One of six seasonal glampsites run by Amber’s Bell Tent Camping, Bell’s Farm features six bell tent nestled between PYO strawberry fields and orchards.
Amber Wyke has established a thriving multi-site glamping business with no investment, turning a profit from year one. Staying true to her core brand offering, and taking the time to ensure attention to detail, she provides wholesome family holidays with a touch of nostalgia working with partner landowners across Norfolk, Shropshire and Worcestershire. We talk to Amber.
What’s your back story – your life before glamping?
When my youngest son was two, I started a small antiques business. I grew up in the trade as my mum had a shop in the local town in the North East. It was something I found I could turn by hand to – I seemed to have an eye for things and just a feel for what would sell and what things were worth. It was great fun and something I could fit around a family life with no money and small children.
What made you decide to start offering glamping accommodation?
I loved camping with my partner, and then with our children. It felt like a total escape from the drudgery of being a mum at home. And my children just loved being in the elements; you could see the thrill of adventure it offered on their little faces. I did find it hard work though: 24 hours in a muddy field and a whole week of washing and drying when we got home!
Then we stayed in some posh safari style tents in the New Forest on a farm – what a revelation that trip was! No epic packing and the tent had proper beds with cotton sheets and duvets, and everything you needed for cooking. We were staying on a working farm where my sons could collect eggs and watch the goings on. I could sit on the deck with a cup of tea, while my family pottered and played. It was heaven and I thought this is the answer.
My first site was at Mannington Hall and Gardens in Norfolk, seven years ago. What a special place! My tents here are nestled in a huge rambling country estate, with woodland walks, wild spaces, tended rose gardens and orchards, all of which the campers can explore. They are part of something grand and historical, sleeping surrounded by heritage and natural beauty. And there are wild water meadows and a lake where you can watch dragonflies from bird hides. It was a big success.
I didn’t think I could honestly match Mannington. But my second site at Wiveton Hall (also in Norfolk) though smaller, and less rambling is an absolutely unbeatable location. The tents literally sit on the coastal path which weaves along the beaches and creeks from Cromer to Hunstanton. You can walk for an evening swim at Cley-next-the-Sea, or cycle to the deservedly famous wild Holkham Beach. Or just stay on site, and potter around the grounds and farm of Wiveton, fruit picking, playing in the woods or dining in the fabulous café.
This year, I’m opening four new sites across England, two more in Norfolk, one in Shropshire and this lovely new site at Bell’s Farm in Worcestershire. This is a return to the original site which inspired me, where my son loved watching farming life.
How did you research the business before entering it?
I didn’t do any research. I just knew the location at Mannington Hall was spectacular and if I could offer some glamping at the right price, people would come.
Tell us about your location and site
Bell’s Farm is a very special place. It’s been run by the same family, the Colwills, for more than 25 years and grows nearly 200 varieties of fruit and vegetables over 40 acres. My tents sit between strawberry fields and orchards, with lovely views over the rolling Worcestershire landscape beyond.
Guests can pick their own fruit for breakfast and buy locally reared meat in the fabulous farm shop on site for their campfire supper. It’s a foodie heaven, with a vast array of wonderful local produce, from bread and cakes to wine and cider. Campers can order hampers and children can go on farm tours to see how food is grown. It offers a real British farm backdrop for family glamping – a truly wholesome holiday experience. There are also great walks and bike trails in the nearby Were Forest, and lots more to do if it rains.
How did you tackle getting planning?
I have assisted with six planning applications to date and although all have been a success, it’s certainly not a straight forward process. It often feels that the planners just aren’t up for additional tourism and the jobs and cash that it brings to the area.
Because the nature of our business means the sites can be packed away and nothing remains visually once it has gone, the challenge is always the bathroom build. Facilities need to be provided that meet customer expectations (which can be high) while keeping build costs down. Anyone can throw money at things and make it look beautiful but this business is about a quick return on your investment and that means straddling two opposing needs.
