Six bespoke shepherd huts designed to allow guests to fully experience the wild power of a National Nature Reserve
Georgina and Gareth Fulton have created year round comfort in a wild part of north Kent on their 3,200 acre nature reserve. We talk to Georgina about how they have created their compelling offering, attracting guests to a raw and sometimes extreme environment for an immersive nature experience.What’s your back story – your life before glamping?
I worked in PR and marketing for a public sector organisation in London, and Gareth was in the army. We left London and moved to Cyprus for two years as an army posting, before moving to Elmley in 2013.
What made you decide to start offering glamping accommodation?
Elmley is a 3,200 acre National Nature Reserve and family farm. Before we returned, the 15,000 day visitors to the nature reserve were looked after by the RSPB. We looked at various business options such as more traditional visitor centres and cafes but they didn’t make sense financially and also didn’t feel like the right route for the place.
We are the only independently owned and managed National Nature Reserve in the UK so we do approach the management of a nature reserve in our own way. We wanted people to experience a National Nature Reserve in a way they hadn’t before. Elmley is a unique setting and is most special in the evening and morning, when the birds are most active, and we have incredible sunrises and sunsets. We really wanted other people to be able to have a deeper understanding and more relaxing experience than a traditional day visit.
Being a National Nature Reserve the priority at Elmley is conservation, so low impact yet high quality glamping accommodation was the most sensible way to generate income with the least impact on the wildlife.
Education and raising awareness of wildlife is very important to us and through the glamping we attract people to visit a nature reserve and enjoy wildlife in a way they perhaps would not have otherwise.
How did you research the business before entering it?
We spent around two years researching and planning the business. Before we moved back to Elmley we were in Cyprus and shortly after we moved back I had a baby so we were rather limited on trips. However, we did a lot of desk research. We still do try to spend as much time as we can on researching the market. The vast majority of our guests have never glamped before so we do also look to the wider travel market and the boutique hotel sector for inspiration.
We also thoroughly researched different glamping units, though back in 2011 there was much less on offer. We even went to visit some floating pods in Holland which were wonderful but not quite right for us!
Importantly we looked into the practicalities of actually running the business by talking to other providers and taking advice from helpful people in the hospitality industry! Visit Kent (our tourist board) and Canopy & Stars were very helpful.
Tell us about your location and site
Elmley National Nature Reserve is a 3,200 acre National Nature Reserve and family farm on an island off the coast of Kent. It is an incredibly special place with huge skies, breathtaking uninterrupted views and very special native wildlife. All wonderful things for a glamping site.
However… it is also very exposed, it can get very chilly, and the opposite views are of the Thames Estuary’s industrial face!
It is on the Isle of Sheppey in North Kent, a place we think is beautiful, but somewhere that is not known as a high-end holiday destination; instead it has a rather negative reputation. On the plus side we have no local competition but it does mean that we have had to work harder to get people to know we’re here and to persuade them that it is definitely worth visiting! Being very close to London with a high speed train line definitely helps with this.
This setting has a raw power and beauty but is definitely not a chocolate box rolling hills English idyll that you’d associate with a country holiday. For us this just means that our offering has to be even more special and different.
How did you tackle getting planning?
To readers of Open Air Business, a glamping business in a special country setting is a no-brainer but from a conservation point of view, having people overnight in the middle of a National Nature Reserve was seen as very different and a real concern by Natural England.
Planning, therefore, was definitely not straightforward. We had to carry out extensive and expensive wildlife surveys to demonstrate that the disturbance would be minimal. However, our borough council has been very helpful and supportive recognising the benefit that our development would bring to the area. We received planning without having to go to appeal but it took a lot of work and relationship building.
One of the planning conditions is a Code of Conduct that our guests have to abide by to ensure there is no disturbance to the wildlife. However, it is all common sense and what we would have asked of guests in any case.
We have developed a very strong relationship with Natural England, who now also recognise the importance of people experiencing wildlife in a new way and are supportive of new developments.How did you finance the project?
The initial huts were financed by a loan via the farming business, we have financed the next huts through the profits. As we have grown organically we have been able to self finance this.
In 2016 we added an extension to the Victorian barn to house a kitchen and new loos. This has greatly helped our catering offer. This was part financed by a LEADER grant.
What glamping accommodation do you offer and why did you choose it?
We spent a huge amount of time researching the right accommodation. We knew from the off that we needed to be open all year: winter is the best time for birdwatching, and from a business point of view when we are this close to London it makes sense to be able to offer stays all year. However, Elmley can get cold and does have some fairly extreme winter winds. The accommodation needed to be robust to last outside in harsh winters, be very cosy on the coldest of February nights, and offer a wonderful experience of the reserve even if the weather doesn’t allow long walks.
The accommodation also needed to be different. We are an unusual setting, so it was important that the accommodation was unique to us, and also that it was good enough to be a draw on its own.
Back when we were researching in 2011-12, there wasn’t the huge choice of suppliers offering the unique options there are now. As we couldn’t find what we were looking for we did consider having an architect design us ‘tiny homes’ but it was far too expensive, so we went back to the more traditional glamping options, and always came back to shepherd huts – for their cosiness, warmth and heritage links to farming on the marsh.
