What’s in Your Bag of Tricks?

A few years ago, I wrote a blog post about icebreaker questions to help spur on conversation among attendees in a group. Last week, as I began our small group discussion at church with an introduction time (we had a lot of new faces), I was put on the spot for a fun question to have each person answer as they introduced themselves. My mind drew a complete blank, and we ended up answering an awkward question about our Christmas holidays, weeks after the decorations have been put away. I remembered the post I wrote, but not a single question came to mind!

How can you be prepared for situations like these? I’ve met group facilitators/event planners who often have what they call a “bag of tricks” (figuratively speaking) – things they know they can pull out anytime that will help get people talking, fill in a spot that may be lagging or just break the monotony of a lecture or presentation. The main component of these ideas is simplicity – no set-up or special supplies are needed so you can use these at anytime, anywhere.

What do you have in your “bag of tricks”? Here are a few ideas:

  • Icebreaker Questions: These are designed to facilitate discussion and help people begin to feel comfortable speaking around each other. Some examples include:
    • If you could eliminate one thing from your daily schedule, what would it be?
    • Would you rather be three feet tall or ten feet tall?
    • How many pairs of shoes are in your closet?
    • What is in the trunk of your car right now?
    • What is the most unusual thing you have ever eaten?
  • Stand Up and Stretch: Sometimes all your group needs to stay focused is a small break to stand up and stretch. Leading your attendees in a few easy exercises (or even breaking out in a small song and dance) can get the blood flowing and even bring a few laughs!
  • Jokes or Funny Stories: Commit to memory a few funny (and appropriate) jokes or stories. Use these sparingly and only if you can tell them correctly!
  • Teambuilding Games: Have one or two teambuilding activities you can do with various size groups with no set-up involved. “Knots” and “Never Have I Ever” are two good options, though a quick Google search can give you many more ideas.

Hopefully, by having a few things in your “bag of tricks” you can avoid awkward moments of silence and be a more dynamic group facilitator/speaker as you interact with your attendees. If you have trouble thinking of things on the spot, keep a list of these on your smartphone or other device you might have with you for a quick reference before your session begins.

What’s in your “bag of tricks”?

Nine Ways to Improve Guest Experience

Thom Rainer recently wrote an article entitled, “Nine Surprises in Worship Services that Made Guests Return.” Rainer, based on a recent Twitter survey, described events that impressed guests and made them desire to return. As I read this article, I noticed a few trends that could easily translate to your next event.

Here are the nine factors Rainer mentioned with an explanation of how they relate to event planning and improving attendee experiences:

  1. “Someone had an umbrella waiting for me in inclement weather.” In the event of less-than-desirable weather on registration day, have volunteers available to assist guests as they enter. Remember, first impressions are key!
  2. “A member actually invited me to lunch.” While this doesn’t translate completely to conferences, is it possible to have volunteers available to sit with attendees who may be alone at tables? This can carry-over to break times, as well.
  3. “The kids area had leaders who were friendly and helpful.” If your event will have childcare, make sure leaders leave parents with assurance their children will be well taken care of. Parents will enjoy their time much more if they are not worried about their kids.
  4. “There was a time of meaningful prayer.” Can you incorporate a prayer experience in your large group session? Prayer shouldn’t be an after-thought if your conference is worship-focused. If your event is more corporate-focused, are there ways you can integrate prayer for your organization?
  5. “Someone walked us where we were supposed to go.” Often conferences are in unfamiliar locations to the guests. While you might not be able to have staff available to escort guests individually, clearly marked volunteers (perhaps they have on the same t-shirt) are a great asset.
  6. “There was genuine friendliness outside of the stand and greet time.” Make sure your volunteers and staff are genuine and excited to serve. People can easily spot someone who has a less-than-stellar attitude. The overall demeanor of your team can set the entire tone for your conference attendees.
  7. “People followed up with my prayer requests the next day.” Follow-up with your conference attendees if they have a question, concern or general comment. If possible, address these immediately and face-to-face. This will show you value their opinions and genuinely care about their experiences.
  8. “I loved having the opportunity to speak with the pastor.” Is it possible to have event speakers available to the attendees? This might not be a possibility due to the size of your event or the notoriety of your speakers. However, if your event is a bit smaller and more intimate, consider having a meet and greet time with your speakers and/or worship leaders.
  9. “I received a gift at the end of the service.” Don’t let your guests leave empty-handed. At the end of the final session, have a small treat from a local bakery available or hand them a small snack bag and water bottle for their drive home.

