Connor and Caroline founded Canyonlands in 2020, and acquired their first summer camp in 2021. Through multiple additional acquisitions, Canyonlands has established itself as the buyer of choice for family-owned, multi-generational camps and youth adventure travel outfitters across the country.
As outdoor enthusiasts and former campers and camp counselors, Connor and Caroline believe in the foundational experiences of outdoor youth education. With each acquisition, their goal is to preserve the founder’s legacy and the unique culture of the camp, while providing operational support across the business. Connor and Caroline met in Bhutan on a global studies trip while earning their MBAs at Stanford. After Stanford, both had additional operating experiences prior to launching Canyonlands.
Q&A with Caroline & Connor
Tell us about a challenging moment during your search – how did you persevere?
We initially set out to acquire a travel-related business, as we met on a travel-study program and are passionate about adventure travel. And in fact, in the first few weeks of our search we were in negotiations with an event-based global travel operator. Of course, that was early 2020. We remember watching events get cancelled one by one – China, South Korea, Italy, Spain – and starting to realize that COVID was going to derail a travel-related thesis, at least for us.
As we re-focused on summer camps, we realized the value proposition was basically the same – gaining new skills and building lifelong friendships in the great outdoors. We had both been campers and camp counselors, and many of our best memories as adults came from backcountry trips, sleeping under the stars. And summer camps are resilient! Some of the oldest summer camps have run for more than 100 years, and survived a pandemic, two world wars, and every recession since Grover Cleveland was president! Searching in the midst of the pandemic, that level of resilience in a business model was pretty compelling.
Through summer and fall of 2020, we got to know leaders in the camp industry, including nearly 50 camp owners. We visited 15 camps in person and spent a week at one of the largest camps in the country, brainstorming the future of the camping with its owners. By mid-winter, we had two camps under LOI and a list of a dozen others we were interested in acquiring. After running our first camp through COVID, we had earned a level of credibility in the industry as serious buyers and operators. Since then, we’ve acquired several more, including a backcountry program operating in national parks in the Pacific Northwest. Now we are returning full circle and expanding operations to include international programs for teens.
Why was search the right step for you in your career and life journey?
Connor had just sold the private equity sponsored company he was running, and we saw this as an opportunity: we had no kids, no mortgage, and good career momentum. We were also recently engaged and looking to use our careers as a platform for other parts of our lives – our philanthropic work, our communities, and our home. Initially we weren’t certain that we’d work together – Connor even flew across the country to interview other potential search partners – but beyond being good partners in our skillsets, we also recognized the flexibility and control over our lives that we’d have from searching together. We bought a home, bought our first company, and got married during a nine-month period.
What lessons did you learn about working with investors that you would pass on to other searchers?
Our investors believe in our vision, and they want us to succeed – they’re here to encourage and help us with their pattern-recognition, not to manage us or catch us in “gotcha” moments. Industry theses matter, but you as an entrepreneur and the relationships you have with them matter more; they’re placing a bigger bet on you as entrepreneurs than they are on the business itself. This is a different relationship than any others we’ve had in our careers – it’s truly a partnership, with investors providing mentorship, experience, and capital, and the entrepreneur providing leadership, vision, and elbow grease.