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VOL. 41 | NO. 11 | Friday, March 17, 2017

Adults get to experience/re-live camp experience

By Hollie Deese

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Anyone who knows Nashville PR powerhouse Deb Varallo knows there isn’t much she can’t accomplish.

She has an abundance of confidence, and participating at a sleep-away camp for adults – doing all kinds of physical activities just like kids at summer camp – likely wouldn’t faze her.

But there was one exception during her foray into summer camp for grown-ups.

“The tree climbing was the hardest for me to do,” Varallo says. “I got strapped in to their braces, and I proceeded to climb up the tree via the ropes, which means I was free hanging. I didn’t go anywhere, I swear. I may have gone a foot higher than what I was off the ground.”

“There is a technique to it, and I just couldn’t seem to get that rhythm aspect to it,” Varallo adds. “I was frustrated watching everybody else go up the tree. They’re going up 30 feet, and I’m still down two feet off the ground, with my helmet on and strapped in. I never made it up there.”

Whether you can climb a tree or not, taking a weekend away from cell phones and routine chores to act like a kid gives adults the break many need. Adult camps are trending in Nashville and nationwide.

Varallo returned to camp the next year focused on that tree.

“I really worked out how the rhythm worked and I exercised my upper arms. And I got all the way up. I made it, and that was my goal. It was wonderful to be able to do that.”

Women Scouts

Camp Holloway in Millersville is a 76-acre facility purchased by the Girl Scouts of Middle Tennessee in 1952. It is named after the first black Girl Scout troop in Nashville. The Girl Scouts of Middle Tennessee host the grown-up scouting groups.

Varallo was among a diverse group of 30 or so women who camped with her, some she knew, and some she got to know singing around the camp fire and completing challenges like ropes courses as a team.

“It helped me feel a lot more confident in myself,” Varallo says of the 24-hour experience.

“I have a lot of confidence anyway, but I don’t have confidence in certain things. That helped me physically realize that if I set my mind to it, I could do most anything. Because of Girl Scouts I did archery, I did rock climbing and I did the tree climbing.”

Agenia Clark, CEO of Girl Scouts of Middle Tennessee, didn’t think there would be a single woman interested in rappelling, rock climbing or tree climbing the first year the organization offered the women-only “glamping” experience, only to learn that those were the three most popular activities they had.

“I’ve gotten as much joy watching a 36-year-old female executive, for the first time trust a coach and rappel down a wall, then watching her get the courage to do it again, and then watching her do it a third time, going to the highest peak, and coming down the wall,” Clark says.

“There’s always an opportunity for leadership development, and it doesn’t matter if you’re an 8-year-old girl or a 30-year-old-executive.”

“Camp Holloway is the way that I would camp out, which is it has electricity, you can blow dry your hair, you can take a shower,” Varallo says. “I’m not a tent camper.”

Clark appeals to women like Varallo by offering business sessions on social media skills as well as a poolside movie and popcorn night. While they do offer electricity, makeup and curling irons are definitely better left at home so time can be better spent doing arts and crafts.

“Going to camp is truly stepping outside of your comfort zone, and that’s just the beginning of the experience,” Clark explains. “We surround you with experts in a safe and coachable environment. We let you fail, and we let you try again. We let you succeed, and we let you try again.

“And that’s what can happen by stepping out of your comfort zone and coming to a place that’s rich with opportunities and experience and professionals.”

Nashville’s Leadership Academy has added adult camps to their regular day and summer camp offerings in the past few years.

Their Grown Ups Camp is a weekend camp program that launched in April 2016 with 42 participants who arrived around happy hour on a Friday afternoon to Camp Y.I. on Percy Priest Lake in La Vergne and stayed until after brunch Sunday. They slept in cabins, zip lined, canoed, rock climbed and even competed in a color war (a team sporting event).

“It’s really that people unclog and play,” says Laura Johnson, CEO of Leadership Academy. “It’s good for our brains, it’s good for our bodies, it’s good for our attitudes.”

