Camps in the Computer Age

Once in a great while, something comes along that changes summer camp forever. Flashlights. Sunscreen. Waterproof matches. And, of course, the Internet.

No doubt about it. The summer camp industry was revolutionized by the Internet. If you’re surprised, you obviously haven’t started your summer camp research yet. From splashy promotional Web sites to e-mailed off-season newsletters, camps are taking advantage of all the Internet has to offer – before, during and after their summer sessions.

That’s good news for parents who need to find the perfect program for their prospective campers. All that high-tech savvy can save you time, money and a whole lot of headaches.

Before Camp Begins

If you’re looking for a summer camp for your kids, look no further than your own home computer. Today’s camp Web sites are slick, sophisticated and full of great information for camper wannabes and their curious parents. In addition to general information about the program, on many sites you’ll find secure online registration forms, sample camp schedules and interactive slide shows that will make you wish you were packing a trunk, too.

Jean Swartz, Associate Director of Camp Horizons in Harrisonburg, Virginia, knows parents and campers appreciate her program’s Web site. “Parents like the information on our programs and philosophies and the pictures. Campers also like to see the pictures of the things they will be doing and where they will be living.”

Other programs use the Internet to cut down on pre-camp paperwork and speed up the administrative process. To save everyone time, they include on their Web sites all the information, forms and answers parents need to get ready for the summer.

Nicole Carosella, Camper Services Director at Camp Silver Beach in Jamesville, Virginia, says the Internet has definitely cut down on the number of phone calls she gets.

Dean Barley, Director of The Vineyard Camp and Conference Center in Westfield, North Carolina, is confident it will do the same for his staff. Starting this season, The Vineyard’s Web site will include all of the program’s applications and forms, as well as the ability to accept payment electronically.

Even the Girl Scouts are getting into the Internet act. According to Kate Weidner, Director of Outdoor Programs for the Pines of Carolina Girl Scout Council’s Camp Graham and Camp Mary Atkinson, “We have general information about how to tell if your daughter is ready to attend sleepaway camp. We also list dates when parents can attend a question/answer session and watch the camp video. This year, we’ll have the confirmation packet as downloadable forms in case parents misplace theirs.”

Although no amount of computer research will take the place of a one-on-one conversation with a camp director – either on the telephone or in person – the Internet is an exceptional time-saving tool for parents hoping to narrow the scope of their summer camp search.

During Camp

Some programs – including Camp Silver Beach, Camp Graham and Camp Mary Atkinson – opt to keep the Internet out of their camper’s daily lives altogether. But others embrace e-mail as a communication tool and an easy way to involve parents in the camp goings on.

The Vineyard is one such program. To facilitate camper communication with the outside world, they provide computers for campers to send and receive e-mail during their sessions.

Swartz explains that her program encourages e-mail from friends and family but sets limits on outgoing messages. “At Camp Horizons,” she says, “we allow our parents and friends to send e-mail to camp and put the campers name and cabin number in the subject line. We then print it off and give it to the camper with regular mail.” For a small fee, campers can send return e-mail through camp staff members. “We don’t allow our campers to have direct access directly to e-mail,” says Swartz. “It would take too long and our goal is to give them a different experience here and not completely replicate their home world.”

At Camp Silver Beach, parents use the Internet to keep in touch with their children, though not through direct contact. They can log onto the camp’s Web site each day and view pictures of the campers in action, and they can e-mail camp staff members to get an update on their child.

Carosella says, “I e-mail some parents on a daily basis on their child’s progress while they are at camp. This allows me to spend more time with the campers during the day while I can touch base with their parents in the late evening.”

After Camp Is Over

The computers really power up when the summer winds down. Campers, eager to stay in touch with their newfound friends, exchange e-mail addresses with one another and frequently log onto camp message boards. And camps, eager to stay in touch with campers who may choose to return for another summer, send electronic reminders about upcoming deadlines and camp-related events.

As Weidner explains, everyone benefits. “Campers exchange e-mail addresses and stay in touch with other campers and staff throughout the year,” she says. “Campers love to get notes from their counselors. We even train staff on the types of topics to discuss with campers during the winter. Plus, I can easily send notes to staff to encourage them to return for the next summer.”

Swartz sings similar praises. “Camp Horizons is certainly able to communicate with campers more easily now that we have the Internet. And it has helped tremendously in our staff communications. We are able to send speedy updates and information to our staff who may be traveling or going place to place after their spring college term ends. And the information doesn’t get ‘lost in the mail.’ It has been fabulous for staff communications!”

The summer camp industry has evolved a lot over the years, changing constantly to meet the needs of modern families. Maintaining a powerful presence on the Internet is just one way camp administrators are keeping up with the times. Their technology solutions are working wonders – saving time and money.

In the end, say camp administrators, if the Internet allows parents easy access to information they need and if it saves camp staff members time so they can spend more time with their campers, then the Information Highway is the only road to travel.