As the summer of 2018 is getting underway, it is evident that this has been another challenging hiring season for many of you. It is likely there are camps out there still looking to hire for a few key positions or who may even have to continue the employment process once camp has begun to keep minimum ratios in check or to fill in where holes are left due to last-minute cancellations or no-shows. Regardless of your staffing situation, you have worked hard to get to this point. Now is the time to put thought and effort into the process of how to "hug" your staff so that they make an impact on the campers, perform to their potential, fulfill their commitment, and are excited to return next summer! 

Jack Mitchell, CEO of a third-generation specialty clothing business and author of Hug Your People says that a "hug" is any positive act, gesture, or deed that personalizes a relationship and creates a "Wow, these people really care about me" feeling. Summer camps are in the people business, and staff are a very important asset and key to the overall success of the camper experience (happy staff = happy campers!). To truly "hug" your staff this summer, be sure to include everyone who carries out your camp's mission from counselors to cooks, bus drivers to boat drivers, medical staff, office personnel, volunteers, program specialists, maintenance and facility experts, etc.

One way to "hug" your staff is to provide them with training and professional development that goes beyond what is covered during the pre-camp orientation period. "Never stop learning because life (camp) never stops teaching" is a good reminder once the initial training is behind you. There is so much information to cover before the campers arrive, and it is unrealistic to think that staff remember every detail of what is presented the first time around. Circling back and covering some of the important stuff again can be extremely beneficial, especially once staff have a context in which to frame it. Take advantage of those teachable moments to brainstorm ways to handle camper behavior, come up with creative ideas to add variety to activities and programs, review safety protocols, or teach a new game.

Also important to "hugging" your staff is to provide honest feedback that will help them grow over the course of the summer. There is a distinction between checking in with staff and checking up on them. An easy way (that also takes less than 60 seconds) to check in with staff is to ask, "How are you?" or "How is everything going?" and then stick around to listen to the answer. Jack Mitchell offers that checking in is a "much friendlier, more trustworthy, and far less intrusive way of staying in the loop" (Mitchell, 2008).

Great questions for checking in with staff also help them reflect on and improve their relationship with campers and each other. Examples of this would be, 1) "What staff member/volunteer works most effectively with his/her group? What is s/he doing that works?" 2) What will the campers in your group say about you at the end of the session?" or 3) "Describe a time you did something fun and out of the ordinary with your group that I might not have heard about."

Staff need to feel appreciated and valued, and so "hugging" should include recognition for the important work they do. In Mitchell's book, he mentions a Wisconsin jeweler who put 10 pennies in his left pocket each morning as a reminder to connect positively with his team. Whenever he would compliment or otherwise "hug" an associate, he would move a penny over to his right pocket. "All it takes is a dime and some time" (Mitchell, 2008).

Empowering staff to recognize each other and therefore create a culture of appreciation can go a long way for morale and retention. One of my favorite ways to do this is to give each staff member a 6x9-inch clasp envelope. On the left side of the envelope, direct staff to write down how they like to be appreciated in ways that are free, and on the right side, put down suggestions for tangible gifts that are under $2. By hanging these in a staff lounge or other staff-only area, the envelopes become mailboxes for writing notes of gratitude or showing appreciation that doesn't break the bank. This is also a great way to ensure that favorite snacks are on the menu for staff meetings or other gatherings.

Get a jump-start on next year's recruiting by taking care of the staff you have on your team this year. Ongoing training, honest and open feedback, and meaningful recognition are ways to "hug" your staff and show them that you are investing in them beyond this summer!


Mitchell, J. (2008). Hug your people: The proven way to hire, inspire, and recognize your employees and achieve remarkable results. New York, NY: Hatchette Books.

Photo courtesy of CYO Camp and Retreat Center in Occidental, California

Kim Aycock, MST, has 30+ years of experience blending the skills of a master teacher with the knowledge of a seasoned camp expert. She trains staff at all levels and speaks professionally at regional and national conferences. More information can be found at her website:

Kim co-leads Project Real Job with Deb Jordan and its charge to examine issues related to summer camp employment and how ACA can support camps efforts to recruit, hire, and retain staff and position camp employment as a valuable workforce readiness experience.

A big shout out to Dan Weir, director of camping services at Frost Valley YMCA, for recommending Hug Your People during a conversation at ACA National in Orlando!