Fresh Tips for Running a Better Summer Camp Business: A Look at Operations

by Daniel Zenkel

In the 2009 November/December issue of Camping Magazine, we discussed sales and marketing tips to help run a better camp business. But, like any well-run business, camps need to be concerned about more than just sales and marketing. Serious consideration should also be given to the following tips on operations, maintenance, capital expenditures, purchasing, and leadership. Not all tips apply to every camp; however, the principles behind them are helpful and worth considering.

Operations

There is general agreement that hiring, training, and supervising staff remains the most important aspect of running a successful camp. The tips below reflect the results of recent focus-group research with groups of top performing, first- year resident camp staff. They also square with the advice of well-respected camp consultants.

  1. Use strengths to recruit staff. The surest way to appeal to a prospective staff member is to discuss his or her field of professional interest (e.g., child development, coaching, teaching, etc.) and to emphasize how the camp experience will better prepare him or her for that field.
  2. When seeking specialty staff, consider where you post job openings. The context in which a prospective, first-year, specialty counselor learns of a camp job is as important as the job's description. Prospective specialty staff, those who instruct campers in a particular skill such as music, dance, or soccer, begin their search by conferring with people in their field (teammates, coaches, teachers, and advisors) or by visiting Web sites focused on their field of interest. You can best capture the attention of these candidates by advertising on these specialized sites or by soliciting referrals from figures of authority in specialized fields.
  3. Plan the interview. The staff interview is a marketing opportunity. Top prospects want to work at a professional organization with high standards. To meet that standard, interviewers should ask challenging, probing questions. They should also consider scheduling more than one interview and should communicate the process for conducting thorough reference and background checks.
  4. Assure first-year staff that you will help them get to camp. Many new staff are anxious about travel to camp. Even if the candidate does not raise the issue, you should address it and provide the necessary assurances.
  5. Don't be afraid of technology. While face-to-face interviews remain effective, camps need not travel thousands of miles to recruit staff. Many successful camps save money by recruiting great staff online and interviewing them over the Internet.
  6. Discuss openings with returning staff. Returning staff are your best source for new staff referrals. They understand the job requirements, the camp's culture, and your expectations. Encourage referrals by paying a stipend for each referred staff member who finishes the summer.
  7. Monitor your interviewers. If you have several interviewers, identify and reward your best ones. Record who interviews each staff member. Rate each staff member at the end of the summer. Then rate your staff interviewers based on the performance of the staff they interviewed. Reward those with the highest ratings. Consider reassigning those with the lowest.
  8. Strive for job satisfaction. One way to improve staff job satisfaction is to establish and meet job expectations. The staffing portion of your Web site and any other staff marketing materials should answer frequently-asked questions and outline the responsibilities associated with various positions. The interview should continue the process by further detailing job responsibilities. Information should continue to flow after a candidate accepts the job. Provide a staff handbook, either in print or as a downloadable file on your Web site. Camps can use online staff training tools to further enhance the training and acclimation processes.
  9. Address any cultural divide between counselors and campers. There may be a significant difference in the culture and/or backgrounds between campers and their counselors. Perhaps your camp caters to a more privileged clientele, or perhaps your campers come from rougher backgrounds. Either way, these differences should be discussed during orientation. Consider a demonstration of typical camper behavior, and discuss appropriate responses.
  10. Doing good is good business. Even service businesses, like camp, that have fewer obvious social responsibility risks, benefit from employee and community-relations programs and should incorporate charity and community service into their programs. The notion of "corporate social responsibility" has gone mainstream. All businesses, including camps, benefit from community-relations programs. Opportunities can be found virtually anywhere and include painting the local library, cleaning up or patrolling the lake, performing for seniors, fund raising through swim-a-thons and dance marathons, and community-service days.

Maintenance and Capital Expenses

According to camp specialist Gary Forster, "Parents who are dissatisfied with their camp experience consistently report lack of cleanliness and facilities in need of repair as primary causes." Here are a few simple, low-cost (possibly even cost-saving) tips to generate a neater, better maintained facility.

