Turning Off the Camp Machine: End This Season with Next Season in Mind

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Turn off the camp machine. Image of metal lever painted orange turned to the left pointed to the word off, painted on blue wall.

“We can’t find the Blob.”

“What?! It’s gigantic! What do you mean, ‘we can’t find the Blob’?”

“I dunno…” shrug. “At least…it’s not where you said it would be.”

“Sure it is. It’s next to the pool house under the –”

“Found it!” A voice from the radio on your hip shouts, interrupting your conversation with one of your new waterfront staff. “It’s behind the maintenance shed. But it’s really gross…and I think it has a hole in it.”

Now that it’s been mentioned, you vaguely remember an exasperated version of yourself telling a small group of staff struggling to haul a punctured blob to “just drop it off at maintenance and I’ll take care of it” as the clock ran out on the final day of camp last year. Oops.

You glance at your training week to do list. ‘Set up Blob’ just became ‘find and repair hole’ plus ‘pressure wash Blob’. No sweat…except you’re already behind schedule. Suddenly you feel a strange connection to the woman struggling to cut a cucumber in the infomercial you stress-watched late last night. She was right – “there’s got to be a better way.”

There is a better way…but the path to it began nearly a year ago in the moment you told that group to “just drop it off at maintenance…” because the secret to easily starting up the machine of camp at the beginning of the season is found in how it was turned off at the end of the last one. Every seasoned director has horror stories of discovering key program logistics that have gone missing or are broken mere days before camp is slated to begin. It’s a recipe that can create a legend…or burn someone out before they get off the starting blocks. Why risk it? 

Shutting down camp at the end of the season is an enormous task and it comes at a time when administrators and staff are running on fumes. If success to starting next season is found in ending the current one well, the process of shutting down the machine needs to begin before your team is fishing a punctured Blob out of the lake.

To be fair, an effective and efficient shutdown process takes time and practice to build. Each facility is different and the amount of work to be done, as well as the resources available to do it, can vary widely. As you go about building out your shutdown sequence, here are five factors to keep in mind.

Level One: Clean, Organize, Secure

The essence of shutting down camp well begins with ensuring every area is at least three things: clean, organized, and secure. Even in a zombie-like state, you can always just start pointing at activities, vehicles, cabins, and gathering areas and instructing your team to clean, organize, and secure them. As in, “Ok, the next thing is to clean, organize, and secure the craft building.” “Great job! Next, please clean, organize, and secure all the boats.” “Thanks so much! Head over to clean, organize, and secure the pool area.”

Will there be some specific questions along the way? Sure. But you may be surprised to find how effective it is for your entire team to understand the overall picture of success before diving into the details of each area – many of your staff will solve the details of that process on their own. It might take extra effort now, but patching that hole and correctly folding/rolling up the Blob as a part of “clean, organize, and secure the Blob” will pay dividends at the beginning of next season. You might even consider paying a small group to stay behind for a few extra days to ensure things get done right.

Either way, getting your team clear on that core purpose is easier than you think – paint that picture for them ahead a week or two before camp ends so that they can be ready to finish strong and not check out mentally as soon as your last campers are gone.

Level Two: Inventory

How many arrows survived the summer? How many pounds of chlorine are sitting in the pumphouse at the pool? Do any of the ropes at the rock wall need to be replaced? The next level in building out an effective shut down sequence at the end of the season is to have your team generate an accurate inventory from each department showing remaining materials and highlighting logistical elements that need to be refilled or replaced.

Using a standardized process such as a webform questionnaire, your team can generate valuable inventory data in an hour or two that would take you a week or more to do on your own. Compare end of summer inventory levels to what you started the season with to help you make better budget decisions for next year.

Turn inventory data into a purchase list so you can put in orders as soon as the fiscal year turns over, avoiding having an activity disrupted due to production or shipping delays that are becoming the norm on an increasingly large number of random items. Use inventory information as a part of evaluating performance: a crafts department that ends the summer with 50% more materials remaining than last year was either twice as efficient or twice as lazy.

Either way, taking the extra time to take stock of what you’re ending this season with can help fill the gaps in the story of your summer and set you up to make smart adjustments for next season early.

