Note: This is a special-edition article from WellRight's Vice President of Marketing, Lynn Zimmerman.
Greetings from Camp Denali, located in the heart of Alaska at the literal end of the road in Denali National Park. This is where I spent a week of my summer vacation, and it was amazing; I didn’t want to leave. As we were planning our Alaskan holiday, I have to admit that sleeping in a cabin without electricity and running water was a bit daunting to imagine, but the service, gourmet plated meals, knowledgeable hiking guides, and especially the sense of community made it well worth the slight inconveniences. In fact, I began to enjoy the morning fires to heat up the cabin and the walks to the lodge for a hot cup of tea in the late afternoon.
The promise of the view of Denali from our cabin drew me to the camp, but the staff’s ability to create a sense of community and well-being will keep me coming back for more. I learned that the highly-engaged and highly-educated staff also keep coming back each summer because they love working for the family-owned lodge. As guests, we truly got the sense of community during the first morning when each staff member introduced themselves, shared why they worked at Camp Denali, and explained the role they would play in our adventure during our stay. Then it was our turn to introduce ourselves and talk about why we were visiting. The common thread amongst staff and guests was the concern for conservation and sustainability, and we all recognized the fragile ecosystem of the environment.
Each morning and evening our chefs introduced themselves and described the menu including the source of the ingredients. Our chef one evening explained he is a psychotherapist from Missoula and brings his family to Camp Denali every summer. He said the culture of caring, collaborative work, and beauty of the national park restores his soul. We heard consistent stories like this and it made me realize that Camp Denali is a very special place.
The camp and lodge are still family-owned with a fascinating history. My story wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t start at the beginning and tell you how it all started. The 67 acres were first established as a homestead by three friends in the early 1950s. Two of the original owners, Ginny Wood and Celia Hunter, were WASP pilots during WWII. Their adventures included piloting planes around the US to support war efforts and even a bicycle trip on their own through Europe right after the war. Their goal in establishing Camp Denali was to build a welcoming camp where visitors could “savor the vigor and freshness of this young country and absorb its spacious tranquility." Their dream was realized as they built a lodge and cabins on a ridge just north of Wonder Lake and with a magnificent view of Denali.
I understand the old saying, happy employees equal happy customers. Camp Denali definitely has a culture that allows its employees to do their best work. But when you offer only seasonal work from May through September and you need staff to not only guide hikers but also wash dishes and drive busses, how do you get your best employees to return each summer?
We sat down with Megan Martz, the Personnel Manager at Camp Denali, and asked her a few questions about how she recruits and retains their talented and skilled staff.
Q: What has inspired the current owners of Camp Denali to build such a strong sense of community and culture of caring?
Megan: The culture of Camp Denali is a longstanding tradition that started with the first founders; one of the many things that have been passed down over time. The tradition includes respect and treating others well. Also, the founders and today’s owners work alongside employees.
All generations have experienced the same culture, and it’s a part of the fabric of the camp. Providing employees with what they need and treating employees well carries forward because attitude is contagious. We have a 75%–80% staff return rate. Current employees know the expectations and lead by example. These expectations are then passed on each season to new employees.
Q: When you are competing for talent with companies and organizations that offer year-round employment, how do you attract and recruit employees?
Megan: Word of mouth is our strongest recruiting tool. We’re also lucky that the current hiring environment means there are people seeking something different. People are seeking adventure, community, and organizations with purpose. The seasonal schedule gives employees opportunities to travel around the world and seek out other experiences.
Because we are a supportive community, there are plenty of recommendations for the best places to travel and work during the off-season. There are all kinds of temporary arrangements like substitute teaching, work abroad programs and sometimes a guest will even need a house sitter.
Q: Can you describe your company’s culture in terms of your mission statement, core values, company traditions, and shared beliefs.
Megan: The formalized mission statement is part of our onboarding process with new employees. We try to embed this throughout so we set expectations amongst staff and guests.
Providing active learning experiences and fostering stewardship of the natural world through a tradition of excellence, community, and place.
This statement predates me and encapsulates everything we stand for. Our biggest focus is on community, our roots and traditions, and using those to help inform education of our visitors to promote care for our public lands.
Q: Do you have role models on your leadership team who help to promote culture and community?
Megan: Yes, our role models include our current and past owners. Their leadership skills and stewardship have been passed down from each generation. I have great respect for the owners. One of the things I noticed during my first year here in 2006 was how hard the owners work at the camp. They roll up their sleeves to do dishes or you’ll find them maintaining the busses.
Q: What advice would you give to other seasonal businesses that are struggling with recruiting and retaining great employees?
Megan: We have a rigorous interviewing process and we set expectations upfront about this process. This helps us to assess if the candidate is serious about joining Camp Denali and gives us insight into the candidate’s character and personality, when we see how they react to fulfilling more steps in the hiring process than a traditional interview. The hiring process includes a couple of 1–2 hour phone interviews, depending on the level of skill the job requires. Then an in-person interview is conducted.
We also ask for a 2–3 season commitment because of the complex operation at the Camp. The consistency in staff helps the continuity of the flow of guests and the operations of the camp. Of course, we don’t have legal contracts, instead, it is a verbal commitment but we couldn’t operate efficiently without it.
I think all of these elements feed into our successful return rate. When our employees return it helps us pass down our traditions and allows us to achieve excellence.