Greg Watt digs deep into the history and evolution of glamping accommodation and asks whether permanent structures can ever be considered legitimate.
A distinguishing feature of glamping during its evolution, since 2005, has been the nomadic or non-permanent nature of its shelter abodes. While a chasm exists between camping and glamping, they both possess the ephemeral nature afforded by impermanence. It is that “in the moment” aspect that makes each special, bestowing an individuality to the trip away that cannot be replicated.
The aura engendered by shelter constructions cemented in history amplifies a closeness to the outdoors and a unique adventure into the wild. So, is the movement towards solidly built shelter abodes constructed from permanent materials dismantling the essence of glamping? Is it an evolution, or an appropriation by other hospitality/tourism players looking to bring the glamping experience into their own offerings?
This article discusses traditional glamping accommodation in the form of nomadic shelter abodes, along with more recent inclusions of permanently constructed rigid structures. Examples of the former include tepees, yurts, safari tents, wigwams, and Scandinavian lavvu and kata. Examples of the latter include treehouses, glamping pods, cabins, shepherds huts, gypsy wagons, hobbit holes, tiny homes and caravans. Herein, domes are considered a special case, as they could be regarded as a contemporary take on Inuit igloos, thereby possessing cultural roots, while also being of semi-permanent construction.
The quintessential glamping abode
Accommodation within the glamping space has traditionally been associated with shelter abodes. These have usually included safari tents, tepees, yurts and more recently dome structures imbued with igloo imagery. Each form embodies powerful representations from the past, where human societies existed in equilibrium with nature or sought to discover more about it through exploration. Consequently, shelter abodes have a deep historical or ethnic connection (or both).
The safari tent stakes its claim through its practicality of design and association with the age of discovery from the 15th to the 17th centuries. More recently, the visual symbolism embodied within African safaris has struck the imagination of tourists who seek more authentic travel experiences. The consumption of the glamping experience projects a feeling of exploration, of being one of the first to see and live within areas of the wild. In many ways, it is the projection of an alternative reality, if only for a moment.
Other shelter abodes take the concept of living in alternative realities a step further. Tepees are potent symbols of the Native American civilisation, viewed by many as living in harmony with nature long before the appearance of Europeans. Similarly, the yurts of the nomadic inhabitants of the steppes of central Asia project uncluttered imagery. Here, decisions about almost everything are based on the good fortune or challenges nature brings. The Inuit people of the northern polar region take living in difficult environments to the extreme and igloos symbolise human resilience and resourcefulness. In a similar fashion, modern-day domes find themselves in colder climes. Without exception, where shelter abodes are present, glampers receive a visual projection of living and interacting with nature at a profoundly personal and intimate level. There is a perception of negotiating with the elements on equal terms and not taking the environment for granted. This is contrasted with the largely urbanised living in modern societies.
Permanent rigid structures
It is unclear when rigid structures, constructed from permanent materials, were first advanced as bonafide glamping accommodations. While campers and glampers often appear at odds over the concept regarding authentic outdoor experiences, there is an unwritten assertion that such experiences always come wrapped up in canvas. Sleeping in anything other than a shelter abode is simply… something else.
Permanent rigid structures have made a significant impact on glamping accommodation. In the past, permanent constructions were generally found at popular holiday destinations, consisting of rudimentary holiday homes afforded basic amenities. Technological developments in construction, coupled with a greater societal acceptance of small spaces, have seen a profusion of small rigid structures that are adaptable to remote locations. Pods, micro-lodges, cabins, treehouses, and tiny-homes are now appearing in remote areas, offering home comfort in an “off-grid” situation.
Fixed accommodation, whether that be statics [permanently fixed in one place], lodges, pods etc. has enjoyed tremendous innovation in recent years, with central heating, double glazing and hot tubs now commonplace. (Open Air Business & Yates D., 2018)
A significant advantage possessed by rigid structures concerns the ease and amenability of insulating and connecting services. This makes them “less dependent on the weather and a year-round season a reality” (Open Air Business & Yates D., 2018)
Permanent construction and the ‘experience’
Experiencing a glamping space that has been constructed from a permanent rigid structure has an essence that is separate to and distinct from nomadic shelter abodes. Differences are both tangible and intangible, resulting from pre-perceived opinions of individuals, along with the sensory appreciation acquired during the glamping experience. Construction in permanent materials:
• Changes the nature and perception of a glamping space – While taken for granted today, the development and use of permanent materials in construction signify two aspects of societal development. Firstly, it represents mastery over nature and the creation of a way of living independent of the natural environment, replacing it with an alternate environment created by humankind. Secondly, it has rooted people into particular localities, so that perspectives that were in prevalent nomadic societies have diminished. Attitudes towards living in harmony with, and preserving the natural world have weakened become secondary to considerations around living in urban space.
