Blending Technology with Camp Tradition: Technology Can Simplify Camp Operations

by Jeff Salzman

Build a campfire? Huh? Just use the microwave! Like an assembly line in a busy factory, campers layered several graham crackers with chunks of Hershey’s chocolate and topped the snacks with big, puffy marshmallows. Beep! Beep! Beep! In seconds, the gooey s’mores were hot and bubbly — just right for the eatin’,"

— Lisa Patterson, "Relishing the Dog Days of Summer at Camp,"
Associated Press Newswires

Has the increasingly technological world really come to this? Has the microwave oven supplanted the campfire as the preferred method for creating the perfect s’more? Consider the benefits that the microwave has to offer: it’s fast, it doesn’t require sticks or metal hangers, and you can avoid the mosquitoes by cooking indoors. The result is perfect and reproducible — and awful!

What Is Appropriate Technology?
For most business owners, technology has played an increasingly important role in their businesses. The question hasn’t been whether or not to use technological advances, but rather which ones to use and how to use them. For manufacturing companies — those that compete based on speed and cost — technology has been used to increase efficiency and lower product costs for consumers. The question of appropriate technology is perhaps more difficult for service organizations such as camp. Where and how does technology fit into a business that is based on providing quality service and a valued client experience?

Blending Technology with Tradition
The microwave may be a great use of technology for the mass production of s’mores, but surely it does not provide the meaningful experience that the outdoor campfire does. Are traditional summer camps in business to manufacture perfect s’mores, or is their purpose to provide the warmth and friendship of the campfire complete with the lesson that s’mores take patience to cook and don’t always turn out the way you want them to?

Shape-shifting
The challenge many businesses face is to identify and employ the technology that can best assist in achieving their organizational mission. The first step toward accomplishing this is to call into question all of the basic assumptions about your business in an effort to narrow and refine the core competencies — in other words to ask the questions: "Who are you?" "What do you provide?" and "Why do you do what you do?" This process has been described as shape-shifting, which allows an organization to constantly re-create itself so that it can better deliver that which customers’ value most.

On a broad scale, summer camps provide child care, outdoor education, friendship opportunities, physical skill development, and self-esteem building. However, the purpose and most valued core competency of summer camp, which allows for all of these other objectives to be achieved, can be boiled down into one word — relationships. Summer day camp may be about swimming and horses and door-to-door transportation, but at the very essence of it all is the notion of interpersonal human relationships. These relationships exist on many different levels: camper to camper, counselor to camper, counselor to counselor, counselor to director, camper parent to camp staff, and the relationship of the camp itself (its reputation) to the general public.

The concept of shape-shifting enables and liberates you to change any or all of the methods that you currently use at camp to accomplish these relationships; you can choose to change your camps’ organizational goals, operational structure, or even the program based on new technology, changing trends, or client preferences. However, the core competency that does not change and cannot change is relationships. As camp professionals, your purpose, of course, is to create a program and environment that promote the development of positive interpersonal relationships, but relationships are so much at the core of what you do that they exist always, even if they are not as positive as you would have liked them to be.

Understanding Relationship Marketing
Relationship marketing is a recent marketing trend that involves using new technology to create and maintain long-term customer relationships. In many ways, it is similar to the way business was done in the past. For example, a grocery store owner one hundred years ago knew his customers and their needs. However, with industrialization came mass marketing and a focus on gaining overall market share to the detriment of creating lasting customer relationships. The use of technology inhibited relationships rather than nurturing them. It was good for s’more production and short-term sales but did not create lifelong s’more aficionados.

Successful relationship marketing seeks to utilize appropriate modern technology to create and foster long-term relationships. Marketing is considered not as a separate function but, as marketing expert Peter Drucker argues, "the whole business seen from the customer’s point of view." Relationship marketing is not a department within an organization; it is the process of running the whole business.

Now that you understand that the essential focus of your business is the creation of positive interpersonal relationships, you have arrived at your organization’s definition for appropriate technology. You can incorporate technology in any and all ways that advance your ability to build relationships. In every decision that you make each time you encounter new technologies, you must ask yourself, "Does this technology enhance my ability to maintain and improve relationships?"

Relationship Marketing and Camp
Relationship marketing has incredible implications for camp programs. While camps currently utilize technology, they have not even begun to scratch the surface of all that technology can provide for creating and enhancing relationships.

