Gap year specialist Invasion conquers new markets
‘Work hard, party hard, make a positive impact’ - this is the ethos and driving force behind Invasion a tours, gap year and summer camp specialist.
With unprecedented popularity among the millennial generation and a cool Salford office under their belt, it seems to be a winning approach.
Co-founders Lee McAteer and Nick Steiert, who met at university, exude a playful approach to business despite their growing success story.
And having demonstrated that the meeting room is in fact fitted with disco lights, they get down to talking tactics.
Not to mention how they have grown a university idea into a business on course to turnover £4m.
First off - the concept - organising working trips to camps and destinations worldwide, and why it works.
“Millennials like to party but they are fast becoming a lot more conscientious and also want to do something meaningful”, explains McAteer.
“Also the way the job market is now, they need that something extra to put on their CV. It’s not good enough anymore to say they’ve been on a gap year, they need to have done something with their time. With our programmes, yes they are going to cool places and going to have a good time, but it’s all about that ethos and having a positive impact.”
Founded in 2008, Invasion owns and runs brands such as AmeriCamp, Camp Thailand, Camp South Africa, AusJob and Camp.co.uk amongst others and claims to have a collective social media following of over 4m people.
Popular with the student population, it’s no surprise that the concept was born out of their own university experience.
The pair first met while studying law at Leeds University where they both went on to serve as president of the law society.
Steiert remembers: “We did a lot of travelling back then. Lee did a summer camp programme in America and recruited three of his friends to go out to the camp directly. The following year I went out there too and that was basically how AmeriCamp was born.”
The pair were inspired to create a better summer camp experience after feeling frustration towards the scheme and the status quo.
McAteer states: “I got paid $550 for the summer and thought this is absolutely BS because my co-councillor was on $1,500 and did a terrible job.
“I also won a councillor of the year award but didn’t qualify for the bonus that came with it because I had gone through a third party, I
was really disappointed because I wanted to use the extra money to go travelling.”
Once back in the UK an idea struck to set up their own travel experience.
“I thought I can help recruit from university and that’s when Nick and all my housemates came as well. We were building our contacts.”
Invasion started life as an organised pub-crawl between UK destinations but quickly moved international when they trialled Amsterdam in 2010.
Laughing, 30-year-old Steiert reminisces: “We took our first coach of 50 people and made a £7 profit.”
But the hard work paid off as the numbers grew and new destinations were added including Paris, Rome and Prague.
And the steady pace of growth led to other benefits.
“We’ve had no need for external investors because it has all been organic, so we are lucky in that we haven’t given away any shareholding.
McAteer adds: “To get it off the ground we scrimped, saved and lived on the edge.”
In 2011 the savvy pair bought the domain Invasion.com after a night of intense negotiating and despite ‘not having a penny to their name’.
“We knew it was the right call because from a branding perspective it was a real statement,” says Wirral-born McAteer.
With momentum behind them the defining moment for AmeriCamp came when they gave up pursuing their legal ambitions to focus on the business full-time.
McAteer, 32, quit his LPC with Squire Sanders and began working on the roll-out.
“It was always at the back of our minds that we should create something, but we didn’t have the right amount of knowledge to make it happen.
“I then decided to reverse engineer the process while Nick was working on Invasion events. I realised how the whole system worked and was like, oh my gosh. We flipped the recruitment fee that you would normally get and made it people’s salaries instead.”
With a simple website set up, including an embedded application form, all they needed now was the reach.
“Invasion were so ahead of the game on social media”, adds the Wirral co-founder.
“We had almost one million people on different Facebook groups so it was easy to access 18-21 year-olds and we could get things going viral very quickly.
“We sent out a message to all our groups on social media plugging the AmeriCamp brand and in the first hour we had 200 applications.”
Building on the AmeriCamp success, they went on to launch programmes across the globe and are proud of the difference their youngsters have made.
“When you go out there and see the real difference they are making it chokes you up.
“We set out to do something better than anybody else, but we couldn’t envisage just how much it was going to change peoples lives for the better. It is that buzz that really drives us.”
With ages ranging between 16 - 40, Invasion collectively organise for 20,000 people to travel abroad each year.
“The challenge now is to manage that growth and not overgrow because you have to do things the right way” says McAteer.
After three years in Ancoats, Invasion are newly moved to their fun-filled premises at The Foundry in Salford.
And with a team of 35, up from 12 last year, they are also looking at office openings in London, Amsterdam and Australia by the end of the year.
Chipping in with a football analogy, Italian-born Steiert says: “At the beginning it was just about us and now we have brought staff along
we need to transition away from being the players on the field to becoming the man on the side dictating play.”
Speaking of ambitions they go on to tell me the 10-year plan is to have 1,000 staff working for them worldwide.
Although this will never jeopardise the quality of the experience.
“What we don’t want to do is create a faceless, commercial-type programme because that’s not what we’re about,” reassures McAteer.
Philosophically his business partner adds: “Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer and it’s so true because you learn skills you will never learn in a classroom.
“It helps us grow as individuals and we see people come back with a completely different outlook.”
So how does it feel to get this far?
“We were determined to make it work because the one thing about me and Nick is that we will run through brick walls and work 24 hours a day if we need to.”