• Deadens the sensory perception of the outdoors – Glamping is a sensory experience. The noise of the wind whistling through nearby trees, the sound of a babbling brook, or owls in the night are essential elements of a stay outdoors. The shades of light and darkness moving across the glamping abode throughout the day and night. The smell of sea air, pine forests and nearby campfires. These are among the various sensory stimuli that are picked up and collated during a stay in a shelter abode. In contrast, solid construction blocks out or muffles sensory stimuli, and the sounds, visions, and smells of the wilderness are mostly absent. Instead of being a part of the outdoors, consumers are shielded and isolated from it. Further, permanent construction’s solidity enables interior spaces and décor to mirror attributes expected in urban residences.
It is reasoned that bringing this world of permanence into the wild changes the experience and can transition it into one generally associated with conventional hospitality. There are significant differences between a glamping space compared to that of a “hotel located in the wild”, even when situated near each other. The former involves connecting with nature and living life on its terms (with comfort). At the same time, the latter merely surrounds the hotel, along with all its regular services, with a scenic backdrop. Glampers seek something different from their “normal”, while hotel guests seek things that are the same. The effective distance and intimacy between the consumer and the natural world are vastly different for each situation.
Shades of grey
The use of permanent construction methods for glamping accommodation raises whether they are legitimate manifestations of glamping spaces. In many ways, the answer will determine whether or not glamping retains its distinction from other forms of tourism, or whether it is appropriated by other hospitality forms. Context is an important consideration, and the answer is not black or white. Rather, glamping spaces manifest themselves in many shades of grey.
The shades of grey are endless. A purist interpretation of glamping sees glamping spaces consisting of shelter abodes sparsely situated within reasonably remote places, idyllically set, and surrounded by beautiful landscapes. However, does a glamping space cease to be a glamping space if glamping accommodations are situated close together, not situated in the wilderness, nor possessing beautiful surroundings? Does placing shelter abodes on top of high-rise buildings (as launched by Marriot’s Gwen Hotel in Chicago) comprise urbanised glamping, or is it something else? Further, can a permanently constructed lodge located in spectacular remote countryside constitute glamping or merely a traditional holiday lodge placed in wilderness surroundings?
What glampers want
Research carried out by Arizton Advisory and Intelligence (2019), concerning glamping in the United States, breaks down glamping accommodation into six types. Traditional safari tents, yurts, and tepees for the first three, while cabins, tree houses and others round out the remainder. The former consist of customary shelter abodes, while the latter consist of more recently introduced rigid structures. In its report, Arizton denotes cabins as mainly consisting of “converted caravans” taken as similar to the airstream carriages used by Autocamp (2019), providing a mid-range glamping comfort.
The acceptance of cabins in the United States is exemplified by a study presented at a recent Glamping Summit where “about 60% of participants said that staying in a cabin in nature can be considered glamping (Thomas, n.d.). Similarly, a comprehensive survey sponsored by Kampgrounds of America carried out in 2019 highlighted the dominance of consumer’s preference for permanent rigid structure glamping accommodations over shelter abodes in the United States*:
• When asked what type of accommodation best fit their definition of glamping, 64% of travellers said cabins, followed by tree houses (58%) and tiny homes (55%)
• When asked what type of accommodation they would seek for their own personal glamping experience, travellers again selected cabins most frequently at 42%. (Cairn Consulting Group, 2019).
In comparison, shelter abodes as a group were only selected as a preferred glamping accommodation by 20% of respondents (safari tents – 7%, yurts – 10%, and tepees – 3%). In both Arizton Reports (US and Europe), shelter abodes, particularly safari tents, are regarded as “ultra-luxury” accommodation due to their “versatility and lower degree of permanency”. While yurts are considered less desirable in the US, modern styles and exotic features are being developed, boosting their appeal. In the European study (Arizton Advisory and Intelligence, 2020), plastic, taken as referring to geometric domes and positive pressure bubble domes also have been included. This, with other reports, would suggest that glamping accommodation in the European context is more eclectic and varied than in North America.
