Designer lakeside accommodation on a working farm in Leicestershire.
“Build a lake and they will come” thought Jasper and Mary Hart 28 years ago – and they were right! With the help of their daughter Claire, Brook Meadow has been brought up to date now catering for discerning campers, glampers and for those that require even more luxury in bespoke designer lodges. We talk to Claire.
What’s your back story – your life before glamping?
Before returning to the family farm my career was based in design. I’m a designer to my core and had been employed as both an architect, an interior designer and latterly a tutor in interior architecture. My parents, Jasper and Mary, had run Brook Meadow almost single-handedly with me helping from a distance.
I designed a house with reception and shop on site so a manager could step in and take the pressure off. The new management worked for a period of time but it became clear (despite growth) that the business was not reaching its full potential. It took a big leap of faith to uproot, leave my home and job in Winchester and return to the farm with my young son. The drive was there to rejuvenate the family business, which was becoming Leicestershire’s best-kept secret.
What made you decide to start offering glamping accommodation?
My parents spotted a demand for self-catering accommodation, and in 1991 they began building their five-acre lake to create a holiday destination in its own right. Our farm is not located near a beach, a beautiful city or major attraction so they built their own. Everyone relaxes near a body of water; the fisherman enjoy the benefits and people book early to steal their favourite pitch with the best view. It was simple – build a lake and they will come; create blue space, fishing, and attract wildlife and guests alike.
How did you research the business before entering it?
My parents ran a bed and breakfast business in their farmhouse for several years and had struggled to accommodate all the guests knocking on the door wanting a bed for the night, so they knew there was an unquestionable demand for accommodation.
The first two Scandinavian log cabins were second-hand and we refurbished them ourselves. Although the initial investment was a little tame, the cabins satisfied expectations at the time. Times have changed however and people now want an experience, hence the growth we’ve seen in glamping, which enables guests to wake up to bird song under a luxurious duvet in the great outdoors. Young children would sooner glamp or stay in a cabin than the lodges, as the novelty of these spaces is so magical to them and I don’t think the grown ups feel so different with the desire for escapism. This is why we have introduced glamping and revived the lodges to link to nature, celebrating the setting.
Tell us about your location and site
Being located in the middle of a 400-acre working farm is a plus as families with small children love the educational benefits it brings. Guests enjoy the space and tranquillity of the stunning lakeside setting and the variety of accommodation and activities on offer. There are three design-led lodges boasting high-end botanical interiors. Along with our lakeside cabin, there is glamping, camping and caravanning. Guests can enjoy walks, fishing and, for an adrenalin kick, Avalanche Adventure and the Gliding Centre adjoin the site.
We are located centrally in the country and are increasingly finding that groups meet here from opposite ends of the UK for their annual get-togethers.
Mixing glamping and high end lodge accommodation with those prepared to rough it camping may seem a little confused, however the variety of accommodation suits larger groups getting together. Young families enjoy the excitement of a camping trip, while their granny and grandpa can stay in the comfort of a lodge, and the princess in the party can glamp under luxury canvas.
How did you finance the project?
The lake cost £23,000 to build, capitalising on a government grant funding 25 per cent. Subsequent investments have taken place gradually as we continue to invest profits back into the business.
What glamping accommodation do you offer and why did you choose it?
While the business is seasonal, we are open all year round and the variety of accommodation on offer includes insulated and heated lodges. The quiet times provide a welcome chance to recoup, evaluate and put plans into action. We aim to innovate while we hibernate and staying busy allows us to hold on to our staff through the quiet times.
How did you work out your brand and how do you publicise yourself?
Our brand is centred around the beautiful lakeside setting, connection with nature and wildlife with a family-focused philosophy. Design is valued and guests are made to feel extra special on many levels through design. We have dramatically increased our online presence and social media is our main tool. Thinking in these terms has fuelled change and reinforced the strength of brand. Our website utilises engaging and emotive images and film which helps us attract like-minded guests who will appreciate the setting.
How would you describe your ethos and unique selling point?
We are set apart from other family friendly lakeside holiday parks in a number of ways. Brook Meadow is located on a working farm with activities on site, from egg collecting to the adrenalin kick of off-roading. We are a family run business offering a personal service.
Sustainability and conservation are paramount too; photovoltaics generate at least 50 per cent of our electricity, a wood chip boiler generates heating and hot water for the campers and lodges, the office is an eco-build, and planting has been a large area of investment too. We consider ourselves to have an ethical approach to business and support other rural businesses. We celebrate our ruralness such that guests may find they have coincided with a ploughing match or the harvest festival on the farm during their stay.
How did you choose your interior decoration?
