Hats a Plenty: An Interview with Terry Jones

January 2021
campers at sunset

With a traveler’s soul and an innovator’s mind, venture capitalist Terry Jones has worn many hats over the years. He’s founded five startups, including Travelocity and Kayak.com (as founding chairman), served on 19 public and private company boards, written two books about management (On Innovation and Disruption Off) — and he even taught IBM’s Watson about travel. Today he is the managing principal of ON Inc., a consultancy he founded to help companies in their transition to the digital economy, and he still finds time to serve as an advocate for camp experiences as the Board Chair of the Camping & Education Foundation headquartered in Ohio (winter) and Minnesota (summer). 

Terry will be the opening keynote speaker for the 2021 ACA National Conference.


How did you get into business?

I graduated from Denison University in Granville, Ohio, with a degree in history, and I thought I would travel — to Vietnam. Thank God I got rejected for my eyes. One of my roommate’s dads was a pilot for TWA, and the three of us decided to spend three years traveling around the world. When I got back, I decided to go into the travel business. I started my career as a travel agent and then spent 24 years at American Airlines in marketing and information technology, becoming the chief information officer of their SABRE division. We turned a SABRE project into Travelocity; I served as CEO, and we eventually took Travelocity public. When SABRE wanted it back, I left and became a professional speaker and author and worked for a venture capital firm. There we had an idea for a search company for travel, and that became Kayak.com.

I always like to ask, did you and/or your kids go to camp? And, if so, how did it help?

When I was nine. I went to Camp Owakonze in Ontario, Canada. A lot of people from the Chicago suburbs went there. It was a canoeing camp. I went there for 12 summers — as a camper and a counselor, and then as an engineer running boats.

My kids had heard all these great camp stories, and my son said, “I want to go there.” By that time Owakonze had closed because the train had stopped running there. But I told him I knew of another camp nearby, Kooch-I-Ching for Boys.

The CEO of Kooch-I-Ching, affiliated with the Camping & Education Foundation, realized we’d had a similar camp experience, and I ended up joining the board. I served on the board for 10 years before becoming chairman. During that time, my old camp, Owakonze, came up for sale. We raised the money to buy it for the Camping & Education Foundation. We’re aspirationally looking to use it for educational canoe trips with a Wilderness Immersion Course that starts and ends at the camp.

The kind of determination and drive you get from being on these difficult canoe trips — and I went on some that were eight weeks long as a kid — it really grows you as an individual. We certainly see that among our alumni. They will say that camp was the most transformative experience they’ve had. Camp really does grow leaders.

One of my goals is to memorialize interviews with a lot of people. We want to use them to convince parents that a camp experience really does shape young men and women. Particularly being in the wilderness and being out on your own, even being in the rain when it’s freezing cold — those are good things. You can look at statements from 1925, and it’s pretty much the same thing. The pitch has not changed. Now it’s getting kids off their phones, but it’s still the same thrust.

Getting back into camp has been very rewarding.

In business management you talk about innovation and disruption being two sides of the same coin. Can you give us your working definition of those terms and explain what you mean by that?

Creativity is thinking up new things, but innovation is doing them. For example, I’m the owner of five patents, but none of them is an innovation because not one has been turned into a product. A lot of innovations are going to fail, and that’s OK.

And disruption — you only call it that because you didn’t do it. If it’s done to you, it’s a disruption. With the coronavirus, we’re in the midst of the biggest disruption of our age.

What does that look like in terms of camp?

Camps are a difficult balance of honoring the past while leaving the door open for the future. Part of why parents send their kids to camp is they want them to have the experience they did. It’s Never Never Land — it doesn’t change. But you have two or three sets of customers. The parents, the kids who are certainly more leading edge than their parents, and then the alumni who donate — and they all have various ideas about what should happen.

We always need to experiment. I love reading the ACA message boards and seeing people say, “I’m thinking of trying . . ..” How should our camps reflect society? Innovation is about creating a culture of experimentation. It’s OK to try something new, but the most important thing is that it’s OK if it doesn’t work. We’re going to learn from that and move on. It’s about killing projects, not people.

It’s also about having a team who are glass-half-full rather than half-empty kind of people. Negativity really wipes out innovation.

Every business — and camp — was started by a risk taker. As we get more mature and have to deliver more, we tend to innovate less. You have to be able to listen for great ideas. These will come from the counselors, the kitchen staff, the maintenance crew. These ideas usually come from the bottom, and there has to be a structure in place to get those ideas to the top to be heard.

How do you generate innovative ideas, and how do you know when you have a good one?

It really is through trial and error and measurement of your customer. Ask, “What do you like? Do we need more personal engagement?” It’s very important to survey and get customer feedback from the parents and the campers. Because kids are on the web much more than their parents. Kids adopt new things way faster than adults do, and we have to keep them engaged.

Also, if you’re not failing, you’re not experimenting enough. You really have to test, and some of the things you have to stick with for a while. Sometimes you’ll look at something and say, “I don’t think that worked,” but it really doesn’t matter what you think — it’s what the customer thinks. Look at how kids tell the story of camp to their friends. That will tell you a lot.

Of course, none of that means we have to change our core. How do we keep this wonderful experience while technology marches on? We’ve changed the games we play, etc., but the objective of playing games remains the same. That’s the balance. We have to take risks. We have to experiment — and we have to build a culture that supports that without losing sight of the mission.

Many camps faced great adversity in 2020 and continue to grapple with uncertainty because of COVID-19. What advice do you have for camps as they look to the 2021 camp season and beyond?

We don’t go back. The things we have put in place — social distancing, plexiglass shielding, thinking about programs and people’s health in new ways — it’s not going away. Why did Asia do so well with COVID? Because they had SARS. They already had this mask-wearing culture. They haven’t gone back, and they were ready.

Post 9/11 we had to reassess travel, and the TSA was created. Here we are many years later, and the TSA hasn’t gone away.

In the near term, we need to build in a way that’s robust; people will expect it. Many of the things we’re putting in place for this next summer may be put away post COVID-19, but they’d better just be hibernating.


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