From Recruitment to Retention: One Camp Director’s Secrets to Staff Success

by Kelly Byrnes

I’ll never forget these words spoken by Jack Weiner, former American Camp Association, Wisconsin executive. Building a great staff is a lot like building a good home. You must start with a strong foundation. Staff retention begins with solid staff recruitment. If you don’t hire excellent staff to begin with, you won’t even want them to return the following summer.

Learn from Past Mistakes

Begin by recalling the worst hires you’ve ever made. Learn from past mistakes. Here are some examples of hiring mistakes we should all avoid.

Good on Paper
This person has all the right certifications and credentials. They might be a lifeguard or sailing instructor or archery certified . . . all of those skills you’re so desperately looking for. But, when you interview them, you’re not really comfortable with them or they just don’t connect with you. They might be good on paper, but their personality is wrong for your camp.

Legacy/Loyalty Hire
This person or their family has been around camp perhaps longer than you have. You or your camp board figures you owe it to them to give them a shot at being a staff member. If you interviewed them off the street, you wouldn’t hire them. They’ve done nothing to show that they’ve got the skills and attitude necessary to be a successful camp counselor. Or, they’re just so-so — nothing terrible about them but nothing great either.

Expectations aren’t met — either their expectations of camp don’t match or your expectations of them don’t match. We didn’t do a good job in the interview process of explaining the realities of camp life.

Let’s face it, when the first day of camp is drawing near, there can be a tendency to hire anyone with a clean record that seems reasonable. The trick here is to avoid this situation altogether by overestimating your needs in January and February and recruiting and interviewing as many candidates as possible early in the process.


Now that we know what we’re trying to avoid, let’s concentrate on recruiting and hiring the best candidates. There are several ways to recruit good candidates.

Job Fairs
Job fairs are an excellent venue for recruiting. Job fairs at colleges and universities offer camps a great opportunity to find people who are seeking summer employment and potentially have an interest in summer camp. Directors need to be aggressively recruiting. Use successful sales tactics — know what you’re selling (what’s special about your camp); how to overcome obstacles/objections; and get the candidate to commit to future action (bring back a completed application, sit down for a mini-interview, leave contact information, etc.). Remember, the job fair is an overwhelming experience for the candidates. They need your guidance. You cannot wait for them to approach you and ask the right questions. Most candidates don’t know very much about being a camp counselor, and this is your first opportunity to set expectations for your staff.

Print Advertising
Running an ad in a local paper or trade publication is a good and viable way to recruit staff. This is particularly successful when recruiting support staff — kitchen, maintenance, and health care. Nursing publications, newspapers, and church bulletins reach a large audience and can bring many applications. The advertisement itself should again feature realistic expectations — job duties, education, certifications, hours, duration of employment, location, benefits, living arrangements, etc. You will save yourself time and money by limiting the field to those applicants who can first meet those expectations.

Similar Fields
Advertise and recruit in places that have similar interests and experiences. These places can include day care centers, after-school programs, athletic clubs, hospitals, sporting goods stores, and clubs (sailing, rock climbing, tripping). Simply ask the owner or manager if you can post a flyer or make an announcement to their membership. Some of my best staff are people whose work I’ve admired when I’ve met them at places such as these.

Find Talent in Unusual Places
Think that the waitress at your favorite restaurant has a terrific people pleasing personality? Perhaps in her spare time, she volunteers with Big Brothers/Big Sisters. You won’t know until you suggest that she take a look at working at your camp. I have recruited excellent staff members at restaurants, athletic clubs, and even traveling on an airplane! Look for people who exude the kind of personality you are seeking.


Interviews are as much for the interviewee to gather information as the interviewer. During the interview, the interviewer should spend quite a bit of time detailing the expectations of the job. Describe what a day at camp is like. Answer the usual questions. How much time off is there and how often might they travel home during the summer? What training is offered? What will the position pay? If you can interview with a current or former staff member who has performed that position, he or she can give a first-hand account of what the challenges and rewards really are.

The interview should accomplish the following goals:

  1. Explain the requirements and expectations of the position.
  2. Eliminate candidates that don’t fit — either there are obstacles (time commitments, training, etc.) or personalities that are not a match and should be eliminated from the process.
  3. Give candidates an opportunity to demonstrate that they are the right person for the job.
  4. Give candidates an opportunity to ask questions.

To accomplish all of these goals, one must devote a significant amount of time to the interview process. Most of the interviews I conduct last minimally one hour. The longest has taken five hours and eventually included dinner.

It is the third goal that is the most difficult to accomplish. Here are some interview questions that can help give the candidate an opportunity to demonstrate their personality, attitude, and skills:

  • In the past five years, what accomplishment are you most proud of?
  • If you could be anyone (other than a family member), who would you be? (A different kind of question than who is your role model?)
  • What’s the best decision you ever made?
  • Tell me about your family . . . .
  • Have you ever been homesick? How did you deal with that?
  • What is your favorite sport to play or hobby?
  • What skill do you think you’ve mastered?
  • Tell me about any leadership experience you’ve had . . . .
  • What would make you a great staff member?

