A year ago, Joseph Dawson, a communications manager at a South Florida biotech company, sat at his work computer dreaming about connecting with musicians who shared his passion for rock music. So Dawson jetted to Las Vegas, where he spent a week playing drums at a rock ’n’ roll fantasy camp with other working professionals looking to escape their routine.
“It was kind of like self-help group therapy,” Dawson says. “It changed me on a level I didn’t expect.”
With time demands and stress levels rising, U.S. workers are desperate to connect with others who feel trapped in the same dynamics. Camps for adults have become increasingly popular as an antidote to workplace stress, offering workers a weekend or weeklong opportunity to unplug their devices, recharge their personal batteries, re-evaluate priorities and experience much needed camaraderie.
Stress experts say building bonds with others in a completely new environment encourages positive thinking and resilience. “The brain is hardwired that we must have a tribe or community in order to survive in this very challenging world,” says Heidi Hanna, CEO of SYNERGY Solutions and author of Stressaholic. “Social support not only boosts optimism, it makes challenges appear less difficult.”
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For Dawson, 32, rocking out with rock legends like KISS’ Ace Frehley and Alice Cooper was decidedly cool. But the deeper experience came from bonding with fellow band mates who were strangers just the week before. Dawson has stayed in touch with all of them — insurance agents, doctors, IT experts, all tethered by a common love of music. He says they support each other’s lives outside work, even traveling to attend performances. “It’s over a year out, and the experience still changes me, “It’s given me confidence to play more, and I now work with co-workers better.”
According to grownupcamps.com, there are more than 800 adult camps in the U.S., most of them operating throughout the year. They tout the draw of the adult camp experience as an opportunity to break free of routine, learn something new, make new friends and have fun. The American Camp Association (ACA) says it expects interest in adult camps to continue to grow. Camp organizers say typically about 50 percent of adult campers return.
David Fishof launched Rock ’n’ Roll fantasy camp in Doral more than a decade ago to appeal to the booming population of rock star wannabes. He since has secured a permanent location for his fantasy camp in Las Vegas and just entered talks to open a second location in South Florida. The camps pair attendees with professional musicians and band mates and range in price from $299 for a one-day rock star experience, $1,699 for two days of Rock Camp 101 and up to $5,495 for a four-day headliner package. Campers write and record their own songs in a professional recording studio and finish with a live performance. Fishof says campers leave with better work and life skills. “They learn to listen. What makes them successful in a band is to listen to what the other person is playing. So many people forget success is in teams.”
Like Fishof, Tammi Leader Fuller, 54, became aware of the dynamics behind the adult camp trend and now runs Campowerment, a combination of fun and games and empowerment workshops. Fuller calls it a place where women who are struggling to juggle all that life throws at them can unwind in a group setting.
“A lot of women have hit a wall,” explains Fuller. “They want to know others are experiencing what they are feeling.” Fuller says camp rules are that campers can’t talk about what they do for a living for the first 24 hours. “Sweatpants, we have learned, are the great equalizer.”
In between bonfires and singalongs, the women learn journaling, vision board making and stress management skills. Fuller runs the camps at kids’ sleep-away properties around the country. Her next one will be in Orange Springs, Fla., from Feb. 21-24. She expects about 70 women to attend.
Patrice “Treecy” Eichen, a 55-year-old Broward County assistant attorney and mother of a teen daughter, flew to Malibu last April to participate in a four-day Campowerment. “I wanted to experience bonding and friendship away from electronics and cell service. It was four days just to do what I want and not have demands on me.”
Eichen, who signed up for Campowerment again this March, said she found the “sharing circles” and waking up to women giggling in her bunk more restorative than a day at the spa. “I think it has more long-term benefits.”
Camp organizers are discovering that even the young generation of workers sees the benefit of breaking away from the modern world for a camp experience. Levi Felix, 29, co-founded Digital Detox in 2012 to lead device free retreats and programs. He has hosted more than 15 three-day retreats for people who feel addicted to their gadgets. For 72 hours, the participants eat vegan food, practice yoga, swim in a nearby creek, take long walks in the woods, and keep a journal about being offline.
From those retreats, Felix got the idea for Camp Grounded, a full-scale, adults-only camp held in June on former Boy Scouts quarters about 2 ½ hours north of San Francisco. Last summer, about 300 people from all over the country attended and participated in activities such as truffle-making workshops, yoga and archery. Campers, mostly in their 30s, were prohibited from electronics, watches and work talk. “People are looking for a place to unplug, re-energize and build community, ” Felix says. “The idea is to leave with new perspective.” Initial Camp Grounded success, he says, led him to offer three camp sessions of 300 people each this summer.
Taking a different approach, Vicky Townsend, 53, launched Inspiration University to encourage women to talk business — but also build friendships — in a relaxed environment. She has partnered with high-end spas throughout South Florida and invited executive women to come to electronics-free retreats that include inspirational workshops, wine and cheese and spa treatments. “We encourage the women to talk about what they do and what they need,” Townsend says. “You get to know someone on a different level when you’re getting reflexology or scalp massages together.”
Stress expert Hanna says more adults need to seek an outlet for pent-up tension and anxiety: “Unfortunately, people think that if they seek help for stress, they will be perceived as weak, when the reality is everyone is stressed.” While the goal is to re-energize, the real advantage, camp organizers say, are the coping abilities that help upon return to former routines. Says Fuller: “Everyone leaves with the tools to live the lives they want and a new sense of purpose.”
Columnist Cindy Krischer Goodman is CEO of BalanceGal, a provider of news and advice on work/life issues.