Being a kid is pretty neat: You have no responsibilities, most of your needs are provided for, and as a bonus, you often get to go to summer camp, where adventure spreads out like the night sky. In fact, camp can be such a transforming experience, why should it be only for children? That line of thinking helps explain why the place for campfire stories and s'mores is now a hot learning locale for America's executive talent.
As executives crave the basic life lessons that they either missed as children or forgot — such as how to get along with others and work together to accomplish goals — summer youth camps have responded with off-season programs. "As humans, we're wired to spend time under the stars, sharing stories with faces lit by firelight," says Steve Baskin, an owner of Camp Balcones Springs, a camp located 45 minutes outside of Austin, Texas, which hires professional chefs for its business campers.
Companies send employees to camp to teach them vital job skills. Last winter, Microsoft invited more than three dozen employees and family members who would be working with Microsoft's software division in Denmark to Concordia Language Villages, a cultural and language-immersion camp in northern Minnesota. The goal: to improve communication and understanding. Christine Hoper Hovde, a Microsoft marketing manager, spent two days receiving a crash course in everything Danish. "It made me understand that there are some really cool things about this culture."
Some camps add corporate features to the standard agenda. At Space Camp, at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, businessfolk guide a mock space-shuttle mission and fly an F-18 fighter jet over enemy territory. But adult campers also learn lessons they might actually use. For instance, a type-A, uncompromising executive might be put in a role where she must take orders from a lower-level manager.
And the campers love it. EBay founder Pierre Omidyar, a Space Camp alum, wrote a testimonial in which he called his 2003 visit "one of the most memorable weeks of my life." David Cole spent a weekend at Camp Balcones Springs with his fellow lawyers from Houston's Vinson & Elkins, roasting marshmallows and going horseback riding. "You got to know a side of a person in a way that you can work with them for 10 years and never get to see," he says. The $20,000 tab, then, was money well spent.
A version of this article appeared in the September 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.