1. They happened to be cruising by on their pontoon boat during your very loud and very intense Darth Vader/Luke Skywalker skit
2. They’ve seen you at Walmart with a cart fit for a doomsday prepper (50 lbs. oatmeal, 45 containers hand sanitizer, 10,000 tablets Benadryl and six BB guns, among other necessities). You were also by yourself but mysteriously wearing a Walkie Talkie...
3. They witnessed the time you sent two counselors in full body paint to the ER with the camper who broke his arm (although they were relived to find out that the painted teens were not the child's parents, they still told all of their friends)
Was that you, or was that me? Nevermind....Whether or not you have sent two fully-painted counselors to the emergency room, now is the PERFECT time of year to hatch your plan to work on building up your relationships with your camp’s neighbors. Here are some tried and true strategies to not just get to know your neighbors, but to build lasting relationships with them:
1. Invite them to camp: And not just in the open house kind of way.
Identify your town’s key players, and invite them for dinner. I’ve invited out local volunteer fire department for dinner during staff training week. It’s a blast, and it serves multiple purposes: First, the fire department comes for a walking tour of the site. They become more familiar with the lay of the land and can point out any fire hazards they might see (this is great to do before your fire inspection). Then, they can have a delicious dinner with the staff—we show that we appreciate their hard work and what they do for camp. Finally, they can bring their trucks onto camp for a test run! This is really helpful and the staff members are as giddy as 8-year-olds when they get to climb on the trucks and pose for selfies.
After one of these dinners, we learned that our canoe launch is the perfect location for pumping out of the lake in case of a fire at our facility or any of the nearby homes. We gave the fire department permission to do so in an emergency. This was a great realization for us and for them! You could even have the fire department participate in one of your emergency drills and provide you with feedback.
Bonus point: invite your local police department for a similar dinner. It can serve the same purposes, as well as one more important purpose: Now your officers know your staff, and your staff know the officers…providing an extra incentive for everyone to behave this summer.
2. Go to their events
The local cottagers’ association picnic? Representatives from your camp should be there, in crisp branded shirts. The Fourth of July Parade? What a great time for a selection of campers to march. Decorate the mini-bus, the camp pony, the tractor—whatever they want to do! Prepare a banner and pass out stickers or other goodies to the revelers, and have plenty of brochures on hand. What a great chance to have a presence in the community as well as be visible for prospective camp families!
3. Read the news
Subscribe to the local paper or get digital news alerts (Google Alert) for your town. When news happens, see how you can respond. Get in the routine of always send congratulatory cards to new public figures (especially folks like the chief of police, mayor, school superintendent, etc.) welcoming them to their new role in the community and inviting them to visit your camp. You never know what good will come of it: you want to be partners with your local law enforcement, of course, but one of my best results was when I connected with the superintendent of our local district: he was not only a “camp person”, but a US Archery instructor! He volunteered his time during our staff training to work with our archery staff but also helped repair much of our equipment. What a good friend to have! On top of these small habits, also think big when (heaven forbid) there are crises in your town. Your camp may have the resources to provide food, lodging and safety in case of a natural disaster or otherwise. Always read bad news with the lens of “how can we help?”.
Bonus point: Get in the local news. Oftentimes when camps try to get PR, they think about getting it in the towns where their campers mostly live. There are a lot of opportunities to get your stories told in your local media outlets as well. Make connections with journalists at local publications and send them tips or even great photos.
4. Hire Local
One of my most colossal disasters was in my first year as the camp director. We were building five new cabins that year, and I signed off on using the same contractor for the project that had done some major work there just a couple of years before. The problem was that this contractor was from downstate. He brought up his own team of not just carpenters but electricians, plumbers, etc., had them stay in a local motel, and then, when the project was done, they all went home (with all of their money). He may have been a little bit less expensive than some of our local contractors, but the cost savings was not worth it. It ticked off our loyal contractors in the area, and when we needed help on camp, they were reluctant to do so. It took a long time to rebuild the relationships we had burned by only using our local contractors at our convenience. I never again hired an out-of-town contractor for a big job. If our electrician can be there for me on Memorial Day when I’ve got a group coming and the power mysteriously won’t turn on in the bathhouse, I can return his loyalty by asking him to bid on our larger projects.
This goes for your local grocer, t-shirt printer, doctor, etc. Always be looking 1, 5, and 25 years down the road when you’re making these types of decisions.
5. Develop local scholarship opportunities
A few years ago, an elderly camp alumnus passed away. His widow wanted to make a contribution to the camp. In his later years, he had retired in the same area as our camp, and had been active volunteering with the local school district. Rather than a basic memorial plaque, I suggested that the memorial contributions be put toward scholarships for campers who were from the local school district. This was wonderful. Even though the campers were from just down the road, they still benefited tremendously from their experiences at camp, and we loved having them. An article was written in the local newspaper about their scholarship awards, and the program still continues. It was a tremendous way to honor our alumnus and also show the community that we care about their kids, too.
Conclusion (just in case you didn't want to read the whole thing)
Overall, it’s all about meaningful, honest RELATIONSHIPS that, once developed, become mutually beneficial. I guess I could have just said that in the beginning!!
What are your tips for developing strong relationships with your camp’s neighbors? Leave them in the comments!