  1. Build trash enclosures. Nothing stands out more than an ugly gray trash can in front of a beautiful new building or on a lush lawn. Build enclosures for your trash cans. Several examples are shown below. Making trash enclosures is relatively inexpensive and a great winter project.
  2. Chase the geese away. Either get a herding dog or chase pesty geese away with a sprinkler equipped with a solar powered motion detector. When movement is detected, including movement by geese, the sprinkler is activated scaring off the geese.
  3. Make sure you have appropriate pre-camp and post-camp crews. Twenty years ago most camps brought in twenty or thirty counselors to prepare camp to open. My experience suggests that it is more effective, and no more costly, to bring in two to four skilled, local workers when the snow clears, and then a precamp crew of eight to ten staff several weeks before orientation. This prevents extra workers from distracting those who do the best job.
  4. Professionally clean cabins. Professional cleaning services are much better at cleaning buildings than precamp crews. Hire them to clean before every session. They will cost a bit more, but the cleanliness is worth the extra expense.
  5. Expose your maintenance crew to other, well-maintained camps. You can't expect your maintenance staff to make your camp look great if they don't know what "great" looks like. Arrange for them to visit a quality, attractive, maintained camp, and have them take a tour with the facilities manager. Most camp directors will happily agree to show off their camp to a visitor.
  6. Keep your grass healthy. Healthy turf greatly enhances the appearance of camps, especially in camps that have more grass than buildings. Here are six easy do's and don'ts for improving fields and lawns.
    1. Do cut the grass often. Don't cut more than one-third the length of the grass blades; cutting grass shorter causes the plant to stop replacing roots and blades.
    2. Don't use high-nitrogen fertilizer, which does not foster root growth, and causes the blades to grow faster, making it impossible to keep up with the mowing.
    3. Do sharpen the mower blades after every ten hours of use. Dull cutting blades rip and tear grass, which can cause the grass to turn brown and lose moisture.
    4. Do keep grass at 2½- to 3-inches long. Longer blades support longer roots and vice versa.
    5. If you water, do so once or twice a week, and make sure to water long enough to soak the soil down past the roots. This will cause the roots to grow down deeper and strengthen the plant.
    6. Do core-aerate every spring and fall. Soil gets compacted from foot and vehicle traffic. The compaction chokes off new root growth. Aeration protects this growth and lets water get down deeper into the soil. For real problem areas, spread sand after aeration.

