Online Registration

By Doug Schoenberg

The number of camps offering online registration continues to grow dramatically, due to its popularity with parents and the benefits to camps. However, online registration may not make sense for every camp. This article covers some basics for you to consider.

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What Is Online Registration?
Online registration doesn’t always mean the same thing to everyone, so let’s get some clarity. Putting a printable PDF of the application form on your Web site is not online registration. A simple online form that generates an e-mail containing the data that was entered is a type of online registration, but with no integration to an enrollment database, it falls short of achieving the full benefits to your camp or for the person registering. This approach is roughly the equivalent of going to buy a plane ticket online and not knowing if the flight is available before choosing your seat or paying for it. It also wouldn’t be very efficient if a registration agent had to enter all the information again into the airline’s system.

A comprehensive solution for online registration should allow parents to:

  • Provide all the information you need on the camper and the parents in a way that you won’t need to reenter it

  • Allow time to review and choose sessions, as well as session options (e.g., transportation, insurance, optional activities, etc.)

  • Know if a preferred session is already full, potentially with the ability to express interest in being put on a waiting list for the session

  • Pay a deposit and/or the full fee

  • Receive instant confirmation that the process has been completed successfully

Note that several of these items might suggest that online registration means online acceptance, but you should always view and communicate to parents that this is an online application process. For most camps, many complex factors go into determining if you can or should accept an application, and it is usually unrealistic to expect that an online registration tool is going to be able to incorporate all of these complexities. The approach that we’ve found most successful is to have all online forms “held” for review. You or your registrar can then quickly and easily scan them and decide which to accept, which requires some additional action, such as calling the parent, and which needs to be rejected or put on a waiting list. Unlike the analogy I used earlier, camp slots are not generic commodities, like an airline seat.

Why Offer Online Registration?
The primary benefit of online registration is to make it as convenient as possible for people to register while also dramatically reducing the work involved for you and your staff. This obvious win-win comes from the fact that a well-designed process can:

  • Eliminate data entry and hard-to-read handwritten forms-- registrants type in the information themselves

  • Encourage prompt registration by allowing it directly from your Web site, e-newsletters, etc.--24 hours a day, 7 days a week

  • Reduce postage and mailing expense

  • Enhance the professionalism of your camp

  • Provide more immediate insight into the success of your marketing efforts, as well as current enrollment levels and remaining capacity.

Furthermore, today most parents expect and appreciate the ability to interact with organizations online.

What Kind Of Camp Are You?
There are many aspects of online registration that vary significantly based on the type of camp you operate. For instance, traditional overnight camps often have only one or two sessions, whereas sports, faith-based camps or camps operated by recreation departments frequently offer a large variety of sessions. Similarly, the type of information that needs to be collected during registration can vary widely.

As a result, there really is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution for online registration. Effective solutions will require quite a bit of “customization” to effectively accommodate the specific needs of your organization. I use the word “customization” cautiously here because I don’t mean to suggest that you must hire a programmer to develop your own online registration forms and process. For most camps that would be prohibitively expensive and, more importantly, would likely result in much unnecessary “reinventing the wheel.” It is far better to use a pre-developed solution that has proven successful for other camps like yours, but still provides sufficient flexibility for the vendor (or you) to set up the forms to fit your organization.

Do You Want To Accept Payments Online?
Online registration doesn’t have to include online payment, but since almost all camps require at least a deposit to consider an application complete, it does usually make sense to include payments in the process. The simplest method of online payment is via credit card, though some camps may want to offer registrants the ability to pay by e-check (known as Automated Clearing House, or ACH payment).

For online payments there are important areas to consider:

Security of Process--Securing all data collected in an online process is obviously critical, but it is paramount in regard to payment information, such as credit card numbers. The credit card industry has several initiatives you may have heard of by their acronyms—Payment Card Industry (PCI) or Cardholder Information Security Program (CSIP)--that continue to impose tighter rules on the handling and storage of credit card data. The bottom line is that you should not store credit card information unless absolutely necessary, and if you do, it must be secured. In computer terms, this means both password-protected and encrypted, with similar protection of paper records that include credit card information.

Any process that transmits credit card numbers via e-mail is absolutely NOT secure! Even processes that collect credit card numbers on paper applications can open your camp to substantial fines if the data is ever misappropriated.

Additional Payments--Unless your camp requires payment of the full tuition with the application, you also need to consider how you will collect subsequent payments when due. This can, of course, be done via mailed checks, but a good online system can also provide better options for both you and the parents.

Here are two methods worth considering:

E-invoices with online payment option--You e-mail invoices to communicate charges and outstanding balance while also making it convenient for the recipient to make the payment via a built-in “Pay Online” link. Again, the right technology can do this with virtually no data entry for you or parents.

Preauthorized payment collection--Here parents agree to have their subsequent payments processed automatically when due. With the appropriate technology for securely storing credit card or bank account information, this type of subsequent payment can be processed with virtually no extra effort.

Methods of payment--Although credit and debit cards are a convenient and popular form of payment, they can be more costly due to the discount percentage fee involved. For many camps, a great cost-saving option is to also offer payment by ACH (sometimes referred to as e-checks). These are direct debits to the person’s bank account and can be less costly since they typically involve just a small per-transaction fee rather than a percentage of the payment amount.

Be aware that many systems for online payments do not support ACH/e-check payments, so look for one that does if you think this option may be valuable to your camp.

Final Thoughts
There are, of course, many other issues to consider in online registration. For instance, if you’d like to learn more about electronic signatures, handling secondary forms for additional children, medical data, etc., you can download a copy of the Seven Secrets to Online Registration Success at www.softerware.com/online-registration.