How did you finance the project?
I started the business with £1,600 savings in year one and made £4,500 in my first season. In year two, my dad lent me £6,000 to expand the business and I made £12,000 – and that has been it. Any money invested in the business has come from any profits made.
What glamping accommodation do you offer and why did you choose it?
At Bell’s Farm, we have six circular 5m bell tents. Bell tents offer an extremely affordable way of getting into the glamping market, with a slice of old camp nostalgia. We open from May to September, but as you know it can be chilly even in June, so we fitted Anevay wood-burning stoves, designed for relief situations all over the world. They are safe and make the tent toasty and warm on a chilly summer’s evening. We have tried shepherd’s huts but found the tents always booked first. I think people still want to have a camping experience.
How did you work out your brand and how do you publicise yourself?
It’s just something that has grown. The business is very much an extension of my personality – so the aesthetic and ethos come from within. For example, I am a generous person and I want my business to reflect this generosity and I think that stands out in today’s capitalist centred world. Publicity – again, I am open and honest about this journey and I think people appreciate that.
How would you describe your ethos and unique selling point?
My locations, the consistently thoughtful service, and my comfortable stylish tents, are all my USP. But it is the locations that will ensure I continue to stand out from the crowd. I want people to feel lucky to be staying in such magical places – and they do!
With my expansion across the UK, I wanted to ensure the brand remained faithful to the original, so the accommodation is replicated. Wherever you stay with Amber’s Bell Tents Camping, the tents will be cosy, warm, stylish, with exactly the same attention to detail with pretty, homemade furnishings and a retro style. The service in every site is as thoughtful as ever. And in equipping my tents I want to make sure you have everything you need (and more!) for a memorable campout, so you’re staying inside a little bubble of ease within the wilds.
How did you choose your interior decoration?
For my first site at Mannington Hall, I literally emptied my antique shop, so tents were filled with a completely unique mix of charming old rugs and vintage books. Things that have a history but still work or can be re-purposed – will feels right to me. I want people to be able to escape into the wild outside and into a romantic cosy interior inside.
What challenges have you faced?
Staying in business! With so much fantastic glamping available now in the UK I have to make sure people know what is special about my sites, so the challenge is the constant story telling of the experiences of the campers at each site.
Another challenge is speaking to the right market. The term glamping means that people who aren’t up for the realities of living outdoors for a few days come and try it and are disappointed when they can’t straighten their hair in the tent or there’s no Wi-Fi. Being really clear on what we are good at helps manage peoples’ expectations and makes sure there the experience is a good fit for both parties. We get it right most of the time but occasionally you have someone turn up in white jeans or high heels and I think, OK, this is going to be interesting!
What are your plans for next season?
This season has been huge. With four new partners across the UK, I couldn’t be happier. I am in discussion with a couple of new sites and am taking new applications for 2020, so get in touch!
Describe your average day mid-season
Every day is different. I’m never sure what order things will take but I tend to be in the office in my garden for most of it while my husband and kids are fending for themselves or out mowing grass and picking up supplies. I head out after tea and greet the guests.
What do you enjoy about the business?
I love running Amber’s Bell Tent Camping. It is diverse – one day I’m outside for 10 hours pegging tents, the next in my cosy office. I can be by myself or working with my lovely staff who are all really interesting people.
What are you most proud of?
Starting my business with no investment and turning a profit in year one. Creating a viable business product that others want to be a part of. Being myself in a sometimes corporate world. Getting strong enough to tell people what to do and how to do it.
What other outdoor hospitality sectors do you operate in?
Any of our sites can be exclusively hired for gatherings, so we have lots of festival-style weddings, hen parties and educational groups.
What advice could you give to someone coming into the industry?
Find a good business mentor – and meet in the pub regularly!
Shower Shack www.showershacks.co.uk
Cool Camping www.coolcamping.com
Amber’s Bell Tent Camping at Bell’s Farm
Worcestershire DY13 9SA