Somewhere between leisure travel and a career boot camp lies a professional retreat. Now, there's one that acts as a safe space for black professionals.
In the summer of 2017, high in the mountains outside of Los Angeles, a group of adults gathered by a campfire, brandishing sticks with marshmallows on the ends. Above was a night sky full of constellations. Imagine a fireside discussion that could easily wander from an afternoon open-air dance class to the leadership seminar and the struggles that black professionals face at work in America. This relaxed setting was the first annual session of Encounter Camp.
The gathering represents a new arm of the black travel movement, which combats the stereotype that black people don’t travel, when indeed the sector comprises a $48 billion market, according to Mandala Research.
It’s not hard to find a leisure travel experience geared toward black Americans, but Encounter Camp goes deeper, focusing on black professionals. Encounter Camp is filling a void in the market by offering outings about 90 minutes from Los Angeles at Pali Retreat. Existing professional retreat companies aren’t effectively marketing to black professionals, said Kareem Taylor, who is the camp’s co-founder and managing director.
Taylor’s career has spanned voiceover acting, public speaking, event management, and business development. The idea for Encounter Camp came to Taylor after having been the only black person at a retreat in the past.
“There were so many opportunities for other races to go on these kinds of experiences, and it wasn’t just like a conference, and it also wasn’t just let’s go to Miami and have a great time,” said Taylor. Encounter Camp imagines attendees will meet their next business partner or come up with the next big project idea without being in a grilling, boot camp-like environment.
Surveys bear out that Taylor may be onto something with Encounter Camp. Among black millennial travelers, 72 percent are willing to pay more to book with a brand that understands their racial identity, according to a 2017 study by DigitasLBi. In addition, 80 percent are more likely to plan a trip somewhere that will be accepting of that identity.
Traveling for the purposes of a convention, conference, or seminar is actually 5 percent more likely among black Americans compared to other races, according to the U.S. Travel Association’s 2017 Domestic Travel Report.
Encounter Camp doesn’t push an explicit racial agenda. Session leaders don’t initiate forums on workplace discrimination or racial inequality, but these topics may arise organically. “It’s definitely a place to get away from all that,” said Taylor about confronting racism at work. “We’re not pushing that particular conversation. But of course around the campfire, we can talk about anything you want to talk about.”
One 2017 participant, Nicholette Fortune of Los Angeles, attended Encounter Camp while transitioning from working in computer security to graphic design and other more creative pursuits. Fortune had never been to a retreat before, much less one tailored for black professionals. She follows some black travel movement groups, but isn’t an active participant.
“It’s a nice break from the typical narrative,” said Fortune of a more low-key environment that doesn’t focus on racism in the workplace. Among her favorite experiences were being under the stars and taking an archery class. “I thought it was a cool concept,” she said.
Other activities include dance classes, yoga, zip lining, and sessions with guest speakers on productivity, side hustles, brand development, and entrepreneurship. The $389 experience lasts two nights and three days, including meals and cabin accommodations. Corporate partners include health-conscious brands like KIND.
Taylor said Travel Noire and Nomadness Travel Tribe are among his competitors, though these two leading organizations within the black travel movement focus on leisure trips and aren’t really dealing in career development. In addition, Taylor said the magic of a leisure travel experience can wear off quickly, sometimes leaving the traveler depressed to come home, whereas the restorative qualities of a professional retreat will last.
The camp’s attendees are 90 percent black women, according to Taylor, which reflects the larger female-dominated black travel movement. In fact, Nomadness membership is approaching 90 percent black female as well. Taylor started out targeting millennials, much like the larger movement, but ended up attracting professionals in their 40s and 50s as well. He’d like to get more black men interested in the program, but is receiving some skepticism from this group.
Little hesitation came from 2017 attendee Daryl Simpson of Los Angeles, an information technology executive at 20th Century Fox who’s been in IT for 25 years. Simpson’s motivation for joining the retreat came largely from a desire to give back to his professional community, and he plans to attend again in June.
“I see myself in a supporting role … A lot of people supported me to get me to where I am, so I just try to give back,” said Simpson. He also cited s’mores around the campfire in the wilderness as a highlight. “For us city folk, that was pretty cool,” he said. This ties into a sub-sector of black travel devoted to fighting the stereotype that black people don’t camp, hike, or generally spend time outdoors, giving rise to organizations like Outdoor Afro.
Encounter Camp attendees span a variety of sectors, including science, tech, advertising, special education, social work, and the arts, not to mention unemployed people seeking direction.
“A lot of people who come to our events are at milestones in their lives … The only reason I even put a retreat in my consideration box was because I had gotten laid off,” said Taylor of overcoming his own life challenges.
On the value of professional retreats and joining such a community, Taylor said: “This is how people do it. You don’t have to be in your house all alone at night pulling your hair out.”
Photo credit: A dance class at Encounter Camp is one of the retreat's available sessions for black professionals seeking direction in their careers. Francise Fernandez / Encounter Camp