Which of these points could you implement as you plan your next event? While you don’t have to incorporate all of them, choose a few you can do effectively. Adding these special touches can be just the thing a guest needs to sign up for your next event.

Ridgecrest Summer Camps Thrive

Director Art Snead talks about the success and growth of their summer “discipleship through adventure” camps

Nestled in the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains near Asheville, North Carolina, Ridgecrest Conference Center has so much going on these days they purchased a drone, with funds from a donor, to help capture some of the activity across its 1,300 acres. The Conference Center is a big operation, sleeping up to 2,000 people and hosting events and camps year-round, including many LifeWay student and kids camps (Fuge Camps, Student Life, CentriKid, Student Life for Kids). Less well known, however, are the residential camps for boys and girls that take place outside of the main conference center location and run for eight weeks during the summer (four two-week sessions).

“The first boys camp was in 1929,” says Ridgecrest director Art Snead, who first attended a Ridgecrest camp when he was 9 years old. “And last year was the girls camp’s 60th summer. So, they’ve been around a long time. But the last 10 years, the way God has blessed and used our camps has exploded.”

Camp Ridgecrest for Boys and Camp Crestridge for Girls run concurrently and are located across the interstate from each other. And while they do some functions together, they’re mainly separate operations with separate facilities.

“Separate sites allow ‘boys to be boys’ and ‘girls to be girls,’” Snead says, “which helps our campers focus on growing in a Luke 2:52 manner.”

Both the boys and girls camps combine intentional discipleship with adventure for individual campers rather than church groups.

“Our camps’ mission statement is ‘impacting lives for God’s glory through discipleship and adventure,’” says Snead. “One of the differences between us and Student Life or Fuge is we have individual kids come, not church groups, and they’re with us for at least two weeks. That allows us to have an extended, intentional discipleship focus with them. And then we’re in touch with them the other 50 weeks of the year, too.”

The year-round camp team stays in touch with campers through social media like Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and vlogs (video blogs). “As we looked at God’s future for the camps, we asked how we could impact these kids and their families outside the two-week mountaintop experience they have at camp. So, that’s where the parents blog and the boys blog and the girls blog all came in,” says Snead. “We have a very active and impactful two-way social media presence. We’re not just sending stuff out; we’re getting feedback in from campers, parents, and alumni, too.”

In addition to year-round staff, the camps employ carefully screened college students to serve as counselors.

“It’s a high priority that we hire folks who love Jesus and are passionate about pursuing Him and helping impact kids’ lives,” says Snead.

That’s the consensus among the camp leadership—the student counselors are key to the success of the camps.

“This will be my 40th summer working with the camps,” says executive director Ron Springs. “It has been a privilege to serve alongside these college-age young men and women and watch them interact with our campers. They are such wonderful role models and Christian mentors for the children and youth we serve.”

Boys camp director Phil Berry agrees: “There’s nothing quite like watching hundreds of boys and young men interact with college students who love Jesus like crazy. It’s amazing how quickly they are changed when they see Jesus in a loving adult.”

Girls camp director Sharon Aylestock adds: “I am so thankful to be a part of what God is doing through Ridgecrest summer camps! It’s evident He is at work in the lives of our campers and staff.”

Massive expansion underway

Up until 2008, the camps had 200 camper beds at each site. Then in 2009, five cabins were added to each camp, boosting the number of beds from 200 to 250.

“At the time, the leadership involved thought, Man, if we can ever fill those cabins, that would be awesome!Well, they filled up almost immediately,” says Snead. “So we’ve continued to add a cabin or two each year.”

About three years ago, leadership began looking at the long-term future of the camps, asking what the master plan is and working with consultants who specialize in camp expansion, says Snead. This resulted in a four-year expansion plan beginning in 2015.

“Our girls camp’s capacity is going from 280 last summer to 420 this summer,” Snead says. “So, we built 14 new camper cabins. We’ve doubled the size of the dining hall and chapel because of how many more kids we’ve got. And we’ve doubled the footprint of the girls’ camp to about 65 acres.

“We’ve been intentional about not only making camp bigger, but also making the experience better. We’ve added some new program elements, some of which will benefit the Conference Center guests, too. For instance, we’ve put in a new high-challenge course that all three entities will be using,” Snead says.