Level Three: Exit Interviews

Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase “You don’t get two chances to make a first impression” but how many chances do you get to make last impression? For most, a last impression is also a lasting impression. Until now, we’ve been thinking about closing out the camp season in terms of facility, logistics, and data. But what makes camp the positive, impactful, and often transformative experience that it is for campers are its staff. As important as cleaning, organizing, securing, and inventorying your program elements is, connecting with each member of your team to debrief their camp experience may be the most critical element of closing the season well.

GALLUP data suggests about half of voluntary turnover is tied directly to the health of the relationship between employee and manager. In addition, departing employees who experience a positive off-boarding process are nearly three times as likely to recommend the organization as those who leave through a neutral, negative, or no off-boarding process. With fielding a quality team being one of the most difficult challenges of putting on a safe and meaningful camp season, reducing turnover by 50% while tripling positive reviews from out-going team members can be the difference between a recruiting season that lasts a few weeks and one that lasts a few months.

But just as important, debriefing with your team on an individual level is also a source of transformative insights that help you continually build a better, more impactful program year over year. While you’re flying at 25,000 feet, these people have been on the ground taking notes about what is working and what isn’t. Done well, giving them a chance to share their perspectives with you legitimizes your claims about their value and generates insights that lead to meaningful change.

There are many right ways to conduct powerful exit interviews, but two wrong ways are to wait until the last minute, forcing you to rush the process, and opting for a safe, sterile process that avoids, or even punishes, honest feedback.

Level Four: Structure in Place

Chances are good that the last thing you want to think about at the end of a camp season is the structure of the next one but building it out while your workflow skills are sharpest will save you time and keep it from sneaking up on you down the road. This is also the time when the lessons you’ve learned from the current season can translate into helpful changes for the next go around before either the information or the motivation dissipate.

Think in broad strokes: Do we want to run the same number of camp sessions in the same order? Did we notice something could improve with our activity line-up or rotations? Are there any contracts that we already know we want to renew? Yes, you’re tired – like, really tired – but it won’t take a lot to get the core components in place. Hop online and set up the basics for next year’s registration (easy to do in UltraCamp) and call up vendors you rely on to quickly and easily renew for next season. Use the notes you took from your exit interview process to update core elements of your program so they are ready for review and implementation long before other pressures crowd them out and keep them from happening.

Most, if not all, of the above can be accomplished within 48 hours but comes at a time when energy can be extremely hard to come by. Left to will power alone, this critical step will get pushed down the road but adding it to your shut down sequence will ensure it gets done. Your present self might groan, but your future self just breathed a satisfied sigh of relief.

Level Five: Follow up Communication

If it feels like it’s getting harder to hire and retain quality staff, that’s because it is. The emergence of the “gig economy” (on-demand services like food delivery or transportation) means more and more young people see work as a series of isolated one-off experiences rather than an on-going pathway leading further into growth, competency, and career. Combined with the likely fact that your staff are bombarded with a variety of opportunities in-between camp seasons and it becomes increasingly clear that your ability to attract and retain quality staff relies on staying connected with your former staff in the off-season.

“Great,” you may be thinking with an internal sigh. “One more thing to add to the endless checklist.” But consider this: crafting a brief message of updates and encouragement and sending it to your staff roster takes 30 minutes or less. If sending out 4-6 messages in-between seasons retains even just a few additional staff, the ROI on your time is worth it. Filling empty slots often means spending time advertising, traveling, interviewing, and vetting – and that assumes you have enough applicants. Retaining staff also reduces the amount of time and energy you put into on-boarding new staff each year.

Don’t overthink it: a quick, positive message is all you need to stay connected. If you aren’t sure where to start, download our suggested communication flow chart and sample messages.  Whatever the message, setting a series of reminders in your calendar will ensure they get crafted and sent so be sure to include it as a part of wrapping up the camp season.

Starting up the season doesn’t have to be the frenetic, whack-a-mole experience it often proves to be. Leaving your facility clean, organized, secured, and inventoried will save precious time and energy upon your return. Conducting quality debriefs with each member of your team helps them know they are valued while providing key insights for program growth and improvement. Setting up the basic architecture early locks in those improvements (also reducing stress down the road) and staying connected with your staff throughout the off-season increases the likelihood they will return and/or give positive reviews to other potential staff.

If we’re honest, the camp machine is never fully off. But winding down this camp season well makes it much easier to spin the next back up, helping to ensure energy and focus toward having the kind of impact that keeps you coming back year after year.


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