Portland rolls out the red carpet for Campers weekend.
Not only is it the height of the summer tourist season, but most local hotels will have been booked for months, some by guests who reserve the same rooms year after year. July 20 through 23 is also Campers Weekend, when parents of thousands of children at Maine summer camps come to visit their kids and kick up their heels in Portland.
“It’s a great opportunity for parents to enjoy many of the things their kids get to enjoy, and we encourage it,” says Ron Hall, executive director of the nonprofit Maine Summer Camps. He estimates that 40,000 children attend summer camp in the state. Not all camps have formalized visiting days, but many do, and not all parents who visit their kids stay for the whole weekend. Some parents use Campers Weekend as a reason to explore other parts of Maine. But Portland, with its nationally known restaurants, vibrant mix of shops, picturesque waterfront, and walkability, is a major draw.
Before parents left Inn by the Sea in Cape Elizabeth on the Sunday of Campers Weekend last year, they secured their reservations for this July. Like other hotels in and around Portland, the 61-room luxury property has a three-night minimum that weekend, and most guests arrive on Thursday evening. “For a lot of the guests coming this year, it’s on average between their seventh and ninth stay at the inn for Campers Weekend,” says guest services manager Annie Bolton. “At the end of last year, we already had 53 families rebook automatically for this year.” The wait list starts in early August, and Bolton also tries to help parents she can’t accommodate find rooms elsewhere. “If they’re calling to book at Inn by the Sea they’re looking for the Maine experience, but they may also be looking for more of a luxury experience, ideally in Portland,” she says. “It’s nice having the newer hotels like the Press and the Westin that we can recommend.”
Many of the inn’s Campers Weekend guests know each other, either through long association with the camp their children attend, or from their lives at home. The atmosphere for those few days resembles a reunion, with perks and activities the inn has organized just for camper families. There’s a welcome reception on the front lawn on Thursday, and on Saturday, the inn provides breakfast “grab bags” so everyone can leave early for visiting day at camp. Parents can also order from a list of “Camp Visiting Treats:” popcorn sampler packs, whoopie pies, saltwater taffy, and Capt’n Eli soda.
Dining out, especially on Saturday night, is a highlight of the weekend. “A lot of the guests coming from New York are big into the foodie scene here in Portland, so our team will work with them on restaurant reservations,” says Bolton. Top on the list is Fore Street, which takes reservations 60 days in advance. “We start [accepting reservations] at 10 in the morning and are booked within seven to eight minutes,” says the restaurant’s general manager, Robyn Violette. “My phone becomes a Christmas tree,” says Joshua Doré, whose Fore Street business card reads Director of First Impressions. “You’re talking to these people frequently if they don’t get the time they want on the first day. There’s the American Express concierges calling, and they have two assistants on speed dial calling as well.” In the past, some Campers Weekend guests would book tables at several of Portland’s top restaurants, waiting to see which time worked with their schedules, or if a time they couldn’t get in advance opened up. “Now we share our lists with each other, and we give them a choice 24 hours in advance,” says Violette.
Most callers for Campers Weekend want to book large parties, but big tables are limited at Fore Street, which has just 100 seats, mostly at tables for two and four that, because of the fire code, can’t be moved or expanded. “If we can’t seat them together at one table, we’ll try to get them as close as possible so they can comingle with their friends,” says Doré. “They generally spend the whole night walking around talking to everybody in the room that they know; they’re not really seated and enjoying their meal, which is funny,” Violette says. “They’ve seen their child and kissed them goodbye. Now it’s their social hour.”
Fore Street has always kept about a third of its seats available for walk-ins, and locals know that the 11-seat bar is often a good option. On Campers Weekend, however, the line for those seats extends down the block. “A couple of times I’ve had to go out and say, ‘Unfortunately, we can’t accommodate as many of you who are standing in line,’” says Violette. “‘We only have 30 tables and 20 of those are reserved times two; we’re never going to be able to get you in.’” She and Doré are happy to be able to recommend Scales, the considerably larger, year-old restaurant on the waterfront that is part of the same restaurant group. “I’m sure during the weekend they will try Scales and they probably will love it, but they want to be able to say, ‘I ate at Fore Street,’ because it’s nationally recognized,” she says. “If other people pay attention to something, it creates its own life.”
Doré tells a Campers Weekend story from when he worked at a Portland hotel as the morning dining room manager. “Somebody forgot to order coffee lids. On Saturday morning, the parents would come down, get their coffee, get in their cars and leave for camp. Without coffee, everything fell apart. People were leaving without coffee. This very nice woman who you will see on national television walked up to the host stand and said, ‘Josh, you don’t seem to have any coffee lids today.’ I said, ‘Oh goodness, all right, just one second.’ I had brought my coffee with me that morning, so I took the lid off, rinsed it, and handed it to her. She said, ‘Thank you,’ put the lid on her cup and walked out the door. I saved Katie Couric’s morning.”
Despite the clamor and chaos that characterizes Campers Weekend, it’s such a longstanding tradition that it’s become just another part of the busy summer season. “It’s a phenomenon we prepare for in advance,” says Rauni Kew, public relations and green program manager of Inn by the Sea. And the revenue it produces is significant. “Summer camps have a direct and indirect impact on the Maine economy in the amount of over $320 million annually,” says Hall of Maine Summer Camps. Kids have life- changing experiences at Maine summer camps, so why shouldn’t their parents get to share in some of the magic that, at least in July, makes our state a place everyone wants to be?