A connection with guests keeps bookings rolling in.
Gooseberry Field Campsite is a glamping holiday business based in Pluckley, in the heart of Kent, and is owned and run by John Mills and Kerstin Wolgast, two ageing, post-punk hippies who last year managed to finally escape from a hectic lifestyle in the City to a simpler, more relaxed way of living with chickens, farmland and open fires. John and Kerstin talk to Open Air.
What glamping accommodation do you offer and why did you choose it?
We offer canvas bell tents. Our initial idea was to have one of everything – a bell tent, a yurt, a tipi – but the market seems to be in bell tents right now; they have proved to be the most popular. The benefit of having a bell tent is that it’s like being in a beautiful, boutique hotel room, with loads of space and lovely decoration. During the day or if it’s raining they are a good place to spend time in, not like normal, cramped, damp tents. We also invite guests to bring their own bell tents and pitch up on our camp-site, something that has proved popular. Not many sites offer this option; it seems like we’re filling a niche in the market. We found that the tipi just didn’t get many bookings so we’re using it as a communal space this year.
Why did you decide to start a glampsite and when did you first open?
We have a smallholding providing organic produce and a healthy way of life for the family. Running a campsite merged really well with our ethos of a natural lifestyle, rearing rare breed pigs and chickens, making our own jam, cider and sausages. The key for us is that it’s a small site; we only have six units. We’re not interested in making it bigger, creating more work or more stress for ourselves. 2015 was our first full year. Throughout all of the first winter we prepared the site and then opened in March. We had guests staying in March, even though it was so cold! Most brought their own bell tents; ours started to be booked more in April.
How would you describe your ‘style’ or unique selling point?
We like to connect with our guests. We have big bonfires on Saturdays, offer communal cooking spaces on the terrace and, even if we are not actually interacting with the guests, they can see us working on the smallholding. We’re starting to get lots of return custom.
How did you research the business?
We carried out detailed research into booking websites, such as CoolCamping and PitchUp. Kerstin is experienced in sales and marketing so she could delve deep into the website analytics and that has really paid dividends.
Tell us about your location and site
We’re near to Ashford International rail connections and have close driving links to the M25 and the M20; London is only about 90 minutes away. Having said that, when you turn off those roads, we are very much in the countryside. We’re close to the coast and seaside towns such as Whitstable, Hythe and Folkestone too. We’re very convenient for those living in the South East. Gooseberry Field offers quiet solitude close by, not an eight hour drive to Scotland to find peace and quiet. Through personal experience we were sick of campsites with cold showers and dirty toilets. We wanted to build big, beautiful facilities; a nice place to be.
What challenges did you face regarding planning?
We started off sticking to the 28 days permitted development rules. Now, after our first season, and with the support of council planners, we’re in the process of becoming a full time summer camp-site. My advice to other businesses is to start slowly, to try one thing at a time, to stay within the planning boundaries and to ask advice from anyone you can. We’ve found that small business developers and the council’s advisors and officers are very easy to work with. Since we are small and simply adding tents to a working agricultural smallholding it’s easier for everyone to handle.
How do you publicise yourself?
To a large extent we rely on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and recommendations from last summer’s guests have been really helpful. We are already 20% full for this summer. Campsite booking websites take a commission and we question whether this is affordable for a site such as ours, operating on small revenues. If the booking website is asking for 10-15% of the cost that’s a large slice of our profit.
How did you choose your interior decoration?
Much of it was stuff we had already; we’ve bought quite a few rustic items over the years on our travels to Namibia and Sweden and we have started using those for the campsite. Then we searched the internet for what was practical and good value. We wanted each tent to be individual so that guests could book a certain style; each of the six are equally popular. We’ve used nearly every known bell tent available in the UK however we are just now negotiating a sole supplier. We designed and built the BBQ/pizza oven using second hand bricks from a friend. Again, we designed and built the washroom and WC facilities.
What challenges have you faced?
To be honest the whole process has been fun although our first season was a steep learning curve. For example, how best to clean all the tents on handover days initially proved a headache. We’ve now tweaked our hours and management to better suit what is required and make everything more efficient. We’re both experienced in running our own businesses so this is not our first set-up and that makes a world of difference. We don’t have any fear in creating new products, of selling or marketing. We knew what we wanted in terms of natural environment and convivial atmosphere. We just got on with it.
Do you enjoy the business and why?
Yes, very much. It’s a pleasure to work seasonally. We look forward to opening in April and then to closing in October when we can enjoy free time, a chance to do some travelling and, of course, some sales for the business. It’s a great lifestyle.
What’s your advice to those entering the industry?
Just go for it! That’s really the best way. You could talk about it forever but you’ve just got to go for it.
- Bell Tents: SoulPad – 0800 389 9193 / www.soulpad.co.uk
- Tipi: Hummingbird Tipis – 07889 288 982 / www.hummingbird-tipis.com
- Website: 1&1 – www.1and1.co.uk
- Bookings: Anytime Booking – 01326 574660 / www.anytimebooking.co.uk
- Advertising: CoolCamping – / www.coolcamping.co.uk and Airbnb – www.airbnb.co.uk
- Interiors: Boutique Camping – 020 3394 2986 / www.boutiquecamping.com and
Second Nature – www.secondnatureonline.co.uk
- Hot Tub: HotTubSauna – 020 3514 3896 / www.hottubsauna.co.uk
- Firepits: Lloyd & Co Blacksmiths – 07966 728 966 / www.lloydblacksmiths.com
- Hampers: Pluckley Farm Shop – 01233 840400 / www.pluckleyfarmshop.co.uk