Camp Partnerships -- Byte by Byte

Camp Snapshot

Boundary Waters Computer Camp

Ely, Minn.

Cost per session: $575

Ages: 10-16

Doom is the name of the game a lot of the kids who go to Boundary Waters Computer Camp in Ely, Minn., like to play. But partnership is really the name of the game that underlies the success of this small computer camp.

The partnership comes in many forms, from the symbiotic relationship the camp has with Vermilion College, where it holds its sessions, to the partnership between the camp and its kids and parents.

The camp began seven years ago with a partnership between two colleagues at Vermilion Community College in Ely, Paul Kess and Gary Knopp. Knopp has recently taken on a position with a tech company in Seattle, but his technical knowledge has laid an important foundation for the camp, and he still consults with Kess.

Fun & Games

Ely and the camp that resides in it is in a difficult logistical position for attracting campers to its locale. It sits on the edge of Minnesota's wilderness, the Boundary Waters, and the closest airport is in Minneapolis, some four and a half hours away.

However, that's one of its charms. Access to Boundary Waters and the camp's canoe trips is just the thing a lot of parents of computer-focused kids want.

The trip is held on the weekend between the two one-week sessions, and Kess says that about 30 kids on average will go on the trip.

"We also take them on organized trips during the camp sessions, but you have to pry them away from the machines," says Kess. "We'll cut the classes short in the afternoon sometimes and take them somewhere. We won't take all 60, but we'll take 20 or 30 out to the lake, the International Wolf Center, hiking, and that kind of stuff."

But these are computer kids, and a fairly high-octane computer learning session is what they get. Of course breaks are often composed of interactive and networked computer games, where fingers fly across the keyboard and hands quickly move to the mouse to avoid a temporary virtual nemesis.

"We'll run six or eight specialty kinds of groups, like beginning to advanced website development, which will go all the way to animation, sound and video streaming," says Kess. "Last year we had a professional come in who does interactive, virtual-reality websites for hotels where you're able to move around in the site and click on nodes. We try to bring in some special topics."

The camp also offers Photoshop, multi-media, animation and programming on the software side. Those who tend more toward wires and gadgets are given the opportunity to tear down and rebuild computer hardware.

"There are usually three or four students building their own machines," says Kess. "The hardware working group is probably a dozen kids, and is generally limited to older kids. The first week we tear them apart and try to understand them, and during the second week we push it a little further and move on to actually building the computers. If you're going to do hardware you have to stay both weeks."

The classes tend to be more project-oriented, rather than a straight classroom-lecture learning environment; they learn by doing. They also experiment and beta test, to some degree, Vermilion College's systems and computers, which works well for both the camp and the college.

Back To Business

"We've learned to count on the institutional resources of Vermilion College. It's a small camp with support with from the college," says Kess. "They were willing to help us out and they wanted the camp to succeed as well. Having an institutional sponsor was very important. It means we get access to dorms and the computer system."

Kess says that the college is a good resource for staff, who are often looking for a break in the routine. For example, the college's systems administrator teaches hardware.

In return, Kess says the camp tries to make it as beneficial as possible for the college. It's an integral cog in the working partnership the two share.

"They could see the advantage of having national exposure for their college," says Kess. "When the computer camp gets press we always recognize that it's an association with Vermilion College, so that's a benefit to them. For example, we're also filling up empty college dorm space and we're hiring people to feed us meals."

The camp is now reaching its capacity limit of around 60 campers each session, which heralds success, but also brings about the possibility of too much growth.

"After about the third year we grew in manageable steps where we could handle the growth with the staff we had -- we always upstaffed a little bit and grew to that extent," says Kess.

"Even now, if I was doing it again, I would say, 'Okay, we have 25 this year; next year we don't go more than 35.' I think we got lucky that we didn't get too many. Except last year we grew from 40 to 60 and we were pushing it."

Though a challenge, it's not the worse scenario imaginable. In fact, the first two years of the camp saw a struggle to bring more than 20 campers through the door.

Knopp had worked at another computer camp before starting Boundary Waters with Kess, and some of his loyal students made up the bulk of the camp rolls.

"When we first started the camp we had 15 or 16 kids. The second year was like that, or a little less, and we thought it wasn't worth doing if you can't get more than this," says Kess. "So we bought a direct mail list from kids who responded to a contest in a computer gaming magazine. We thought what could be better than that? We direct mailed out to that list -- about 1,500-2,000 -- and we got three responses. That was just about the time our website went up and in the last three months before camp we picked up 15 more kids just off the Internet. We said to ourselves, 'No duh'."

Now the site is in full swing and Kess reports that response from it beats all other marketing tools hands down. As Kess says, "They're computer kids; they find us."

Kess adds that the site is successful because it's an honest representation of the camp. Browsers will come away with the feeling that they'll learn something, and have fun.

The big hook, of course, is the adventure of the Boundary Waters. The lead photo on the homepage is kids in canoes checking out an Indian pictograph on a rock.

Location, Location, Location

Boundary Waters offers adventure, and getting the kids to the camp, most of whom are from other parts of the country, can also be an adventure.

It can also be a logistical nightmare, but Kess is able to keep that in check because the camp is small enough to keep in touch with parents and coordinate schedules so that airport pickups and drop-offs go relatively smooth.

"We get flight itineraries from every kid who's flying. We've found that you need pay attention to those transportation issues, because if you don't it will cost money and grief. Paying attention to your client is what it amounts to," says Kess.

He's also learned that different airlines have different requirements about minors flying, and that some require someone from the camp to sign for them when they arrive.

Since Kess and his staff run the camp part-time a lot of apparently small issues cropped up that could have easily turned into big issues.

Many of those issues were in the form of those little unanticipated expenses that threatened to eat up the budget rather quickly. A number of those at the same time can create a cash crunch, and Kess became acutely aware of that.

"When you run a two-week camp and you only run 30 credit cards through a system, it gets to be expensive. There are some obstacles to face, because you want to encourage people to use their credit cards," says Kess. "Credit card runs, increased staffing and insurance changes as the camp grows -- those things nibble around the edges. We learned to raise our rates to cover completely unanticipated expenses, and we raised them 10 percent just for that purpose."

Now going into its eighth year, Boundary Waters Computer Camp is on solid footing, and the lessons learned over the years should make future transitions a lot easier. For the moment, Kess plans to keep the camp to no more than 60 campers and will take conservative, well-planned steps to ensure that the initial and simple mission of the camp is fulfilled.

"The original intent was to have a good time and have a good camp," says Kess. "And we've accomplished both."

Bryan BuchkoComment