I like to ask candidates to sing a bit of something for me in their interview. It gives me an idea of how self-conscious the person is and how willing they are to act a bit goofy. In our camp, goofiness is a prerequisite!

To conclude the interview, give the candidate an opportunity to ask questions. Then, tell the candidate what will happen next. Will they hear from you either way? What is your time frame? How will you proceed with their application?


Retaining a quality staff is key to having a great camp. There is a synergy built upon returning staff — they are experienced, capable, and already committed to the mission of the camp. However, it is important to only rehire the cream of the crop!

During the summer, there should be several opportunities for performance evaluations. I recommend an evaluation after the first week, mid-summer, and post summer. Evaluations are opportunities to sit down with staff and discuss how they think the job is going, what they’re having difficulties with, and what their goals are. Not only does this give you an excellent opportunity to coach and mentor your staff, but it also makes it easier if you choose not to rehire a staff member. You can point to goals that were set and their results. Saying no to a staff member is difficult but essential to building a successful team.

The following elements are the keys to successful staff retention:

  • Camaraderie is the sense of working with a supportive team. Staff members feel that there is a sense of shared effort. Take time during staff training to have counselors help out in the kitchen or work with the maintenance staff. Have kitchen or maintenance staff participate in the discipline portion of staff training so that they understand that the counselor’s job is not all fun and games — that they have difficult issues to face. This will also give kitchen and maintenance staff some discipline “tools” of their own — should they need them. If everyone understands each other’s roles, there is a deeper appreciation for the total team.
  • Caring encompasses all the “little” things. Buy staff members a box of their favorite cookies. Fold someone’s laundry. Remember birthdays, not only during the summer, but during the off-season as well. Share daily hugs and occasional tears.
  • Empowerment shows trust. Camps with great staff retention have a “go for it” attitude! They give staff members the tools to make good decisions and try new things. I give my staff the guideline, “Ask yourself what’s in the best interest of this child? Follow that with what’s in the best interest of the camp and the other children?” I then tell them that if they make their decision with the answers to those questions in mind, I can’t be upset with them. I may suggest another way to handle it in the future, but I will support the decision they made.
    Available from the Bookstore
    Magnificent Camp Staff Motivation: Get More From Your Staff Without Even Asking!
    Super Staff SuperVision
    Leadership and Programming for the Organized Camp

    Value your staff members. Show them your appreciation. Staff members are an investment. Invest your time and money in furthering their education and skills. Challenge them to continue to grow in their camp education. During staff training, ask staff members to make a list of their goals, not just for the summer, but for their lives. Then ask staff members to share one of their goals, and find the way that working at camp helps them to meet those life goals. It is important for staff members to see camp as more than just a summer job. It is an important part of their journey toward their life goals.

  • Ownership gives staff a sense of “I created this!” Be open to new ideas and ways of doing things. Let them reorganize the kitchen or workshop to suit their needs. Build something together as a staff that will become a permanent part of camp.
  • Perks are a way of rewarding your staff. One of my favorite perks is extra time off. Teach a lesson or help out in the kitchen or health office for an hour. Not only will it bring you, the director, closer to your campers and other staff, but it gives that person a very direct sense that you care about his or her well-being. Give staff a peaceful space — comfortable, clean, staff lounge with some amenities such as a TV, VCR, DVD player, Internet access, current magazines, newspapers, and big couches are a well-deserved refuge. Small gifts such as books, cards, edible treats, or toys show that you know what the staff member is interested in. Monetary rewards or gift cards are always appreciated. When you compare the financial cost to recruiting a new staff member, retaining a great staff member is always the better financial decision.
  • Growth is crucial to retaining staff members over a long period of time. Begin by taking a hard look at your LIT/CIT program. Are you truly preparing them to become staff members, or is it just a “senior camper” program? Your program should include every part of staff training. Promote from within. Groom current staff members to fill more advanced positions. Create “pockets of responsibility” to allow staff members to take on more of a leadership role and assume higher levels of responsibility. For example, designate a sports coordinator to coach and mentor other instructors. Give someone the responsibility for coordinating an all-camp activity.
  • Safety is critical for staff members to be truly happy. They must feel safe — emotionally, physically, and socially. Love replaces fear. Safety provides the freedom for staff to stretch out of their box.
  • Family is last because it is perhaps the most important element necessary for high staff retention. Family doesn’t last just one summer — family is forever. There is an expectation that “of course, you’ll return.” Connections need to be maintained year-round. Planning for the next summer begins the day after camp ends. Stay in touch with e-mails, visits, and get-togethers. I have staff members that live nearby that I have lunch with once a week. Our home is open to staff at all times — and at least once a month, several staff members will come to spend a night or weekend. There are all-staff trips to a theme park. There is a winter reunion in January. Above all, there is unconditional love. Mistakes will be made. Feelings might be hurt. But above it all, there is unconditional love.

High staff retention is a combination of finding and hiring the best, waiting for candidates that make you say “WOW,” letting go of staff who are not performing at top levels, and finally, making sure that staff feel cared for and cared about. Take good care of your staff, and they will take good care of your campers.

Kelly Byrnes is the director of Camp Eagle Ridge in Mellen, Wisconsin.

Originally published in the 2004 November/December issue of Camping Magazine.