Seven treehouses, luxury safari tents and a private beach put this glampsite firmly on the map.
Lochhouses is mainly an arable farm, with rolling fields of barley, wheat and market garden vegetables, inland from its magnificent beach with woodland, lochs and wetland. Alex Mitchell grew up on the farm but worked at a bank in London until he returned to run the hospitality side of the business – Harvest Moon Holidays. Alex talks to Open Air about his business.
What glamping accommodation do you offer and why did you choose it?
In 2007 we started out as a franchisee of Feather Down Farms but after a couple of years decided to run the business independently. Our experience had been with tents so we opted for them again. We now have seven of a safari style, each sleeping six to eight people in two bedrooms and a cosy ‘cupboard’ bed. About half a mile from the tent site we’ve erected seven treehouses purposely positioned to take advantage of the breathtaking views to the sea and forest behind. These were built by Cheeky Monkey Treehouses to our specification for space – large decking areas – and comfort. Each treehouse offers two double bedrooms, one with an extra, single bunk above and an en-suite WC and hot shower room.
What are the differences between operating as a franchise and running independently?
A franchise requires less initial capital outlay and aspects like marketing and bookings are taken care of, so there is much less to worry about. Basically, we managed the day to day operations: tent cleaning, site maintenance and customer satisfaction. As a franchisee your responsibilities are fewer but you have a lot less control and less profit. It is much more rewarding, both financially and personally, running the business ourselves. We are fortunate as we have an excellent site and initial outlay wasn’t an issue. Once a business gets to a certain size it doesn’t make sense to franchise any longer; you can be much more in control and make a better profit from being independent.
Tell us about your location and site
We’re in East Lothian, the south eastern corner of Scotland. There are so many glamping sites out there now but something that’s hard to replicate is a great location, which we have. Our safari tents are pitched by the beach. There are woods nearby and a diversity of bird and wildlife. We’re only 45 minutes drive from Edinburgh and 15 minutes from a main train line. Guests may feel like they’re in the middle of nowhere but, in reality, our site is quite convenient. There are local, complementary businesses including a farm park and another offering wake-boarding, although our guests seem to just spend all day on the beach. There’s a communal BBQ and deck area for all to use.
How did you tackle planning?
The planning guys were fast and efficient, as was economic development. At times we found dealing with building control a challenge; if we were to need them again direct contact would be best to establish what was required of us.
What is your unique selling point?
Definitely our location. We’re next to a lovely, lovely beach. It’s as good a beach as I’ve seen anywhere in the world. Added to that we’ve a fabulous landscape.
How did you choose your interior decoration?
We prefer a homely, farmhouse style. We have wood burning stoves and soft furnishings so the tents and treehouses are cosy and comfortable, with chickens, ducks and lop eared rabbits running free.
What convinced you to become a wedding venue too?
That started by accident. Having enjoyed their holidays so much a couple asked whether they could get married here. Initially we said no. However, they kept asking and, liking them, we eventually agreed. The event went well and was fun for all. So, what began as a one off has evolved into some 10 weddings every year. Weddings are a completely different kettle of fish to glamping. Running a holiday site is more consistent in terms of hours and responsibilities: it’s much easier to plan the work that needs doing. Weddings are busier, more full on affairs with the additional headache of dealing with marquee suppliers and caterers; there is far more that can go wrong. Certainly, they’re high stress but fun, enjoyable and working out to be profitable.
We never have weddings planned for July and August due to the school holidays. Our customers want to stay for at least a full week but that would be impossible if we had an event every weekend. We organise the weddings to fill in during quieter times like May and June, to top up bookings. First and foremost we are about glamping and family holidays.
What challenges have you faced?
Finding good staff has been a problem. Seasonal running is to blame; we have days when we could employ double the number of staff but then in winter we need no one. The best decision we made was to hire a cleaning company instead of doing it ourselves. It has the infrastructure to cope with issues like sickness while we just pay a set fee.
What is your experience of outside suppliers?
We have a list of recommended suppliers which we hope wedding clients will use: working with new people can be a pain in the backside! If something goes wrong then we are the first point of call. We suggest that cheaper isn’t always best. For example, at one wedding the toilets, booked for £80 less than our recommendation, broke after an hour. We always try to help but sometimes it’s a challenge; in that instance our expertise proved insufficient.
How did you research your business?
Feather Down Farms first approached having recognised that we had a good site. Becoming a franchisee is a good way of dipping a toe into the market, learning about the day to day operations of a business like this, especially if you don’t have a background in hospitality. For farmers to run a successful glampsite they have to deal successfully with people. Many find that’s too much hassle and they have to stop after a couple of years. At the end of the day, if you don’t have the social skills then the hospitality industry isn’t for you.
How do you publicise yourself?
To help get us off the ground for the first year we employed a PR person who had contacts in the press. She invited journalists to stay and write a review. This proved to be a worthwhile but expensive exercise. We’ve scaled back on press days but if publications approach us we invite them to visit. Social media and optimising Google searches is really important; we spend a lot of time on that. Now we’re using Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Our website accounts for over two thirds of our bookings overall. We’re also listed on glamping booking websites which tend to be quite high on Google listings, so they’re useful for promotion. Canopy and Stars, for example, takes 20% of the fee for a booking.
What are your plans for next season?
We could build more accommodation but I don’t want to ruin what we have. I grew up here so my attachment is emotional. At capacity there are 100 people: our hands are full enough as it is!
What’s your advice for someone coming into the industry?
Aim to provide the best service possible. Don’t assume it’ll be an easy buck because it’s not. Be ready to give your time and resources unsparingly. Be ready and willing to be a jack of all trades.
Do you enjoy the business and why?
I do! Sure, it’s busy, busy, busy and I’m always on call but I enjoy working with people and our location is to die for.
- TREE HOUSES: Cheeky Monkey Treehouses – 01403 732452 / www.cheekymonkeytreehouses.com
- INTERIORS: Stoves by Nordica – www.lanordica-extraflame.com/en
- BOOKING SYSTEM: Supercontrol – 01556 506701 / www.supercontrol.co.uk
- DIRECTORY SITES: Canopy and Stars – 0117 2047830 www.canopyandstars.co.uk, Cool Camping – www.coolcamping.co.uk, Goglamping – www.goglamping.net, Awaywiththekids – www.awaywiththekids.co.uk
- INSURANCE: NFU Mutual – www.nfumutual.co.uk