Incremental Improvement, Part 1

So I chose, and would choose again, the path of constant incremental improvement; every year surprising our guests with a few much-needed changes that they all could enjoy, building an expectation of positive change and a reputation for creativity, quality, and customer service.

Practical Improvements

Here’s our sequential list of our “incremental improvements.” The idea was to pick the things that either bothered the guests the most (remove their biggest complaint), or would delight them the most by making their experience more unique.

Because of the initial run-down shape of the facility, it was far easier to find the former than the latter! If we could have found a huge pot of money to do it all at once, that would have been great. But what I did have was a modest amount of operating money I could re-invest into the facilities each year and a few small donations for specific projects that I could get from board members and alumni.

New mattresses: The old ones were fabric-covered, many over 20 years old. Each one was covered with a pattern of overlapping circular stains in yellow, white and brown that displayed the history of every bodily excretion that had happened on each over the history of the camp.

Giving the mattress a smack with your hand would raise a cloud of spores from ancient thriving fungus colonies. Our guests’ number one concern was that they didn’t want to catch “cooties” from a night at our camp. So we replaced every mattress in camp, not just with the cheapest we could find, but with 5″ thick foam with a nice colored cover that looked less institutional than the standard white with blue stripes.

Paint: If you had wanted to leave your name on the wall of a Camp Jewell cabin in 1984, you wouldn’t have been able to do it. There wasn’t room for your name, as every square inch of the walls, bunks, and ceilings was covered with Magic Marker or toothpaste lettering.

Asked why it hadn’t been painted over, the camp board’s answer was, “You can’t paint that! That’s real wood!” But heroic attempts to sand off the graffiti just left ugly white blotches on the old yellowed or smoke-stained wood. It just wasn’t possible to sand every square inch of a building, especially as deep as the Magic Marker had seeped in.

I went ahead and started to paint. (The embarrassment of the horrible graffiti was just too much to stand!) But even using a stain-killer wouldn’t cover over that magic marker. It just bled right through, even after two or three coats.

So we called up the Sanford Marker Company and asked them how we should get rid of their product from our walls. Their chemist was very familiar with the problem and had a simple solution: aluminum paint. It’s actually made with flakes of aluminum that block out the marker, and then wall paint covers perfectly.

Here’s my warning… Don’t use volunteers or amateurs to paint your camp. We’ve all seen good buildings ruined by sloppy paint jobs, with damage to ceilings, fixtures and floors that can never be repaired. So hire a professional. Shop around, give them lots of work and lots of flexibility, and find someone who is very willing to fit you into their slow season (usually after holidays) at bargain prices.

Use just a few different colors, and always keep those colors on hand. There will be almost no graffiti on a well-maintained wall. But if it does show up (usually by a bunk or in the bathroom stall) a quick touch-up with a spray stain-killer and the matching wall paint puts the cabin back to perfect before the very next group checks in.

The result was overwhelming. With our returning groups, you would have thought we had built all new cabins. “They’re so clean and bright!”

Artwork on the walls: Even cheap motel rooms have paintings on the walls, yet most camps are complete devoid of any “personal” touch that you would hope to find in a “cabin in the woods” if you were renting it for a vacation getaway.

We got all the staff and volunteers involved in looking for the right “stuff” to decorate with. Old Western prints by Remington and Russell, antique tools and harnesses from yard sales (and the camp maintenance shed attic!), and my favorite — we took the original paste-up pages of our summer camp yearbook with great photographs of special events (like Frontier Day and World Service Carnival) and put them in cheap poster frames. Cross-selling programs!

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Related posts:

  1. Incremental Improvement, Part 2
  2. Conceptual Steps
  3. Adventures in Oz
  4. Offsides
  5. The Elevator Speech
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