Oh, the fall! Sometimes we find that the fall is the easiest time for us camp directors. The kids are gone (for most of us, anyway), the weather still lovely and it’s a bit easier to sneak out of the office early for a hike or a soccer game. But, at the same time, the fall is one of if not the most important time in the off-season: It’s when we put the foundations in place for next summer’s success.
So, before fall (quickly) changes to winter, here’s my top 3 areas camp directors need to ponder. Have a look at how your camp does these things—and do it soon…before another summer is upon us!
1. Does our staffing structure work?
What is our actual average camper-to-counselor ratio?
Are we just meeting ACA/state requirements, or is it better than that? In my opinion, the best traditional camps have 1 to 3 or 1 to 4 ratios, max—even for the older kids. Camps for kids with special needs will require even better ratios. Scott Arizala and I have discussed this point in many of our recent webinars – Scott believes many of us are considerably understaffed, and I tend to agree with him. Sometimes even adding on 1-2 additional staff members can make a major difference.
Where were our gaps last summer? How can we prevent them from happening again?
For instance, if you noticed that the lifeguards really seemed stressed out last summer, dig deeper into that issue. Is it because of poor waterfront leadership? Or is it because there were not enough lifeguards—and they were too tired to do the job well and enjoy it? Both issues require your attention in this planning phase. Find some preventative solutions.
Do we have a fair and competitive pay rate for seasonal staff?
There’s a prevalent argument among camping professionals that our counselors should not be doing the job “for the money.” And that’s true to some extent—we want our counselors to believe in the work and the missions of our camps. But at the same time, we need to make sure we are being fair to our counselors and are paying them a respectable wage. And, let’s face it—now that the Great Recession has passed, our counselor prospects now have more options with paid internships, etc. If we can afford to pay enough to keep competitive with these other options, we will be less likely to lose staff. In my opinion, it's also the right thing to do.
Are we evaluating summer staff? Is the way we do it working?
In my opinion, seasonal staff members should have 2-3 evaluations throughout their summers at camp. Fall is a great time to plan an effective evaluation practice for your camp. There are a million reasons why this is important (I think I’ll do a blog post on it!). Email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you are struggling to find a place to start in the meantime.
2. What do I need to remember in the budget?
Have I planned for summer staff appreciation?
This is not a giant add-on to your budget, but this is often overlooked. I recommend adding at least $10-$20 per seasonal staff member to your budget for summer staff appreciation events and items. It’s not a lot if you plan for it, and things like staff parties, small gifts and special snacks can go a long way to making sure your staff feel valued and motivated this summer.
What outside resources do we need for staff training?
Now is the time to get a quote from and schedule any special trainers you want to bring in for your admin or staff week, whether they are CPR instructors, archery experts or camp consultants (shameless plug—myself included). Think about the speaker fee in terms of what you are paying per staff member and also think about collaborating with other nearby camps for trainings if you don’t think your budget will quite make it. Outside trainers can bring in the extra spark your camp counselors need to rise to their potential.
What is our professional development plan?
Now is the time to research the conferences that would be good fits for you and your staff for the upcoming year. Try one you’ve never been to before, and don’t forget to save some dollars (if possible) for your emerging leadership staff. Sometimes a conference experience is all it takes for someone to realize that camping can turn from a seasonal job into a career.
3. How are our camp's communications?
What is our social media plan? What platforms are we using? Do we have a calendar?
I recommend interviewing audiences that you want to connect with using social media (campers, young alumni, parents, general alumni, etc.) and see what they’re using. If no one visits Twitter on a regular basis, lay off. It’s time to refocus your efforts. Also go ahead and follow some other camps on your social media platforms of choice—you’ll get a lot of great content ideas! Once you do your research, craft a plan for the next year and detailed plan for the next three months. Execute!
Is our website easy to navigate?
Get a few volunteers of all ages, and watch them use your camp’s website. Ask them some questions to see how navigable your website is, and prepare to adjust your site according to their feedback. Here’s some sample questions:
o Show me how you’d sign a kid up for camp.
o Figure out what to pack for camp.
o Email the director.
Do we have top-quality photographs of our camp?
(This also pertains to the budget section). It’s great to have a counselor who takes pictures throughout your session, but I also highly recommend hiring a professional photographer to come in for a few days and really capture the magic of camp. At Camp Tall Tree, photographer Roderick Cooney joined us for the full week. His photos were breathtaking and make all the difference in the Tall Tree marketing materials, and he travels to other camps to do photo shoots. If you're looking locally, wedding photographers are also available during the week and could give you a deal on these off-days--contact them for price & schedule--now!