Warm Welcome

By Nancy Ferguson

On a hot August afternoon, I stepped into the room where I would sleep for the next three nights. It was stuffy and felt at least 90 degrees. A couple of sheets and a postage stamp-sized towel were piled on a chair. In the meeting room, my fellow guests and I moved furniture and dug around in a closet for a flipchart. The food service did not serve groups of fewer than ten people, and there were only eight of us, so we went to a restaurant for dinner and to a grocery store to buy food for the rest of the meeting. By the middle of the next day, no one had been by to check on us. When I went to the office to complain about the shortage of hot water, the office manager challenged my ability to make a judgment about whether the water was hot or not! In a second visit to the office to complain about the water, I was told that no services were provided if we did not buy our meals from the catering service. It was a real nightmare, and I never want to return.

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All of this happened at a small religious-affiliated college that wished to increase its income by offering rooms in the dorms to outside groups. The good news is that the disaster did not happen at a camp or retreat center. The bad news is that the college gave little thought to the ways it could enrich the experience of the guests, nor did it seem to feel any responsibility for doing so.

Hospitality is almost a lost art, but one which reflects the mission of many camps and retreat centers to welcome guests, and to give them the space and support they need to reach their goals. Any sense of welcome was clearly and completely missing in my experience at the college that confused opening its doors--well, actually leaving out keys--with hospitality.

Let’s look at several ways in which camps and retreat centers can prevent similar nightmares for guests and for their own mission.

1. Understand the meaning of hospitality.
The original practice of hospitality began among the desert peoples in the Middle East. It was a moral obligation to welcome a stranger, give him food and shelter, and wish him well as he left. Every host knew that someday he, too, would be a guest.

It remains for us as modern camp hosts to translate the ancient understandings into our contemporary practices. How do we welcome strangers into the camp space, help those guests feel at home, support them in the purposes that brought them, and send them off with good wishes?

A place to begin is to look at your whole off-season usage, and identify the elements that can apply to the practice of hospitality. These include all departments of the camp, from office management, promotions, maintenance, housekeeping, food service and weekend hosting. Once that list is made, evaluate how well you think you do. Invite your staff and maybe even the board of directors into the conversation. Read through past evaluations, or make calls to regular users to gather information about guests’ thinking.

2. Train your staff.
Since hospitality incorporates all the personnel of a camp, take time to train the staff. The people who make the beds, clean the rooms, cut the grass, plan the meals, and turn on the heat/air conditioning need to understand their roles in creating a place of hospitality. Be sure the maintenance staff understands it can’t cut the grass at 7 a.m. just outside the guests’ windows.

The two most important staff members in terms of direct guest services are the person who answers the phone and the weekend host. A caller’s first impression of camp hospitality occurs during the first minute on the phone. A friendly and helpful greeting implies helpfulness; a rushed or distracted answer suggests indifference. Everyone in the office--whether they have direct responsibilities for guests or not--must be able to answer basic questions and locate the reservation schedule.

3. Welcome the group when it arrives.
One of the elements of hospitality most obviously missing upon our arrival at the college campus was a real person to welcome us, or someone who had turned on the air conditioning two hours before we arrived, or set up the room, or pulled the easel out. It would have made a great difference if there was a smiling face to say, “I am glad you are here. What can I do to make your stay more comfortable?”

While it may not always be possible to run out to meet guests at their cars when they arrive, it is possible to have well-placed signs pointing the way to the office or to a person. Whether in the parking lot or the office, the attitude of that person must say, “I am glad you are here. What can I do to help you and your group?” That person also must be willing and free to go with the group to show the members the way and help them set up.

4. Be ready to restore guests when they arrive.
Guests arrive for weekend retreats from chaotic and highly scheduled work and family lives. It is often hard to make the transition from the fast pace of their lives to the slower pace and silence found at many camps and retreat centers.

Restoration will take various forms at different facilities. It may mean having a hospitality area where guests can sit and enjoy a cup of coffee or cold drink, or placing rocking chairs to face the best view of the camp, or putting out fresh chocolate-chip cookies.

5. Care for guests the whole time they are there.
I was a retreat leader at another camp once when the toilet in the ladies room was not working, and someone told the camp host at lunch. He did nothing about it. Later in the afternoon, when the contents of the toilet were running all over the bathroom and into the hall, the host was nowhere to be found and the broom closet was locked.

In this day of cell phones and radios, guests should be able to reach the host at any moment--day or night. That person is not simply to be present at camp, but available and anticipating the needs of guests. Some groups want plenty of care and are exhausting; other groups are independent and merely need a “go to” person. However, as the guests, they are the ones who determine the level of care, not the host.

6. Send guests off with blessings and/or cookies.
While guests are gathering up belongings and packing supplies, do you find yourself turning down the heat, shutting windows, stacking chairs, and putting away recreation equipment? Unfortunately, these activities by camp hosts signal to guests that they should hurry up and leave so the hosts can relax.

While it is neither practical nor necessary to walk down the road with guests, we can take the time to ensure that they know the way back to the main roads. And we can send them on their way with our best wishes, our hopes that we can offer them a place of welcome again in the future and maybe one or two camp cookies. What we want them to remember is that at Camp Hospitality, they felt welcome and their needs were anticipated and satisfied. We want them to leave looking forward to coming back!

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 nanfergi@aol.com.