Ready, Set, Action!

By Karen Offitzer

My husband, a TV and film producer, often compares my summer camp life to a film shoot—a 24/7 job filled with trouble-shooting and dealing with a wide range of personalities. It is dependent on weather conditions, locations, and equipment, and subject to a host of variables that make each and every day an adventure. Like successful filmmakers, successful camp leaders need to maintain a “can-do” attitude in the face of obstacles and sustain a “big picture” outlook.  Here are some Oscar-worthy hints to make sure your camp turns out to be a blockbuster rather than a straight-to-video production:

Script Development
A great movie often begins with a great screenplay, a blueprint for how a film will look, feel, and sound. In the camp industry, we can easily get wrapped up in the necessary off-season activities, such as recruiting new families, improving facilities, and hiring staff members. However, it’s important to set aside time in the early fall to look at the big picture and create the script that will be the plan for the following summer. Filmmakers begin by asking, What do I want people to feel when they see this film? Who is my audience? In camping, the questions are similar:

  • What do we want campers to experience?
  • Whom do we want to attract to our camp?

Hold a “Fall Retreat” with key staff members and request that each person come prepared to talk about the following:

  • What were the summer’s high points?
  • What do you wish you had done differently?
  • What worked in terms of bunking/staffing/programming?
  • What could have been better?

Create a written plan for recruiting, staffing, managing facilities, programming, and training. Put dates on a calendar for follow-up meetings to assess progress toward those goals. Like a good script, an effective plan lays the groundwork for turning great ideas into actionable items.

Once a screenplay is in place, filmmakers begin to choose locations, gather equipment and props, secure permits, and recruit cast and crew. Look at your action plan and ask:

  • What specific details need to be accomplished to reach these goals?
  • Which staff-recruiting fairs will we attend?
  • What new equipment will be purchased?
  • Who will research new trips for the summer?
  • When do we want to schedule staff orientation?

When producers “break down” a film script, they often use highlighters to assign each moment in a film to its proper department. If a scene calls for a character to eat a sandwich, for example, someone needs to make sure that sandwich is on the set on the proper shoot day. Do this with your action plan or to-do list. Take the time to divide a summer plan into steps that you can then assign to various personnel—full-time staff members, head counselors, office staff, and interns—to make sure everything is accomplished. Assign each person a color, grab your to-do list, and highlight away!

Cast And Crew
What would Casablanca be without Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman? Hire top-notch people to be your stars—in the cabins, on the playing fields, and at your activities. While first impressions are important, don’t neglect the “screen test”—this is an opportunity to evaluate the range of staff members. Will they be warm and nurturing when a camper wakes in the middle of the night? Will they be creative enough to run a lacrosse clinic for a group of first-time players? Be sure to think about the scope of abilities you’ll need for each position. Create a list of interview questions that help explore the applicant’s motivations and skills. Finding out what they hope to accomplish beyond the clichéd “I want to work with children” will help determine if they are the best candidate for the job.

It’s often said that movies are made in the editing room, which means that once an editor sees what he or she has—the film footage for a movie, or, in camp terms, the staff and campers—you can move things around for the best possible effect. Ongoing training is an important element for improving staff performance once camp begins. While we don’t often have the luxury of a “re-shoot,” we can—and should—find ways to work with what we have. Build in early evaluations of staff by supervisors, and use those evaluations to decide what training is needed. Are staff members successfully enforcing camp rules? Are they sustaining the energy needed throughout the day? Holding short, 40- to 50-minute, focused sessions in which staff members can reflect on their performance and learn new strategies or techniques can often turn a good counselor into a great one.

Production Team
My husband the producer would find ways to treat his hard-working crew—bringing in a specialty-coffee truck or a build-your-own-taco bar—to keep them happy and motivated on long shoots. We must remember to do the same for hard-working summer staff members. Setting reminders on your calendar to “take the leadership team out for lunch” or to “make ice cream sundaes with staff members” is the best way to ensure that staff appreciation occurs during the busy season. Build in a few events, such as bringing in flowers for office staff, leaving chocolate kisses and a note on group leaders’ beds, stocking the counselor lounge with free chips and soda on movie night—and make sure they happen. Sharing a sincere moment of appreciation is vital to keeping a leadership team happy and motivated.

Red-Carpet Opening
While a cheerful “opening day” will go a long way toward making campers—especially new ones—feel welcome, consider putting some events in place prior to opening day to generate good will and help reduce fears. Movies have “special screenings” for select audiences. Design a “New Camper Day” or “Rookie Day,” and invite campers and their families to visit and meet with staff members prior to the grand opening for everyone. Other pre-opening day activities, such as a Big Brother/Big Sister program, where older campers contact new campers and act as mentors to help them acclimate to camp, can be a positive step toward making opening day a success.

That’s A Wrap
Filmmakers have long used the phrase, “That’s a wrap,” to signal the end of the shooting phase of a movie. While those who work full-time in the camping industry know that it’s never really over, staff members often have a definite end point to a summer, and throwing your version of a “wrap party” can be a well-appreciated form of closure. Consider renting a skating rink, bowling alley, or trampoline park for a final all-staff party. Go big and take the staff on a dinner and dancing boat cruise around the harbor. Simply supplying pizza and treats can be a wonderful way to honor the end of their summer, and to thank them for a job well done.

Like summers, movies come and go, but the best ones have a way of changing our lives. Keep your focus on creating meaningful, life-enriching experiences for campers and staff members, and you just might keep the momentum going through many record-breaking sequels.

Karen Offitzer is the Assistant Director at Camp Schodack in Nassau, N.Y. Reach her at