We then found Richard Lee at Plankbridge, who’s quality of craftsmanship stood out. And wonderfully for us, he ‘got’ Elmley and was very excited to design some more unique accommodation for us.
We now have a mix of six traditional and more ‘architectural’ huts, all made by Plankbridge, but all bespoke to Elmley and the landscape they sit within. One has an outdoor shower, one an outdoor bath, but most importantly they are all set up so guests can watch the views from bed!How did you work out your brand and how do you publicise yourself?
Our market is very diverse and we have guests coming to stay, to birdwatch for the day or get married here. We needed a brand to encompass this. We did invest in our website and do keep working on it to make sure it is doing the best job for us.
We use Canopy & Stars as a booking agent, and as well as sending bookings our way, they have been very helpful in generating press mentions for us.
We are also on listing sites such as Cool Camping, Cool Stays and Host Unusual, and they have all been very good and have all used us for press.
We are lucky that, by being in a unique setting with Plankbridge’s wonderful huts, we have continued to be picked up by the media and influencers, and we have wonderful imagery by Rebecca Douglas Photography that does help us get press mentions.
As it’s such a visually appealing place, Instagram is increasingly important for us and as well as building our own profile we often welcome influencers to stay.
I am also a stickler for making sure everything is perfect for guests and that every single one has a special experience. Repeat visits and word of mouth is where the majority of our guests come from!
How would you describe your ethos and unique selling point?
“Stay in luxury, wake up to wilderness” – at Elmley you can stay in the middle of a National Nature Reserve but in complete comfort.
How did you choose your interior decoration?
We took inspiration from our surroundings. Each hut is unique but the basic principle for all is that the outside needs to be brought in, but in a very comfortable way. They all have big windows looking out onto the marsh and this is the starting point. The interiors are simple, with a modern rustic feel, but they are very thought through for each hut. I worked closely with Richard at Plankbridge and he did a fantastic job of interpreting our brief and getting the interior fittings even better than we had imagined.
I also worked with local artisans, such as Romney Marsh Wools, who supply gorgeous wool blankets and hot water bottles, and Fable and Base, a local screen print artist who created bespoke designs for us. We were delighted that one of our huts was featured in World of Interiors.What challenges have you faced?
Ha, where to start?! Running a glamping site in an off-grid area, boilers breaking, septic tanks etc. etc. We’re very remote, with the nearest pub a 20 minute drive away, so working out how to provide a good quality food offering for guests in a way that makes financial sense and isn’t too time consuming has been difficult.
But overall the hardest thing has been juggling a hospitality business with a young family – the times when Gareth has been stuck on the farm and I’ve had to cook and deliver suppers for guests while juggling two babies, have definitely been the most stressful. But these are short term challenges, and we’ve been lucky that things have gone well and we’ve been busy!
What are your plans for next season?
Well, we are just about to start the renovation of the derelict farmhouse so we will be focussing on a permanent building for a little while, but we do have lots of ideas for new spots and new hut designs, so we’re just waiting for the right time!
Describe your average day mid-season
First thing I will be catching up with emails and office work, before we go into check outs, then its organising the housekeeping for the day, along with catching up on food orders and stock, before housekeeping checks, maintenance issues and then onto check ins, with time in the office between all for marketing, guest communications etc.
We don’t have set check in days so it’s busy every day, and you never know what is going to happen, but we’re very lucky to have a good team around us to help. And as I’m by far the least practical one of us, I will generally leave maintenance issues to Gareth!Do you enjoy the business and why?
Yes, I love it! Without sounding silly, I love that we’ve brought people here and created something that makes people so happy, and even after 2,500 guests I still love it when I check a delighted guest in or out! We meet such interesting, lovely people; it is always fun. We don’t have hospitality backgrounds so we are learning every day. And I feel very lucky to be able to balance such a rewarding business with a young family.
What are you most proud of?
As we’ve grown I’ve had to step back from dealing with all the guests myself, and we now have a fantastic team who love Elmley, which shows through to our guests. It is great to receive feedback and TripAdvisor comments that mention how wonderful our team is.
What other outdoor hospitality sectors do you operate in and how do they integrate with your glamping operation?
Weddings are a large part of our business, but the glamping is integral to this. We hold them in a wonderful Victorian barn, and couples have use of the space and all the huts for the weekend. We also put up a bell tent village for extra capacity. We do limit the number of weddings we do, as otherwise they might take over and we are very keen that we are a farm and nature reserve where you can get married rather than a wedding venue.
We will also be stepping further into corporate events and retreats in the coming years.
What advice could you give to someone coming into the industry?
Make it your own; it is so important that what you are offering is special to you and the site you have. Be prepared to work all hours and hard, expect (and enjoy!) the more demanding guests, and most importantly make sure you are practically minded or know someone who is!
Firepits UK www.firepitsuk.co.uk
Think Mutual www.thinkmutual.co.uk
Rebecca Douglas Photography www.rebeccadouglas.co.uk
Elmley Nature Reserve
Isle of Sheppey
Kent, ME12 3RW