There are very few coming-of-age rites that are as quintessentially British as the gap year. For Lee McAteer, modernising this rite of passage with the American ritual of summer camp means big bucks, and a social conscience.
McAteer is taking on one of America’s longest-standing megabrands, Camp America, with a rival business of his own; AmeriCamp.
Camp America is as old as the moon landing. Launched in 1969, the business recruits thousands of young people from around the world for American summer camps. When McAteer saw the potential for this idea to take off with British millennials, he ran it by a Dragons’ Den mogul.
Then-Dragon, Duncan Bannatyne told him that competing with one of America’s best-known brands wouldn’t be hard; it’d be impossible. McAteer, goaded on by this challenge, decided to venture out on his own.
Now, the Salford-based entrepreneur’s mix of summer camp, gap year and tour companies is set to send over 20,000 young Brits around the world, employs 100 people, and is expected to turn over £4 million.
Aged 19, McAteer took a summer job at a camp in the States, a placement that was arranged by Camp America. Even though the brand is a household name in the US, McAteer had a bad experience at camp and thought there must be a better way of doing this.
Since launching AmeriCamp, McAteer has already twice the social media following of Camp America, and gone on to create other summer camp brands. This includes Camp Thailand, which is now the UK’s most popular activity for 18 to 24-year-olds over the summer break. McAteer also launched work brands like AusJob and ThaiJobs, all part of his Invasion Group company.
Whilst staying at the camps – located in far-flung and exotic countries like Vietnam, Nepal, Cambodia, India, China, Costa Rica, Ghana and the Maldives to name a few – youngsters make a real difference in local communities with worthwhile activities such as teaching English to disadvantaged children, building orphanages, restoring schools and playgrounds, creating wildlife refuges, supporting elephant conservation, and collecting data to protect threatened species like whale sharks. At camps in more traditional locations like Canada and the US, youngsters can earn up to $1,845 for working as camp counsellors, or teaching skills like horse riding, swimming and dance.
“Millennials like to party, but they are fast becoming a lot more conscientious and also want to do something meaningful,” McAteer says.
“Back in 2009, I was at a media party and spoke about the idea for AmeriCamp with Duncan Bannatyne and he said I’d never compete with Camp America – which is an established, well-known brand in the US – with little investment and resource,” McAteer adds. “But I had previous experience of Camp America and thought there has to be a better way of doing things. I wanted to offer a real salary to those young people working at camps, not just pocket money.”
“Invasion Group is the ultimate camp, work, weekend break and travel organisation whose mantra is ‘Work Hard, Party Hard and Make a Positive Impact’,” he says. “We are now the leading provider of camp volunteer experiences in the UK, with Camp Thailand our most popular programme. We are helping millennials to have something meaningful on their CVs in an ever-competitive jobs market and by spreading our message of making a positive impact we are bringing the whole world together which is becoming more and more important in an increasingly difficult period as arguments between countries seem to get bigger and bigger. Our objective is to give back and we are making CSR a necessity, it is something at the very epicentre of what we do.”
McAteer admits it hasn’t been easy getting AmeriCamp off the ground. People say “we are doing Camp America” when what they actually mean is they are working at a summer camp in America.
“It’s a bit like Dyson versus Hoover with the term ‘hoovering up’ firmly established in our language, but as we start to re-educate the millennial generation it is slowly changing. With AmeriCamp, young people can live and work at a summer camp in America for nine weeks and earn up to $1,845 – all for just £279 plus costs like flight and visa,” he says.
“To do the equivalent at Camp America costs more – and the young people don’t get a salary anywhere near what they get through us, so when we first launched we were trying to prove that we were real as people thought AmeriCamp was too good to be true! Going forwards, we have huge expansion plans to continue taking market share and in the next three years, we aim to go from challenger brand to market leader.”
McAteer, who has around 30 brands and counting as part of his Invasion Group, launched Camp Thailand in 2015 with just a hunch and no budget or business plan – and is now incredibly the UK’s most popular summer camp programme.
“For 2016, Camp Thailand received 25,000 applications plus. The market is turning away from people wanting to go to the USA as they now want to go to Asia. Nothing competes at this stage with Camp Thailand and we run the camps ourselves. It now has a bigger reach on social media than AmeriCamp in only 18 months.”
McAteer also launched a brand under Invasion Group that organises fun city breaks for students to the likes of Amsterdam, Berlin, Budapest, Brussels and Prague. These trips include superstar reps, dedicated itineraries, 24/7 support and even bar crawls as part of the deal. He is also working on a new festival called Budafest with his business partner and co-founder Nick Steiert, featuring well-known acts Dusky, General Levy, and Novelist.
In the spirit of collaboration and encouraging entrepreneurship, McAteer has also launched an incubator space at Invasion HQ in Salford to help budding start-ups take off, with free office space and mentorship.