Innovation at Camp. We preach it, are we practicing it?

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I consider myself incredibly lucky to spend my days talking and thinking about camp…it’s awesome! I am constantly thinking about, discussing and researching ways to improve on the already impressive work we are doing at our camps from staff training to meals to program. Having the opportunity to then take all the background work I’ve done and helping camps implement those ideas is inspirational.

Creative Control

I was having coffee the other day with a young lady who is thinking about becoming a member of our camp professional club. She has a fire and passion for camp and she just wanted to make an informed decision seeing as she wants this to be THE career move. We talked about a lot of different topics, she had some really insightful questions, and at some point we got onto this idea of the differences between working as part of a large, politically driven organization (like the university she was currently working for) as opposed to working in a camp setting. What amplified this for her even more is that she is a creative, motivated thinker who wants to move quickly and “get things done and make an impact”. This is a topic I’ve thought about often as I went in the opposite direction a few years ago…I moved from a privately-owned day camp to a university setting and was hit with some culture shock. At camp, we are able to move at a pace that is unlike any other industry I’ve been exposed to. If you have an idea, can prove its value and there is little risk then you are encouraged to be ambitious and take ownership of implementing that idea. Yes, there are stakeholders who need to give a final “stamp of approval” and it is just so much easier to garner autonomy in the camp world. I recall trying to get approval for a redesign of a flyer highlighting the courses we offered at the university shortly after leaving camp and it took 3 MONTHS!!! Not 3 days like camp, 3 MONTHS! As I thought more about this conversation and others I’ve had recently with camps, I wondered if are we really living up to that standard of a creativity and exploration we espouse?

Freedom to Innovate

Unlike other industries and especially the primary/secondary teaching world, camps have the unbelievable opportunity to innovate in the ways we educate young people, campers and staff. As long as we meet the standards of safety so campers are emotionally and physically safe, we have the ability to be at the forefront of teaching life skills to our campers and staff. However, May comes every year and no matter how long we’ve been running camp, a little bit of panic sets in as we realize campers are coming in less than 60 days.  The conversations I have with a camp (client or just a friend), become less, “Dave, I really want to try (____) this summer and let’s talk about how I can do that!” and more, “Dave, I really wanted to try (____) this summer but it’s too late and I’m just going to do it the way I did it last summer. Maybe we can try to innovate next year.” I’d like to challenge you to rethink the idea that because of all the “big ticket” items that need to be done you can’t innovate your staff training, for example, and will just succumb to last year being good enough. I have a challenge for all of us as May creeps up.

Small Changes Make Big Impact

I got a message from a camp friend recently who is known to ask me to help with no real warning (I don’t mind and appreciate the challenge!). She was working on developing her Staff Training and wanted to get my feedback on an exercise we’ve probably all heard of or done ourselves. Here is how the conversation went down:

Camp Friend: I want our Division Leaders to write a letter to their future selves to be opened in the Fall and the goal would be to have them highlighting all of the great things we hope/expect from them. I can’t quite figure out the best way to articulate it. Any tools? If I subscribe to the KISS method then the following should work: If you were to write a short letter to your future self, reflecting on Summer 2017, what would it say?

Now, many of you have done this exercise before and it’s probably worked sometimes and other times, you’ve forgotten to follow-up. Regardless, it’s fine and she could continue to present this exercise exactly this way.

However, if she just invested a couple of minutes, she could take this exercise to a whole new level!

My response: I would say be more specific and ask the following questions/prompts: 1. What are your 3 goals for this summer? 2. Identify 3 ways you will grow as a leader? 3. Name 3 ways you want campers and staff to describe you at the end of the summer. 4. What are 3 ways you hope to change personally through your experience at camp?

Easy, right? We turned an OK exercise into a dynamic, meaningful piece of the staff training program.  I am not suggesting you scrap your plan for staff training or develop anything otherworldly that is beyond everyone’s capability. All you need is the belief that even the small changes will help you innovate and change your camp on a large scale. And, you can always ask a friend!

Any Questions? Reach out to me at ProfessorDave.Camp or Schedule a 30 minute Phone/Skype Meeting Here!

Life on the Road

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I recently had the privilege of speaking at CODACON and Campminder Camp 8 in Boulder, CO. My wife, Pam, was there representing her camp and learning more about Campminder (and also supporting me). After the conference, we rented a 1995 VW Eurovan and lived in it for 18 days. It is the first time we ever tried living the RV lifestyle and honestly, we LOVED the entire trip!

Of course, as we were on the road I couldn’t stop thinking about camp and the clients I work with who are always eager to learn. We got home this past weekend and I started processing this trip from a different perspective so I could make this experience relatable to my camp friends.

