‘You’ll never compete with Camp America’ Meet the founder who defied Dragons’ Den judge

Lee McAteer

Lee McAteer

After being told by Dragons’ Den judge Duncan Bannatyne that he’d never be able to compete with one of America’s best known brands, Lee McAteer set out to prove him wrong.

The Salford-based entrepreneur’s mix of summer camp, gap year and tour companies aimed at UK Millennials is set to turn over £4 million this year and employs 100 people.

“Back in 2009 I was at a media party and spoke about the idea for AmeriCamp with Duncan Bannatyne and he said I’d never compete with Camp America – which is an established, well-known brand in the US – with little investment and resource,” said McAteer. “But I had previous experience of Camp America and thought there has to be a better way of doing things. I wanted to offer a real salary to those young people working at camps, not just pocket money.”

When he was 19, McAteer took a summer job at a camp in the States, a placement that was arranged by Camp America which is a household name in the US, but after having a bad experience he thought there must be a better way of doing things.

Not only has McAteer gone on to launch a successful rival dubbed AmeriCamp, which already has double the social media following of Camp America, he has created other summer camp brands – including Camp Thailand which is the UK’s most popular activity for 18-24-year-olds over the summer break.

McAteer said: “Invasion Group is the ultimate camp, work, weekend break and travel organisation whose mantra is ‘Work Hard, Party Hard and Make a Positive Impact.

“We are now the leading provider of camp volunteer experiences in the UK, with Camp Thailand our most popular programme. 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.

“Our objective is to give back and we are making CSR a necessity, it is something at the very epicentre of what we do.”

McAteer admits it hasn’t been easy getting AmeriCamp off the ground as Camp America is a household brand in the US to such an extent that people say “we are doing Camp America” when what they actually mean is they are working at a summer camp in America.

He said: “It’s a bit like Dyson versus Hoover with the term ‘hoovering up’ firmly established in our language, but as we start to re-educate the Millennial generation it is slowly changing.

“With AmeriCamp, young people can live and work at a summer camp in America for nine weeks and earn up to $1,845 – all for just £279 plus costs like flight and visa. To do the equivalent at Camp America costs more – and the young people don’t get a salary anywhere near what they get through us, so when we first launched we were trying to prove that we were real as people thought AmeriCamp was too good to be true! Going forwards, we have huge expansion plans to continue taking market share and in the next three years, we aim to go from challenger brand to market leader.”

McAteer, who has around 30 brands and counting as part of his Invasion Group, launched Camp Thailand in 2015 with just a hunch and no budget, or business plan – and is now incredibly the UK’s most popular summer camp programme.

He added: “For 2016, Camp Thailand received 25,000 applications plus. The market is turning away from people wanting to go to the USA as they now want to go to Asia. Nothing competes at this stage with Camp Thailand and we run the camps ourselves. It now has a bigger reach on social media than AmeriCamp in only 18 months.”

Always keen to give something back, McAteer has an incubator space at Invasion HQ in Salford to help budding entrepreneurs achieve their dreams, just like he is – they have free office space and mentorship to boot.