The Tech Side of Camp

education_technologyby Rabbi Jason Miller

New Brunswick, NJ – As Jewish camp leaders once again convened at Leaders Assembly, the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s biennial conference here in New Brunswick, there was a lot of networking taking place – both in person and via social media. The dozens of ad hoc camp reunions taking place in the hallways of the hotel also materialized into an exchange of best practices for these Jewish camp professionals. The hot topic this year was the use of technology, both in the back office of the camp operations and front and center for campers, their parents and alumni.

What role all of this new technology plays for the Jewish summer camp industry was hashed out in breakout sessions at the camp confab in what were termed “Hot Topics” and also discussed in the “Shuk” where the companies that provide this new technology were camped out. “Do you keep your camper registrations and medical forms in the cloud?”, “Who manages your alumni Facebook page?”, “Have you started Instagram or Pinterest accounts,” and “Which online service do you use for staff background checks” were just some of the questions overheard at the conference.

While many don’t typically associate high tech with the camp world, which for generations was thought of as a low tech industry, there’s no question that camps have come to depend on the latest support applications in the technology world to run their camps efficiently, effectively and safely in the 21st century. After all, while one of the core missions of the overnight summer camp experience may continue to be allowing our youth to unplug from their electronic gadgets for several weeks each summer, the camps charged with that mission must be run like businesses. And that means using the best technology to manage everything from security, registration, financials and medical information to social network engagement, summertime communication and alumni relations.

In one “Hot Topic” session, Sacha Litman, the founder of Measuring Success, demonstrated the importance of using “Big Data” to help camps with their year-round engagement efforts. Big corporations, he explained, have been using “Big Data” for many years and in 2014 summer camps need to utilize the same data tools to acquire new campers and maintain existing relationships with both current staff and the valuable alumni who are now positioned to donate and send their children or grandchildren to the camp. These data measuring tools have been available to camps for years, but most didn’t know how to put that data to good use for philanthropic or camper recruitment and retainment purposes. Litman’s plea that camps focus on engaging their campers twelve months a year rather than in the traditional camp recruitment season was a theme echoed throughout the 3-day conference, which ended Tuesday afternoon.

PPC, SEO, back-linking and analytics are terms that traditionally haven’t been tossed around in the offices that run Jewish summer camps. In the new period of the Internet age, however, summer camps have had to shift their marketing focus to include such things as Google AdWords and pay-per-click advertising on such networking sites as LinkedIn and Facebook. Andrew Hazen, a maven in the field of Internet marketing spoke in a skill building workshop at the conference that was billed as a “Fireside Chat with a Digital Marketing Expert.” Camps have only recently been allocating funding toward web marketing and social media, and Hazen was on hand to advise these camps on how to do it in a more cost effective manner. From targeting the camp’s main demographics on Google and optimizing their Facebook posts to blogging regularly for search engine optimization and analyzing the traffic to the registration page of the website, the camp professions in the session were all ears and frantically jotting down notes on these best practices. The days of asking the youngest professional in the camp office to set up a Facebook page or upload some summer highlight photos to the camp’s Instagram account are about over and a more professionalized Internet advertising and social media marketing era is on the horizon for Jewish summer camps.

Summer camp professionals are undoubtedly feeling the stress with all of the technology that now goes into managing the many aspects of running a camp. CampMinder is one of a few full-service companies that have packaged every thinkable component into the software they sell to camps. Paul Berliner, the COO at CampMinder was on hand at the conference to explain what they offer the 500 camps they currently call clients. Interestingly, Berliner believes that camps should be places that are technology-free zones – aside from the office that is. “Technology can be great if used properly.” He said. “It shouldn’t be a crutch; it should enhance. We’re about building relationships.”

CampMinder, founded in 2001 by former camper and staff member Dan Konigsberg, is the leading web-based camp management and communication system. The team works closely with camp professionals to identify the best practices in camp administration and even publishes an annual print magazine that focuses on the technology camps should be implementing into their management office. Their software, which is being used by an estimated 60-75 specifically Jewish camps, is described as more than just a typical database. Their system claims to be intuitive and runs like the proprietary backend software being used by large corporations, which is how Berliner says camps need to be run. (The Foundation for Jewish Camp received funding from an anonymous donor for a matching grant program enabling 20 camps to utilize CampMinder for their camps.)

Jeff Bowman, a Toronto native, launched CampBrain twenty years ago and in the first year had 19 camps sign up for his database management software. Today, with over 1,000 camps in North America, camps have come to rely on the CampBrain interface for all of their data, financial information, camper registration and even photo albums and e-mail newsletter communication during the summer. Bowman explained that his software is branded to look like the camp’s website so parents have a seamless registration experience and their first impression of the camp is a positive one.

