For our latest Meet & Greet we head to China to meet Erick van Til, one of the directors of Peninsula Outdoor School, a fascinating adventure travel startup based in Shenzen…
As is customary for one of our Meet & Greets, let’s kick off by hearing your elevator pitch…
Peninsula Outdoor School designs and facilitates world-class outdoor adventure programs, environmental field studies, service-learning trips, and learning expeditions to compelling destinations throughout Southeast Asia. We are currently operating trips in seven countries with plans to add another two to our portfolio in 2017 and 2018. Our primary clients are international schools in China, Hong Kong and Macau.
Your school is inspired by writer Richard Louv and his work on nature-deficit disorder, a condition caused by modern kids spending more time on digital devices than on going out into the natural world as kids used to do. How do you translate Louv’s theory into practice at Peninsula?
Much of what modern students do with their time is insular and passive. Technology has overtaken practically every corner of their lives, giving them more and more reasons to remain attached to a screen or device. Our trips are designed to be active both physically and socially to encourage these students to engage with each other and their environment. We create experiences aimed to expand their worldview and to balance out all of the cerebral activities that make up most of their time.
We have found that many of our international school student participants have a very low understanding of the interconnected relationship between humans and the natural world. We don’t judge them for this, but instead see our programs as an opportunity to re-introduce them to the world around them and consider it through an environmental lens.
Many of these students are on their way to becoming powerful and influential people who will be able to do a lot of good for the state of the environment in this part of the world and we want to use our window of time with them to raise their awareness on important environmental issues.
A few years ago I did a homestay in the mountains of northern Vietnam, & met a French expat who had taken his kids out of their expat school & bubble in Singapore for a few days to experience real Asian life. They even went off with the villagers to shoot chickens with a bow and arrow & learned how to kill, pluck & carve up a chicken. Would you go that far?
That might be a bridge too far for many of the students on our trips. There is something to be said, though, for counteracting the protective cocoon that many of these young people live in. More often than not, we find that students are psyched to try new things, get dirty, express themselves creatively and get after it. To one degree or another, they are aware that their daily lives lack elements of risk, adventure and novelty; time in an unfamiliar environment where challenges and new experiences are part of every day’s schedule tend to open their minds to the potential that exists on the other side of (managed) risk.
Many of our alumni express a desire to continue to apply the things they’ve learned while on our programs, to take on risks and to live adventurously. That is easily one of the most rewarding parts of what we do.
I can see a demand not just from schools, but also from adults for some of your programmes, particularly Service Learning. Do you have any adult experiences planned?
This is a question that we get a lot. All of our programs are built around curriculum that correlates with the subjects that students are learning (or should be learning, but aren’t) at school. We call them educational objectives. Typically they follow three streams: technical skills, interpersonal skills, and environmental awareness. The end result is a trip that is also a course where everything ties back to some form of measured learning.
There is potential for Peninsula to move into facilitating trips for adult groups, but it would require us to deviate slightly from our main drivers. The only exception to this would be the professional development workshops and seminars that we run for school staff to teach them about backcountry first aid, group facilitation and adventure trip management.
What challenges did you face when setting up and launching the business? How easy is it to set up a tourism-related enterprise in China?
There were a few notable obstacles in getting the business off of the ground. The first was staffing; it takes a particular type of person to sign on to split time between months of international travel and active program delivery during our high season and weeks of curriculum development, gear maintenance and indoor office work during our low season. All while maintaining the same level of enthusiasm.
After more than a few false starts, we have been fortunate to bring on several highly dynamic renaissance men and women who are able to wear several hats and transition seamlessly from role to role. As we grow, we have begun to move toward a model where each person will have a primary and secondary area of responsibility, allowing us to capitalize on their strengths versus asking them to do something they aren’t psyched to do.
A second obstacle was the trial-and-error process of putting together unique programs that fit schools’ budgets, schedules and academic objectives. I come from a wilderness guiding background which meant that I had to unlearn a lot of what I thought I knew about experiential education in order to design trips that worked for students with limited outdoor adventure experience.
I would say that it is anything but easy to set up an enterprise like ours in China. First off, what we do straddles two sectors – travel and education – each with their own governing bureau and polices. To compound things further, we are taking school groups from Mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau to destinations with a broad variety of insurance, immigration and legal requirements. Because our participants are minors that we are entirely responsible for while they are with us, there zero room for cutting corners or ‘fluffing’ requirements.
Any company looking to do what we do legally has a long list of registrations, licenses and certifications that need to be in place before going to market with a program. Typically, this is the first thing that a school asks for when interested in purchasing one of our trips.
Middle/upper-class Asian parents are generally proud urbanites and seem to want to keep their kids as far away from the land as possible. How do you market your experiences to them?
We have been pleasantly surprised by the open-mindedness of the majority of our students’ parents when it comes to adventure programs and international travel. Many of them recognize the need for modern young people to build resilience and develop a willingness to take on challenges; this has made them enthusiastic supporters of our objectives.
Also, because the educational endgame for many of these parents is to get their students into the top prep schools and universities; marketing our programs as excellent extracurricular activities to add to a college or university application has been very effective.
Is Peninsula a “digital detox” experience, or do you incorporate the kids’ passion for smartphones, tablets & social media into the programmes? If so, how?
This depends from program to program. Typically when we meet with the school staff that will be accompanying the students on their trip we ask how they would like to approach tech and devices. Some teachers request a complete ban, others designate an hour or two in the evening for ‘screen time’ and others still encourage students to document their experience with their phones or digital devices to create videos or slideshows to present trip reports to their classmates or communities when they return home.
99% of our students are happy to comply with whatever structure is put in place regarding use of tech while on programs. As long as it is enhancing their experience and not detracting from it, we are happy with whatever the school’s trip staff decide. The only time we will intervene is if safety becomes an issue and in four years that has only ever happened once.
Finally, share with us if you can what expansion plans you have for the future.
We have plans to expand our programs into a few more Southeast Asian countries over the two years as well as develop additional programs in our existing program areas for the 2017/2018 school year. We are one of several companies that work with international schools so our focus has always been on delivery quality over quantity when it comes to our trip portfolio. If we can’t do it well, we would rather not do it at all. This means we tend to spend a lot more time scouting locations and partners before going public with a new trip or location.
We have built great working relationships with a number of our client schools who are willing to be the first to try out a pilot program and give us feedback on what worked and what didn’t. That input helps inform our development so that we can evolve with the market instead of churning out the same thing every season. It is definitely more labor-intensive and requires more investment on our end but the result is a better product and something we are proud to put our name on.
We have also seen a shift in western attitudes toward adventure and service travel to destinations like China, Malaysia and Cambodia. Because of this, we see huge potential in marketing our programs to schools in Europe, North America and Oceania.
Thanks Erick! To find out more about Peninsula Outdoor School, visit http://www.peninsulaos.org/, or check out the social media links below:
Peninsula Outdoor School:
Erick van Til: