Exceptional Opportunities, Lasting Inspiration

Ross Turner
January 2017

Inspiration — this is what I hope to get out of every American Camp Association National Conference. It comes in many forms; my list is long:

  • Finding a new "toy" in the exhibit hall
  • A chance meeting with an old friend and an exchange of ideas and current news
  • A particularly poignant keynote speaker
  • An introduction to a prominent individual who shares a unique viewpoint
  • A powerful breakout session with a panel discussion on the future of camping
  • An Acorn Society dinner
  • An opportunity to sit with Peg Smith and share "what if" creative ideas

I always have pages of notes, ideas, stacks of business cards, and my list of "to do's" after every conference. I always make resolutions as well. "This is the year we will [fill in the blank]."

Inspiration alone is not sufficient. It must create an urgency to act, make changes, or improve operations. During one particular conference in 2008, I listened to an expert on the economy speak on the topic of the new normal. He used a book, Our Iceberg Is Melting by John Kotter, as a powerful metaphor for how to adapt to the economic crisis we were entering. This particular speaker has always used numbers and statistics that often scare me into action. I took the information he presented on the new normal and the book back to our organization. I bought a copy for all of our administrators and scheduled a meeting to discuss the ideas I had learned at the conference. Of course, as a camp person, I entered the room in a penguin suit to the dismay of all. A sense of humor can be a great motivator too.

On a number of occasions, my organization has been lucky and we've been able to capture some time with a keynote speaker to discuss the magnitude of the ideas from his or her talk. We always want specifics that apply to our camps, and we have never been disappointed. The individuals who speak at our conferences make a strong connection to the camp community. They understand the what and how, but more importantly, they understand the why. They want to contribute to the camp movement that has such a robust and lasting impact on campers, staff, and families.

With so many personal and professional growth experiences in mind, this is my pitch to convince every camp professional to attend the ACA's National Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico, this year.

For starters, Albuquerque is a beautiful and truly unique part of our country. The meandering Rio Grande River weaves its way from Colorado through New Mexico and into Texas forming the historical boarder between the southwest United States and Mexico. Albuquerque is nestled in the picturesque Rio Grande Valley. The city dates back to the Spanish founding of La Villa de Albuquerque in the 1700s. The heritage of New Mexico dates back centuries before with the Native Americans who flourished in the area creating a beautiful culture. The oldest continuously inhabited community in North America is Sky City, an Acoma Pueblo just 60 miles west of Albuquerque that dates back to 1150 AD.

Not only does Albuquerque have a rich history, but it is filled with spectacular landscapes, vistas, and natural wonders. I hope you are thinking, Wow, I need to go!

If you are a regular conference attendee, you know the value of the experience. If you haven't yet been, you may need convincing beyond the enticement of a culturally rich, visually stunning locale.

"Creating the Exceptional" is our theme for this year's conference. It is not a cliché; it is a challenge — not just for the conference but for all of our camps as well. We don't operate camps to be mediocre. We want to be counted among the best, and this does not happen by accident. It takes years to develop the truly remarkable camp experience. As camp professionals we recognize the importance of thoughtful and purposeful development of our programs. We also acknowledge the unique culture of the total combined camp community. We are a group that believes in the synergy of all camps to positively influence the lives of the campers, staff, and families affiliated with each individual program. Why else would camp professionals share their best practices at dynamic conference workshops each year? It is because we believe in the greater influence of the camp experience in our cities and communities — and it gives us hope.

The ACA National Conference is also a great opportunity to connect with other camp professionals as well as professionals from other walks of life who have something of value to share with us. They give us different perspectives to consider in our own operations. We can all learn from these interactions. I personally find the time in the hallways very valuable. Some of my greatest takeaways from ACA's National Conference are learned during between-session conversations, lunch banter, and evening discussions.

I find that camp professionals are creative thinkers with tremendous intuition. They have original ideas and thoughts that lead to very cool camp experiences. They offer unique perspectives from different parts of the country. And most are willing to share their ideas with other camp professionals. Take the time to meet new people at the conference and engage in meaningful discussions on how to create the exceptional camp experience.

Professional development programs are once again amazing at this year's conference. There are opportunities to learn more about ACA's strategic priorities: research and accreditation. As always, the conference planning committee has packed each day with insightful keynote speeches, wonderful entertainment, thought-provoking educational sessions, the most current research, an amazing exhibit hall, and the chance to meet remarkable people from all over the country and the world. There is even a new "Camp Includes Me" track that will feature breakout sessions focusing on inclusion topics and creating communities of respect and understanding.

Camps will not endure by just staying with the status quo. We must all continue to evaluate and make changes to our camp operations. It is a changing world, and the camp experience has the opportunity not only to reflect, but to influence the direction of these changes. The nature of campers and the camp experience have changed over the 106-year history of the organization. We serve a more diverse group from coast to coast and around the globe. What has not changed is the campers' excitement, anticipation, and expectations for attending camp next summer. Camp offers a safe, fun, exciting, and meaningful experience for nearly 8,000,000 youth and staff each year. This is an awesome responsibility and opportunity to make a difference in each and every person who goes through our camps.

Make the ACA National Conference, Creating the Exceptional, a must do in 2017. It will stimulate and inspire you for the entire year. After nearly 40 years of conference attendance, I still come away with many ideas we can weave into our camp experience. We should all want to invest in ourselves and our camps through professional development. This is a great opportunity that should not be missed.

Ross Turner is the president and CEO of Guided Discoveries, a nonprofit organization that develops and operates outdoor educational programs and summer youth camps. He is also board chair for the American Camp Association's Board of Directors. Ross can be reached at Ross@GDI.org.