my role as a Camp Director has been 50+ years in the making. I remember learning from my father at a fairly young age, the ins and outs of landscaping the grounds that make up the camp, along with mastering the delicate pH balance of two Olympic-sized pools. In high school and college, I also worked on Maplewood’s Waterfront staff lifeguarding and teaching swim lessons. I took over the camp in my mid –twenties when my parents’ retirement plans coincided with my desire to move on from a career in accounting.
I was inspired to delve into the camping business because I saw my parents’ success and after working in an office for a few years after college, the prospect of working outdoors was a big draw. It was also exciting for me to know that I could keep the foundations of what worked under my parents’ leadership, while also rebooting many parts of the business with my own vision of how we could expand and grow.
How do you make money?
I would say our success comes down to our quality programs that bring in new and returning campers year after year. Campers can start at age three and continue on through the middle school years. We also have many former campers, now parents themselves, who want to pass on the Maplewood tradition to their kids. On top of that, our business thrives through word of mouth.
How long did it take for you to become profitable?
I recall my parents telling me that it took them a while to bring in a profit. It’s hard to see it now when you look around the camp, but it started out as an old sandpit, swimming hole, and snack bar. Over time, they began adding more buildings and launching into the day camp business. I believe it took them two to three years before they were profitable.
When you were starting out, was there ever a time you doubted it would work? If so, how did you handle that?
Yes, absolutely! In the beginning years my logical brain felt confident about the business side of camp, and yet I had some inner doubt about filling my father’s shoes as Camp Director. My father had a larger than life personality. People often remember him as being quite tall even though he was closer to average height. I guess it was the way he held himself high while also being relatable to campers of all ages. It felt like a hard act to follow and that led to some doubt. But like any other challenge, I handled it by pushing outside my comfort zone, something I encourage my counselors and campers to do on a regular basis. Over time, I felt more and more comfortable grabbing my megaphone and leading camp-wide games and activities.
How did you get your first customer?
As I mentioned before, my parents can take the credit for the very first customer. By the time I came on board, they had excellent retention among Maplewood families. And still, it was important for me to grow the camp and get the word out about the amazing activities we offered. I’m sure I got my first customer during a home visit with an interested family. It’s hard to believe now, but back then the only way to show people our camp during the offseason was for me to show families our “camp video”. I brought it with me into peoples’ homes in the form of a “VHS tape”.
What is one marketing strategy (other than referrals) that you’re using that works really well to generate new business?
Well, I am happy to report that we no longer need to rely on VHS tapes to sell our camp. But interestingly enough, we have benefited from YOUTUBE and some fabulous videos that our counselors have put together. Every once in a while, someone on our staff will persuade the rest of the staff to lip sync in a video involving a catchy Pop song. They do it to be creative and have fun, but I am always amazed at how the joy and magic of Maplewood is so obvious on the faces of our counselors, waterfront staff, and specialists. And so I would say that qualifies as an indirect marketing strategy that works well to spread the word about what we do.
What is the toughest decision you’ve had to make in the last few months?
Every year we do capital expenditures and trying to determine where we should spend the money is always a tough decision. Should we spend it on upgrading our activities or our physical site, or should we put our resources into marketing? And then how much we should use on upgrades and marketing? It can be tough to determine which deserves more of our resources.
What do you think it is that makes you successful?
I’m passionate about what I do. I enjoy all the different aspects of the job, from working with the children to planning the programming and marketing. Also, many years ago I discovered the power of gratitude. I know what it’s like to work indoors year-round and so I never take for granted that I can be in nature for big portions of each day. I do believe that having the right mental attitude contributes a lot towards ones success.
What has been your most satisfying moment in business?
I don’t know if there’s one particular thing. We’ve had lots of successful projects and events over the years. I would say the most satisfying part of my job is teaching swimming. Parents often ask me “How did you do it? My child refused to get his or her eyes wet, now he/she is jumping into the deep end…” The secret is showing children by example. Both my sister and I teach swimming to the youngest set of campers each and every day of the summer. Each time I teach a child that skill, knowing it will benefit them throughout his/her life, it’s a satisfying moment.
What does the future hold for your business? What are you most excited about?
Looking towards the future excites me. Lately, I’ve been exploring the idea of bringing yoga, meditation, and mindfulness activities to both staff training sessions and also to our campers. We’re finding that kids deal with a lot of anxiety and stress these days. We want them to know that this is a camp where they will be accepted for who they are, and that there are tools they can learn for self-soothing and wellness. I’m really excited about introducing it.
What is a recent purchase you have made that’s helped with your business?
One thing we recently purchased was a generator because last summer we had storms that caused power outages. Now this summer, even during stormy weather, we will have lights, heat, running water, and air conditioning. It was a big expenditure, but it’s nice to have and gives us peace of mind knowing the weather won’t stop us this year.
What have been your top accomplishments in your career?
I think it’s been watching the business transform from a seasonal summer camp to one that is essentially open 50 weeks of the year. We have added an after school program serving all of the Easton elementary schools and middle school. In addition, we offer a multitude of classes and programs for parents, toddlers, and preschool-aged children.
What is the ideal experience for someone attending your camp?
I would hope that we offer a range of experiences and choices so that the ideal camp day will change from one child to the next. With that being said, an ideal camp day would incorporate lots of laughter, social connections, and the learning of new skills. It’s also important to recognize that for a portion of our campers, the adjustment to camp is not a walk in the park. Some kids step off the bus on that first day of camp and see only unfamiliar faces. Learning how to navigate new and even anxiety-inducing situations is a crucial life skill. Our job as a collective group of counselors, lifeguards, and specialists is to provide an environment of safety and trust so kids can blossom in their unique ways. It comes down to two words: ‘human connection’. If we can succeed in that area then the rest is easy.
We have learned so much about your career, what do you do when you are not at work?
I greatly enjoy spending time with my wife and two children. We try really hard to have consistent family dinners and connection time. A few years ago, we started paddleboarding as a family and it was great! My kids are getting older (13 and 11) and so on most weekends, you will find me watching my son play sports or my daughter performing in a chorus or theater production. I am definitely someone who enjoys life’s simpler pleasures.