Differences between the US and Europe suggest that glamping accommodations are regionally specific and country nuanced. In the UK, research carried out by International Glamping Business in conjunction with Crown and Canopy (Rusbridge & Curtis-Raleigh, 2019) indicate that cabins, lodges and treehouses (combined) only amount to 8.0% of glamping accommodation. Instead, glamping pods, shepherds huts and bell tents, together made up roughly two-thirds of glamping accommodations, with yurts slightly less predominant.
More importantly, while the proportion of shelter abode constructions compared to permanent rigid-structures is similar to the US experience, particular makeups are considerably different. Here, bell tents and yurts comprise around 37% of glamping accommodations, while glamping pods and shepherds huts comprise 45%. Aggregated, all other glamping accommodations constitute only 18% of constructions but are generally of permanent construction. This points to the same approximate 60/40 split between permanent/shelter abode constructions presently existing in North America.
This is in line with statistics compiles by pitchup.com, a glamping OTA which provides specialist glamping listings across 40 countries. In the year up to November 2017, “camping pods and lodges made up nearly 60% of glamping bookings” through the Pitchup portal (Open Air Business & Yates D., 2018).
A final word (opinion)
It is simply not possible to determine what constitutes authentic glamping accommodation in isolation from other factors within the glamping space. Glamping space itself, consists of three parts; the glamping accommodations; the immediate setting, atmosphere, facilities, amenities and adjunct activities provided by the glamping site; along with the surrounding environment, landscapes and topography of the adjacent area.
Whether a promoted glamping space is actually a glamping space depends on the combinations of these three elements and whether they are empathetically woven together to provide a Gestalt offering. Depending on context, each component is able to consist of a spectrum of acceptable manifestations. Consequently, placed in the right situation, permanently constructed rigid structures are able to fulfil the perceived notion of glamping. Permanent accommodations set in the wilderness, or in breathtaking locations are likely to be perceived as glamping spaces. By the same reasoning, shelter abodes that carry an astounding aura of nomadic existence established in “urban” situations may also be viewed favourably. However, it is questionable whether simple bell tents, placed on the rooftop of multi-storeyed hotels, or on the top decks of cruise liners, could ever be perceived as glamping spaces.
The future lies in the understanding and finesse of project developers entering the market. While glamping was the exclusive domain of glamping entrepreneurs, it is now “witnessing the entry of players from the hospitality industry in a bid to seek high returns on investments” (Arizton Advisory and Intelligence, 2020). Accordingly, there is likely to be a movement away from nomadic shelter abodes towards the hospitality industry’s more familiar permanent construction. There is a danger that glamping accommodation, and indeed, glamping spaces, will become subsumed by the greater hospitality industry offering Disneyfication instead of authentic experiences. If this becomes the norm, then glamping spaces will be appropriated and cease to hold any relevancy.
*Note: A weakness of the study surrounds the selection of participants for the survey. A random sample of 3,554 United States and 500 Canadian households were used in Cairn Consulting Group’s Study. Being randomised, the study includes participants that may or may not go to the outdoors. Further, the participant group’s knowledge regarding the outdoors is likely to be variable. It would be expected that such a sample would conservatively choose accommodation most closely resembling what they are accustomed to. On the other hand, glampers and people most likely to go glamping will be a select group with particular perspectives that may not align with such a sample. Knowledge concerning the outdoors will likely be more significant and expectations regarding a glamping experience different. Therefore, survey results are also likely to be different.
• Arizton Advisory and Intelligence. (2019). Glamping Market in the US – Industry Outlook and Forecast 2019-2024. Retrieved June, 2019, from https://www.arizton.com/market-reports/united-states-glamping-market/snapshots
• Arizton Advisory and Intelligence. (2020). Glamping Market in the Europe – Industry Outlook and Forecast 2020-2025. Retrieved June, 2019, from https://www.arizton.com/market-reports/europe-glamping-market
• Autocamp. (2019). Autocamp-Adventure Simplified. Retrieved July, 2019, from https://autocamp.com/locations/
• Cairn Consulting Group. (2019). The 2019 KOA North American Camping Report: Kampingground of North America. Retrieved from https://koa.com/north-american-camping-report/
• Open Air Business, & Yates D. (2018, January). Glamping Trends. Open Air. Retrieved from https://openairbusiness.com/glamping-trends/
• Rusbridge, W., & Curtis-Raleigh, S. (2019). The Great British Glampsite Report 2019. International Glamping Business, Nov/Dec 2019(18), 9-13
• Thomas, E. (n.d.). The Rise Of Glamping: Market Evolution & Trends. America Outdoors, 2021(Jan). Retrieved from https://www.americaoutdoors.org/rise-of-glamping-market-evolution-trends/