An independently owned glamping business that can sleep up to 120 people at capacity over three sites
After giving himself 12 months to come up with a business idea, Jonathan Barber became one of the pioneers of the British glamping holiday scene, turning over £60,000 in one week! Here he shares how he got up and running in double quick time.
What’s your back story – your life before glamping?
I was a group marketing director in the education travel sector promoting 11 educational adventure centres throughout the UK. After the company was sold to private equity I decided to leave the rat race and look for a new idea.
What made you decide to start offering glamping accommodation?
After 12 months I had five ideas for a new venture. Glamping appeared to be the least rubbish idea of them all. We applied for planning in November 2010, and achieved it on 27 February 2011. We opened on the day of the royal wedding – 29 April 2011. It was quite hectic!
How did you research the business before entering it?
We took the kids on a glamping holiday and then designed a lodge that overcame all the things that my wife didn’t enjoy about the stay, particularly the kitchen and bathroom arrangements.
What was your vision?
Our vision really came from first of all looking back a couple of generations before looking forward. We had a young family who we used to take wild camping in a bell tent so we really understood the benefits of unplugging from the world and often reconnecting with each other.
The hassle of moving a family thousands of miles for a summer escape often destroys the benefits of getting away together before you have got there. We set out to create a holiday experience that was easily accessible, had a spirit of adventure and provided a level of comfort that meant even the most ardent non-campers would still want to be included.
We found sites that made you feel you had really escaped from the world. It was very important that you couldn’t see any light from buildings at night and there was a dawn bird chorus. It was also essential that there was loads to do and discover right on the doorstep. Our camps are close to the coast, which is nature’s biggest playground.
We have produced holiday packs that encouraged friends and families to cook recipes on open fires, play crazy games, fly kites, cuddle a lamb, build a den and talk around the campfire.
Within months we had so much PR about this ‘new’ type of holiday – the type we hoped we would have when we were youngsters.
The challenge moving forward is to continually nudge up the offering without losing the ethos of still escaping from the modern world rather than just encapsulating it in a tent. If that happens then the magic of these holidays will be lost.
Tell us about your location and site
Our first site was Pigeon Wood in Sedgeford, about two miles away from our home on the north Norfolk coast. This was a place where we had wild camped as a couple and later with a young family. It is really quiet, really beautiful, has lots of wildlife and the biggest skies in England. We started with five ‘Serengeti’ lodges. It also benefits from being a short drive from fantastic beaches, pubs and great days out.
In 2012 we opened a second site three miles from Pigeon Wood at Thornham. We have eight Serengeti lodges here and you can walk to the beach.
In 2014 We introduced two ‘Zambezi’ lodges at Sedgeford and a Top Camp at Thornham.
In 2015 we opened a summer only ‘Wild Camp’ which is a little roll-on roll-off luxury camp with bell tents for groups.
How did you tackle getting planning?
The parish council objected initially so I had to go and plead my case to the borough planning committee. They were very supportive but as glamping was so new I’m not sure if they were very sure what they were agreeing to!
How did you finance the project?
What glamping accommodation do you offer and why did you choose it?
All our permanent accommodation is in the form of safari lodges. We really liked the fact that they can be divided up into different rooms, it is also easier to include bathrooms at the rear of the lodges. We have two types – the Serengeti lodges sleep up to six, and the much larger Zambezi lodges sleep up to 10.
The Pigeon Wood site was very exposed so we only wanted to operate from March to November, and this was also a planning restriction. In 2016 we modified the lodges to include a hard wooden front with stable doors to make them more cosy when the wind blew.
How did you work out your brand and how do you publicise yourself?
We wanted to include in our brand the idea of a holiday that was a bit of an adventure as well as being really comfortable. Our Wild Luxury logo includes the strap line ‘Make Life an Adventure’.
In 2013 the Sunday Times named us as one of the Top 100 Holiday Experiences (we booked £60,000 in a week). In the same year we were runner up in New Business of The Year for East Anglia. The following year we won the Mayor’s Award for Tourism. The PR just grew from there.
How would you describe your ethos and unique selling point?
We try and make Wild Luxury fun and a bit of an adventure for everyone: our guests, our staff team, and our suppliers. But we take what we do very seriously. We always try to make sure our standards are a little bit higher than everyone’s expectations, and that goes for everything from the quality of our mattresses to the end of season staff party.
How did you choose your interior decoration?
I didn’t, my wife did! Although Pip does happen to run one of the most successful boutique B&Bs in Norfolk!
What challenges have you faced?
The weather, filling the off season periods, meeting rising expectations of guests, finding good seasonal staff, the explosion of competitors, working in an off-grid environment and offering lodges with light switches and showers just like at home. Finding my dog, who loves wandering off whenever we are on camp.
What are your plans for next season?
Hot tubs, new wood burners imported from Italy in six of our lodges, and a woodland play area including a zip wire.
Describe your average day mid-season
The first two hours is in the office answering emails and paying bills. I then visit both camps and meet with the camp directors to discuss any issues and chat to the guests.
On change over days I see how the change over teams are getting on, find my dog, usually have some sort of maintenance issues so may spend an hour fixing something, go for a walk on the beach… Then it’s back for a couple more hours in the office.
Why do you enjoy the business?
I love my job and the freedom and that we help make so many very special memories.
What are you most proud of?
That I had the courage to walk out of an unbelievably well paid job because I believed there must be more to life than that and finding that there was.
What other outdoor hospitality sectors do you operate in?
Hen weekends and corporate company escapes. We manage this by being very clear on what we provide and taking very large behaviour bonds!
Sedgeford and Thornham Bay