Rates: $895-$1,025, two-week terms; $545-$675, one-week term
Camp Woodmont owners Jane and Jim Bennett live 125 miles away, and together with their son Tyran and daughter Alyson Gondek have operated the camp long-distance for more than 20 years. Recently, Tyran has been able to realize a long-time goal of living at the camp year-round with his wife Suzy and their two children.
Woodmont is located about two hours from Atlanta toward Chattanooga and Birmingham and is nestled against Lookout Mountain, with about 170 acres of hardwood forest and 30 acres of pasture.
Tyran and Alyson’s parents — Jim and Jane — started the camp in 1981, and Alyson was its first director. Jim and Jane were camp counselors as teenagers and college students and fell in love with camp life, so they bought the property in the ’70s, paid it off, and used it as collateral for an SBA loan to build the original camp buildings.
Their perseverance paid off, and they now own the camp outright. They have since retired from teaching and are in the process of turning over more of the day-to-day work of operating the camp to Tyran and Alyson.
Now that Tyran and his family have moved up to camp, Tyran says it has made things not only better for them, but for their guests as well.
“It was a hindrance to us being so far away to run off-season retreats and business, and it was almost impossible from a customer service point of view to run a weekend retreat,” Tyran says. “I like it now because I’m able to do maintenance at the camp regularly. Living at the facility will be a big plus for us, so that we can develop more camp programming — like orienteering courses, scavenger hunts and so on.”
Foundations & Goals
Woodmont runs a nine-week traditional overnight program. It used to be four, two-week sessions, but a week-long session has been added at the end of the summer. Though that session falls at the end of the season, the entire camp schedule has been moved up a week at the front end to make room for it, and to deal with progressively earlier school start dates.
Every two weeks the camp closes on Friday afternoon, and doesn’t open until Sunday afternoon for the next two-week session. Tyran says Woodmont used to run until Saturday morning, but found that didn’t give them enough time to adequately prepare for the next session, nor did it give the counselors a long enough break.
Woodmont is a small private camp that hosts 80-110 children at a time, and 400-500 kids per summer. Most of them come from Atlanta, with the rest from Birmingham, Chattanooga, Nashville and points beyond.
Over the years, Woodmont has steadily built a number of what Tyran calls “marquee” activities, such as a climbing wall and ropes course. Woodmont currently offers traditional camp programs like swimming, boating, fishing, archery, drama, various team and individual sports, dance and nature. Tyran says the camp decided to keep everything inside camp and not venture outside camp grounds for off-site treks.
“We found for a camp our size, planning and executing an off-site trek with our staff size does not work for us. That might be why we get younger campers,” Tyran says. “We used to offer field trips where we took them local attractions for part of the day, and we found that really breaks up the routine of summer camp and causes relational problems among the camp. All of the sudden you take them to Rock City for half a day, and they get back into that amusement-park-we’re-back-at-the-mall kind of day. Next thing you know you’ve got five or six couples that are boyfriend-girlfriend because they rode on the bus together. The more you can control what happens the fewer issues you’ll have on a boy-girl basis. Kids who are 12 and 13 don’t need to get involved with that kind of thing while they’re at camp for two weeks anyway.”
Woodmont plans to add more activities and programs — like skateboarding, mountain biking and more waterfront activities, like slides and blobs. The camp’s philosophy, Tyran says, will be to add incrementally and systematically as adding in small steps has proven to be positive, both financially and programmatically.
Tyran reports that the horseback program has been a big success and a great drawing card for kids. The emphasis here is on certification and excellent instruction as a 1,000-pound animal is much harder to control than a pool area or ropes course.
One of the camp’s most successful projects has been its open-air gymnasium. It’s big and open enough to accommodate basketball and other court sports, while offering a stage area for skit and talent nights and a drama program. It includes a dressing room, two downstairs rooms for arts and crafts and outdoor living skills classes and a camp store.
The purpose was to make “multi-purpose” to the next level, maximizing the variety of activities and programming that can take place there. The Bennetts traveled to several different camps to see their open-air gymnasiums. They noted carefully the positives and negatives of each, and compared that to their needs to come up with a great design.
In addition to the facility and programming additions, the camp has what they call an “un-nature trail” — a small trail through the woods where items like Styrofoam cups and plastic that are not part of nature are placed for identification.
