What I learned from 10 years managing a Camp in America

Patrick Wood

What I learned from 10 years managing a Camp in America Blog Article Branding and Digital Agency Belfast

Spinning all the plates that come in a leisure business

I am a graduate of the business school at Glasgow Caledonian University, with a degree in recreation management and a focus on adventure and outdoor sports. I chose this degree as I’d already found a market sector I wanted to work in. When I chose this degree in 2004 I’d just returned from my second summer in America where I’d spent 4 months working at summer camp as their seasonal head of grounds. This path started with a free afternoon and a Camp America recruitment fair in Belfast, it has lead to a wife, two children, and 10 fantastic seasons at a residential camp in the state of Maine.

By 2010 I was the assistant director of the camp, I had worked on the grounds, been a cabin counsellor and managed the waterfront before that. As the assistant director. I had to wear many different hats. As one of 2 full-time employees at 29 years old, I had a seasonal staff of 70 to hire, manage and sometimes fire.

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Friends made in the states that became a groomsman and a mentor

Summer camp is much more than it sounds. Sure, it’s fun and games on the surface, but we had a typical turnover of about $1.8m, a seasonal staff of about 70 people and up to 220 children on the property at any one time. Our families trusted us to care for their children, their most valued possession for up to 8 weeks. We were their family for 8 weeks.

My seasonal staff dealt with homesickness and summer heartbreaks scrapped knees and sometimes worse. We taught children to sail, paint, act and much more, but all the time we were using these activities to build their 21st-century skills. My director team and I, in turn, cared for our staff in the same way that they cared for our campers. We introduced them to paying taxes, taking personal responsibility and looking after others.

We had campers whose parents were celebrities, politicians, millionaires and even billionaires, but they got the exact same experience as a “normal family” who scrimped and saved to give their children that fantastic opportunity year after year.

Our families trusted us to care for their children, in fact, many of them would be our biggest advocate in their community. For those who wanted to refer us to friends we always made sure to let them know how much we appreciated it by personal notes and calls. We had a pricing policy that meant so long as a family signed up before the end of October for the following summer their fees were the same as the previous year.  They could go 7 years without paying more than their first year. It was our way of showing they mattered to us.

I was a certified American Red Cross lifeguard instructor, and led our waterfront staff through water recoveries, spinal rescues, performing CPR, using an AED and performing first aid. I taught many of our waterski instructors how to drive our competition ski boats. Ensuring that the campers and other lake users were safe at all times (except for that one occasion Erin was driving). I set expectations with staff upon their arrival, we would speak of how we want them to create an emotional attachment with their colleagues, the campers, the property. I also made sure to reinforce that this was a job, that they were paid to do what we asked them.

Becoming part of the local community, developing our ‘Cluster’

Part of our training included opening our camp up for 2 days to our local town and their recreation department. Maine is a reasonably blue-collar state and the town that we were located in was certainly that. Due to the cost of our programme, we recruited almost exclusively out of state.

We recognised the importance of being a part of the community and for that reason, we invited the recreation department and their 60 children in for 2 days before the start of our summer season. We did this to give back to the community and to get the community to buy into the camp.

It was also a valuable teaching tool for our staff, a dry run and de-brief before 200+ children turned up a few days later. We found that when we did this, vandalism on the property during the off-season dropped considerably as the community started to recognise us as part of their community, despite us only being there 4 months of the year. Even coming only for 2 days gave them a sense of ownership and stewardship of the property, many would return to us as seasonal employees.

We developed a scholarship programme where local children could apply to come to camp. Many of our families would contribute to this fund and we would always try and do what we could to help those we felt would really benefit from time with us. There was a strategic element to this, we only offered scholarships in quieter sessions to fill a cabin that would otherwise have been too low in campers so it was a win-win.

That although most of our employees were college students and this was a fun, summer job, it was more than a summer job to me and the owners, this was a career.

We operated a fully elective programme, this means the children can pick and choose their schedule as they want based on their age. Every week, I had to create an activity schedule that offered something for everyone. We would have had roughly 24 different classes going on over the course of an hour-long period, and with 5 activity periods a day, there was lots to keep track of. I managed personal schedules for 220 children, 45 activity staff whilst ensuring activity spaces weren’t double-booked, or under-utilized. Elective activities took place Monday to Friday.

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Although I had to be the big bad boss, it came at a cost as I was always first to be picked for staff Lip-Sync as can be seen here dressed as the little mermaid. Side note, the brunette with the white headband… that’s my wife dressed as Stavros Flatley.

