Marketing to young people is a difficult nut to crack, especially if you’re already knocking on the door of middle age. If you’re after some pointers you could do worse than chat to Lee McAteer, the CEO and founder of Invasion Group, which has built up a huge following of students.
Its Americamp division, which sends talented young people to work in summer camps in the US, has garnered 50% more Facebook likes than its huge 40 year-old rival Camp America, and double its following on Twitter, despite having only been created in 2010. It has dozens of other brands from AusJob (which helps travellers find jobs Down Under) to ‘Ibiza Invasion’ package holidays which have many tens of thousands more followers between them.
‘You need to put yourself in the shoes of that millennial and think, if I was a millennial what is it that I would like,’ he tells MT. ‘Millennials don’t like hard sells, they want stuff that is going to engage them. What you have to do is show the personal touch and go the extra mile and not just think that something that's automated is going to bring in a potential sale.’
McAteer didn’t always plan to go into the travel industry. He studied law and had a brief spell in the media before setting up Invasion with co-founder Nick Steiert, with whom he had run Leeds University’s law society.
Their first trips were based in the UK, taking students to visit other university cities to experience the nightlife. ‘The margins weren’t big enough for us to expand, but what a lot of the societies were saying was they would like us to take them to Amsterdam.’
So they started offering international trips and later expanded into summer camps. McAteer was keen to take on Camp America after a bad experience as a customer. ‘They’d taken all my money, the customer service was terrible and I thought there must be a better way to do it. I thought we could turn the industry on its head. Because they were so entrenched with what they had been doing without any competition, I saw a massive opportunity there.’
It may be a travel brand but Americamp’s business model is more like that of a recruitment agency, working on behalf of around 1,000 camps across the US. ‘We provide the staff for the positions these camps need. It could be a drama instructor, a football instructor. We get a recruitment fee from the camp and we also make money from the applicant too.’
What sets it apart from its rivals, he says, is that the travellers get paid more and face lower costs – although unlike Camp America, flights aren’t included. McAteer says Americamp got around 20-25,000 applications this year, around 2,000 of which were successful. Invasion also operates its own camps in Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, and has about 30 brands in total.
The business is totally self-funded and McAteer expects to turn over £5m next year. There are 42 staff who work at its HQ in Manchester and smaller offices in Madrid and Amsterdam, as well as a lone remote worker in Australia.
McAteer (left) with co-founder Nick Steiert and staff members at Invasion's colourful Manchester HQ
It managed to bag some pretty gushing press coverage earlier this year, with several tabloids naming McAteer ‘Britain’s best boss’ after he turned the company’s offices into a giant ballpit and took 10 of his staff on holiday to Las Vegas. ‘It doesn’t matter if you’re the MD or an apprentice, we always go above and beyond the call of duty and treat everyone how we’d want to be treated. I probably make more tea and coffee than the apprentices do.’
McAteer has some pretty kooky inspirations. The businessman he most admires is Vince McMahon, the owner of World Wrestling Entertainment, who in his more limber days was often seen in the ring getting knocked about. ‘He is a marketing genius...with everything they do he tries to polarise opinion so that people talk about it.’ Invasion even offers travel packages to pay per view events like Wrestlemania.
He spends about half of his time outside the UK per year. But his favourite place to visit isn’t some opulent retreat like Mustique or a trendy off-the-beaten-track island in South-East Asia, but the family-friendly fibreglass playground that is Orlando, Florida. ‘I love going to places like Disney and Universal to see what is possible and to see peoples’ reactions, in terms of how they engage with the creativity.’
Whatever you do, don’t call him an entrepreneur. ‘I hate the word,’ he says. ‘A lot of people use that but I try not to big it up as much as other people do – I’m just a regular guy trying to make it in the world.’