Building a Comprehensive Camp Communications Strategy: Consider What Parents Really Think

by Jeffrey Hoffman, Bonnie Weberman, and Noah Doyle

 

Placing the receiver back on the hook, the camp director Mark looked at the girls' head counselor Sherry across from him. He smiled, "I just hung up with Mrs. Smith. Even though we discussed not bringing cell phones to camp, she said her daughter had hers, just in case of an emergency. Now she is having second thoughts since she received our weekly e-mail update, and she wants us to know that she asked her daughter to give it to her counselor." After months of discussing the new format for communicating with parents during camp, the hard work is finally paying off.

With this scenario in mind, B'nai Brith Youth Organization (BBYO, Inc.) commissioned a study to understand how camp professionals can bridge the information gap between their camps and parents, and to understand the issues, policies, and tools that are accessible to camps in developing a cohesive summer communications strategy.

Our study hoped to provide answers to some of the following questions:

  • What information do parents discuss with their children before they attend a program?
  • What issues would motivate a parent to call a child's cell phone during camp?
  • Is the age-old weekly postcard home still suitable for keeping in touch during the summer?

Understanding the answers to these questions is important for camp professionals when developing their camp communications strategy.

Finding 1
Parents discuss health-related concerns first and foremost with their child prior to camp; perceptions that differ from camp professionals.

With barely a week until the trunk-shipping deadline, Mom asks again, "Son, are you packed for camp?"

Knowing better than to argue, the reply comes quickly and well rehearsed, "No mom, but I will be soon."

Mom has to pick her arguments wisely. Packing is a major responsibility. "Please pack now. Don't wait for the last minute. Okay?"

"Okay, okay, Mom."

To us, it was no surprise that the overwhelming percentage of parents (94 percent) discussed with their child what to pack prior to camp. But after the topic of packing, do parents discuss any other information with their child before putting them on the bus to camp?

At the 2006 ACA National Conference in Chicago, we polled the audience to find out what camp directors thought the answer to this question would be. The top three selections by camp directors were: medications (92 percent); summer goals (60 percent); and family emergencies (60 percent). In the minds of the camp professional community, these were the essential topics discussed between the camper and his or her parent—or at least camp directors hoped they were.

Following what to pack for camp, parents discussed the child's medications (57 percent); alcohol (52 percent); and sex (45 percent) with their child. Parents discussing summer goals and family emergencies with their child prior to camp fell closer to the bottom of list. Interestingly, smoking (30 percent) is the least likely topic parents discuss with their child prior to a camp program—which may be a sign that most parents do not smoke or that years of anti-smoke campaigns are making cigarettes no longer a concern of upper middle class teenagers.

Camp directors should expect that parents discuss topics and issues with their child that impacts his or her health prior to camp. Summer goals and how to handle family emergencies—topics important to camp directors—are not as high as a priority to the parent as camp professionals imagine. A comprehensive camp communication strategy may require sending parents informative steps on how to discuss these topics with their child prior to camp. Additionally, the professional camp community must take these factors into account when children arrive for the first day each summer.

Finding 2
Communication strategies require detailed attention to the speed and accuracy of contacting a parent when a child's health or behavior is an issue.

Your nighttime staff is checking all the bunks to make sure the campers are sleeping. The staffer hears a whispering voice out of Bunk 5: "Mom, I am okay. It was just a bruise. I can walk. Don't worry. I am okay." The staffer walks into the bunk. Should the staffer collect the cell phone from the child because it's against camp policy? Or should the staffer let the child finish the conversation because the camp did not contact the parent after the child got hurt this afternoon?

Camps are no longer inaccessible to the "outside world" because cell phones now work and laptops connect campers to wireless Internet. Information expectations have changed. Our study found that parents have a strong desire for immediacy when dealing with their child's health and behavior issues, and also have zero tolerance for delays.

Our parents sent us a clear message: if their child becomes sick at camp (>90 percent), or if their child is being disciplined (73 percent), parents must be contacted immediately. A comprehensive communication strategy should require policies that camps follow every time a child is hurt or sick, such as an immediate phone call home or an e-mail update. Camps should be forthcoming with this information, no matter how small the issue. Being overly attentive and redundant should not be a camp's worry when approaching these topics.

Other issues camp directors believed parents would want to hear about did not test as strongly as originally hypothesized. These issues include receiving an award (10 percent); changes in the camp schedule (7 percent); or new staffers (<1 percent)—topics camp directors view as important for notifying parents, but were all peripheral in the information that parents desired immediately.

In general, parents are content with information about their child's daily activities through the camp's release of information. However, a nighttime cell phone call to a camper from a parent could be a warning sign that a camp has a void in its communication strategies. This void is most likely a camp's delay in a detailed explanation of any disciplinary action or health-related issue. Comprehensive communication strategies can decrease a parent's desire to dial their child's cell phone.

Finding 3
Camp postcards are out. Camp e-mails are in. The medium that camps must communicate to parents has changed—even if the information is the same.

