This was a rough year to start a travel business. But it was a great year to learn the fine art of adaptation. Let me tell you a tale.
My friend Adam Baber and I spent years leading service-learning programs for high school students—mostly in the Dominican Republic. We worked mostly in a mountain farming community called El Faro, and we built strong friendships there. Over time, Adam and I envisioned a company that would offer service-oriented international retreats for families, companies, or other groups. We spoke with our friends in El Faro. They were welcoming.
That vision became Camino Institute, LLC. Think “corporate retreat off the beaten path,” or “family trip with purpose.” Our plan was to get funding, buy a couple acres of land, and build a small, rustic campus. Our clients’ fees would create a micro-economic driver, hiring local foremen and supporting local businesses and providing volunteer labor to take on small charity infrastructure projects. Outside work hours, we’d guide clients through meaningful reflection. The company’s four-part tagline became “Travel With Purpose; Disconnect to Reconnect; Focus on What Matters; Be of Service.”
In the two years leading up to COVID, Adam and I had raised just shy of six figures from a small group of investors. In February, as the second of five campus buildings was nearing completion, we were booking our first groups, and reality was aligning nicely with our conservative revenue projections. Then everything changed.
Starting Camino wasn’t easy. We’re based in New York, not known for streamlined bureaucracy. Complexity was compounded by the international factor and language barrier. I have “conversational fluency,” but that doesn’t cut it when negotiating real-estate contracts. We required several attorneys, American and Dominican. Securing insurance was no easy task, and it isn’t cheap.
Yet we are fortunate. First, Adam and I were disciplined in terms of our debt. We could have raised and spent double or even triple what we did. Secondly, our investors couldn’t be more supportive. Finally, we have savvy advisors who have helped us immensely. After all, neither Adam nor I has an MBA. We’re career educators.
When COVID threw a wrench in the gears, we felt compelled to maintain momentum. This required creativity and adaptation, quick. When your company is predicated on something that suddenly becomes impossible or at least impractical for the foreseeable future—international air travel, in our case—you have to pivot quickly or fail.
Adam and I reflected upon a key question: What could we do in these circumstances—and do well—in keeping with the company’s vision? We realized that our combined experience teaching and mentoring young men was an asset we could leverage.
Many were feeling isolation and disconnection, especially early in the pandemic. College students and young adults in particular were in limbo. Well, Camino’s vision was always about helping people discern their path. (Camino means “path,” “way,” or “road” in Spanish.)
So we built the Young Men’s Online Seminar for guys between ages eighteen and thirty, and piloted it quickly. The results were strong. Two months later, we are running two concurrent cohorts—our third and fourth—at near-full capacity, with only a few spaces remaining in the next two.
The Seminar taps into something essential for young men at this age—the deep need for genuine connection and the strong desire for honest conversation. Camino isn’t religiously affiliated, but Adam and I have spent our careers at Jesuit schools, and Camino is inspired by Ignatian Spirituality. It’s centered on reflection that enables discernment of our authentic desires—the kind that help us understand our lives beyond our resumés, on a vocational level. The Seminar challenges guys to “get real” about where they’ve been, where they are, and where they really want to go on the path—the camino—of life.
I don’t know when we’ll be able to take groups to El Faro. It might be six months away, or it might be a year. Meanwhile, we have debt service and a construction project on pause. Sure, it’s unsettling. But we also have a creative mindset, an optimistic disposition, and, most importantly, belief in the value of what our company offers.
If you believe in the value of what you offer, and you have the humility to let go your preconceptions, what’s left over is a resilience that makes room for creativity. And that, in turn, builds confidence. The irony is that we now have more clients and more brand awareness about Camino than we would have at this point, had all this not happened. The road, indeed, has many turns. Know why you’re walking, and then tread carefully but confidently.