The National Parks STAFF

While we were traveling, the political landscape in our country changed a bit and being somewhat disconnected (no TV News, “fake” or real), it didn’t really affect us much. The only time I really thought about the changes going on was while we visited the National Parks and the threat of de-funding these institutions. Let me tell you, the parks are gorgeous on their own and the STAFF are really what makes them special. There were several highlights I took from these visits:

  • Even in these quiet times, the parks are kept absolutely spotless. There is so much pride evident in the upkeep of the facilities.
  • The Rangers who work at these Visitor Centers/Parks are completely committed to their jobs. You can tell that they just want to preserve the natural resources we have and also help us enjoy these spectacular monuments.
  • From a facilities standpoint…the signage around the parks are super helpful and well thought out. It was really easy to find what we were looking for and understand what we were looking at.


Our busy lives don’t always allow us to get out of our “comfort zones” and we really should get moving! As we drove our 2600 miles in 18 days, we were bombarded with tremendous beauty. At times we were actually overwhelmed and couldn’t take it all in. It really made me value the incredible assets we all take for granted. Turn your phone off and take a hike one day in a nearby state park or your own camp property and just soak it all in, you’ll be amazed at what you see that may have been in front of you the whole time.

We need LESS

I am a confessed consumer, especially when it comes to technology and books, and knew before this trip that I had a lot of “stuff”. What I came to find out on this trip that life is sweeter when it’s simpler and most of the trappings of our “city” life are unnecessary and only serve to make life more complicated. On the road, we found ourselves climbing into bed (the back of our Camper Van!) at 8:30 every night and taking time to just read, talk or go to sleep. We were up way earlier in the morning then we ever are at home and it felt awesome to get on the road and start exploring every day with tons of extra daylight in front of us. We quickly figured out that we overpacked and could have both survived this trip with half of what we brought with us. This turned into an enthusiastic and really big purge the day after we came home. We donated a full truckload to the local Goodwill and tested the capacity of the Philly garbage trucks. And, we aren’t done yet!


As with anything, the person by your side changes your entire experience (for better or worse). This journey wouldn’t have been as meaningful, fun, exciting, well-planned or positive without the ultimate road trip partner, my wife, Pam. We complement each other in all the right ways and each have qualities that make up for each other’s weaknesses. She is definitely the risk taker and I am measured and risk averse (she’ll tell you it’s because I am older!) and that balance was important throughout the trip. She is great about getting me outside of my comfort zone and pushing me beyond my own limits with what I like to call “supportive, tough love”. My role is usually to be the voice of reason and rationalize why something might not be the best idea despite the vision she had of how the situation would end.

Some closing thoughts…think about all of my discoveries in terms of your camp, camp community, and the people you work with. There are a lot of important lessons I am taking from this experience that I will hopefully be able to share in upcoming conferences/consultations and hopefully you appreciate the takeaways from our journey. 

Are You Mapped for Success?

I was at a camp conference in San Diego a few months ago at a beautiful resort. I looked at this resort before arriving and while it seemed quirky, the pictures portrayed it as a stunning place on the water and not a bad place to spend a few days.

When I got to this property, the experience didn’t live up to the website or my expectations. I checked in and was handed a map of the property with no real further explanation. It is rare that I go to any hotel (I attend 12 conferences a year and travel for fun as much as possible) and get handed a map and sent on my way. This was odd and only got odder as the day went on. First, I couldn’t find my room at all (it wasn’t my map reading skills despite what my wife says) and I wasn’t the only one. I saw several other guests walking around like zombies with luggage, maps in hand and trying to figure out the complicated numbering system of this gorgeous resort.

Then, the kicker came in an unexpected conversation. After finally finding my little bungalow, I freshened up and left the room to head back to the lobby to meet up with some of my camp conference buddies. As I began to walk (sans map), I quickly realized I was completely lost in the lush jungle and the maze of roadways of the resort. And then, as if a mirage in the desert, I saw a staff member and thought I’d been saved. That staff member’s response to my request for directions to the LOBBY of the hotel HE WORKED AT, “It’s really complicated and I am not quite sure, just keep walking and you’ll get there eventually”. Yes, the perfect answer! Thanks, buddy.

What does this mean in terms of camp? Well, think about that first time parent who shows up for a tour on Visiting Day. Think about the first time camper who shows up for the first day of camp. What are you doing to teach your staff how to lead the way without a map? While I did eventually reach the lobby, I couldn’t help but keep thinking about how this ordeal made me feel as a customer. It also became a topic of discussion at the conference as many other attendees felt let down in the same way.

As you begin to structure your Staff Training, it is worth considering spending time on the concepts of Customer Service which may seem strange in a camp setting. Your staff may ask, “Aren’t we here to swim, play GaGa and make sure the kids are having fun?” While these are certainly cores to a successful summer, how we make our families feel welcome at every step of the way may be equally as important. It is all about the details and making sure ALL staff members, from top to bottom, are equipped with the tools they need to be the map instead of just handing one out!