Purchasing

  1. Telephones. Purchase your telephone and Internet service from a single provider and bundle them together. Cable companies who do this will cut your phone bill substantially, and can also reduce your cable and Internet costs. Telephone service will not suffer, and, for a small, one-time charge, you can typically keep the same phone numbers.
  2. Mobile phones. If you pay for more than one mobile phone, get everyone to use the same carrier, and purchase a shared plan. The savings will be enormous.
  3. Office supplies. Office supplies are one of the top, camp-spending categories. Purchase your office supplies using an online purchasing agent.
  4. Lice. A growing number of camps are hiring outside services to inspect campers and staff for lice. The cost can be thousands of dollars. If you outsource your lice checks, find a nonprofit service provider, or join with nearby camps to bid out the service.
  5. Postage. The cost of postage is high and getting higher. Cut back on postal mail by using e-mail. This is free, and most camp families now check e-mail far more frequently than postal mail. Send newsletters via e-mail. Offer online registration, and post your handbooks online.
  6. Outsource your purchasing. Camps outsource legal work, foreign staffing, technology, software, and payroll and accounting services. Why not purchasing?
  7. Monitor energy use and limit consumption. Reducing energy consumption saves money. Here are simple ways to reduce camp energy spending.
    • Pool temperatures. If you have a heated pool, make sure the thermostat works, and set the maximum temperature to 83 degrees. Investigate the cost-effectiveness of installing a solar pool cover.
    • Shower temperatures. Install controls to limit maximum shower temperatures.
    • Air conditioners. If you air condition buildings, make sure they are shut down or set to "low" when buildings are not occupied, and assign someone to check after morning clean-up and rest hour.
    • Purchase energy-efficient light bulbs. Purchase fluorescent light bulbs, which last more than ten times longer than conventional incandescent bulbs.
    • Turn lights off. Make someone responsible for turning lights off. Award bonus inspection points to cabins that turn lights off.
    • Shut down electronic equipment. At night, shut down computers, printers, and other electronic equipment.
    • Arrange for a power company inspection. Ask the power company to visit camp early in the summer to test for possible power bleeding. Make sure they test all transformers, including those leading into camp, and the lines that feed into the meters for possible overloading or mis-sizing of cable. The meters should also be checked and updated if necessary. The free inspection, which the power company will readily offer, can save thousands.
    • ontrol ski boat use. Design quadrants and driving patterns for ski boats. This will save fuel, limit damage to boats and props, and improve safety. Limit staff waterskiing to water ski staff and regulate their time on the water. Train boat drivers to go easy on the throttle when leaving and returning to the docks. Teach them to drive more efficiently by paying attention to RPM's and not the speedometer. Shut off the engine when skiers are changing places.
    • Install low-flow shower heads. The newer models provide a powerful stream of water and use only 2.25 Programsgallons per minute, 65 percent less than conventional shower heads.
    • Motion sensors. Install motion sensors for lights in frequently used areas.
    • On-site gas tanks. Control the gas tank keys and require those using the tank to complete a form at the time of each use noting name, date, purpose, and quantity of fuel.
    • Shopper driver. Instruct shopper/drivers to map out their drive before leaving camp and to call prior to returning to check for any additional requests.
    • Golf carts. Designate a specific individual or purpose for each golf cart and post a sign on the cart, for example "Head of Housekeeping" or "Head Nurse." This makes the named person or group accountable and demonstrates that the cart is for a specific use.
    • Tankless water heaters. Consider switching heavily used electric water heaters, such as those in kitchens and shower houses, to energy-saving, continuum units.
    • Recycle and compost. Reduce your waste disposal bills by recycling and composting. Request beverage vendors to supply recycling bins. Set up a separate area in the kitchen for cardboard collection and recycling. Collect and compost food waste. In many areas, farmers will pick up food waste for free and reuse it as animal feed.

Leadership

Great camps, like any other business, are reflections of great leadership. Great business leaders share certain characteristics. If you don't have those characteristics, work to acquire them.

  1. Never be satisfied. Great camp leaders are always looking to adapt, improve, and make things better.
  2. Borrow ideas. Great camp leaders recognize that they can't come up with every new idea. They expose themselves to as many ideas as possible and borrow the good ones.
  3. Accept and embrace change. Camps that are unwilling or unable to adapt to changing environments face extinction and replacement. Every year, camps should seek out ways to change and improve. Don't settle for what was good enough five, ten, or even twenty years ago.
  4. Don't let a single failure doom an idea. An initial failure does not necessarily correlate to ultimate failure. Indeed, the average successful business idea fails several times before it succeeds. Revisit your previous failures with an open mind, and reconsider them if you have reason to believe they now have a better chance of success.
  5. Commit to learn. Camps that are committed to learning are best suited to adapt to change. A prerequisite to building a learning organization is a leader committed to learning. The leader's commitment fosters the staff's commitment. Camp leaders can adopt several behaviors to foster their learning skills:
    • Remain open to new perspectives. Accept the provisional nature of knowledge. Keep questioning long-established "truths" to make sure they still hold. Encourage dissenting views, accept suggestions, and carefully consider opposing positions.
    • Rely on unfiltered data. Confront and experience what's really going on in your camp organization. Tour your camp. Meet alone with campers and staff. Talk to camp families. Ask open-ended questions and encourage and listen to critical comments.
    • Stay humble. The willingness to seek better ideas is part attitude and part developed skill. To tap into superior insights you must recognize that you don't have all the answers. As you become skilled at defining the limits of your own knowledge, your learning will increase substantially. In the words of basketball coaching legend John Wooden, "It's what you learn after you know it all that counts."

Editor's Note: "Tips for Running a Better Camp Business" appeared in the 2006 September/October Camping Magazine. Additional tips from Zenkel were featured in the 2009 November/December Camping Magazine. Archived issues of Camping Magazine and subsequent articles may be found on ACA's Web site at www.ACAcamps.org/campmag/.

Originally published in the 2010 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.

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