By: Kimberly Del Bright
Camp Woodward grows from eastern Centre County to the Far East.
“If you build it, they will come.”
Gary Ream must have heard that whisper among the rolling green hills of Centre County’s Amish country, because the whisper grew into Camp Woodward, the epicenter of action sports and a story of global entrepreneurship for Ream, the organization’s owner and director. Built 35 miles east of State College, Camp Woodward is a high-tech training facility for action sports. Step inside and you’ll find vert ramps, wedges, ledges, rails, stair sets and massive foam and Resi-Pits. Outside you’ll find the B3 Vert, Ball Park Jib on Snoasis, the Launchpad and more. That may all be a foreign language to many of us, but not to someone under the age of 25.
“There’s no doubt about the influence this piece of property has had with youth around the world,” Ream says as he begins the story of how Woodward spread from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin, Colorado, California, and this summer, to campers in Beijing.
It’s clear there was a lot of logic and a bit of luck that mixed together to get the magic right. Camp Woodward began as a gymnastics camp operated by Ream and Ed Isabelle, a business partner and former Penn State All-American gymnast. But when the Olympic boycotts of 1980 and 1984 decreased camp attendance, Ream and Isabelle began looking for a sport that could bring in more gender balance (gymnastics was dominated by females) and wouldn’t compete with sports offered by universities. They went after BMX racing and eventually BMX freestyle. “We were fortunate to just sort of stumble upon it, understand it, play with it, be kids again and add some capital,” is how Ream explains the initial foray into action sports.
It wasn’t even called action sports at the time, and there’s still a loose connection among several very different sports that gather under this umbrella term. Ream refers to them as “lifestyle sports,” because “you live these sports; not because Mom, Dad and the coach are telling you to do it, but because of the passion in your heart.” He ties the lifestyle aspect back to the surf culture of California in the ’60s when athletes were seeking the biggest wave and the ultimate experience as opposed to such mainstream sports as football and baseball, where money and celebrity are the brass ring.
It was the turning away from this dominant course that gave action sports their original appeal to the youth counterculture movement. But Ream maintains “it wasn’t really counterculture as much as it was progressive. It was counter to the ones that didn’t get it.”
Ream got it, and Woodward began focusing on skateboarding, snowboarding, inline skating and BMX freestyle, in addition to cheer (the new term for cheerleading) and gymnastics.
By 1995 the popularity of action sports had grown, and Ron Semiao of ESPN launched the Extreme Games (now called the X Games) to take advantage of their success. Advertisers did too, labeling everything from deodorant to cleaning supplies “extreme.” The natural reaction of the young athletes was to reject this commercialism. So you won’t find the word “extreme” used at Camp Woodward, which manages to maintain the coolness factor as action sports grow. “We’re ‘accepted hip’ now, but we never forget to listen to the youth. They drive this, and technology is a part of everything they do,” Ream says.
Ream’s keen business logic recognized the significance of technology to his 12- to 18-year-old campers, and he began adding digital media, such as video production, graphic arts and digital photography to the camp’s offerings. This summer they’re adding a music recording camp.
To get a sense of how this comes together, Ream uses the example of a recently completed music video with Fashawn, an up-and-coming hip-hop artist who was visiting the camp. Within a week, using on-site equipment and facilities along with dancers and cheer group participants, they made a professional music video they’ll use at camp this summer. Ream’s goal is to have all the music played at Woodward be made by the campers and associated with the Woodward brand.
“Music labels are history,” he says. “We pull each of these activities and make them a stand-alone camp.” The result: consumers create their own products.
The educational component of digital media camps is a big seller to parents, and since they typically write the check that pays for the kid’s week there, this is important. But the digital media component is an even bigger attraction for the campers. Using Woodward’s sophisticated technology, campers capture and edit their athletic feats and then upload the files to social networking sites, resulting in free advertising and online branding for Woodward. It’s a win-win-win situation. “Technology is changing society, and it’s more amplified with the speed of the computer,” Ream says. “We’re only a representation of what’s taking place in the world.”
By 2006, the world had noticed Woodward. China came calling. Leaders there originally wanted to build the world’s largest skate park, but after a tour of the Woodward facilities, which included the digital media studios, they came back to Ream’s office and asked him to help them create the world’s largest Woodward.
Ream says their motivation was clear. China’s one-child policy made inventive play difficult, the visitors told him. “We have family units that have only moms and dads taking care to educate the child to the highest possible level, but it’s a vertical tube. There’s no ‘social consumption,'” they told Ream. “We need to stimulate ‘social consumption.'”
Woodward signed a licensing agreement to create Woodward Beijing in 2008. The Chinese were responsible for the development and management of the new camp, and Woodward personnel were responsible for the programming, staffing, curriculum and designs for an annual consulting and licensing fee. “The ability to think we might be comfortable investing dollars in China–that’s a pretty difficult thought process, so we told them the only way we’d be willing to do this is with a licensing agreement,” says Ream.
Some believe the Chinese are interested in Woodward Beijing to get a jump on a future Olympic sport. Ream agrees, but he points to the Chinese Economic Stimulus Meeting in Tourism and Development he attended in 2009. It helped him understand their larger motivation. As he listened to hours of translated speeches by Chinese government officials, he noticed the common thread was the need to build a society that wants to consume. “They’re internally trying to raise the quality of life by encouraging their people, particularly their youth, to enjoy life, because when you enjoy life, you spend money, and they also want to encourage creativity.”
But lessons of the Chinese expansion are ongoing. “Nothing we’re taught prepares you for the thought process of doing business in China because they are a government system, and I try to believe we’re not.”
The Chinese business model has flaws, he says. “The Chinese know how to build, but they haven’t figured out the operations, programming and marketing.”
Those skills are being put to the test now. Woodward Beijing was built in 2009, had a grand opening in 2010, and has opened its doors to the first campers this summer. They will be greeted to a $4 million facility built on the property of a former Chinese government resort hotel in the rural Daxing District of Beijing. The new camp has a 32,000-square-foot outdoor skate park and a 40,000-square-foot indoor facility with year-round offerings that include instruction in English and such recreational activities as chess, bowling and billiards to create more of an academy approach, yet with much of the same programming and instruction of U.S. Woodward camps.
You might think the story ends here, but listening to Ream you feel it’s just the beginning. “The other global side to this story is the Olympics,” he says. He’s convinced that what Shaun White did for snowboarding in the Winter Olympics can be done for BMX freestyle and skateboarding in the Summer Games. If you don’t think that’s likely, recognize that in 2010, Christophe Dubi, a Swiss member of the International Olympic Committee, spent his vacation at Woodward with his 12-year-old son. Ream thinks Dubi started to “get it” by the time he left. But Ream is cautious.
“We’re looking to position these action sports in a way that the IOC gets what it wants, but the structure supports and protects the passion of the youth. Once you go to a world stage that becomes much harder because you’re crossing cultures.”
Another area he sees potential in is education. “I really think the ultimate thing Woodward will attack is to start our own school. Can we sneak in the math and science? It’s not going to be hard if we let youth tell us how to teach.”
If Ream’s track record is any indication, listening to the whisper of youth can lead to a building boom. And someone will surely come–maybe from as far away as the other side of the world. •SCM