This week, I arrived back from Liverpool having attended the 2023 Camp Leaders Camp Collab conference.
Camp Leaders is one of the organizations we have long hired our phenomenal international staff through – they supply support to the applicants throughout the work visa process, and support camps by offering comprehensive methods of vetting and background checks we may not otherwise have access to. Our international staff that join us from Camp Leaders are consistently some of our finest staff we see each year.
The focus of the conference was around staffing: recruiting, engaging, and retaining staff. As you may be able to imagine, hiring a full, qualified staff can be challenging.
The conference’s size was also uniquely small, by design. Unlike an ACA Conference, where there are thousands of attendees, this collaborative conference limited its capacity to around 120 camp directors. This was a feature that drew me to travel across the pond, at no small cost to my time or Rockmont’s director-travel budget.
Not to mention, I didn’t know anyone attending the conference.
To be honest, I was nervous about it.
Even though I lead the charge when it comes to training our staff on conversations around homesickness, on how we lean in rather than away to these conversations, and the immense positive impacts they can have in the lives of our campers… I recognized I haven’t been in a new situation myself in a long time. Before I departed, Carleigh, my wife, mentioned how I was going to have to practice what I preach, adding, “it’s about time”.
So there I was arriving in a new place to be met by new people, feeling a resistance I was theoretically familiar with, but haven’t experienced in recent memory. I thought of our campers, many of whom arrive at camp with similar hopes and nerves. I thought, too, of our staff, some of whom come from 8,000+ miles away.
And it was incredible.
I’ll skip over a lot of the inside baseball of the conference, where we discussed recent data on staff retainment, compulsory language in contract law, and US tax law for J1 visas (including the difference between 1040A & 1040-NR forms, and the Substantial Presence Test), to focus on three take-aways from the conference, and one final meeting we attended.
Summer camp professionals are consistently some of the best people I’ve spent time with
I arrived not knowing anyone, and in a very short time I made several connections. Camp directors and staff are literally in the business of building meaningful relationships, and making others feel welcomed. The staff at Camp Leaders are almost all former full-time directors at summer camps, so the entire experience was facilitated on a level of mastery.
The summer camp industry’s inter-business collaboration is unmatched
As we talked through challenges that are specific to the industry, there was a deep sense of solidarity. Attendees and facilitators offered specific insights from their organizations that could be helpful for the group. For-profit camps that exist in a marketplace were very open about specific systems and processes that have assisted their organization. Acumen doesn’t have to be fiercely protected, and success doesn’t have to be considered zero sum.
These moments weren’t limited to specific sessions, but a thread that ran through our time together, as we shared meals, or walked around Liverpool during non-programmed times.
Summer camp is the most vital supplement to the family system in the development of young people.
The skills and growth that happens at summer camp – building independence, gaining confidence, learning how to make friends, developing resilience – these lessons really change lives. I know this first-hand, having attended Rockmont growing up. I can say confidently I wouldn’t be who I am today without the experience.
Not a single attendee of the conference would do the work they do, on the hours it requires, often with limited upward mobility, and then travel to Liverpool in November, if they didn’t believe in the profound impact of summer camp.
One of the co-founders of Camp Leaders, Chris Arnold, led the first session on our final morning together. Following his time at the helm of the organization, he has gone on to start ground-breaking non-profits, and a publishing company. Here was the surprising description of his session:
Whether through humility or uncertainty, camps do not appreciate the full power they can unleash on the world. The impact is not measured correctly, and, criminally, for camp, the stories are not told well enough. The US camp industry should be recognised by governments, the UN, and Nobel Peace Prize committee… you may think Chris is joking — he isn’t.
He really let us have it. And he was spot on.
One of the main characteristics of good, relationship-based leadership is malleability – the ability to sense what an individual or a group needs, and take action on it.
We model this throughout camp. More often than not, it takes shape in enthusiasm up front, or listening to individuals, or sharing kind words, or quietly taking out the trash at night.
But good leadership also knows when it is time to challenge.
I have a binder full of notes and take-aways from the conference. I have names of individuals to add to my rolodex (linkedin). But, like camp, I also have something more meaningful – I have the profound, unique, impactful experience of having been a co-collaborator in an experience with others.
I felt like I was in a cabin again. My friends/mentors around the table like cabin-mates. And it felt good.
I’m grateful for camp, and the professionals around the world that make it all possible.