A summer conference program, regardless of the size can be an exciting and stressful time. How you approach the summer can be affected by a number of factors, one being the staffing you have to support your summer program. Whether that staff is big or small; entirely students; or a mix of full time professional staff, and student staff is not as important as the quality of the job they do.
As a result, the success of your summer conference season is dependent upon the quality of the training and continued support you provide your summer staff. Your opinion of your staff, the importance of training, and the importance of ongoing recognition are pivotal in affecting their quality. Since there are so many different summer conference programs, and methods of management, this article will focus on considerations that need to be made in developing a successful program built around training and staff support.
Most summer programs last 10 – 14 weeks. Ideally, you will have three to seven days of concentrated time to train your seasonal staff prior to the summer beginning. It is important to decrease the length of their learning curve as much as possible. You want your staff to have a thorough understanding of the summer program, and the College, as quickly as possible. To do this, you need to be attuned to the different learning styles each of us has and each of us brings into every job we do. Some of your staff only wants the necessary information to do their specific job. Others need to understand everything to be able to do their specific job. From the point of hiring you need to be ready for any learning style. Your initial training should be developed to support any new employee. Following is a list of guidelines you can use to put together a program that will meet your needs as well as those of your employee.
Have a vision and mission statement for your summer program. If you have not developed a vision and mission statement for your summer program, now is the time to do it. Set a mission statement, vision, and guidelines for the summer conference, and develop training, supervision around that statement. You want your staff to be on the same page as you in why you do summer conference programs. If residence life staff are part of your summer conference team, you may need to spend time in training discussing customer service vs. learning imperatives and student development. A good mission statement is a sentence or two in length and can be posted (and framed) for the front office, desk stations, etc.
Develop a summer manual and keep it timely and accurate. Given that the conference season is limited in its length, it is critical that the amount of guesswork needed to do a job is limited as much as possible. A very complete and accurate manual will assure that staff has necessary information available when needed. Put it in a binder so that pages and notes can be added. Provide a complete manual to every staff member regardless of position. This manual should not leave anything up to question. Some items to be included in a complete manual are: performance expectations, mid-summer personnel evaluation forms, job descriptions for all positions, organizational chart for department, list and description of all departments and personnel staff will be in contact with; list of important phone numbers; campus map; summer schedule; brief description of each conference group; precise descriptions of all procedures; personnel guidelines; mission statement; vision statement; how scheduling is done; and copies of all forms. This manual should become your staff member’s “bible” for the ten to fifteen weeks most of them will work for you.
Provide your summer manual to any full time professional staff as soon as you possibly can after they have been hired. Capitalize on their excitement about their new position by providing them with reading material. Allow them to mark it up, add papers, suggest changes, etc. But let them know at the beginning of the summer you will be asking for the manual back at the end of the summer and using it to make improvements for the next year.
Team Development is crucial. A great deal of time is spent in Housing and Residence Life departments training on team development, and this is a critical piece in summer conference staffing as well. Team development doesn’t have to evolve around games; it can revolve around work. I have sent my entire student staff and supervisors to move linen, inventory rooms, and set up desks together as a part of training on the first day. Close work creates opportunities for individuals to get beyond the games and develop personal knowledge of one another; they learn to care for the other person. That caring goes far at two in the morning when you need to show up for your desk shift, or find linens for a late arriving conference participant.
Team development can also occur by staging situations in training where your staff becomes your conference guests. Check them into a residence hall room and set them up as a conference overnight so they can “feel” what their guests may go through. Meals, training and activities occur in the space they are assigned to as a conference. During the course of the summer give them a place to “hang out” together, outside activities to attend together (picnics, an afternoon swim or ballgame), or meals and cookouts together. The energy that develops through training needs to be maintained through August.
Develop staff ownership to the summer conference program. People will provide better quality service to guests if they have ownership to their work, like what they do, feel valued, and believe in the work they are doing. Give the staff ownership for the decisions that they make. The manual provided should help staff understand the bottom line of reasons we provide summer conference services and all policies and procedures. Not all matters that come up that staffs deal with can be resolved in a manual. Empower your staff so that they know when they can make decisions, and when they should call people. Training should be sprinkled with basic principles they can remember throughout the summer, such as “never promise anyone anything you will not personally deliver”. An example of this can be seen at your front desk services. A guest asks for two pillows and an extra blanket. They are leaving their room and will be gone for the next four hours. The staff person currently on the desk is there for another 2 hours. The guest wants the pillows and the blanket in their room by the time they return. The desk worker should only promise to meet that deadline if they are going to do it themselves. If they don’t know they can do that, then they can assure the guest that it will be taken care of that day, but they are not sure exactly when it will be done as they are not sure of the linen staff’s current schedule. Either response meets the needs of the guest, and gives the worker the latitude to decide if they want to go the next step in assisting the individual.
Reward staff for taking the next step. In training, let staff know minimum expectations, and talk about reward systems. Develop reward programs and incentives, and follow through. Recognition of a job well done, particularly in the service industry, is crucial. If you receive letters from guests about a job well done by a staff member, pass these on, to the staff member, their supervisor, and your supervisor.
Develop staff empathy for the guest. The staff needs to know where the guest is coming from. As much as possible, provide detailed information for your staff on each conference group. If you have a copy of their meeting schedule, provide it to your staff. Help them to see where the guests are coming from (Australia, Boston, California, etc). Find out from the conference organizer if your employees could attend educational sessions that may be occurring during their conference. Personalizing each conference program will go far in staff responding to questions as they arise.
In training, remind your staff where the conference guest is coming from when they arrive. Some may have traveled ten hours by car, or flown half way across the world. As a result of incomplete information received (or reviewed prior to arrival) the guest may be expecting the accommodations far different from what you have available. Their luggage may have been lost, or their car air-conditioning broken. The better they understand this, the better initial response they can give to each guest as they walk in the door.
Stay away from surprises. The most successful summer program will allow for few surprises. If you have developed a complete manual and have all needed procedures clearly in place, your program should experience few procedural surprises. Those that do occur will be managed well, because your staff will understand the bottom line, that is the ultimate mission of your summer program, and will be aware of the steps they can do to ensure its success.
Stay away from surprising your staff as well. A piece of the summer manual should include expectations for each position, and a copy of a performance evaluation form that will be used halfway through the summer to assist them in their job performance. Review evaluations with them at training. This will give staff a strong guide to follow throughout the coming weeks.
The most important piece of the success of your summer program will be the staff you hire. The qualities they bring into the position will not change; their skills will. Hire a staff that has the inherent qualities your program needs to be the best. Then provide a training program that is fun, allows for a great deal of staff development, allows for all learning styles, and teaches your team about the guests they will serve. The time and commitment you put into developing a quality training program for them will reap benefits through the summer in the way of fewer staff mistakes, less “clean up”, greater positive customer response to staff; and a more satisfied and content staff. Your job will be easier, too. So, for this summer, I wish you a great staff, and dynamic training, and a successful summer conference program!
Submitted by Valerie Randall-Lee, Assistant Dean of Housing & Residence Life, Emerson College