Until next month, you can always email me at with any staff training questions!

Want to read more about customer service? Here is a book I highly recommend: Unleashing Excellence: The Complete Guide to Ultimate Customer Service by Dennis Snow.


Full disclosure…I had something else written and was about to hit “Post” when I had a moment of inspiration. Don’t worry, I will get back to that other post next month as it is really important and I want to share. When the idea I’m going to share hit me on a sunny day here in my awesome, adopted city of Philadelphia, I had to switch gears. I actually had to sit down and start writing down my thoughts (with real pen and paper!) to make sure this idea didn’t get drowned out once I got back to my inbox and to-do list on my desk.

We all need to take more walks. Seems like a simple concept, right? Ok then, when was the last time you left your phone on your desk, pushed back your chair, grabbed an iPod for some tunes and just walked?  I’m alluding to a walk with no errands, no destination, no phone call with a potential client (or camp family) or any other technology driven distraction.

Well, I have to admit that as much as I tell myself that it’s probably a good idea, most of my walks tend to be built around a purpose. I actually can’t remember the last time I took a walk just for the sake of walking. It is usually to visit someone or someplace, go to the gym or meet friends for dinner. So, in the midst of a busy day, I decided to drop it all, put some sneakers on and just stroll around the city.

This is an insanely busy time for camp people; I get it because I was one of you. I can’t stress enough that taking an uninterrupted, non-programmed walk will actually make you more productive, enhance your creativity and give you more focus. Here is what I was in the midst of when I decided to push the pause button for an hour: 2 different clients that I’m developing staff training for, 19 students and 9 mentors that I’m helping get through a Practicum process so those students can graduate, a couple of projects for ExpertOnlineTraining and come other proposals which will hopefully lead to camp clients. This was on top of the 75-100 emails I get a day about curriculum, student work, grades, paperwork, etc. So, I am pulled in many different directions and most days seem like it is not possible to get it all done.  I obviously had all of these stresses in my mind as I walked and like most of you, I can't just ignore my responsibilities. The way I thought about all these important pieces of work is what changed.

My decision to hit that pause button, put on some good tunes and go outside led to these 5 results:

  1. After 10 minutes of trying to figure out where my phone was, I actually felt RELAXED!
  2. I felt like a FRIENDLIER, less stressed version of myself and found myself saying hello and smiling at complete strangers!
  3. I was INSPIRED! Like I said earlier, I had to stop (more than once) to write ideas for all those “problems” that were sitting on my desk.
  4. I felt REFRESHED after only 30 minutes. I started feeling lighter on my feet and my energy levels were quickly back to 100 percent.
  5. I came back to my desk and felt completely FOCUSED on the tasks on my to-do list. I made better decisions (and made them quicker) and I am pretty confident that my level of work was better.

That’s my personal experience and I encourage you to try it yourself. See what happens and enjoy your walk!

And, if you don’t believe me and need more proof, here’s some science:

Responding to Negative Messages

When I was a sophomore in college, I took a class titled, “Corporate Communications” and now I actually teach a similar course at Temple University’s Fox School of Business. I sure do wish I was a more diligent student and paid a bit more attention all those years ago. However, there is at least one lesson I do remember that continues to stand out and it would bode well for all of us to keep this message in mind.

That important lesson was simply: be calm, honest and transparent. It mostly addressed those times when companies find themselves in crisis or controversy that is negatively public or causes some sort of harm to your reputation. The author maintained that SIMPLY being truthful and contrite is the most effective response to save your hard earned reputation.  It almost boggles my mind that more and more, whether it is corporations, politicians or public figures, the first inclination at times of crisis the inclination is to react defensively and to be less than transparent.

As we think about the effects social media has on our reputations, now is a time that all camps need to be more mindful of how they respond.  It seems as if no matter the medium (or the author), if negative messages are shared publicly, they are viewed as truth. The damage of retreating and refusing respond to these attacks can be more devastating then taking a proactive and measured approach to repair/preserve your reputation.

Here are 3 ways you can ensure you can protect your camp’s reputation:

  1. Don’t respond directly to the negativity. Obviously, your initial reaction will be to vigorously defend yourself by addressing the initial “post” and I encourage you hit the pause button.
  2. Craft a measured and positive public response only if you feel it’s warranted. Depending on the nature of the message and potential reputation damage, you may actually choose not to respond at all. Of course, you want to monitor the conversation if it continues.
  3. Contact the interested parties directly. If you can identify the parents/campers who might be affected by these messages, get on the phone. You want to retain them as loyal members of your community and a phone call offering an honest explanation/apology or additional perspective will pay off down the road.

Remaining calm, standing your ground, being honest/forthcoming with your community and staying above the fray will ensure that you limit the damage to your reputation. Don’t let all the hard work and good will you’ve developed over the years go to waste because of negative attacks