On Saturdays, we packed up the camp and went on a series of trips. Again we gave our campers choices based on their ages. Our oldest could have gone on a zipline tour or white water rafting, and our youngest could have gone whale watching or to a wildlife park. Sundays were then a theme day where we would transform the whole camp into a treasure island, full of pirates or have a wild west day. Saturdays and Sundays were delivered with half staff as we factored in time off. This was then repeated 8 times over the course of the summer. Camp was none-stop from the moment we greeted buses, to the moment we waved them goodbye at the end of 8 weeks.

It took more than campers schedules, trips and theme days to deliver a successful camp season. We had a health centre that needed to be staffed and stocked. We had registered nurses on staff and on the property at all times. We had a fully equipped and staffed kitchen, delivering up to 1000 meals a day. We had an office staff that managed parent communications, weekly camper phone calls home and making sure the 500+ daily photos we were taking were being uploaded and tagged on our CRM so that parents could see what their children had been up to.

I oversaw all aspects of the programme, ensuring it’s smooth running. I gave tours to prospective families, whilst the camp was in full swing. I was the link between the maintenance and property team and the owners. I had started my camp career as a general maintenance operative so I knew the ins and outs of the property better than anyone.  Our camp was on a 250-acre property and had a 50-acre private lake at the heart of it.  We had about 45 buildings and more vehicles to register and insure each year than I care to remember. 

The only thing that we outsourced was laundry. Everything else had a process, a system and a team to look after it.

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Very often that system and process were managed through our camp specific CRM called CampMinder. It was used to track all parent communications, it was the central hub for camper schedules, contact information, health records and trips waivers. Keeping it up to date was essential. Keeping it up to date made our jobs easier and allowed us to focus on the camper experience.

Summer camp is a deeply personal experience for most who attend. Campers get emotionally attached to the staff, their friends and the property. The staff are the same. It’s the way we want it because we know they care. I worked for two different owners of the business. After I had been there for 5 years, there was a transition from the founders to a new couple. Being a leader during that transition was a challenge but something I was determined to give my all to, I recognised that camp needed it. When the ownership transitioned, the new owners felt it was appropriate to change the name of the camp and in turn the ethos too. We transitioned from a liberal arts camp with emphasis on visual and performing arts, to a more mainstream camp, focusing on how we cared for the children and being a summer camp where sports was brought up to the same level as that of the arts, ensuring that there was something for everyone.

Being part of the solution, not the problem

For obvious reasons, the transition was met with pushback from staff and campers alike. As a senior staff member, I recognised the importance of helping the new owners realise their vision for the camp. I agreed that the previous name had marketing limitations that had hindered growth and a new name, Camp North Star Maine, with a more mainstream ethos would greatly assist in marketing the business. We recognised that there were leaders within the campers too, we spoke to them too, reminding them of their responsibility to be leaders within their peer group.

Being a leader during that transition was a challenge but something I was determined to give my all to, I recognised that camp needed it.

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We had to have licenses and accreditations in order to operate as a residential summer camp. These were issued by both the State of Maine where we operated but also by associations we were members of. I was responsible for ensuring our legislative folders were fully up to date and to walk inspectors through the folder and property when it was our inspection. We were members of The American Camp Association (ACA), it is a peer-led association that worked to promote the value and summer camp to the development of a child. I was invited to sit on a committee within ACA called EPIC (emerging professionals in camp) this was to highlight to camp employees that there were numerous career opportunities on a full-time basis when working within the camp sector.

During the off-season, I focused on hiring staff and recruiting families to our camp. I worked with staffing agencies to find suitable employees to meet our needs, based on our programme schedule and where we had gaps that needed filling. If we offered a position, I would then support that person through travel requirements and visa requirements for international staff. Maintaining relationships with staffing agencies was essential to get first pick on staff before they went on the open market to all camps.

By sheer bad luck, the new owners had bought the property and business between the 2006 and 2007 summer seasons right on the eve of the global financial crisis. With 2007 being a transition year before the name change in 2008. As a business that relied on AB families our uptake of campers for 2008 was doubly hit by the financial crisis and the change of name and owners.

Creating that sense of community 365 days a year

Because camp only took place during the summer months, it was essential to create a community that could exist outside of the summer season and away from camp property. We utilised tools like Facebook to build an online community, to keep the camp spirit going 12 months of the year. When attending camp fairs, we used our database to invite local returning families along and say hi, we’d often take them out for pizza and ask them if they had any friends or families who they think should come to camp. We’d also plan two reunions during the off-season around Christmas time where staff and campers would come together for a day to talk about camp, what they are excited about and what they would like to see at camp for the upcoming season. This would help us plan trips, theme days or any new activities that they would like to try.

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Campers aged out of camp and it was my responsibility to recruit as many new families as possible, this was strategic in order to fill gaps in our bunks. We couldn’t just blanket recruit 200 15-year-olds. So it was essential that we were always aware of where our recruitment was for the upcoming season. Again, using CampMinder to its fullest sending automated follow-up messages, tracking where prospective families were in a sales pipeline and communicating with leads, knowing where we had capacity during the summer.

