How the Internet Changed the Way We Choose Summer Camps

Traditional sleepaway camps may still offer kids the opportunity to experience a low-tech life that’s in tune with Mother Nature, but the explosive growth of the summer camp industry and the ever-expanding capabilities of the World Wide Web have changed, not just the definition of “summer camp,” but also the ways we research the programs for our children.

First of all, there are more choices than ever. From adventure to academics, sports to spirituality, summer programming now reaches far beyond the still popular, cabin-style camping that many of our parents enjoyed. Even more astonishing than the number of programs – the American Camp Association puts that number at close to 12,000 in the U.S. today – is the ease with which parents can now find, say, a wind-surfing adventure program in California or a week-long guitar clinic in Rhode Island.

The Internet puts all 12,000 of those summer camps (and likely a few more) at your family’s fingertips. That’s quite a change when you take into account that in past generations campers might have known of a total of five or six camps, programs that friends or family members had attended.

“The Internet has completely changed the way people look for summer camps,” says Missy Cook, marketing director for Broadreach Summer Adventures for Teenagers, which is headquartered in Raleigh. “People used to do their research primarily through word-of-mouth and through printed summer camp guides. Word-of-mouth is still important, but most people research camps online these days.”

Jimboy Miller, the owner of Camp Greystone in Tuxedo, N.C., believes the Internet hasn’t just changed the search process, it’s change it for the better.

“It has empowered parents to compare camps and make informed decisions,” he explains. “Previously, it took much longer to get the information that goes into the decision process: find the name of a good camp, get their phone number, talk for a while with the secretary or director, get a catalog and video in the mail. After one or two camps are researched in this way, one tends to just settle. The Internet allows an easy comparison of literally dozens of camps that are potential matches for a camper’s needs.”
On Web sites, camp personnel can provide details, photographs, videos, camper testimonials and more in an interactive and engaging way. Far more information is packaged this way than in the traditional glossy brochure.

Ann Sheets, the president of the American Camp Association, believes this is a big plus for parents. “Camps can provide not only the basic information about location, dates and costs … [they can include] videos from the camp and detailed information about programs, activities, staffing, what to bring, camp history and comments from current campers.” It’s a much more comprehensive package for parents to ponder.

More comprehensive? Undoubtedly. A bit too comprehensive? Maybe.

Says Sheets, “The Internet makes looking for a camp both easier and harder. Easier because there is more detailed information about camps; harder because there are more choices to consider.”

And, she says, it should never replace personal contact with camp staff. “A camp’s Web site should be considered an introduction to the camp, not the only source of information.”

Kat Vanden Heuvel, the resident camp director at YMCA Camp Harrison in Boomer, N.C., agrees. Camp Web sites, she says, should help you narrow your search. “Web sites are wonderful at getting you a lot of information quickly, but they don’t take the pace of meeting staff, getting the actual ‘feel’ of the camp and what the camp has to offer your child.” Site tours, phone calls and camp fairs are better ways to make those personal connections, she says.

“Having the greatest Web site in the world doesn’t eliminate the need for personal contact,” says Bob Prout, executive director of All-Arts & Sciences Camp, headquartered in Greensboro. Like Vanden Heuvel, he and other camp administrators encourage parents to contact prospective camps through a variety of channels.

“There’s so much to be gained from personal contacts with camp staff at many venues,” says Thomas Patterson, program director of Duke Youth Programs in Durham. “If you have particular needs or questions or want specific information that might influence your decision, a phone call or a personal conversation is the best way to go.”
In the end, most camp insiders agree. The Internet has changed the way parents find programs and make selections, but personal contact is still key.
Robert Danos, program director at Camp Mondamin and Camp Green Cove, says, “It is extremely rare that we have a parent register their child without having a ‘real’ dialogue with us, even if they’ve read every single word on our site. This is a good thing!”

In the same way that parents teach their children not to rely on the Internet exclusively for help with homework and research projects, summer camp experts urge parents to branch out. The Web is an excellent place to start your search, but don’t make the mistake of ignoring the personal connection. The give-and-take of a real conversation about your child’s particular needs will go a long way toward ensuring a successful summer experience.

A Good Beginning
According to Rhonda Mickelson, executive director of the American Camp Association Southeast, the Internet is a great way to start your research, but it shouldn’t take the place of personal interaction with camp staff members and administrators. “Personal interaction is still necessary and a parent should be asking a variety of questions, even if the information is on the Web site.” Some questions she suggests are:

1. What type of training does the camp staff receive in emergency procedures? Behavior management? General health and safety?
2. Tell me about your hiring process. What percentage of campers/staff return every year?
3. How can I communicate with my child at camp? Can they call? Use e-mail?