Breaking Through

How do you gear up for the first week of camp? Do you live by a to-do list, checking off and adding to the details of what needs to be done? Or, do you use the instinctive approach, working with your staff, talking about last year's opening and identifying the details that still need attention?

However you approach the preparation for the opening of camp, there is one critical element that can get lost in the midst of knocking off those details of ever-growing checklist -- investing in strategies to "tune up" your camp spirit.

It's easy to get lost in the mechanical details to prepare for the opening of camp, from hiring a dedicated camp staff, processing the vital paperwork, acquiring new equipment, reviving the camp facilities, revamping camp programming, and ensuring that the meals and accommodations rival home. But how much time and thought have you invested to developing a strong, camp spirit?

If you ask campers, parents, counselors and camp administrators what camp spirit is, you will probably get a wide variety of answers. But what most camp members will agree on is that everything about camp is more fun and a lot easier when there is a strong sense of belonging, pride, and a "can do" attitude shared by everyone.

The focus of this article is to offer some strategies for camp administrators that they can add to their preparation checklist so that attention is given to that key ingredient of camp spirit.

Spirit in Mind

First and foremost, I would recommend using one of internationally recognized management expert Steven Covey's principles of highly effective people, "Begin with the end in mind."

As you envision your campers arriving with their parents on day one, try to put yourself in each person's shoes. The following strategies can help you to discover ways to create excitement and anticipation that this camp is going to be great rather than the feeling that this is going feel like boot camp.

The Parents' Perspective: What would help them feel at ease and excited about their arrival? If you can envision parents who are arriving with a car full of luggage, navigating with printed directions, experiencing a mixed bag of emotions about entrusting their children to people who they probably don't know, you may start to rethink the process of the camp opening.

Are there enough signs that can direct parents who really don't know where they are going? Are there friendly, energetic, staff people directing them to the best parking spot to complete registration? Are there enough checks and balances so that there are no surprises about campers' unpaid tuition, incomplete medical histories, assignments to cabins, and so on?

Have the staff members who are in charge of registration had enough training and experience to handle problems with ease and expediency? What about restrooms, are they easily accessible for people at registration?

How can you express a strong sense of hospitality? This can be expressed by offering refreshments, camp tours, and meeting the key counselors who will work with their children, among other hospitality strategies.

How can the parents get all their children's get "stuff" to their cabin with the least amount of hassle? Trying to see the situation from a parent's perspective can uncover a lot of new ideas for cultivating a positive camp spirit.

The Campers' Perspective: What do campers see when they first arrive? Young people respond to visuals -- balloons, a sign welcoming back the camp veterans, a sign welcoming the newcomers, photos of the camp staff members with a bio and why they love camp, and a display that shows action shots of all the activities that campers can look forward to.

Who do they see when they first arrive? Hopefully, every camp staff knows the importance of a warm smile and making the registration a seamless transition into meeting new friends and getting involved in camp activities. Long bouts of waiting on day one (or any other day for that matter) can drain camper enthusiasm and breed homesickness.

The Staff Members' Perspective: Do staff members understand their roles as camp ambassadors? A very effective exercise is to ask the staff members to share their experiences (the good and the bad) about their first day of camp. Not only can this give you additional insights for improvement but can help them see this venture from the campers' perspective.

Having the staff identify ways to improve day one can empower them to own the way they can affect camp spirit. Instilling a "can do" attitude and staff pride in the camp can truly transform a camp. When your staff buys into a mindset of "attitude is everything" you are on your way to cultivating great camp spirit.

Have they been told to dress to impress? Wearing a wrinkled staff shirt or looking like someone who has just rolled out of bed, can make a really negative first impression on everyone and it can create a drag on camp pride.

When I have encountered staff members who just don't get it when it comes to appearance, I take them off the case and make it clear what they need to do to get back on it. It is just that important to establish a positive tone.

Are there enough staff members to do it right? The registration tables should be adequately staffed so the lines don't grow too long and so that there is someone available to retrieve information at another location.

Also, breaks should be scheduled so that the last campers to register don't see weary people limping into the next camp activity.

The Camp Administrators' Perspective: Even though most of your "heavy-lifting" is done by the time opening day arrives, you are probably in a position to have the greatest impact on camp spirit. Your presence carries the weight of camp leadership.

You are the point person in problem solving, decision making, and evaluating. As you cruise the camp during its opening, take the time to acknowledge what is going well by complimenting your staff, patting yourself on the back for hiring them, and greeting parents and their children with the enthusiasm that they going being treated to a truly, outstanding camp.

Leaders who exude confidence, enthusiasm and pride in a job well done can be contagious!

Dr. Susan Langlois has more than 25 years of experience as a college professor, athletic administrator, camp director and sport facilities consultant. She is currently the Dean of Sports Science at Endicott College.

Bryan BuchkoComment