We always said that “Camp was more than a place, it was a feeling” and trying to convey that to interested families was a challenge. For that reason, we regularly made promotional videos where the staff and campers talked about camp and what it meant to them. We had brochures made and would post them to interested families as a starting point and try to follow up by visiting a family in person. I regularly went on home visits with a prospective family and talk to them about our camp. Being able to visit a family, to understand what they are looking for in camp and answer any questions they had was exceptionally valuable to them, and to me, as I learnt about our best fit families and what was important to them when it came to choosing a camp for their child.

I believe that everyone who has worked at a summer camp has a story or a moment that they will hold with them for a long time.  My camp is a place that still feels like a home away from home even though I haven’t been there in 8 years.

Experience based businesses are about dealing with the unexpected

During the summer of 2008, I was the waterfront director. I had a staff of about 20 activity instructors and lifeguards. I was an American Red Cross lifeguard instructor, I had 3 competition ski boats, 2 jet boats, 3 waterfronts to look after and a fleet of 30 sailboats, windsurfers & canoes to manage. I thought I was a pretty big deal, ok, the biggest.  Boardies, flip flops, a good tan and out on the water all summer, it couldn’t get much better, until it all came crashing down one evening.

On that evening in question, I was taking a girls cabin waterskiing for a cabin activity. The cabin was split in two, half with me and the other half with my colleague Nick. In my half, I had a young girl called Erin, she had held off skiing until the end of the night. She was a quiet girl, shy and happy to let everyone else go before her. 

When it came that she was the only one left in the boat that was dry it meant it was her time to get out on the swim platform with me and put on some skis.  

This was her first time waterskiing, so we talked through what the boat would do, what I would do and what she needed to do. All was good until I said, “Ok Erin, can I grab your glasses?”  Silence, Erin’s glasses were thick, like what you imagine when people say coke bottle glasses.  It turned out she really couldn’t see much of anything without them and we were at an impasse.  She wouldn’t go without them and I couldn’t let her go with them.  Of course, I didn’t want to blind the girl if she fell and they broke in her eyes and being in a lake unable to see wasn’t something she was keen to do.  So we were stuck, skis on, on the swim platform, no hiding places…  Silence.  The girls in her cabin understandably weren’t of much help, they were only 9 years old.  Neither was her cabin counsellor, who had suddenly gone very quiet.  I could see the start of tears, it was dawning on me that I had put this girl in this situation and I was highlighting that she was different, or feeling different anyway. I’m sure she’d felt held back by her eyesight before, but to me, it felt like I’d just highlighted to everyone that she was different, couldn’t go skiing, couldn’t do anything.  If the boat could have sunk there and then I might have taken it to get me out of that situation.  But it didn’t, so I had to do something (After a short stand-off).“Erin, I tell you what I’m going to do, Bud (who was the assistant director at the time) really doesn’t like it when campers are upset, so I’m going to break all the rules for you tonight, are you interested”  Head down and silence… 

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“Erin, if you can give me a smile, you’re going to get to do something that no camper has ever done before.  How about that?”  Head down and silence…  “Erin, have you ever driven a ski boat before?”  Eyes immediately opened, the start of a smile, good enough for me.  The skis come off and straight back into the boat and up the driver’s seat!

She loved it and the other girls in her cabin looked on in awe, hooping and hollering at Erin having an absolute ball. At the end of the night when all the girls were walking back to the van I could hear my boatload telling the others how Erin had been driving and waxing lyrical about her, I’m pretty certain that night she was the coolest boat driver at camp.  She definitely seemed to walk with a spring in her step for the rest of the session.

She drove the boat about with me standing behind her helping for the next 10 minutes, up and down the lake crashing through waves and going round and round in circles and generally being a nuisance to other boaters.

It wasn’t until I met Erin that I really understood the difference I could have in a child’s life.  I thought that teaching them to stand on skis was the most important part of my job.  It took meeting Erin to know that the confidence that you can give to a child is what matters. 

Summer camp is about that, finding tools for all situations to craft an experience for every child.  Sometimes it will be the skill you teach them, sometimes it will be a 300hp ski boat you let them drive.  

Summer camp is an experience, just like surfing at Benones is, or having a cooking lesson at Mourne Seafood. We utilized every tool we had at our disposal to make sure the experience we provided our customers was as good as it could be, every day of the summer.

For the last five years, I’ve been using what I learnt in America to help business here understand how they can differentiate themselves from their competitors.

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Delivering a Sport NI programme that gave 30 young people the opportunity to try some sports in iconic parts of Northern Ireland. Surfing at Longline Surf School Benone – Picture by Darren Kidd / Press Eye.

Think Big. Start Small.

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