For my camp, the ACA national conference (this year in Dallas, Texas) is always the highlight of our winter.

Those of us who are experienced (please note that I am avoiding the word “old”) can get cutting-edge information on the many topics that weren’t even topics twenty years ago. We can learn how best to work with children on the autism spectrum or how to accommodate campers who need gluten-free menus without causing a revolution among our cooks. We can gain critical insights on fundraising, on working with boards, and on creating organizations that value and inspire innovation. We can even slink into the back row of a session devoted to Pinterest, Facebook, or even “Internet Marketing 101,” so we can gain enough background to communicate with our less-experienced (avoiding the word “younger”) staff who were born with this knowledge.

And we can network. Who do we call when we find bedbugs for the first time? Or need help with some camper or staff situation? Or when we just need someone to laugh with us or sympathize during a difficult time? Our friends in the camp and youth development field. No one else understands. And at the national conference, we expand our networks and make friends from across the country and around the world.

For our newer staff, the impact of the national conference may be even more profound. It has been our habit to bring our entire year-round staff to the conference, and it is one of the best investments we make. They, too, learn cutting-edge information on how to effectively design staff training, how to initiate a new program, and how to better achieve our youth development goals. And they can actually sit in the front row of the Pinterest session because they already understand it.

For these staff, however, the biggest impact may be that they begin to understand the depth and the professionalism of what we do. They are empowered and energized by the knowledge that our little camp in Colorado is connected to a much larger worldwide community dedicated to youth development and essential education. Attendance at the national conference can be transformative for these staff.

As an organization, we gain an incredible amount of forward momentum by making this investment in our staff ’s professional development. First of all, everyone appreciates the opportunity to attend the conference and is highly motivated by the knowledge that our organization is invested in each of them. Second, as a group, we return inspired, invigorated, and enthusiastic. We share what we learned with one another, we rework our staff training and our programs, and we revise our marketing and our menus. We have a fresh and very positive outlook on the problems we must face.

Together, we share a powerful experience at the national conference that brings a new dimension to our collaboration back at camp as we work together to create the camp experience we will offer moving forward.

Who wouldn’t go to Dallas?

Jane Sanborn is the executive director of Sanborn Western Camps / Colorado Outdoor Education Center. She is currently serving as the program chair for the ACA national conference.

Originally published in the 2013 January/February Camping Magazine