At the 2006 ACA National Conference in Chicago, we polled the audience to find out what camp directors thought the best parental communication technique would be. The top three selections by camp directors were: weekly handwritten letters from their child (89 percent); weekly e-mails from the program director (66 percent); and weekly e-mails from their child (45 percent).

Times have changed. Only 62 percent of parents look forward to that weekly handwritten letter or postcard. Parents overwhelmingly responded that they would welcome a weekly e-mail from the camp's director giving them an update about their child's activities (90 percent). The next most popular communication techniques were: weekly e-mails from their child (80 percent) and weekly phone calls from their child's cell phone (70 percent).

An additional finding of the study was that the number of children in the family directly influenced whether the parent wanted a weekly e-mail from the child—with large families calling for most information and smaller families generally content with the information they received from the camp.

How do these findings impact how a camp develops their communications strategy? Camps must collect parent e-mail addresses prior to camp. They should designate a staff member responsible for writing the weekly e-mail (not a newsletter) to the parents with updates, reminders, and any camp changes. Camps should also invest and be creative in their approach to e-mail communications.

Our study also found that there are some communication techniques that parents have not embraced. The impersonal pre-recorded phone call messages from the camp director should be prevented at all costs. If parents need to be notified, send an e-mail. If it's urgent, set up a phone system where staffers divide the responsibility of personally calling the parents.

Video-conferencing, a technique we hypothesized would be popular among parents, has not yet reached mainstream acceptance. Parents want to receive information from their children; however, the idea of speaking with their child through a Web cam has not yet reached popular acceptance. We are sure time will change this perception among parents.

Blueprint for a Comprehensive Communications Strategy

Building a comprehensive camp communications strategy involves understanding the issues, policies, and tools that are accessible to camps. Our study highlights the issues parents discuss with their child prior to camp, policies that should be implemented regarding parental notification, and an understating of tools that allow camps to embrace modern technology.

Effective communication strategies allow camp professionals to better understand the needs of all their campers and meet parental expectations. A comprehensive communication plan highlights summer success stories while also marketing future programs. With so many summer choices, managing parents' summer needs and expectations must be a camp priority.

  1. Increase staff awareness of topics parents discuss with their child prior to camp.
    • Parents discuss health and safety issues first and foremost.
    • Proactive steps should be taken by camps to increase the number of parents discussing summer goals and how to handle family emergencies with their child.
  2. Develop processes for immediate parental notification if health or discipline issues arise.
    • A cell phone call to a parent from a child is not necessarily the problem—it could be a sign that your communication strategy has some flaws.
    • Technology has changed information expectations.
    • Camps must implement a zero-tolerance policy for delays in information regarding health and discipline with their child.
  3. Promote parental communication via e-mail and other new technologies.
    • Weekly e-mails from the programming director are now a camp must.
    • Prerecorded phone call messages should be avoided.

 

 

 

 

Methodology
On Sunday, January 29, 2006, ninety-two parents (n=92) were interviewed about their sons' and daughters' experience during the summer of 2005 at a sleep-away camp, a BBYO leadership training program, or on a trip to Israel.

Each survey consisted of fifteen questions and took on average ten minutes for the interviewer to complete. Parents were selected at random from the group of parents whose child attended 2005 BBYO summer camp programs.

Parents were highly responsive to the interviewers and provided information about their households, shared their opinions on the camping programs, and recommended which communication techniques would best to inform them during the summer. A 90 percent confidence level (p=.1) was set for all significance tests.

Description of Sample Population
Mothers (69 percent) were twice as likely as fathers (32 percent) to complete the phone survey. The sample included essentially equal numbers of female teenage participants (52 percent) and male teenage participants (48 percent).

The sample was split into three groups of "camping programs," which consisted of general sleep-away camps (15 percent), BBYO Leadership Camp (49 percent), and trip to Israel (36 percent). General sleep-away camp programs were selected because parents had more than one child and were more comfortable completing the interview based on a sleep-away camping program with which they were most familiar.

Teenagers ranged from fifteen to eighteen years of age. Over 70 percent of the parents interviewed had household incomes over $100,000. Ninety percent of the families had two to three children. Geographic diversity was represented as most major suburbs of U.S., and some Canadian cities were included in the sample population.

Special thanks to Matt Grossman, Executive Director of BBYO, Inc. for his support of this research project. Visit www.bbyo.org for more information.

Jeffrey Hoffman spent his early years at Emma Kauffman Camp and for the past thirty years worked for BBYO, Inc. managing the global camping and travel programs. Today, Hoffman runs JRH Solutions LLC, a company specializing in team building, staff development training, and conflict resolution. Hoffman holds a master's of social work degree from Adelphi University and may be contacted at Jhoffman@jrhsolutions.com.

Bonnie Weberman is an early childhood professional working with the Jewish Community Project and Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York City. She has worked as an art director at camp for ten summers and more recently became assistant director with BBYO summer programs in Pennsylvania. She can be contacted at bonnie_weberman@yahoo.com.

Noah Doyle is a lifetime camper and a graduate of Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be contacted at noah.doyle@gmail.com.

Originally published in the 2007 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.

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