Meet Kerry Roy, an incredible force of nature and a true fire starter when it comes to business. Tally Wade reports.
From the age of 10 Kerry Roy knew she would run her own business one day despite what she reports as a 74 per cent non-attendance at school. Now in her 30s, she has a 17 unit glamping village in Yorkshire, employs a team of eight, runs a profitable festival attracting 5,500 VW fanatics and hosts over 20 weddings each year. She is currently in Italy and doing it all again.
A relatively normal career working for children’s products manufacturer Britax came to an end in 2012 following redundancy, and this is where Kerry’s entrepreneurial sprit was unleashed. “I have always followed the trend for quirky accommodation,” she explains, “and my partner and I decided to use the redundancy money, the sale of a property and some savings to find our own land and set something up. There was only one glampsite in Yorkshire, with another just about to open. Glamping was really taking off in the south and I knew it would just be a matter of time.”
Things didn’t go entirely according to plan. After a fruitless search for land of their own, it was a chance encounter through her partner’s IT business that led to a meeting with Robert Ropner, owner of Camp Hill Estate Bedale.
“Camp Hill is a 250 acre estate and had been hosting corporate away day events with team building activities. The recession had forced it to open its doors to the public more and the owner Robert had been thinking about offering something like glamping but didn’t want the hassle so was delighted when I turned up.
“A lot of what I was talking about was new to him but he was very keen to be the first large estate to offer glamping. I did have to convince him that it wouldn’t be anything too hippy and that it would be clean. We arranged a long term sliding scale lease in case it didn’t work for him but now he says he never wants me to leave.”
That meeting was in April 2012. The first booking for what was to become Camp Kátur was made in October 2012, and the doors opened in April 2013.
Camp Kátur is a seasonal glampsite offering a mix of accommodation including safari tents, bell tents, hobbit pods, geo domes, yurts, a recycled horse lorry lodge and a one of a kind transparent dome. “I wanted it completely see through,” says Kerry. “Lots of people said it would never be booked but it remains one of our most popular units!”
The decision to offer an array of accommodation types was very purposeful. “The two sites in Yorkshire had safari tents and yurts and I saw early on that to pull people back to book again and again you need to offer a different experience with the same high level of quality and service. It was my vision to create a little village, where each home was different.”
Kerry’s vision did not entirely come off though. “I had set out with an idea to create a personal, family, homestay affair but it turned rapidly into a mini glamping Center Parcs. That isn’t a bad thing, and is testament to the success of the business, but it became quite a thing to manage in that first year. I wasn’t living on site and had to put policies in place to make sure I had my back covered. It became a bit of a commercial beast quite quickly, due primarily to its location. There are three business at the estate – the activities, the catering and us – and when someone drives through the gate they assume we are all one thing.”
A solution was found where a reception was shared by all three businesses and operations were streamlined. “We all cross sell each other’s businesses too and our separate websites point to one another’s. It was lot of learning for all parties but we have it nailed now.”
Avid watchers of Channel 4’s Four in a Bed (a show where B&B owners compete to be the best value for money) might remember Camp Kátur being featured. “A lady from Blackpool won it and we have become very good friends,” says Kerry. “It was great fun but the producers really do put words in your mouth! Also, on the first day we met at a caravan site and one of the couples said ‘I hope we’re not staying in a tent…’ – it was then that I knew were were done for! We got a lot off the back of it in terms of promotion though.”
During the set up year in 2013, a couple approached Kerry to hold their wedding at Camp. “It was snowing and we were trying to get ready for our opening season, with family and friends all helping out. I got a call from a couple that wanted to look around. The site was just empty woodland and snow but they took the risk and booked it. I didn’t even know what to charge and did a deal where they provided me with some filming which became our first promo video. It was a real DIY wedding but was brilliant and we became friends.”
Camp Kátur now hosts up to 20 weddings with four venue options including barns and a new large geo dome that is being installed for the 2019 season. “Weddings took a lot of convincing with Robert,” she says. “He had a large barn that was just being used for storage. I made the case that once cleared it would be useful for the corporate activity days he ran too. We restored it on a budget using materials we could find about the place and it become a really useful, versatile space for events of all kinds.
“We have only done humanist ceremonies so far but plan to license one of the spaces this year. Camp Kátur is a really fun place to get married and we have marketed it as a wacky, personal place; somewhere that your dogs can get married after you do – and yes, people have done that.”
Dubs In t’Dales
Given Kerry’s entrepreneurial outlook, it perhaps isn’t surprising that a conversation with her mechanic would lead to her creating a VW festival attracting 5,500 people. “I had a beloved VW camper called Sid, and my mechanic had mentioned one day about a festival idea that hadn’t worked as the council was being difficult. Following another conversation with Robert, where I had to convince him again that it was a good idea to try something new, we launched Dubs In t’Dales at Camp Hill Estate.
“We planned that first festival in just six weeks and are in our sixth year now, with over 5,500 people over three days each October.”
Unsurprisingly, Kerry reports the festival is profitable. “If I did another two of these festivals a year I would make more money than I do from the glamping. It is a good market as some people just spend the summer in their vans going from one festival to another. I run it on a self employed basis and we take bookings in Camp for it.”
