Training Staff in What Really Matters, Part 3: Boosting Retention is Easier than you Think

Giving staff the language to create lasting moments and increase retention.

This article is written by James Davis from Summer Camp Revolution. To read part 1 in this series, where James talks about helping staff buy in to your mission and each other, click here.

Why do we care about retention rate?

Retention rate is something that gets thrown around as a rough metric to determine that success of a camp. A high retention rate relative to industry averages is considered good, and a low one is considered bad. If you polled 1000 camp directors, something like 1000 of them would want a higher retention rate. To them, it would validate what they are doing at camp. Presumably, an increasing retention rate would mean we are doing a better job year after year.

And raising our retention rate even by a few % can be an incredible boon to our bottom line, just use this tool if you don’t believe me.

That’s all well and good, but it can feel a little mercenary to tell your staff, “We want to increase retention rate so we have 15,000 more dollars to spend 5 years from now.” And, frankly, it is kinda mercenary.

The real reason retention rate matters is impact. I’ll explain.

How I was “retained.”

When I grew up at Camp Johnsonburg in NJ, I was never a “regular.” I came for 1 week at a time starting around the age of 13. It was a thing I did, but I was never a die-hard. Thus, when I went to camp as a 15 year old, I figured I was embarking on my very last week of camp, ever.

On the last night of the last week of the summer of 1997, I was sitting at a camp fire alone, staring at the embers between conversations with my fellow campers. My counselor, a gregarious young man from the inner-city in NJ, was walking by me, and sort of did a double take. He came and sat down beside me.

“James,” he began, “Everything all good?”

I nodded.

“So, what’s your plan for next year? You thinking about coming back to be an LT (leadership trainee)?”

I shook my head “no.”

“Oh, really? Because I think that if you tried, you could be one of the best counselors this camp has ever seen.”

I expressed my disbelief – I was incredibly shy as a young man. I had trouble even walking up to others and saying “hello,” much less making them feel as loved as I had felt at J-burg. I never wanted to lead songs, or speak in front of people, or tell jokes… I just wasn’t an archetypal “camp counselor” type.

He waited, caught my eye, and said, “None of that stuff matters. You can learn that stuff if you think it’s important. What matters is what’s in here,” he points to his heart, and I swear he has tears in his eyes, “and you’ve got that. If you want to, you could give that stuff that camp has given you to other kids.”

Someone from across the fire circle made a loud joke, and my counselor laughed. Our moment was over. He patted me on the shoulder and went to investigate what was going on.

I sat there, shell-shocked, disbelieving of what he had said. I had no intention whatsoever of coming back the next summer. Now he was saying that I could create this magic for others? I knew I owed it to myself to at least find out.

When that brochure came in the mail the next year, there was no question about it. I had been “retained” for yet another summer, and ultimately for the 9 summers after that, as well.

Our accidental discovery – how we grew our enrollment mid-summer

My counselor was never trained in the art of retaining campers, at least not formally. What he saw was a possibility for a moment, and instead of continuing past me, he took the time to sit down with me. In that moment, I felt seen in a way that I had NEVER felt before.

He believed in me. He wanted me to join his side, and do this camp thing right alongside him, as a peer.

Now, I think a lot of camp counselors have thoughts like these with certain “exceptional” campers that come through their cabins. The difference was my counselor was that he had the courage to tell me, and the language to do so.

And you can believe, when I became a counselor, I attempted to give others this moment as frequently as possible.

But the biggest breakthrough for me came during my first summer as the director here at Vanderkamp. My first summer was a lot smaller than camp weeks I had grown accustomed to. We had just 17 kids at the very first week of camp. While this was intimidating at first, it quickly became obvious what an incredible opportunity we had. As I got to know each kid, I was feeling the desire to share that moment my counselor had shared with me with nearly all of them.

Now, if I didn’t believe they were showing a lot of signs of “counselor material,” I didn’t say so. But these kids were awfully special to me. We were trying a brand new thing with how we ran camp, and they all responded amazingly. I did want them back at camp – not only in the future, but later that summer as well.

As the summer chugged along, we found that more and more kids were signing up for sessions later in that same summer. My counselors were taking cues from me, and especially on the last day of camp, were saying goodbye by telling kids they wanted to see them as soon as possible. That camp wouldn’t be the same without them. And it was true – we did about 35 kids per week that year. Camp wasn't the same when people left.

When the dust settled at the end of the summer, we had cleared our pre-summer goal by 7 camper weeks. This goal was pretty important, because chances were good we were on the way to shuttering the camp for good if we didn’t meet it (or at least come close).

As I dug through the numbers, I discovered something that took my breath away.

18 percent of the kids who came to camp that summer had signed up for another week later in the summer after coming earlier that year.

How we say goodbye

As we tried to figure out how this all happened, we realized we had stumbled upon a way to send campers off that not only helped our camp’s bottom line, but communicated to them how much we value them.

The steps to giving kids these moments in the most impactful way are easy.

Step 1:

The easy, obvious one. Every counselor tells every kid what a pleasure it was to meet them, and shares some specific thing they enjoyed about the week with them. What they share will be something that reflects on this child’s character (i.e. – I just loved how inclusive you were of all the new kids this year). We aren’t here to mislead kids – we do feel honored to work with each of them, and we can, without a doubt, find something very worthwhile about each of them to share.

Step 2:

Share with each child that we want to see them back as soon as possible. We always mention this in front of their parents (who is ultimately the decision maker in this instance). Once the conversation is over, we address the parents directly: If they are interested, we have openings available later this summer. James is happy to meet with you to discuss them if you want.

Step 3, if applicable:

If a really special connection exists, we want our counselors to share that. There’s no higher compliment from staff member to camper than letting a camper know that, if they worked at it, they could create this magical environment for others. It’s one thing to feel loved by your camp counselor, but it’s an entirely different thing altogether to feel trusted and respected. If you don’t feel comfortable sharing this particular idea, you can substitute in the confidence that that child will do wonderful things for the world some day. Same idea, just a little less personal.

To wrap it up

Retention rates matter, for multiple reasons. If you want the cheapest and most impactful way to retain campers, it starts with empowering staff to connect with them on a personal and emotional level as frequently as possible. By giving staff a checklist (share that you love them, share that you believe in them, share that you want to see them very soon), you can empower even your more self-conscious staff to give kids what I believe to be the real magic of camp.

Some kid is going to come through your doors this summer who will be on the fence as to whether or not he should come back in the future. Helping staff communicate their feelings to campers can mean, well, everything.

So go out – figure out how to bump your retention rate this summer. But don’t do it so you can have $15,000 five years from now. Do it because there’s someone like me, who might stay in camping for his whole life if someone simply takes the time to sit down next to him and make him feel seen.