Kate Morel breaks down the process of commissioning a unique glamping structure and explains how going bespoke can influence your bottom line.
Commissioning a custom design, whether it’s art, clothing or even a new house, is an exciting process. We have the freedom to call the shots and influence the finished product into something tailored to our very own needs and taste. When commissioning a rental design, it’s less personal and more about investment involving additional expectations and responsibilities. The resulting product needs to meet relevant market demands, offer an immersive experience, be highly photogenic and, naturally, deliver a good return.
It can be a little daunting, which is quite understandable given that we buy pretty much everything ‘off the peg’. It’s not something we do every day and takes us into unchartered waters provoking many questions – where do we start, how does the process work, how much will it cost, do we really need a unique design?
When we commission a new design we are (hopefully) creating something fresh and original, which is an exciting, rewarding and unique experience in itself. Since I started Morel & Co I’ve become fully involved in the process and it’s fantastic to see a design take shape on paper and then come to life in the build.
Unique designs are the perfect alternative or glamping accommodation solution for some places, and as a business investment in a developing industry they have certain advantages over off-the-peg structures:
• There’s a growing demand for unique experiences in travel and tourism – a bespoke design is an effective way to deliver experiential accommodation
• Original accommodations can create a more future-proof rental business – they’re not subject to the same direct competition and comparisons as mass manufactured structures
• They attract more organic media attention, especially if we’re creating a ‘first’, which is why we use the phrase ‘UK’s first A-frame treehouse’ to describe Hudnall’s Hideout – what publication is going to ignore that? One-off designs can create thousands of pounds worth of free media coverage because they are outstanding or express an original idea
• For areas with low visitor numbers, a bespoke design might be the answer to a successful glamping business. It creates a strong USP in an otherwise difficult geographical destination. The accommodation becomes the destination
• If the bespoke structure is ancillary to a core business, such as a couple’s suite for a wedding venue, it could also be an influencing factor in, for example, deciding which venue to book.
Tales of the unexpected
Before we look at ‘how’, there are a few things to bear in mind that can differ from buying off the peg and might not necessarily be anticipated:
• Timescale – the design process will take time; how much will depend on the supplier in question and how quickly a final design is agreed upon
• Planning – with an off the peg design we already have visuals which we can immediately submit with the planning application. With a bespoke design these have to be created, even if it’s just a sketch, and the design finalised before a planning application can be made
• Installation – depending on the supplier, the build itself probably won’t start immediately on obtaining planning permission as they will have other projects in the pipeline. Most build companies will only put a bespoke (or sometimes any) job into their schedule on receiving a deposit payment
• The stress factor – any number of issues can slow a project down or create frustrating obstacles which can cause a lot of stress and be truly demoralising. A positive, patient and solution-focused approach is sometimes needed – or lots of gin
• Costs – bespoke structures cost more than off the peg structures, usually much more and this can take people by surprise. Designers and architects are skilled, creative and experienced professionals and charge accordingly. The structures themselves are one-offs; there is no template to follow or kit to put together, nobody has built it before and this requires skilled and experienced makers or builders, again they charge accordingly.
The design process
I’ve commissioned many things over the years and been commissioned to create designs for others, so appreciate both sides of the process and have included factors from each in the following. A bespoke structure project can be influenced by many factors, not least budget, and while there are always exceptions, for a bespoke design to succeed it usually requires some key influences:
• Knowledge of the industry and how it is developing – bespoke designs sometimes miss the mark because they are not in line with glamping and tourism developments
• An understanding of guest expectations – the design needs to function for, and appeal to, the specified demographic
• Excellent visualisation and creative skills will push the design and set it apart
• Use of the same company for design and construction. With glamping structures, one company’s vision isn’t always easy for another company to construct.
Most supply companies charge a fee to create a bespoke design. Depending on the structure this might be a small one-off payment or a larger fee broken down into percentage payments at different design stages. If the project doesn’t go ahead payments made are usually non-refundable. For larger, more complex structures such as treehouses, the design process usually incurs higher design fees because these structures need to be professionally designed and engineered to meet building regulations.
The design process route ultimately depends on the type of structure and the supplier in question so the following is an overview. I’ve used the word ‘designer’ throughout to represent the architect, supplier, builder or specialist that might be dealing with the project.
