Interviews

The AmeriCamp story: Making a name for your brand when the competition has a head start

9 min read

02 August 2018

Never tell entrepreneur Lee McAteer that he won’t realise his global ambitions.

The Salford-based co-founder of Invasion Camp Group, which organises city breaks, summer camp and gap-year trips for students and millennials, has defied doubters within his own family and from business celebrities.

“Back in 2009 I devised a business idea to rival the famous Camp America group in the US. I was so sure of the idea that I remember telling my Dad that I would have my own super-car by the time I was 30. He laughed at me and said that the only car I would be getting would be six inches in a Corgi box,” McAteer says. “Around the same time, I was at a media party with the Dragons’ Den judge Duncan Bannatyne who told me that my idea would never work. It was certainly a lonely place at the start of the business. “

A decade on however and Invasion Camp Group with 30 brands including the ever growing AmeriCamp – is turning over around £4million and has 60 employees around the world.

“Both Duncan and my Dad gave me the impetus and the drive to push me on,” McAteer says. “And yes, the moment came when I asked my Dad one day to pick up my new motor. I didn’t tell him what it was and dumbed it down as a little run-a-round, so he was gobsmacked to see that it was a Maserati. A make he loved because he was infatuated with Juan Manuel Fangio driving it in the old days. Okay, it broke down very quickly afterwards, but I had achieved what I said I would!”

This mix of single-mindedness, down to earth humour and “working hard, playing hard and having a positive impact” has served McAteer well since he first caught the entrepreneurial bug when studying law at the University of Leeds in the mid-noughties.

“I had a reputation as the best organiser of parties at the University,” he recalls. “It led to requests from other students to organise their nights out and that morphed into trips for students in different cities to experience each other’s nightlife. We could have continued that concept, but the margins were too small.”

Instead, he went on to experience the corporate world at publisher EMAP with Max Power Magazine and in the legal profession.

“I got particularly frustrated at EMAP as I could see that the future of publishing was clearly going to be online,” he said. “But it did give me a great inroad into marketing.”

In 2010 he set up, alongside friend Nick Steiert, Invasion Travel offering weekend breaks for University societies and millennials to cities such as Amsterdam and Prague.

From that was the inspiration to set up another offering for young globe trotters – AmeriCamp.

“I had previous experience from going through Camp America and just felt there was a better way of doing things. The customer experience at Camp America I found to be very poor and the salary you received even poorer,” McAteer says. “I had wanted to travel around the US after working at the camp, but I had so little money I couldn’t do it. I thought I could organise a better service and offer a real salary to young people working there.”

AmeriCamp now places people at nearly 1000 summer camps in America. Travellers pay for the minimum 9-week placement package but get a salaried position – up to $1,845 – as a Camp Counsellor or Support Staff.

“Camp America is a household name which people use to describe their experience no matter what organisation they travel with. It is a little like Hoover versus Dyson and it is hard to compete with its marketing budget. But we keep making ground especially by using social media channels like Facebook and Instagram to excite customers,” McAteer explains. “We’ve had challenges including an early media report which raised concerns about us being a scam because of the big salaries we were paying in comparison. They couldn’t understand our volumes model but that died away after our customers got in touch to describe what a wonderful experience they had had.”

AmeriCamp has expanded into other locations such as AmeriCamp Canada, Camp Thailand, Camp Cambodia, Camp Bali, Camp Vietnam and the Maldives.  With these there is a greater focus on “giving back” through teaching English or animal conservation.

“We have moved with the times. Young people want to go to locations such as those in Asia and instead of riding elephants they want to look after them,” McAteer explains. “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.”

Other areas of expansion at the group include Wrestling Travel to take wrestling fans to global events such as WrestleMania, tapping into growing demand for gap year travel and potentially a Camp experience for the over 50s.

“They get in touch with us and say that they wish they could do what their son or daughters are doing,” he states. “I’ve just got to think of a name for it which isn’t too ageist!”

McAteer has also recently taken up the position as associate director at his boyhood football team Tranmere Rovers. As thanks for his contribution to a recent club crowdfunding campaign to boost its transfer budget he was also officially given a squad number.

“I want to use my marketing skills to help Tranmere grow its revenues and international appeal,” he says. “When we got promoted back to the Football League at the Wembley play-off last May I was crying on the shoulder of West Ham legend Sir Trevor Brooking. What a moment!”

McAteer is aware that these people skills could be challenged as both AmeriCamp, Invasion and his other personal interests grow.

“I treat people the way that I like to be treated. I hate the word entrepreneur as I find it so pretentious,” he says. “All I am is a chubby Scouser trying to make it in the world and trying to give my customers the personal touch. I am spinning a lot of plates now, but I don’t want to let them down. I have to delegate and let go but it is hard for me to do that.”

If anyone can find a solution, then it will likely be the much travelled McAteer.