By Nancy Ferguson
Try this exercise: Leave your camp, and then drive back, thinking about what you see through the eyes of someone who has never been there before. Ask staff to do the same, and then discuss your observations. Think seriously about the first impressions of guests and how to make them feel more welcome. Right or wrong, first impressions are hard to forget or dismiss.
Upon entering a five-star hotel, you will find trained staff, pleasant, peaceful surroundings, careful signage and quality services. Someone takes your bags and directs you to registration. Your car is parked for you, and your questions are answered. When you arrive in the guest room, the beds are made, the room is clean, the towels are fluffed, and the signs direct you to the services provided. Maybe there are mints on your pillow and the bed is turned down. Every attempt is made to make you comfortable.
Although your camp may not be able to compete with the amenities offered by a hotel, here are six steps you can take to create a welcoming atmosphere for guests:
1. Dedicate a space
This is where guests gather when they first arrive. It may be a whole building or just a room. Even if a room has to be shared with other camp functions, ensure that part of it is specifically designed for guests.
2. Put up signs
There are few things more frustrating than not knowing where to go when arriving at a camp or center. Mark the way to the welcome center clearly from the entrance of the property for those who don’t know the way; this will immediately make them feel comfortable. Be sure that signs direct guests at each fork in the road so there is no question which way to turn. Be sure the welcome center is marked clearly so they know they have arrived.
3. Define the purpose
In dedicating a space, copy the practices of the five-star hotels--make it peaceful and calm by the use of color and arrangement of furniture. Include an enlarged map on the wall with a stack of smaller copies nearby. Mark the maps with a “You Are Here” arrow so guests can become familiar with the facilities. Be sure there is space for folks to move around--especially important when many people are arriving at once. Make hot water, coffee or cold water available all the time; during peak times of guest arrival, consider offering the camp’s favorite cookies on several plates placed around the space. Include signs for the closest restrooms.
4. Train your staff
While a designated space is important, a person who expects guests and is ready with information should be present. Define the requirements of hospitality in specific terms, such as greeting guests within two minutes, smiling, having paperwork and helpful information available, etc. Give this staff member a nametag or facility shirt so guests will have no problem identifying him or her.
5. A clear, accessible path
If you have to use an office or lodge as a dedicated welcome space, be sure it is clear of boxes, piles of notebooks, assorted papers and record storage. The space should say, “We are glad you are here” and “We want to help you feel at home.” Get rid of anything that takes away from that message. Be sure that guests can get in and out of the space easily, even if their mobility is limited.
6. Use the space to your advantage
A guest may first visit your camp to attend a retreat, but be sure that he or she knows what else is available. A welcome center is a great place for stacks of summer brochures and newsletters, information about the ropes course and the upcoming quilting retreat. Be sure that guests know who owns and operates the camp or center. Display items from the camp store, and let guests know how to pay for them. Consider having small, often-forgotten items, such as toothpaste, soap, shower caps, etc., available for free or for a small charge.
While the idea of a dedicated space may seem either unrealistic or unmanageable at your camp at the moment, apply as many of these ideas as possible to the space you have available now. Then set a long-term goal to create a center by building something new or reassigning space. Whatever you do to enrich hospitality, it will pay off with repeat business!
Nancy Ferguson is an Outdoor Ministries consultant, specializing in the creation of program resources for faith-based camps. She is the author of several books, including Training Staff to be Spiritual Leaders. She can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org