The boys camp will see a similar expansion next year, and then the following two years the plan is to add additional space and program elements as needed.

“The four-year plan is under way and there’s a lot of construction involved,” says Snead. “God is doing something very special. And for those of us who are a part of the camps and have prayed for their future and now seeing that future being realized, it’s an exciting time.”

The growth of the residential camps is not the only good news coming out of Ridgecrest. There are big changes ahead at the Conference Center, too. “A lot of exciting things are going on at the Conference Center,” says Snead. “It’s been a blessing to serve both places. Thinking back to my first summer here as a 9-year-old camper, and now seeing how God is blessing the camps and being a part of helping guide that has been an incredible experience.”

“We’d love for more people to send their kids to camp,” he says. “We want people to know about the one-week Starter Camp, our Family Camp (Labor Day Weekend), the Mother & Daughter weekend, and the Father & Son weekend. Those camps are growing, too, and we’re getting great feedback on them. It’s amazing the impact all these camps are having on people’s lives.”

The regular price for the two-week camps this summer is $1,750, which is lower than most residential camps.  Pricing for the family events can be found on the camps’ website: RidgecrestCamps.com.


LifeWay employees talk about their experience with Ridgecrest camps

“I think the experience can best be summarized by a short story about our oldest grandson’s first year at camp. Jeremiah was somewhat apprehensive about going away for a two-week camp to a place he had never seen, with people he had never met, disconnecting from all of his electronic devices, and knowing he would have severely limited communication with anyone outside of camp. However, my wife, Sherry, and I were confident that not only would it be an experience that would help him mature physically, mentally, and spiritually, but it would be an experience he would enjoy. Our expectations were certainly fulfilled, but the most telling and immediate indication of his evaluation of his first two-week camp session was his first question to us when we picked him up: “Papa Jerry and Nana Sherry, could I stay for another two weeks?”

—Jerry Rhyne, vice president of Finance and Business Services

“When my son was about 4 years old, we read The Berenstain Bears Go to Camp. He was immediately fascinated with the idea of going to camp. When he was ‘finally’ old enough to attend Camp Ridgecrest after completing first grade, we signed him up for Starter Camp. When I picked him up on Friday, he said he was so glad I was there to pick him up, but he wanted to go back for a full session the next year and stay for two sessions when he was older. Two and four years later, my middle and youngest children attended Camp Crestridge (the girls camp) for the first time. Now they each claim Camps Ridgecrest and Crestridge as the highlight of the summer—the one thing they look forward to all year long.”

—Kimberly Phegley, internal audit director

“My daughters bug me all year to go back to Crestridge. It’s now a part of our summer routine!”

—Ed Stetzer, vice president of LifeWay Insights Division


Written by Matt Erickson, managing editor of Facts & Trends and LifeLines.

Christmas Centerpieces: A Community Effort

If your schedule during the holiday season is anything like mine, I guarantee you are constantly on the run from Christmas party to Christmas program to Christmas service to Christmas cookie exchange. While most events held around the holiday season are typically scheduled for an afternoon or evening rather than an extended overnight retreat, there is still much planning to be done to make your holiday gathering a success.

Two red Christmas baubles and colorful lights

In the midst of planning during this busy season, I have found it often helpful to involve others as much as possible. As with any event, big or small, you don’t have to do it all by yourself. People often are more than willing to help if their tasks are bent toward their strengths or something they enjoy.

One of the simplest ways to involve others in holiday gatherings is for assistance with table decorations. This allows them to take some ownership in the event, as well as helps cut costs in your event budget. Here are a few ideas to include others in creating centerpieces for events where your guests will be seated at multiple tables.

  • • Nativity Scenes: Many people have very unique nativity sets in their collection of Christmas decorations. Ask a few of them to bring their nativities to use as centerpieces for each table. These can be great conversation starters, especially if the nativity’s owner is seated at that table. You can complement these with sprigs of festive greenery or small candles. (Don’t underestimate the fun that even a Fisher Price Little People nativity set can add to the decor.)
  • Christmas Dishes: Consider having different guests play “host” to a table by bringing their own Christmas dishes to use. Set tables with their dishes (plates, bowls, glasses, etc.) and any extra pieces they may have. Again, these can be great conversation starters when guests are seated.
  • Ornaments: Ornaments can be used in a variety of ways as table decorations. For example, you might ask each guest to bring their favorite ornament and display it in a festive basket or Christmas greenery placed in the center of the table. One activity could be to tell your table the story of what makes the ornament so special. Another option might be to have each guest bring an ornament to give away in an ornament exchange – these can be displayed similarly in a basket or on greenery in the center of the table.

