Value Added: Building an Expedia for summer camps

Thomas Heath
Reporter January 15, 2012

Pretend it’s June. School is out. The kids are home.

Working moms and dads need a place to park the little ones during the day while they bring home the bacon, so summer camp has become essential child care.

Thomas Heath is a local business reporter and columnist, writing about entrepreneurs and various companies big and small in the Washington Metropolitan area. Previously, he wrote about the business of sports for The Post’s sports section for most of a decade. View Archive

Former NBC correspondent Brooke Salkoff thinks she has figured out how to offer summer camp choices on a single platform so parents can design a summer camp calendar to fill the June-to-September gap more easily than solving a Sudoku puzzle.

Salkoff, 41, rolled out her Web site, CampEasy.com, in the Washington market two weeks ago amid the high season of the annual summer camp search.

“It is one of the last, huge, billion-dollar markets that doesn’t have a platform that connects buyers and sellers,” she said, talking from her home in McLean. “The parent demand was obvious to us from the beginning.”


Brooke Salkoff, who went by Brooke Hart when she was a correspondent for NBC, has created a Web site that she says acts as “essentially the Expedia.com or Orbitz.com of summer camps.” (NBC Universal/ NBC NEWS)

I am not sure if this business is going to work. It has less than $5,000 in revenue. But what sold me on Salkoff are her entrepreneurial instincts and a tenaciousness that enabled her to work her way from small-town TV stations to big-time television, where she made a six-figure salary.

“I have been toughened up for this by people who said being an entrepreneur is hard,” said Salkoff, who quit the Peacock Network in spring 2010. “But come on. I know how things happen. I am not looking for shortcuts. I know it takes baby steps.”

Salkoff, who went by Brooke Hart as a correspondent, is working the television and newspaper circuit to promote CampEasy.

She and her husband, Jonathan, a former nuclear engineer who works in telecommunications, have invested $100,000 of their own money. They are trying to raise more from individuals and from networks such as Golden Seeds, which is composed of angel investors dedicated to funding start-up companies founded and/or led by women.

The business tackles the problem parents face when selecting the right summer camps based on location, interests and length-of-stay and then scheduling the camps for their children.

Until now, parents went from Web site to Web site, scribbling numbers down or copying and pasting session times onto a spreadsheet to reconcile their children’s day-to-day summer camp schedule. That’s hard enough for one child, let alone two, three or more. Salkoff compared it to shopping on the Zappos online shoe store for three different people with three different tastes and three different shoe sizes.

CampEasy’s secret sauce is a methodology that combines all the camp information in one spot.

“It’s not a trivial matter to get hold of that data. We are essentially the Expedia.com or Orbitz.com of summer camps,” she said, referring to travel sites that allow consumers to shop for travel deals from multiple airlines.

Revenue comes from summer camps looking for exposure. Any camp gets “freemium” visibility, but to get bigger profiles and reviews and to have their contact information and Web site address posted, the camp must pay more. The three pay tiers are $49.95 a month for enhanced, $89.95 for premium and $149 for featured.

Salkoff said her 17-year television career prepared her for entre­pre­neur­ship.

She graduated from Stanford University in 1991 and worked at the U.S. Justice Department and briefly at PBS NewsHour and for National Public Radio.

When she realized she wanted to be a TV correspondent, Salkoff got in her beat-up Honda Accord and drove from “small market to small market,” staying at Motel 6’s, looking up local stations in the phone book, and then cold-calling managers, asking for a job: Huntington, W.Va.; Bowling Green, Ky.; Boise, Idaho; Florence, Ala.

She was 22.

“I turned it into an ad­ven­ture,” Salkoff said.

She landed a job at TV station KAEF in Eureka, Calif., in 1993 as a reporter/anchor/photographer/editor for $17,500 a year.

When she set out to do a story on minimum wage, the resourceful reporter took her car through fast-food drive-thrus, interviewing the employees while ordering her hamburgers.

She moved up quickly, becoming an anchor in Abilene, Tex., and then Raleigh, N.C, in quick succession.

“I just showed myself to be a reliable, solid worker and reporter who knew how to deliver to the audience,” she said.

She arrived in Washington in 1999 to take over from Campbell Brown at NBC, where she stayed for 11 years, including eight years on the early morning shift.

Salkoff said that reporting taught her to identify her audience (Abilene interests were cattle, football, storms and religion; Eureka’s viewers wanted news on timber and fishing) and to package information they want, which is what she is doing with CampEasy.

The mother of two was mapping out the summer camp schedule for her two children, Eleanor, 10, and Nate, 8, a year ago when she became exasperated when a camp had to cancel for one of the kids, leaving a big hole to fill in the summer.

“I said aloud that there should be a resource available where I can enter the times and places I need camps and it will spit back all my options,” Salkoff said.

Her husband, who went to the U.S. Naval Academy and has an MBA from Duke, said, “Oh, that’s a home run.”

Call it the “aha moment.”

For the next month, they looked at the business from two perspectives. First, they were parents looking for summer camps for their kids. Then they inverted, putting themselves in the position of a summer camp looking for ways to reach kids.

They looked online, through family magazines, camp fairs, and talked to camps about their marketing and their costs. They learned that many parents on average spend between $1,000 and $3,000 a year for summer camps, both day camp and sleepover.

“We realized . . . there is this huge market, and camps and parents are searching blindly with no help.”

They found a Web developer in Northern Virginia who helped them build the site. A friend referred them to a lawyer, who registered them as a limited liability company. Salkoff selected the name CampEasy because “it conveyed the meaning that we want” and bought the domain site for $800.

They sent an e-mail to 1,000 camps around Thanksgiving and heard enough positive responses to plan a launch. They put together a PowerPoint presentation, with an A-to-Z description of the business, and visited would-be investors to gauge their interest.

Next step: Get an attorney, revisit investors and see if they want to put up some money.

Salkoff shows no sign of missing her former career, preferring entre­pre­neur­ship instead.

“There is nothing more gratifying than taking an idea and running with it, and seeing how far it can go,” she said.

heatht@washpost.com

Twitter: @addedvalueth

For more Value Added columns, go to postbusiness.com.

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