Solely Responsible

Ask me how to keep 100 campers happy on a rainy afternoon, and I’ll rattle off a list of activities. Do you need directions on how to tie-dye T-shirts? No problem. I can even tell you how to do it with unsweetened Kool-Aid. Call on me if you need summer staff training. Yes, when it comes to working with camps, I am totally in my element.

But right now, I’m out of my comfort zone. For the last 18 months, I have been a “Sole Ambassador” for the shoe charity Soles4Souls. This means my life revolves around the shoe industry. Oops! My life revolves around the “footwear” industry. (See how I’m learning all the buzz words?) Don’t tell anyone I work with, but right now I’m wearing my daughter’s hand-me-down shoes she was going to take to Goodwill. This morning, I rode my bike wearing a pair of sandals I bought at a garage sale for $1. Obviously I have no interest in designer shoes or even new shoes. Since my job involves distributing shoes to people in need, I’m comfortable at homeless shelters and group homes for abused children. So while people around me are gushing about the newest Naot sandal, Jambu Adventure Designs or Sanita clogs, I’m content wearing whatever shoe comes my way … preferably at a low cost.

Yet, as I explore this new immersion in the footwear industry, I see how some of its ideas transfer to the camp business. Recently a keynote speaker at a conference presented three points to help retailers find success. These can also be applied to camps.

Tip #1

For footwear–Create an inviting place to shop.

For camps–Create an inviting place to have fun.

What can you do to make camp an inviting place? One camp posted signs modeled after the old Burma Shave signs along the driveway. As families drove into camp, kids could read periodic signs (with bad poetry) that had something like:

You are almost there!

Breathe the fresh air!

Don’t worry about the bear!

He only bothers people with polka-dot hair!


Welcome to camp!

Where you get kisses and hugs!

It’s just too bad,

They are from snakes and bugs!

Do the cabins have an inviting atmosphere? Are there “welcome” notes from the counselor on each camper’s bunk? How about balloons or signs with each camper’s name on the front door? One camp had a huge white board at the camp entrance. Each week, campers were asked to put their “autograph” on the board to mark their time.

When I was a counselor at Yosemite Sierra Camp in the 1970s (when cell phones and e-mails from parents were non-existent), we were given a short information card on each camper. With this system, we knew the dog’s name was Puddles and their sister was at camp two years ago. Campers felt welcome because we could initiate a conversation based on their background information.

Tip #2

For footwear–Take time to talk about each shoe.

For camps–Take time to talk about what is happening at camp.

The staff members are familiar with meal times, camp songs and the rules of Color Wars. Many campers are not. One young camper, after hearing she needed to take a swim test, told her counselor, “I’m not a good speller. Will you take off points for bad spelling on the swim test?” Younger campers especially need to be told (and have a demonstration) about certain events. Tell a group of first graders they’ll be in a talent show, and most won’t have any idea what that means. Take those campers to see the stage area. Describe how other campers will applaud and cheer for them. Let them know that having a few butterflies before performing is OK.

Talking about bedwetting can relieve many fears. Counselors can calmly explain what to do if an accident occurs. Just as a shoe salesperson describes features in a shoe, you need to describe what a “swim buddy” is, how to do kitchen patrol, and what to do during “siesta” time.

Tip #3

For footwear–Measure both feet.

For camps–Measure a camper’s interests and abilities.

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