As you plan your Christmas events this year, think about things you already have that could be used for a one-time event. Ask around to see what others may have as they take out their holiday decorations. Most people don’t mind parting with some decorations for one or two days. Sometimes personal decorations can add a really special touch to your event.

Are We There Yet?

It’s a question that’s been asked by millions of children (and adults if we are being honest) over the years. “Are we there yet?” At some point in our lives, we have all been guilty of asking this timeless travel question.

sad kid tired of trip

As an event planner, you spend countless hours planning the activities your participants will experience during your program. But, have you ever thought about what you might plan for your guests to experience prior to the event, such as during their travel to the host location?

Constructing travel kits for a family camp or family-friendly conference is a great way to provide an extra personal touch, a chance to get your guests engaged before their arrival and something fun to do while traveling. You can easily ship these in small boxes a few weeks prior or hand them out if your participants are coming from a single location.

Here are a few ideas of items to include to make your family travel kits a great success:

  • Car window markers: Prior to their arrival at your conference, families can decorate their car windows. You can even give out prizes to the “best decorated windows” during your opening session.
  • Travel games: Include copies of fun travel games such as a “Road Trip Scavenger Hunt” or the “License Plate States” game. Again, these are things you can award prizes for during the opening session if you let your attendees know to turn these in upon their arrival.
  • Snacks: Simple bagged snacks such as pretzels, crackers and candy are easy to include in travel kits. Be mindful of any special diets and/or allergies your guests may have.
  • Team storytelling: Include a few story prompts where each family member can add a line. A possible example is, “There once was a family who took a trip to camp…” Then let each family member add a line to the story and see how it unfolds.
  • Discussion questions: Include a few questions to help engage families in conversation as they travel. These could be funny questions and also questions relating to the theme of your event.
  • A few extras: In addition to these things, you can also provide small items such as stickers, paper, pens, etc.

Traveling can be a stressful part of attending a camp or conference. By providing something as simple as a travel kit, you can help alleviate a bit of the “are we there yet” syndrome and hopefully have families arrive ready and excited about the event.

Ski Retreats 101, Part Two

*This blog post is a continuation of our previous post, Ski Retreats 101, Part One.

You’ve reserved the ski equipment. You’ve got transportation to and from the ski mountain covered. You’ve made lodging reservations, and you’re praying for the weather conditions to be favorable for your ski retreat. Now what?

Though most planning for winter ski retreats is based on the actual skiing details, there are still things you need to prepare for your trip. Ask yourself, “What is the purpose of this trip?” Is it just for fun? Do you want to have a worship element? Are you trying to build group dynamics? Is this more of an outreach event? As you think about these questions, here are things to consider as you prepare for the non-skiing aspects of your winter retreat:

  • Ski retreats can be a great outreach tool for your group. Keep in mind you may have people attending who are unfamiliar with your group’s purpose. This is a great opportunity to share Christ with them, as well as help them get more acquainted with those in your group.
  • Ski retreats are also a valuable tool in building relationships. These relationships can be between your attendees, your leadership or a combination of both. Scheduling down time in the evenings provides an outlet for relationship building to naturally fall into place.
  • If your purpose involves worship, there are a few ways to go about this. It is best to plan worship times in the evening, as most ski groups leave early in the day to maximize their ski sessions. Your guests will be tired when they return. Depending on the atmosphere and your group dynamics, you may plan a very upbeat worship session. You might consider a more laid back, acoustic session if this better fits the mood of your retreat. There could also be a time for simply having small group discussions divided by age groups.
  • For late evenings, provide time for fireside chats, games (such as cards or board games) and hot chocolate, coffee and snacks. Having a place to meet such as a lobby, conference room or common space is a great way for your group to relax together and foster an environment of relationship building.
  • If you are having giveaways at your retreat, think in terms of winter items such as long-sleeve t-shirts, hoodies, sweatpants or chapstick.
  • For the non-skiers in your group, consider asking your host location if there are areas to sled, snow shoe, tube or go ice-skating.

What advice can you give to someone planning a ski retreat? Comment in the section below.