Let the World Be Your Oyster: Taking Camp Abroad

Tom Holland
January 2019
Campers hiking in the Pyrenees

Political unrest in Kenya, a railway strike in Europe, the Zika virus in Central America, visa applications for Tanzania, international terrorism levels in Paris, the value of the baht in Thailand — these are topics you might expect to be on the agenda for the next meeting of the US State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs. They are also topics we at Wilderness Adventures discussed at a recent planning meeting, as a significant portion of our summer camp program offers camping experiences on all the continents of the world except Antarctica.

Our World Is Shrinking

When I began my camp career, I spoke with many camp alumni. Decades earlier, as young campers, they’d marveled at the exotic and wild nature of the “distant” land of Wyoming. They recalled the excitement of heading west by boarding the “20th Century Limited” train in New York City’s Grand Central Station, switching to the “Empire Builder” in Chicago, and two days later arriving in Rock Springs, WY. From there, they boarded a bus to their final destination: Jackson Hole.

Today, two days of travel can easily land a child in Australia, Thailand, Vietnam, Kenya, or Cambodia. A growing, global middle class has dramatically impacted worldwide travel markets. People want to experience the world beyond their own borders. Airlines have responded to this growing demand by increasing their international travel offerings. The increase in airline travel opportunities has resulted in a decreased cost of travel (VISA, 2015). Travel to the far corners of the world is increasingly affordable for all of us, including campers. Quite simply, the world is shrinking. It is now almost as easy to travel from the United States to Iceland or Germany as it would be to travel to Yosemite or the Grand Canyon.

Bora Bora, Please

Like many similar camper/student travel programs in the US, Wilderness Adventures did not start out offering camp programs abroad. Wilderness Adventures began by operating in Yellowstone, the Tetons, Yosemite, and other national parks and forests across the country. At the dawn of the new millennium, as airline travel became more accessible and affordable, Wilderness Adventures expanded programming to offer camping opportunities to some of the world’s most iconic and beautiful outdoor destinations.

Mike Cottingham, who, with his wife Helen, founded Wilderness Adventures in 1973 and retired in 2016, has seen the full growth of international travel for campers. “In the late 1990s, we began receiving phone calls from parents interested in having their children adventure with us overseas. We saw a great opportunity for some of our older students who had participated in our program. This would give them an advanced camp option and potentially offer them a worldwide perspective that would be important to their lives, and it worked out very well for our organization,” Cottingham told me. “By the time we retired, we saw parents’ interest in international programming grow to a point where parents were interested in sending their child on a first camp experience at age ten to places like Bora Bora or South Africa. At this point we knew international programming was here to stay, and we loved it. But we also learned that international programming must be thoughtfully planned and implemented. We knew starting a ten-year-old in Bora Bora might not offer the best experience for the camper.”

Tucker Hutchinson, chief operating officer and cofounder of GoOverseas.com, an online directory of student options abroad, also has seen the trend in program expansion abroad. He told me, “In the past eight years, these programs have become more affordable. This in combination with social media posts from students adventuring abroad has driven demand for these programs.”

Nevertheless, both experts agree that expanding to international programming is no small feat and requires critical oversight. To operate camp programming in just one international destination can represent a complex array of challenges to a business. To operate programs in a variety of locations exponentially increases the challenges. Still, the numerous benefits can make the program expansion worth it for your camp.

Defining the Why

As you think about expanding your camp to include international programming, this very basic question should be foremost on your mind: Why?

There are plenty of logical reasons why international travel can be great for those who do it (Yale University, 2018):

  • International travel boosts health of those who do it: emotional, mental, and physical.
  • It offers perspectives to campers in an ever-changing world that can be important to their maturation process.
  • It challenges campers in ways that domestic travel cannot.

There are also plenty of reasons why this can be great for your business:

  • It can open up new markets of clientele. With programs abroad, you will now see students from those parts of the world engaging in your program. If you have a steady stream of campers from a certain part of the world and you want to continue to maximize the camp experience for these children, one easy way to do this is to bring the camp experience to them. These campers will be great advocates of your program and will likely bring their friends along to this local offering.
  • It can offer pinnacle experiences for your domestic program. Many camp experiences have a logical progression. As campers get older and before they return as staff members, it is logical to want to continue to capture their attention with the next big challenge. Overseas travel could be this for your campers.
  • With size and scale, and when done right, it can boost your bottom line. It takes quite a bit of time and energy to get international programming up and running; but, once that initial investment has been made, positive returns are likely if there is demand and the program is priced correctly.

With these obvious benefits, the decision to launch your international camp may seem like a no-brainer. However, as you seek to answer the why, you should also consider the challenges of operating overseas. Basic areas where things can be complicated include:

Insurance coverage. Your camp/organization will need at least two separate types of coverage. The first will cover general liability, automobiles, and workers’ compensation. The second policy will need to cover trip cancellation, interruption, evacuation (for medical, political, or security reasons), and sufficient limits on medical expenses. Darrow Milgrim, of Arthur J. Gallager & Co., told me, “One of the biggest challenges can be that international carriers do not cover the campers on the liability policy for anything that happens to them; rather, they cover the organization. Organizations should speak to their insurance brokers to understand if their domestic package will pick it up. Sometimes it will depend if the claim is brought in the United States or if it is brought in the country where the incident occurred.”

Staff management. To coach and teach a staff member who is at your residential camp and is right in front of you is one thing, but doing so with a staff member who is working halfway around the world is something entirely different. You will need to consider whether to hire locals to run your program (offering its own challenges) or hire American staff and bring them to the camp (an entirely different set of challenges).

Risk mitigation. The risks that are posed by the American summer camp experience have long been noted, and you likely work diligently to mitigate these risks. In international programming, you must work to discover many of these risks as they pertain to youth. You need to become well-versed in the unique risks associated with operating in the country you have chosen, and also in how you will respond to medical emergencies as they occur.

Working with contractors to deliver your program. Finding the right partners to help execute your program abroad is a challenge that can be overcome with proper research and development. Finding partners you know and trust to help you deliver on your goals is of the utmost importance. As mentioned in the article “Tripping and Travel Camps: Thinking Outside the Gate” in CampLine, “it may be difficult to secure a written contract outlining the respective responsibilities and liabilities of the camp and contractor (including securing the insurance from the contractor, with provision to add the camp as additionally insured), or to facilitate communication on roles between attending camp staff and subcontracted staff” (Gregg & Hansen-Stamp, 2016).

Defining the Where

If you have come to terms with the advantages and disadvantages of running an international program, now comes the fun part: deciding where to go. There is more to this than just spinning the globe and resting your finger on your next camp program location. While this can be a large, up-front expense because of the research you must conduct, this question of where will be critical to the overall success of your endeavor. Following are some considerations as you define where to launch your program:

Program alignment. Business expansion works best if it has some synergy to who you currently are as an organization. Hutchinson advises that any camp considering such an expansion must make sure that the new program is “a market fit. Directors should conduct interviews with their campers and their families to make sure the new program is in alignment with who they are as a camp.” For us at Wilderness Adventures, this meant that we had to be true to our commitment to put our campers into the best outdoor destinations in the world. Consequently, when we add new programs, we are first looking for places that will speak to our reputation as being wilderness based.

Safety and risk mitigation. As you focus your search on a few select areas, it is important to do your research on the safety of the countries you are considering. The Centers for Disease Control and the US Department of State can be great resources in your research, as they assist all US travelers abroad (specifically check out the Bureau of Consular Affairs, the Office of Overseas Citizens Services, and the Overseas Security Advisory Council). They will share with you the travel advisories to these countries and the considerations you should take before you travel. Nevertheless, risks are different abroad. They vary from those associated with geopolitical issues to natural risks like bugs, snakes, and waterborne disease. Then there are the simple risks of being a foreigner in a foreign country.

Cost. Once you select the places in the world that best align with your program, you must consider the costs associated with getting there. While the cost of international travel has dropped, most parents are still only willing to pay so much for a summer experience for their child. You must consider the airfare, in-country travel costs, and other fees associated with working with subcontractors in the country of your choosing.

Language and cultural barriers. It goes without saying that these are important factors to consider. If your counselors and leaders are US born, will they need to know the native language? Additionally, what training will they need to be culturally successful in the country? Decisions that are simple in the US might be complex in your host country. Make sure you consider and understand local customs.

Now Execute

You have now taken all the appropriate steps. You have identified why this is good for you, you have considered the challenges and benefits, and you have identified your location through careful research and development. It is time to execute and begin the delivery process.

As a high school student, I traveled to Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. That first trip abroad changed my perspective of the world. A few years later, when I led a high school group to Costa Rica, I was amazed by the journey’s impact on the students. The people, the food, the wilderness, and the howler monkeys — all of these things left a powerful imprint on both myself and my students. Most of all, I began to understand the world is accessible. Today, I work to manage complex camping programs in time zones all over the planet. I hold these experiences close, even when the business is challenging, because I know the value of camp experiences abroad. The more we know and understand other citizens of the world, the better off we all are!

Photos courtesy of Tom Holland, Wilderness Adventures, Jackson, Wyoming.


Tom Holland is the owner and director of Wilderness Adventures, a worldwide summer camp program. Including his current professional role, Tom has held many of his dream jobs, including paperboy, camp counselor, backpacking guide, camp director of Teton Valley Ranch Camp, and chief foundation officer and chief executive officer of the American Camp Association. Tom and his wife Catherine live in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, with their four children.