The design of the lodges and glamping are unique to Brook Meadow. The lodges are not simply luxurious with Egyptian cotton bedding, fluffy towels and chic décor; our high spec interiors link to the lakeside setting through design referencing birds in flight with the light fittings and nature through wallpapers, colour pallets, materials and the soft furnishings. These design choices are luxurious and subtly reinforce the brand with authenticity, offering escapism and an experience unlike anywhere else.
The glamping tent is also designed with a strong vision, presented to the highest level with colonial style antique furniture. I so loved the film Out of Africa and aimed to evoke the same atmosphere through carefully sourced pieces. After much searching, a rattan daybed was bought as a statement piece (allowing children to top and tail), an antler candelabra hangs from the centre with fairy lights and two rhino lamps sit on folding side tables guarding the bed. Old leather chairs and a hand-tufted rug complete the look such that it takes little imagination to dream that Robert Redford might return for his hat at any point!
What challenges have you faced?
The scale of the work to be done was a little overwhelming and the newness of the tasks a challenge but I find the process of regeneration both satisfying and invigorating. Finding ways to monitor our progress has been a real boost. By modernising the office systems and increasing online booking we keep track of our performance. Similarly, building our own website may have been a little challenging but we are able to modify it on a weekly basis and check performance.
The transition period to build a new customer base takes a leap of faith as inevitably we put off many of our existing customers by aiming for a new target market, but the biggest challenge of all has been working with my parents to get their approval and buy in. While they have always been supportive, they could not hide their discomfort with the pace and number of changes implemented!
In two years they have undergone a gradual letting go of their project, they’ve seen investments they maybe deemed unnecessary – rebranding, reduced camping capacity, an online presence and streamlining office systems. Quickly my father felt like a fish out of water in the office and he was tutting with each package that arrived for a refurbishment. Downscaling and becoming more exclusive didn’t make sense and the level of trouble we were going to to elevate customer experience and engagement seemed ridiculous to him. Why were festoon lights strung up all year round and why would customers have time for amusing posts about him in a digger?!
However, they have come around. First a higher spec lodge, then a new website, a promo video, safari glamping, quieter camping weekends, the recognition of the multiple awards that followed and now they are on-board, trusting and proud of all we have achieved. My mother enjoys welcoming children for their egg collecting experiences and waxes lyrical about her hen husbandry, while my father built the timber base for the glamping, buries treasure for children’s parties, is creating a children’s play area and delivers a relaxed smile for the next social media post.
What are your plans for next season?
We have landscaping projects for the campsite to create cosy camping areas with long grasses and meadow flowers, which will also benefit the bees and pollinators. We are planning a large sandpit for the organic play area to suit little ones and we will be resurfacing the hard standing pitches. Our oldest lodge is also planned for refurbishment.
Describe your average day mid-season
I focus my efforts on strategic planning and creativity. There is a lot to maintain and we are constantly upgrading the quality of our offer and reflecting this in our website. I take on anything design from planning refurbishments to the photography, copy and media posts. I make little promo videos and have roped in members of the team and family friends to feature in our short films. My favourite was our ‘Man in Red’ blog which was an enchanting interview with none other than Father Christmas himself who was found to be taking a well-deserved break in one of our lodges. Happily, he agreed to an interview and photoshoot with unimaginable access to his life outside of the festive period holidaying at Brook Meadow!
Do you enjoy the business?
I enjoy the creative aspects and the flexibility to work hours to suit family life, which can sometimes mean burning the midnight oil but then having time off the next day to take my son on a day out. I’ve enjoyed the sense of achievement through transformation, seeing the brand strengthen with every move we’ve made. I’m a creative person so am always looking for ways to improve things. Playing to my strengths with design has enabled us to have full control over the brand.
What are you most proud of?
I am most proud of my parents for having the foresight to build a lake and the guts to do it on a grand scale. They were spirited pioneers in their day, making a hugely bold move. I’m also proud of my father for being environmentally conscious before it reached such heightened public awareness, and lastly I’m proud of how much we have achieved in such a short time frame as a family with the support of our amazing staff. In just two years we’ve turned the business around to become multi award-winning with a website that stuns previous guests as they can barely recognise the brand.
What other outdoor hospitality sectors do you operate in?
The fishing dovetails in very well providing an income from syndicate members as well as guest fishing. We also offer whole site hire whether for a wedding or another kind of event.
What advice could you give to someone coming into the industry?
Think about what the strengths of your site are, the location, your personal strengths and interests and celebrate them. These things together can create your own unique brand. Have the self-awareness that you may also need to take training or employ specialists to do the things you are not so good at and learn from them.
It may feel like smoke screens and mirrors at the beginning but stick to the brand identity you are aiming to create and in a short time frame you can make it a reality from a cumulative effect. The layering of visual media, copy, website content, advertising, social media, awards, press, reviews etc. all culminates to form brand perception and recognition. Your company’s brand is a promise you make to customers. Communicating the right feel and information helps you attract guests whose expectations are pitched right, enabling you to meet them.