Dads whose kids were at Blue Star Camps in Hendersonville, N.C., weren’t with their children on Father’s Day, but saw the kids anyway.
Many of the campers created 30- to 60-second Father’s Day videos that were posted on the camp’s website, says Camp Director Tom Rosenberg.
More camps are turning to such technology to help clear what has always been a hurdle of varying degrees for sleep-away camps – parental discomfort about sending their kids away.
Those concerns appeared to have grown after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, which camp operators blamed for a drop in enrollment the following summer. Camp industry officials say enrollment has been up since then for a variety of reasons.
Summer camps are a $20 billion-a-year industry, serving some 6 million youths annually, according to the Martinsville, Ind.-based American Camp Association (ACA), a national membership organization representing some 6,700 day and sleep-away camps.
The New York-based National Camp Association (NCA), a summer camp referral service, says the United States has more than 7,000 summer sleep-away camps.
Downs and Ups
In the summer of 2002, the industry experienced a rare downturn. “After 9/11, enrollment dropped off,” says Rosenberg at Blue Star Camps. “It was harder to travel, parents were worried and the economy took a hit.”
Those worries haven’t completely abated. “It’s clear that the sensitivity that parents had about being able to contact their kids since Sept. 11 is up,” says ACA Executive Director Peg Smith. “They became hypersensitive about knowing where their kids are and how to contact them.”
The recession of the early 2000s had an impact as well – hurting some camps, helping others.
“When finances are tough, there are generally more dual-career homes, or people taking more than one job,” says NCA Executive Director Jeff Solomon. “But the child care need is there in the summer, and summer camp is one of a few viable options. The shift is that when times are tough, parents will pick basic camps close to home.”
Nevertheless, the slowdown did not last long. Solomon estimates that, based a survey he sends to all camps registered with NCA, enrollment has grown an average of 10 percent to 15 percent a year since 2003.
The ACA estimates a far more modest growth rate of 1 percent to 3 percent from last year to this summer, based on a survey of its members.
One reason for the growth: An expansion in the ages of kids who go to camp. “Historically, kids would go to camp starting at age 7,” Solomon says. “Now they go as early as age 5, and the cutoff age is to the 15-to-18 range.”
But the 9/11 effect showed many camp administrators just how much today’s parents want to stay connected with their children.
Beyond Snail Mail
Smith of the ACA sees camps increasingly playing a new role for youth.
“Camp has increasingly become a refuge and a place to still be a kid in a world that has gotten much more complex,” she says.
But while sending the kids to camp in the past often meant not seeing or hearing from them for days or even weeks, today the occasional “I’m fine, how are you?” letter from camp isn’t enough.
“There is an interesting juxtaposition between kids needing a place to be unplugged and parents needing to be plugged in,” Smith says.
That’s why services that provide some communication without infringing on the outdoor nature of camp are gaining popularity among camp directors.
One such service is Bunk1, the brainchild of Ari Ackerman, who developed the business plan in 1998 while pursuing his MBA degree at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. His aim was to connect parents and children during summer camp through password-protected photo galleries and e-mail.
Parents log onto the camp or Bunk1 website, type in a password and see pictures of their children at camp. “It’s a great way for parents to have a one-way window into what the camp is like,” Ackerman says.
Bunk1 also provides a special e-mail service for parents and their children that doesn’t require campers to go inside and sit at computers. That’s important, Ackerman says, “because camp should be about being with friends and the camaraderie that goes along with it.”
Parents can e-mail their children daily. The e-mails go to the camp owner as attachments presorted by the youths’ bunks, then are printed and delivered to the campers.
To get a reply, parents can buy stationery with their e-mail address encrypted in a barcode at the top. Children at camp write notes on the stationery, and the camp faxes the notes to a toll-free number. The notes are delivered as e-mails to the parents.
Bunk1 charges parents $10 to access photos on the website, $1 for e-mails sent to their children and $2 for each reply note.
Initial response to the idea was slow. “Summer camp moves slower than other industries and they don’t like to change things,”
Ackerman says. “I was driving around the country trying to sell owners on this idea of, ‘Yes, you can use the Internet to get parents and kids connected during camp.’ ”
He says the number of people signed up has risen 30 percent over last year.
At Blue Star Camps, Rosenberg says many of the camp directors he has talked to in North Carolina offer a similar service. “They know that once you send a kid to one camp that has it, the parents are going to be asking them if they have a service like it,” he said.
Blue Star uses eCamp, which operates much like Bunk1. Rosenberg says parents used the service to send almost 12,000 e-mails to campers last summer, and that there were several million views of the camp photos posted on eCamp’s website. The company offers many services similar to Bunk1’s, including one-way e-mail and photos in password-protected areas.
The trick is to keep parents connected without changing the nature of camp, Rosenberg says. He cautions, however, that parents want something new every year. “You have to make sure that the kids are having fun, because that’s the first priority,” he says. “Then keep the parents happy without disrupting the camp environment.”