Johnson says finding the ideal space that offers all those amenities necessary for a successful adult camp can be difficult, especially within a 45-minute drive to Nashville. And, because of that their next adult camp will likely not be until 2018.

“We were not able to get a camp rented this year for any of the dates,” she says. “There’s just not a lot of facilities to choose from with the proximity and facilities that I am looking for. I really wanted to offer really great amenities, like rock climbing, canoeing, swimming, water skiing and horseback riding.

“I want to make sure I’m offering the best activities, the nicest amenities, and having a true camp experience.”

The off-season

Adam Tichauer with Camp No Counselors avoids competing with other camps by booking unused facilities before and after summer. It’s a strategy that still offers plenty of options in Nashville because campers go back to school early.

“We take up camps’ unused inventory,” he says. “Camps are really interested in this because their business is so seasonal that this helps to make it a little bit more evergreen. They’re in business when the kids are there, and then there’s nine months of unused, beautiful facilities – amazing bunks, dining halls, kitchens, waterfronts.

“In Nashville, kids go back to school much earlier (than many parts of the country), and therefore, the camps are actually available in August.”

Competition is growing fast for adult camps since Tichauer first appeared on ABC’s entrepreneur show Shark Tank to pitch Camp No Counselors. He got the idea in September 2013 after he and a group of friends rented a kids camp in upstate New York after the regular campers left. It was a way to unwind.

“I spread the word to my 20 friends. Word ended up spreading much further than that and 90 people showed up to that first camp, which was kind of amazing to me,” Tichauer adds. “It was just a silly, fun weekend where we played all of the possible camp activities, wakeboarding, water skiing, arts and crafts, zip lining.”

They also partied at night with participants who were DJs or in bands performing.

Today, Tichauer hosts adult camps in16 different locations in the US and Canada, including Nashville which was one of the first places they set up camp in 2015. Last year they had three different sessions in Nashville, with at least the same again this year. The all-inclusive weekend costs $525-$550.

“In our first summer doing a camp in Nashville we hoped to do 50 people at one camp,” Tichauer says. “We ended up selling out three camps at 150 each, which was max capacity. It blew our mind. Nashville people like the outdoors, it’s clear. They like partying, they like being silly. They like play, they love camp.”

He also found their Nashville camp was the first one where they were not only getting people from the local market. About 40 percent of the people at their first Nashville camp were actually from Tennessee, with just 17 percent from Nashville. The rest traveled from other states to attend.

“Nashville is kind of like the heart of the South. It’s easy to get to and from a lot of different areas, with people traveling, even driving seven, eight, ten hours.”

The appeal of unplugging

Tichauer says the lure of camp is universal because people either went to camp and likely loved it or never went to camp and regret it. This is their opportunity to bring back a moment in time that was much more carefree.

“Very simply there’s two kinds of people – there’s people who went to camp as a kid and so the nostalgia brings them right back in,” Tichauer explains. “Then there’s the other group of people that never got to go to camp and wonder what that was like.”

But no matter if they went to camp or not, everyone has the shared experience of being overwhelmed by media, email and their phones.

“We’re always on our phones so people are trying to disconnect more, and getting back in nature and an active lifestyle,” he says. “Add on actually not having cell phone service, and it really allows you to get into the right mind space to play. I think that is one core value that’s really forgotten as adults.”

Johnson agrees there is a need for the kind of experience camp offers today’s young adults in Nashville who are really looking for a weekend to reconnect to their youth – and disconnect from email and social media.

“Our particular target group is young professionals who haven’t quite taken those big bites of responsibility like maybe, marriage, kids and home ownership,” Johnson says.

“They’re working their tails off and adulting all the time, but they want to kick back and have a weekend of fun, kind of be a kid again for a weekend. When people get outside and play together, it really helps to increase our creativity and our confidence in ourselves.”