Ben Hanna ’07 helps people disconnect from the pressures of work and technology and reconnect with the people around them.
In the tranquility of the woods, disconnected from screens and the constant ping of messages and notifications, the campers start their day with games, a nature walk or a yoga practice. Next, they might opt for some physical activity like rock climbing, kickball or archery. If they want to exercise their creativity, there’s always woodworking, string art or origami. The day winds down with live music and roasting s’mores under the stars. But these campers are not kids away on a summer excursion. They’re professionals from Fortune 500 companies.
Ben Hanna ’07 is the co-founder and CEO of Custom Camps, which organizes camp-style off-site retreats for companies where their employees can create and innovate through play in a relaxed atmosphere. “It’s an opportunity to take your team out of the office for a memorable team-building experience that has none of the old stodgy trust falls,” Hanna says. As the name implies, Custom Camps creates day, overnight or weeklong retreats to suit each company’s specific needs, whether that’s a day off with fun and games or a chance for new team members to connect after a merger. Since launching in 2017, Custom Camps has organized retreats in California, New York, Texas and North Carolina for groups as small as 45 and as large as 1,500. The average retreat hosts 200 to 300 people, which amounts to a medium to large team at a big tech company or the full staff at a small- to medium-sized business.
The Custom Camps team handles all of the logistics — securing lodging, coordinating meals, booking musicians and creating a wide range of activities to facilitate personal development and team building. “It’s everything you would expect from a tech conference but out in the woods followed by happy hour next to the river,” Hanna says. Campers can drop into hour-and-a-half-long “playshops” that match their interests, from candle making and coffee roasting to axe throwing and stilt walking. They can compete in a “Color Olympics” in which they divide into teams with colorful headbands and engage in funny competitions like three-legged racing or eating a Fruit by the Foot without using their hands.
Away from the daily grind of the office and unplugged from technology, campers connect with their colleagues in new ways that strengthen their relationships when they return to work. Custom Camps strives to help people grow into more effective problem-solvers and more empathetic co-workers, to stimulate their creativity, encourage them to try new things and embrace learning from mistakes. “Our experiences are play-based, which means employees can make real-life connections that they can lean on when going through problems at work. To find solutions, they know how each other function in real-life experiences,” Hanna says. “They get to reconnect with themselves, reconnect with nature and play like a child again.”
Camp experiences have been integral in Hanna’s life from a young age. The Atlanta native grew up spending his summers at Camp Rockmont in Black Mountain, North Carolina, where his mother was a nurse. In high school he started taking classes of fifth and sixth graders on rock climbing campouts in Tennessee, which he continued with his first-year roommate, Jason King ’07.
After his sophomore year at Elon, he and some of his fraternity brothers worked as sea kayak guides on the South Carolina coast. “I got really into teaching people how to be outdoors and how to camp, taking people out into nature, explaining the biodiversity to them, getting people to connect with where they were as opposed to just being on vacation,” he says.
Along the way, Hanna forged a unique path while at Elon, double majoring in journalism and philosophy with a minor in digital art. He developed a passion for philosophy under the mentorship of Associate Professor of Philosophy Nim Batchelor, who taught a pre-law critical thinking class that Hanna took during his first year at Elon. “We had to write a 28-page appellate brief, which I thought was insane at the time, but I really enjoyed it,” Hanna says. He initially planned on going to law school before shifting his focus to the tech sector.
He also credits Professor of Journalism Janna Anderson and Associate Professor of Art L.M. Wood, who passed away last March, as significant influences during his time at Elon. Anderson’s class about the future of the internet ignited Hanna’s interest in the technology world. “It has been exciting to see him explore careers that tap into the future of humanity and digital life,” Anderson says. “He has built upon his Elon experiences as a philosophy and journalism major to build a rewarding life in which he helps others find the answers they seek to the big questions they are asking.”
Before giving professionals a break from technology through Custom Camps, Hanna’s career focused on driving people to the web. During the eight months he spent backpacking through Southeast Asia after graduating from Elon, he built websites for local restaurants and hotels in exchange for meals and room and board. While in Thailand, he met some of the core team from CouchSurfing.com, a service that connects travelers with hosts willing to share their spare rooms, and went to work for the company when it relocated to Alaska in 2008. “I worked with them for five years and spent half a year consecutively in different places,” Hanna says. “I lived in Costa Rica, Thailand, Istanbul, Alaska, New Zealand, Mexico and Italy. I traveled the world working for them.”
The company ultimately relocated to San Francisco, where Hanna was thrown into the world of venture capital and tech funding. He helped CouchSurfing.com raise $25 million over two funding rounds before moving on to other projects. One was Camp Grounded, a summer camp for adults. “We thought people were spending way too much time on technology, so we started this offline experience,” Hanna says. “When people got there, we took away their phones, watches and laptops, literally sealed them in biohazard bags and locked them away in a vault. People had four days offline in the redwoods in California.”
People really connect with the humans that are around them and the experience they are having as opposed to things that are going on out of their control elsewhere.
After helping to launch Camp Grounded, Hanna returned to the tech world. He started an online auction platform that sold web domains and managed over $1 billion in escrow. He later served as vice president of operations at Long Game Savings, a personal finance app that helps people save money through games with cash prizes. But when Camp Grounded’s co-founder, Levi Felix, died of a brain tumor at age 32, Hanna and Camp Director Brady Gill decided to keep his mission going year-round, and Custom Camps was born.
Hanna and Gill leveraged their connections to grow Custom Camps into a commercially viable business. They knew people in the tech industry who were looking to improve employee retention amid the stiff competition in Silicon Valley and pitched Custom Camps as a unique way for teams to forge stronger relationships outside the confines of corporate culture. They connected with networking groups and hosted events in the Bay Area, and the business began to grow through word of mouth. One of their early retreats was for executive assistants at Google. “The 40 people we took out for that one represented 10,000 people at the company,” Hanna says. “By showing them the experience we could offer, that was our way to get in there at first.”
Custom Camps now hosts five to 10 retreats every month for a wide variety of clientele, from Tazo Tea to the Internet Archive’s Decentralized Web Summit. Though the retreats attract a lot of tech companies, Custom Camps retains Camp Grounded’s philosophy of taking a break from the pressures of technology. The retreats are typically held in venues with no cell service, and the Wi-Fi is turned off or limited. “By the second day, nobody has their phones out,” Hanna says. “People really connect with the humans that are around them and the experience they are having as opposed to things that are going on out of their control elsewhere. The shift is slow, but it happens and it’s very noticeable.”
Now, Custom Camps is starting to expand its reach beyond the technology and business sectors. Stanford University and some Bay Area public schools have approached Hanna and Gill about hosting retreats for faculty. Custom Camps plans to start taking its 50-foot tea tent on the festival circuit, where attendees at events like climbing festivals and music festivals can decompress and drink tea while listening to ambient music and engaging in intimate conversation. It also tested a retreat at the University of Nevada, Reno campus, and hopes to bring its playshops and tea lounge to colleges during orientations and exam weeks as a way for students to meet each other in a low-stress environment.
“In school, the focus is often on ‘how is this applicable to my job when I get out?’ We forget that a large part of life is enjoying what you’re doing for the simple sake of doing it,” Hanna says. “We’re trying to teach people that they can appreciate their work and their environment a lot more once they bring play into that. That’s the biggest point of what we’re doing. Don’t forget how to play just because you also have to work.”