In asking about what events experience she has, Kerry reveals that she hasn’t had a lot. “My mechanic friend is in the scene so helped get the word out and I concentrated on infrastructure and entertainment. I blagged it initially and I am sure that if someone came in and investigated us in those first few years we would have probably been found to be doing all sorts of things wrong. A friend of mine in events gave me some advice. She said to make sure I had a paramedic, which I did!
“The VW community is very much a sharing one and I got a lot of support from other VW festivals, even though I was a competitor. It is also very good value for money; we charge £40 per van, which you can’t even get a tent pitch for at most festivals.
It seems Kerry’s persuasiveness has allowed Robert and Camp Hill to make the most of holding events at the estate. “Robert now hosts the North Yorkshire County Show at Camp Hill – and other large events – we showed him it could be done. He was smart and offered them the site free for the first year and it paid off.”
Not every idea that Kerry brings to the table has worked. “We once had a girl who had a huge, red double decker bus she wanted to turn into a children’s entertainment area. We thought it would be perfect for families at Camp so Robert let her move it to the estate while she worked on it. Very soon she was turning up with all her kids and hanging out washing and pretty much having holidays here and nothing was getting done on the bus. We ended up having to ask her to leave.
“Another bit of a miss was an outdoor cinema enterprise. It was a good idea but tricky when you can’t guarantee the weather. It was working well then the company we were using for the screenings changed their business model and we just couldn’t drive up the numbers. It was the company’s decision to pull the events but it was us that got the back lash.”
A move abroad
Two years ago, Kerry realised her dream of owning her own land, but not in the UK. “It was always my plan to find some property to buy in three to five years of opening Camp Kátur. Being at the estate has been a fantastic stepping stone but the commission I am paying in terms of percentage of turnover is high.
“My partner and I didn’t have any children and we were dreaming about living somewhere where we could access a the beach and mountains. We sold our house and beloved camper vans and bought a motorhome, spending winters travelling Europe to see where we liked. We actually ended up seeing a region in Italy we loved on ‘A Place in the Sun’!”
They eventually ended up at an equestrian property with 10 acres and some outbuildings ripe for conversion. “It had an agritourism license already in place, utilities and even a restaurant. We moved in May 2017.
But the story takes another twist, one that left Kerry having to make some hard decisions. “My partner and I separated five months later. I didn’t think I could carry on with a project of this scale on my own so I had to put the property up for sale. It was on the market for three months while I searched for something else but I just couldn’t find anywhere with so much potential so decided to go ahead on my own.”
Kerry is now based in Italy, and in the throes of setting up an Italian glamping project, with four geodesic domes and a yurt which will open in June, with six units in the outbuildings ready for 2020. But it isn’t just a dream place to live, there are plenty of reasons why this part of Italy makes sense to Kerry’s business brain.
“We are 30 minutes from the city and close to a local town. If we were any further into the mountains we would be ‘trapped in time’ but here we have access to the younger ‘Instagram’ generation who are all about new experiences. We also have a great ex-pat community. I am glad that the guys at Featherdown Farms, who have multiple sites in mainland Europe, agree that glamping is about to go ‘big’ in Italy, Spain too.
“My plan is to create more of a retreat with glamping. I have a good understanding of the wellness market and am training in yoga at the moment. I am also learning Italian as I don’t speak it and have been spending a lot of time on Google translate!”
Kerry still manages the marketing and accounts for Camp Kátur from Italy. “Luckily, I have some amazing people back in the UK.”
Kerry’s team comprises two full time and six part time members of staff. “We are a seasonal operation and most come back each year. I had the same manager for four years and was lucky that when they left another passionate team member stepped up to take their place.
“I try and be a good boss. To me that is being flexible and treating people as you would want to be treated yourself. If people are motivated and happy, they want to work with you. I also try and encourage my staff to use their initiative, sometimes deliberately leaving them in a situation to cope. Many are better in situations than I am. I always reward where I can too – we are a little family and I am so lucky the guys are as passionate about the business as I am.”
And what helps Kerry stay ahead of the game? “I spend a lot of time looking at the competition. I am often on Instagram, Facebook and glamping directory sites seeing what’s new. I search the UK by county seeing how glamping is growing and obviously read the industry magazines like Open Air Business and go to the shows.
She is certainly resourceful when it comes to her research. “When I was on the road a lot with Britax the accountant asked me what was wrong with Premier Inn as I was always booking weird and wonderful places to stay – yurts, tipis etc – little did they know I was doing my research! I also kept a very careful eye on the closest competition, checking their online bookings calendar to see how busy they were.
“In Italy I stayed in a local yurt and went through the guest book to see where guests were coming from! I am also really fortunate in that my team can run things while I take time to research, travel and develop the business. I must admit I am exhilarated by setting up projects and like to be able to get to a point where I can hand things over as my enthusiasm starts to flatline and I want to get stuck into something else.”
And can anything stop Kerry? It seems not. “My body did try recently. The stress of managing everything on my own put me in hospital a few weeks ago. I was driving and my body just shut down. It was terrifying, affecting my body and speech. But I am over that now and practising yoga, which I trained to teach in 2018, and meditation.
“I am a big believer in the law of attraction and I know this will all come together. I am also one of those people who lives by the mantra, ‘It’s best to regret what you did than what you didn’t!’”
Dubs In t’Dales