In the summer of 2013, Adam Tichauer was trying to get a large group of friends together. He had found, increasingly, that he was spending his free time hanging out with colleagues, rather than old friends. Knowing it would take an outlandish idea to get the whole gang back together at once, he began to brainstorm.
He soon realized how much he missed summer camp. Tichauer, a Brown grad and the former CEO of the music-minded marketing company Playbutton, had both attended and been a counselor at a sleepaway camp; he’d also directed a tennis camp in Toronto. He realized that while camps were full of children through most of the summer, there was still a window of pleasant weather after the youngsters went home. Tichauer reached out to a camp in upstate New York and asked how many people he’d have to round up for it to be worth the camp owner’s while to keep it open through Labor Day weekend. The answer: 35 folks.
That was tough. Tichauer had about 20 friends who were interested, but his first-degree connections didn’t get him to 35. So he told his friends to ask friends of theirs if they were interested in joining. “That’s when it blew up,” he says. As Labor Day weekend approached, participant numbers climbed to 45, then 55, then 75, then 90.
Tichauer hired two buses to shuttle the large group of people upstate. He remembers that as the buses pulled into camp late Friday evening, he wondered what he had gotten himself into. Adults at a summer camp? What if everything went wrong? As the oversize bus attempted to pull into a narrow driveway, the camp owner emerged and tried to give the driver instructions, growing frustrated when the driver didn’t listen. Already, things were going wrong. “I was super terrified,” recalls Tichauer.
The group piled out onto the campgrounds, where they started a fire. “And then it started to pour,” recalls Tichauer. Everyone split for their assigned bunks.
But then, something magical happened. The bunkmates started to have fun. In one bunk, someone busted out a guitar, kicking off a sing-along. In another, people started playing games. In another, campers unpacked rub-on tattoos. “Each bunk had its own little community forming,” says Tichauer. That night, when the lights went out, and these groups of grown-ups found themselves reliving camp memories, “it was hilarious,” says Tichauer. In his bunk, someone started telling a ghost story.
The rest of the weekend was a smashing success. There was a Slip ‘N Slide. There was archery. There was tubing. There was yoga. There was a scavenger hunt. There was a color war. During the days, people donated their skill sets to teach classes–a cooking class here, a couture class there. And there were themed parties the latter two nights. There was, perhaps most crucially, an open bar.
What there wasn’t: cellular service, or Wi-Fi. Soon, people organically started leaving their phones behind in the bunks. There was no worry of someone snapping a photo and posting it on Instagram, so people cut loose. That this no-work, no professional networking stance was adhered to was all the more remarkable for the fact that many participants, like Tichauer at the time, were CEOs of startups or even big companies.
And on the third night, of course, there was a talent show. “It was a really beautiful thing,” recalls Tichauer. People got up in front of folks they’d only met a few days ago and sang silly songs or told revealing stories. Influential CEOs who couldn’t be seen making a false move at work completely let loose and opened up to the group.
Afterwards, many people told Tichauer that “Camp No Counselors,” as they came to call it, was the best weekend of their life. “I received gift baskets and handwritten thank-you letters after,” says Tichauer. “This was more than just a fun weekend getaway. It really affected people. It brought people together.”
Something else set adult camp apart from kids camp: These men and women were all headed back to New York on a bus, together. Instead of a community dispersed with tearful promises to write, the community could persist back in the city. “It wasn’t tearful good-byes, it was joyous good-byes,” says Tichauer. The new friends continued to hang out, inviting the group to spin-off events in New York. Eventually, the events became so frequent that a Camp No Counselors dodgeball game conflicted with a Camp No Counselors breakdancing class.
Around Christmas of 2013, one member of the group expressed a desire to plan a ski weekend. Tichauer, whose interest in his job as a startup CEO was flagging, decided to take over the planning. He made the weekend into an all-out “winter camp” in Killington, Vermont. One hundred people signed up for a weekend of skiing, snowshoeing, tubing, outdoor hot tubs, and fireside chess (and booze). Again, it was a wild success. And again, the group was heavily represented by CEOs and startup founders: perhaps 35 out of the 110.
Tichauer began to smell a business. In April of this year, he left his startup “to go full-time on camp,” he says. For would-be campers he offered early-bird booking rates of $400 to $500.
The next event he planned in May. This time, Tichauer conducted an experiment, by putting together a group of “campers” who had more degrees of separation among them than at previous camps. Could the same magic obtain among a group of relative strangers?
Tichauer knew he had a challenge cut out for him when a dour-looking woman from Utah stepped onto the bus wearing all black, with thick sunglasses and a long fur coat. She was tattooed head to toe, and impossibly quiet. “She was too cool for it all when she entered the bus,” recalls Tichauer.
But: “By day two, she was in her bikini, running around, rock-climbing, a huge smile on her face, no sunglasses. She opened up.” A month later, she moved to New York.
So Tichauer was in business. He ran his fourth camp this past Labor Day, adjusting pricing to make his first profit on the venture. And he’s launching in a few other markets soon (including this very weekend, in Los Angeles). His strategy, inspired in part by the potentials inherent in the elite audience he has so far attracted, is to grow carefully, in just a few urban markets at a time. An air of exclusivity can’t hurt. “I want to keep it to three to four camps per year in each specific market,” he says.
And once he has ingratiated himself as the unofficial Social Chair of tech and other elites in all those markets, new possibilities arise. He could bring together ex-campers from various cities–on international trips, say. Tichauer says he wants to built a “global Camp No Counselors community.”
There is, these highly social days, plenty of competition for Tichauer to fend off. Whether your aim is to unplug, get creative, or frolic your way into a new, networked connection, there’s an adult camp for you.
But so far, business remains good for Tichauer. And more than that, he finds it deeply satisfying to create an experience that people seem to love. “I think when people leave the weekend,” he says, “they come away a little happier, with new friends, with more self-confidence–and they go back to their cities with a little sparkle in their eye.”