The Right Stuff

By Gary Forster

Quick! What are the most important tasks your facility crew, program staff, administration and food service must accomplish before this summer?


I’ll make you a safe bet--you won’t get them all done.

The complete success of your camp this year depends not so much on what you put on your list, but what things you actually accomplish. You have limited resources, the most limited being time and money. How do you set priorities? What should you put on the top of the list?

Fix What?
Most of the time we gather our staff and decide what needs doing. But often we’re too close to our own camp, blind to those things we see every day. I visit over 60 camps a year and ask, “How come you’re not full?” Way too often the answer is, “We don’t know.”

But your CUSTOMERS know. Ask the parents, ask the campers. Don’t rely on surveys; call them on the phone; buy them a cup of coffee. Start with your evaluations. Do they talk about your bathrooms? There’s a place to start.

Fix How?
To make the best decisions, you need lots of good ideas. Dedicate yourself to collecting them. Visit your competition: not just other camps, but your favorite restaurants, resorts and amusement parks. Always carry a pocket camera and take pictures of great ideas: bathrooms, lighting, walkways, signs, buildings, colors ... every photo worth a 1,000 words!

Subscribe to magazines. You can get a whole year’s worth for the cost of buying two copies at the bookstore. Camp Business, of course, but also things like Family Fun and The Journal of Light Construction or Fine Homebuilding.

Grab a Log Cabin Living at the checkout line if it has great pictures. Without travel or hotel expenses, magazines are like a conference that fits on the back of your toilet tank. Keep scissors handy,- and cut out pictures and articles. Collect them in file folders, or better yet on a bulletin board in your office, where they’ll inspire creative solutions.

The items on your "needs" list start to pair up with the best ideas you've collected to create potential solutions. Now you have projects competing to be next on your "to do" list.

Fix First?
I've developed a rating system that attempts to place a value for each potential project. It formalizes the rules you might already be using--"a project that benefits lots of guests should be done before a project that benefits just a few." The higher the criteria, or the more criteria a project addresses, the higher the potential benefits to your camp. Once you agree on the value of each project, it becomes relatively easy to decide which ones are done first.

Another reason? Feelings get hurt when your staff doesn't understand why one project is picked over another. If you agree on the criteria that are used for making facility decisions, your staff not only comes to a consensus sooner, but also improves the quality of the solutions they propose.

Safety First, Then Growth
I like to use a “storyboard” to rank projects. Put each project on a different 3 x 5 card. Then, with your key staff, use the “Decision-Making Criteria” (see sidebar) to rate each job.

One factor is the ultimate priority: immediate health and safety issues. You can’t make a good excuse for putting them off. Mark them with a star.

Next, a heavy weighting goes to those projects that will generate new revenue, often by filling empty beds or increasing capacity during your most popular weeks. I call that a “Universal Priority.” This one category alone will help your staff understand how their efforts can affect the bottom line. Mark these cards with an “up” arrow.

Now comes the ranking. Those tasks that will have an impact on the largest number of guests are ranked a “One.” It could mean that it improves the experience of most of your campers and parents, or removes a major aggravation. Rank “Two” those projects that will have the greatest benefit to only a portion of your campers and parents. Many parent complaints fit this category.

What about the staff? Priority “Three” are those jobs that will help make your staff more effective with campers and guests, more productive with their time and better role models. When you make the right thing to do easier, you get much more out of it.

Our fourth priority goes to those ideas that will save resources (time, money) that can better be applied elsewhere. If you can help the staff be more efficient, you’ll save hours; save resources and you’ll save money.

What if a project doesn’t fit one of these ratings? It may be somebody’s favorite, but it shouldn’t be done until the others are completed. It goes to the bottom of the board, and only gets started if all the others are finished.

Side Effects
By using these criteria with your staff on a regular basis, you’ll all start seeing things around camp in this light. Little things that seemed invisible take on a whole new importance when you measure them by their effect on your guests. Take a walk-around every building and program area in camp with the camp director and property manager and you’ll get a “punch list” of customer-oriented jobs that can efficiently be knocked off before summer and bring satisfaction levels to a new high.

What is the biggest reward? Your campers, parents and staff will notice you’ve gone out of your way to show you really care.

Gary Forster recently retired from a full career in organized camping. He still speaks at conferences and volunteers. Reach him at