- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 10, 2006

For the third straight summer, Stacey Weiss will be sending her 11-year-old twin boys to Camp Echo in Burlingham, N.Y. Yet even though they will be away for eight weeks, Mrs. Weiss will be able to keep tabs on her children through photos on the camp Web site.

“I really love the Web site. It adds comfort to a parent when your child is away,” says the Woodcliff Lakes, N.J., resident, who will be logging on to the password-protected site to find out what her twins are up to this summer.

Over the past few years, a growing number of camps have tapped the expertise of Internet start-up businesses for e-mail services, online videos and photos to help parents stay in touch with their children. Companies such as Bunk1.com, Thriva LLC (which operates ECamp and CampRegister), Dial M for Mercury Inc. and Camp Channel Inc., say such tools are helping camps market themselves to parents at a time when anxiety about children’s safety is high in the post-September 11 era.

“Camps are looking more and more at technology as a means to assuage parents’ fear,” says Paul Fisher, president and chief of Dial M for Mercury Inc., which installs cameras to stream video to camps’ Web sites. This summer, it’s offering camp clients an Internet-based automated telephone messaging service.

So far, such services appear to be making parents more comfortable about writing checks for summer camp. Deb Bialescki, senior researcher at the Martinsville, Ind.-based American Camp Association, reports a general rise in camp enrollment after the $20 billion industry suffered two consecutive summers of enrollment declines following the terrorist attacks in 2001. The trade association, which comprises 7,000 camp professionals, estimates an average increase in enrollment of 1 percent to 3 percent for this year over the comparable period of 2005.

This summer, Peg Smith, chief executive of the American Camp Association, says she believes camps eventually will be supplying podcasts, downloadable audio files similar to radio programs.

Some camps operate their own Web sites, but many have turned to Internet companies with expertise in video formatting and other areas for better sound and visual quality. Ari Ackerman, founder and chief executive of Bunk1.com, says some clients do their own videos but send the company clips for formatting on the Web.

Meanwhile, companies such as Bunk1.com and ECamp.net offer systems to help parents send e-mail to the camps’ Web sites for their children.

Although the technology allows parents to communicate with their children, it also might make some parents a little obsessive, poring over photos as they worry about their children or trying to stay constantly in touch with them. Until the arrival of the Internet and cell phones, children tended to call home from camp about once a week.

Christopher Thurber, a clinical psychologist at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H., who also is a consultant to camp operators, says some camps allow children to bring laptop computers and cell phones with them. That’s a bad idea, he says.

“Camps were originally created to provide a different experience than [children] receive the other 10 months of the year. The more technology you add, the less special and unique the experience becomes,” Mr. Thurber says.

Mrs. Weiss acknowledges that in the past, she tended to look obsessively at her children’s online camp photos. She says she’s getting better at not doing that.

“You can’t analyze over every single snapshot,” she says. Still, she says she and her husband, Eric, plan to e-mail her sons, Benjamin and Alexander, each night while the boys are away.

The new technology can make it harder for camp directors such as Sandy Cohen, whose Camp Marimeta in Eagle River, Wis., posts about 60 photos daily of campers on its Web site during the summer season.

“I get calls from parents who are concerned that their child didn’t look happy in the photos,” he says.

Mr. Cohen is thinking about having streaming online video, but he says he gets concerned about how much information should be available.

That has led start-ups like Bunk1.com to be more sensitive.

“Whatever we do, we try to make it as unobtrusive as possible,” says Mr. Ackerman of Bunk1.com, which has 2,000 camp clients, primarily in the United States.

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