“We have a full curriculum where you teach them about recycling and ecology. You use it as a means of teaching children about litter, pollution and landfills,” Tyran says. “The counselors have a three-page laminated curriculum that sits there at the trail. It’s a one-hour cabin activity, and it’s perfect for one or two cabins to use during cabin activity.”
Proactive, not Reactive
Woodmont tends to have a younger camper demographic, averaging in the 8-12 year old bracket. Because of this trend, Tyran says an emphasis on staff maturity and accountability is one of the camp’s higher priorities.
“One thing we’ve learned over 23 years of camping is that if you don’t present an assertive leadership position from the beginning of staff training, it’s easy to lose some control over the staff. And, it’s better to be assertive in the interview process, right up front, and ease up later on, than allow someone else to get control,” Tyran says. “You need to be on the lookout for a staff member who has a charismatic personality that may be looking to try to undermine what you’re doing. If you do have a staff member who’s doing that, you need to address it immediately and let them know that you can’t allow that to happen at your camp.
You can usually spot that person on the first day or so of counselor training. It’s the type of personality that’s making strong friends with other staff members and is giving signals that they have an authority problem — like a smart alecky attitude, or they cut up in meetings, giggle or smirk while you’re trying to explain something. What helps most camp directors during situations like that is having a strong, united leadership staff, and having returning staff. If you have five or six people on your side, it’s going to be real hard to come in and get control of one or two others, because they know the other staff on your side is not going to go along with what they want to do.”
This situation has become less frequent and less likely over the years, but as every camp pro knows, your best interview can turn into your worst counselor (think Eddie Haskell).
“Confront them in private immediately and talk to them in an earnest way, and let them know you’d like to see a change. If the change does not occur immediately after the meeting, and if it’s the kind of person who’s going to cause problems all summer, it’s better to get rid of that person quickly, even during staff training week. Having a staff as small as we do, it can become a big issue. With us, we have to maintain control of the staff immediately,” Tyran says. “When we fire a staff person, we do it in a very quick and private way. We make sure the rest of the camp and counselors are at a campfire or cookout where the entire camp is at a large-group activity in the evening. We get the staff member we’re going to let go back to the main camp. We talk to them quickly, and we tell them we need them to get their things and leave immediately — preferably within 30-45 minutes. If you don’t do it that way, the staff member will go to the other staff members and to the campers, and it can cause a big uproar in camp.”
Tyran adds that the camp does not allow any type of counselor meeting after lights-out in the cabins. Bedtime with campers is one of the most important times for the campers, as it represents the time of greatest insecurity. The policy, like the camp’s other staff policies, is based on the philosophy that staff needs to be focused on the children and not the other staff.
Setting policy and high accountability standards is one way to keep counselors in line and mitigate potential problems, but more importantly Tyran emphasizes the benefits of working at Woodmont and how important it is to recognize counselors for their hard work.
For instance, Tyran makes it clear that good work reaps an excellent reference letter, which is especially important to college kids close to embarking on careers. Woodmont also offers a financial incentive — averaging around $300 — to counselors who work a full season.
“We mention them in our newsletters and I try to email them once a month. On the other hand, you don’t want to pressure them too much, because they have their own lives and if they can’t come back they can’t come back,” Tyran says.
Tyran says the Internet has become the camp’s number one marketing tool for staff and campers. He explains that it screens out a lot of people who are tire-kickers.
“When we get an inquiry over the Internet, we view that as a very hot prospect because they’ve gone to the Web site, read about the camp, and have gone to the trouble of sending an e-mail asking for more information,” Tyran says. “The Internet has cut down on the phone calls from parents calling into the office. It’s a good thing in a way, but it’s also not a good thing because you don’t get to build the relationship with the parents. Talking with them personally is one of the main ways to get them to buy into your camp philosophy.”
To counter that, Tyran makes sure to write a personal note to each inquiry. “It was hard, at first, because you’re writing a personal note to each person. It wasn’t hard to think of what to write; it was hard on my hand — I got writer’s cramp! I asked one of our best staff members what it was that caused him to pick our camp. (I knew he received materials from 10 or 15 different camps; he did a real good job of looking for a place to work.) He said it was the Post-It Note my mother had written to him. He said that the personal note made him feel more rapport with us,” Tyran recalls.