Christian and Carolyn Van Outersterp

There’s no rest for this husband and wife team as the build what is quite possibly the most magical glamping experience in the country.

Family glamping together in the forest“It was the children’s schooling that brought us to Yorkshire,” says Christian van Outersterp, who with his wife Carolyn has created one of the country’s most established glamping brands. Jollydays Glamping was established in 2006, an indirect result of the city-based design duo’s desire to send their four young children to a Steiner school in York.

Christian and Carolyn, a successful landscape architect and fashion designer respectively, were ready to swap the city of Newcastle for a rural setting and looked around for a business opportunity. “There was an emerging interest in the outdoors at that time,” says Christian. “The Scout movement was celebrating its 100th anniversary, festivals were proliferating and as far as I could see Cornish Tipi Holidays was the only site out there really maximising on things.”

Although glamping was only just taking off in the UK as a mainstream holiday choice, Carolyn’s father surprised the couple. “He had tales of his holidays in the 40s and 50s where the family would head to the coast in County Durham with a huge tent and take their brass bed! They pretty much located there for the summer and one of the sons took his motorbike so he could still get to work.”

With little capital to buy land, the pair set about looking for big estates in the area and found the perfect piece of woodland. “We had limited funds and wanted to invest this into the set up and operation of the business not into the land.”

Table setting at Jollydays GlampingThe first camp was Jollydays Glamping, now a 15 unit glampsite with a capacity of 78, just 20 minutes from York. The North Star Club is their second, more luxurious, all season site located in woodland 30 minutes away towards Beverley. Established in 2012, it sleeps up to 48 in five wooden cabins.

“We satisfied both the landowners and the planners by demonstrating how these camps would increase biodiversity. The woodlands were lightly cropped from time to time but we have worked hard to ensure our camps add more habitats for wildlife.”

A culture of sustainability runs through the operations and the site at Jollydays makes use of a bio digester for effluent which then runs on to a reed bed system. There is very little mains electricity, with renewables making up the majority. These and other environmental initiatives mean Jollydays holds a coverted Green Tourism Gold award.

Jollydays Glamping tent in the forestA process of evolution
Jollydays started off as a seasonal camp but the Van Outersterps noticed a change in the habits of their customers. “We are always looking to respond to the way people use the sites, tweaking things each season,” says Christian. And this includes a move towards timber, all season accommodation. “In the 11 years we have been doing this, we have noticed people are getting softer and recognise there is a ceiling to what we can charge for canvas.

“The British climate is not really suited to tented glamping, and any money we made through letting the tents was being reinvested in cleaning or replacing them. When we did the sums it made more sense to build in wood – the accommodation is lettable all year round and requires much less maintenance. Many of our new units are off-the-shelf sheds which we adapted and added insulation to.

“The main expense is all in the ground for both structure types – the tracks, electricity, drainage, water, reed beds etc. They are the same for a seasonal or summer only unit. And because we are low density, with a good amount of space between pitches, we have to run all this over a significant distance.

“We have recognised that our current model at Jollydays isn’t necessarily sustainable as it is. Interestingly, it is the lowest priced options that have suffered the most so we removed them entirely.”

There is certainly still demand for the remaining canvas structures, which are of an entirely bespoke design and feature four poster beds and roll top baths. “We worked with a marquee maker in Bradford to create truly unique structures with a vintage style made from Scottish canvas.”

The reduction in the number of tents in favour of all season structures has been a considered affair. “It’s a case of as and when cash flow allows,” says Christian. “My experience as a landscape architect means I am comfortable with project management and phasing the development of the business.”

Jollydays Glamping canopy in the forestCreating a draw
Part of the Jollydays site’s evolution is the addition of a magical new standalone tourist attraction – the Northwood Trail. “It’s a fairy trail, the idea being that as guardians of the woodland for over a decade, we have collected many fairy artefacts and opened a trail and museum. You don’t actually see any fairies, just evidence of their lives in the woods – although the children who have visited since we opened in June often say otherwise!”

Designed with the help of the whole family, the trail has a symbiotic relationship with the camp, there is also a café/bar, yet another win for the glampsite. “There wasn’t this facility before, and not everyone wants to be BBQ’ing every night!”

This new installation is entirely off-grid, run from a solar array and battery storage system. “We had a little bit of electricity at the Jollydays site but this was ancient and very limited. There is patchy mobile reception and just about enough Wi-Fi for the team to communicate with each other. Most families really appreciate the lack of electronica.”

Fairy door in a tree at Jollydays GlampingWork/life balance
As one of the most established glamping operations in the country, Christian and Carolyn are often contacted by others wanting to start their own site. “We did a lot of research in those early days. It does concern me how many lifestylers call up asking about what to do. They have no idea about the set up costs, and things like professional laundry, wear and tear etc. and could easily lose their shirts by selling up and buying land without really doing their homework.”

Where the Jollydays site has its financial ups and downs, business is good at The North Star Club. Inspired by Christian’s North American heritage and his Canadian grandmother’s tales of the American Great Camps, the feel is of a rustic, wilderness retreat, more akin to the woodland hotels built for wealthy industrialists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

“We were keen to recreate the magic of these camps in a rugged Yorkshire setting. The result is a serene and indulgent escape from the pressures of 21st century life and we seem to have pitched the experience just right.

“Carolyn has done wonders with the interiors of the lodges and we offer packages for weddings and private events, collaborating with caterers and other suppliers. We have had a few corporate events too, although not many as they tend to want all the electronica.

Jollydays Glamping accommodation bedroom“Jollydays works well for weddings too, although we dry hire the whole site and let a couple get on with it. It’s great for parties and large groups.”

Christian reports that the couple makes a comfortable living from their enterprises, but business is not without its frustrations. “Most of what we have done here has been built with help from the bank, although we did get a small Rural Development Agency grant for the Northwood Trail. The biggest frustration is having a clear vision of what we want to do but not the cash flow to act on it at a faster pace.”

And the perennial problem of staff? “It’s simple trial and error,” he says. “It’s without a doubt one of the hardest aspects of business. I have learned that it doesn’t matter what someone’s CV or references say, you just have to go with your gut and take a punt.” There are now three members of staff at Jollydays, four at The North Star Club and four at The Northwood Trail, most of whom are part time.

Child drinking hot drink at Jollydays Glamping“Time to relax is infrequent and time off even less so. “We have had two family holidays in the last 10 years. In terms of relaxing – that’s just grabbing five minutes to sit and have a cup of tea!

“I look back to when we first started and how I stupidly thought that within a couple of years I could stroll around the woods of an afternoon. More often than not I am either stuck in front of a computer or hauling wood around.

“That said, I am incredibly proud that we are still here, creating experiences with an environmental conscience that people seem genuinely blown away by. Of course, we see all the things that still need doing but our visitors just see the wonder of the place, and often report having had the best night’s sleep of their life.”

Jollydays Glamping accommodation


DETAILS

Jollydays Glamping
www.jollydaysglamping.co.uk

The Northwood Trail
www.northwoodtrail.co.uk

The North Star Club
www.northstarclub.co.uk

About Open Air Business 1380 Articles
The voice of outdoor hospitality - in print and online. If you liked this article, subscribe to the printed magazine here. We produce industry e-news between issues - please sign up here