1. An initial phone call between client and designer should convey a feel for the project and outline the defining criteria. It might be possible for the designer to give an indication of feasibility within the given budget and timescales. It should also establish if there is a synergy between what the client’s business needs and what the company can produce, to ensure that the final product ‘delivers’. Before contacting a designer gather some ideas of what you want, images, website links, the guest profile and how much you will be investing in the structure(s). Also get some advice around planning permission and any habitat survey requirements as they can slow things down and add to costs.
2. A site visit from the designer is usually next, where they check over the location, explore the design concept further, evaluate potential build costs, and consider on-site issues that may affect it, such as vehicular access. Depending on the structure it may also involve discussions about utilities such as water, electricity and waste management. As a business consultant, I would also want to take into consideration the overall business model and branding, a future-proofing strategy, and if necessary/possible, evaluate how to drive the development further with landscaping and creative features. For me at least, the whole ‘guest experience’ needs to be thought through to the last detail, not just the structure design.
3. Drawings might now be produced for the client to review or approve, but for large or complex structures, writing a design brief is more likely. This outlines the full scope of the project – the design style, facilities, features, criteria, functions and budget. It might be created from a questionnaire that the client fills out, or simply from discussions. If you have strong ideas about what you want, getting the right message across to your designer is important at this stage. This will facilitate an accurate design brief, making the subsequent consultation process more efficient. Ideally your designer should also be able to guide you on popular features and facilities that will enhance the performance of the finished structure.
4. Working to the brief, the designer will create design concepts, usually two or three, from which the client chooses one that goes forward through a design consultation process to reach a finished design – which is a fancy way of saying we’ll tweak the design until we’re happy with it. For example, I’ve just finished a design of my own where I moved an interior wall to make the kitchen bigger, changed the roof line in two places to improve aesthetics, and moved the sleeping area so the space functioned better. It’s important that each change is carefully considered and makes a positive impact on the overall design. If you have an experienced designer do trust their ideas and advice. Some changes can impact on build costs and several might even push it beyond budget; your designer should make you aware of any changes that impact on final costs.
5. Once the finished design is complete, final drawings, CAD renders and, if it’s a treehouse, maybe a 3D model will be made. All these are very useful tools that enable planning officers and finance companies/funding organisations to fully appreciate your vision, so although there are often additional fees for them, they could have a positive influence.
6. Assuming that planning permission is granted, depending on the company in question/structure type, the client would be asked to confirm instruction to build by paying a deposit.
Commissioning a bespoke design might not be the easiest route, or cheapest, but the trade-off is a robust USP, organic marketing, and sometimes a faster return despite the higher investment. It’s also one way to create an outstanding glamping or alternative rental in a sector where some structures and low to mid-price business models are becoming commonplace. Some places (even the award-winning successful ones) are struggling to achieve previous year’s revenues without having to work much harder and spend more money on marketing.
There are always exceptions of course and competition and geography often play a big part, but this sector has grown considerably over the last few years and is showing no signs of slowing down. Best to plan ahead and create something that can hold its own, bespoke or otherwise.
One has to weigh up the overall business model and location to evaluate whether or not bespoke is the right way to go. Not every site or development warrants or needs a bespoke structure, and sometimes an off the peg design in a stunning location, or with a decent theme, will suffice very nicely. For a bespoke design to deliver its maximum potential return however, do remember that it’s important to get those key influencing factors in place to ensure the structure not only meets current market demands, but also has room to evolve as those demands develop over time.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kate’s hospitality-dedicated businesses support development projects that include alternative accommodations such as glamping and treehouses. Her consultancy service offers informed advice on how to diversify into this niche sector, and her design service combines her holiday property rental and glamping experience with design and construction to produce creative commercial treehouses and cabins.
As one of the glamping industry’s most versatile and experienced figures, Kate presents keynote seminars at reputable events, runs business workshops, and is a regular contributor to Open Air Business. www.morelconsultancy.com / www.morelcompany.co.uk / firstname.lastname@example.org / www.linkedin.com/in/katemorel24
Kate is offering a free bespoke design service on cabins and 10 per cent off treehouse design for qualifying projects until end of March. Email email@example.com