Interactive Web site
Camps can use technology to create an interactive Web site that is updated daily during the summer and includes the following:

  • A Web cam so that parents can watch their campers at camp.
  • Candid photos from that day’s activities.
  • Pictures and short bios of each staff member.
  • Group activity schedules.
  • Van pick-up and drop-off
    schedules.
  • A weekly or daily personalized e-newsletter targeted to campers in specific groups with information that pertains to them rather than a generic weekly (paper) newsletter.
  • A weekly or daily electronic survey so that problems can be handled during the summer season rather than an end-of-summer paper survey after the season has ended.

Interactive brochure and enrollment form
Camps can create an interactive CD-ROM brochure or enrollment form. Both hold many benefits.

Prospective campers and their families can experience a virtual camp day. Rather than tell your prospects to read about your camp’s swim program, simply have them load the CD-ROM brochure into their computers and tell potential clients to click on "Swimming" to watch a typical swim lesson while listening to your camp director explain the program. Try "Canoeing" next!

The camp enrollment process is simplified. You can guide prospects to your Web site to complete and submit an application online and send electronic payment. Want to tell prospects what space is currently available in their child’s group? They can check that out, too! Remember to place reminders on your Web page, prompting them to call or attend one of your open houses so that they can meet your camp director and staff. (Too much electronic communication could inhibit the productive relationship building that is inherent in the enrollment process!)

Improve client and employee relations
Camps can use technology to better manage relationships with clients and camp staff in these ways.

  • Connect with your clientele by referring to a database of the clients’ family information (e.g., parents’ and children’s names, schools and grade levels, children’s friends from camp, years they have attended, names of past counselors, and whether or not the family donated to your campership fund) when talking to clients during brief telephone conversations.
  • Manage information about your summer staff better by recording important facts in the database so you can personalize phone conversations you have during the off-season. For example, "How did you do on that poli sci mid-term you were studying for when we last spoke?" These seemingly little details make a big impact on people, and face it, you can’t remember all the specifics of everyone’s lives!
  • Save time! Rather than filling out a new health information form each year, preprint the forms with all of the information that you collected for each camper last year. Families would just need to make minor modifications. (Perhaps this could even be done electronically.)
  • Make it easy for families to schedule camper absences
    and make-up days at any time convenient for them via the Internet or phone by punching in their camper’s numbers and checking to see if space is available. (A similar system is used for college registration.) Currently, most camps have two office staff members spending the bulk of their days coordinating absences and make-ups!
  • Automatically send electronic birthday cards to all members of each client family.
  • Automatically send personalized reminders to families who haven’t enrolled in camp by the same date that they had enrolled the previous year.

Other Uses of Technology at Camp
Technology isn’t just useful for marketing. You can use it to simplify other camp operations, too.

Automated medication dispensing
For campers who require medication, your first-aid provider could use a software scheduling program to ensure that campers get their medication at the appropriate times.

Satellite tracking 
Using satellite tracking of your camp vehicles would enable you to:

  • Monitor their location to assist families who wonder why the van is late, or assist the driver with directions and navigating around traffic.
  • Monitor their speed for safety.
  • Alert the driver if they forgot to pick up a scheduled camper.

Automated inventory
Keep a steady stream of supplies and equipment at your camp through just-in-time purchasing. What is worse than running out of balls, arts-and-crafts supplies, paper cups, or even toilet paper at a summer camp? Automate your camp’s supply ordering to conserve limited storage capacity. Orders could be electronically sent to suppliers when critical levels of each supply are reached.

Automated activity scheduling
Enter campers’ favorite activities in your camp’s database. Use this data to schedule camper groups for activities that they have indicated are their top choices so that they can participate in their preferred activities as often as possible.

Direct-mail databases
Utilize direct-mail databases to determine preferences of your current client families to try and identify critical variables for determining potential clients for promotional mailings. You may be able to mail targeted, personalized materials to 2,000 homes and obtain a better response than mailing generic promotional materials to 20,000 homes.

For each of the above implications, you would need to seriously consider the possible anticipated and unanticipated outcomes prior to moving forward. But the potential of these changes is exciting. Each of these technological advancements could allow you to serve your client families and your staff better than you currently do and improve your ability to establish and grow relationships within your organization.

Indeed, today’s technology can play an important and appropriate role in running and promoting a business that is fundamentally based in age-old tradition. As for future technology, the implications feel a bit scary.

Does the future hold "virtual" electronic lifeguards and robotic horses? Will campers have nerve chips implanted that monitor their hydration and sunscreen levels? Will your staff consist of cyborgs instead of college students? We’ll find out soon enough . . . but for now let’s just enjoy the campfire!

Jeff Salzman is the director of Sunny Skies Day Camp in Agoura, California. He is a master in business administration candidate at the Pepperdine University School of Business and Management.

 

Originally published in the 2000 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.