CampBrain is offered to camps as either a desktop version or as a web-based, cloud managed option. Like CampMinder, all of their forms are customizable for the type of camp and includes a robust alumni management system for historical reporting. What parents appreciate, Bowman said, is that they only need one login and password for everything on the website. CampBrain offers camps credit card processing and promises to have complete medical records capability ready for summer 2015. Both CampMinder and CampBrain offer what has been described as the one-way window into camp. Parents (and other approved relatives) can get a taste of what the kids are up to each summer by logging into the website and viewing photo albums and reading newsletter updates from the staff.

One area in which camps have adapted very quickly in recent years has been camper and staff medical information. Just as physicians and hospitals have had to break old habits and are now charting with electronic medical records (EMR), camps also have progressed to digital health care data. Dr. Michael Ambrose, founder of CampDoc.com, held court in the Shuk area and carefully explained why camps should use his software. Launched in 2009, Ambrose collaborated with camp doctors, nurses and directors to improve efficiency and maximize safety in local camp communities. CampDoc experienced over 500% growth from 2010 to 2011 and is still growing exponentially each year while also moving into new arenas such as day camps, day care centers and schools. Only five years ago camps were still using pencil and paper to keep track of campers’ medications and clinic visits. Today, everything is done the same way a hospital manages its patient data thanks to the embrace of new technology and a willingness to adapt.

The general consensus among camp experts is that technology shouldn’t be seen much by the campers who should unplug and have an electronics-free oasis during their summer experience. However, today’s summer camps must be run efficiently with the most up-to-date technology available. It might have taken Jewish summer camps a little longer to fully adapt to the Digital Age, but at the Leaders Assembly conference it was clear that all camps are positioning themselves to be as tech savvy as possible. The evidence shows that Jewish summer camp is a magical experience for thousands of Jewish youth, and the leaders of these camp institutions now recognize that in order to perpetuate their camp’s success they must run them more like businesses. That means exploiting the current technology available and ensuring that each camp’s professional staff has been trained in its use. Embracing the new technology will help camps further their mission and the campers will be the true beneficiaries.

Rabbi Jason Miller is an educator, entrepreneur and social media expert. He is president of Access Computer Technology in Detroit, Michigan. He blogs at blog.rabbijason.com. Follow him on Twitter at @RabbiJason.

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Comments

  1. says

    Jason:
    Great seeing you at our record-setting Leaders Assembly. We fully agree in the growing importance of technology for both the “back office” operations of camp AND the year round engagement of campers, families, and alumni. There were many conversations throughout the conference regarding ways to bring the joyous Judaism experienced at camp back home throughout the year and the use of technology came up time and time again. As I noted in my opening address, this is one of the areas FJC is making a priority in order to increase the positive impact camp has on the lives of those who experience it. We look forward to seeing the progress the field makes and its positive effect on our community.
    - Jeremy

  2. says

    While I wasn’t able to join Leaders Assembly this year, I am happy that technology was a topic of discussion. Another area that technology is making an impact with camps is staff training and development. There are an increasing number of opportunities to begin the staff training process before even coming to camp through online services which allows you the time to deliver more targeted content in person. I spoke about the explosion of online learning and some of these opportunities at the ACA Tri-State Conference last week and would be happy to share my findings with anyone.

  3. says

    Yes, yes and yes Jeremy. FJC is helping to gently nudge camps forward in the Digital Age. Like many others, I’ve been lamenting for years that camps aren’t doing enough during the 10 “non-summer” months of the year to keep campers and staff engaged. The funny, yet sad story of the girl who tells her summer camp counselor during a reunion how Havdallah at camp is her favorite activity. So the counselor suggests she makes Havdallah at home with her family, to which the girl responds that can’t because they don’t live on a lake. Campers yearn for the summer experience year round. Imagine if camps used Google Hangouts, Skype or FaceTime to hold an ad hoc reunion during the school year in which an entire bunk/cabin made Havdallah together (virtually) to end Shabbat. There are endless opportunities to exploit technology to bring the camp experience to the community 12 months a year.

  4. says

    David: That’s correct. Technology can be a terrific resource for camp staff training, recruitment, hiring and assessment. There should be incentives put in place for staff members who take an online course during the school year to become better counselors. There should also be more cooperative learning put in place for staff members to discuss scenarios that take place during the summer and role play. Google Hangouts would be great for that. Israeli staff (mishlachat) could post videos of their daily life in Israel for campers, staff, parents and alumni to view. There are a multitude of ways that camp staff can improve their competency (while bolstering their non-summer connection with camp) using technology and social media.