From potato trading to luxury Lushna glamping suites, this farm’s diversification is a family affair.
With roots in looking after visitors to their coastal part of Essex, Emma Jezard and Robert Clarke have gone full circle (Emma via Singapore) to end up back on a farm in St. Osyth where their skills combine to provide 20 properties, a campsite, touring paddock and two cottages. We talk to Emma.
What’s your back story – your life before glamping?
Before setting up the glamping business, Rob was a potato merchant, buying and selling potatoes in the UK and also for export. Rob also helped out with the family farm (which he still does) where the glamping business is based. I had a successful career in TV working for various companies in London, and for a time in Singapore, before moving back to my home turf in Essex.
After meeting Rob, I became involved with the glamping business and have used my marketing and branding skills to guide it on its way. Funnily enough it seems like our careers have come full circle; both of us worked in tourism in the local area as teenagers, Rob selling ice creams from a kiosk on the beach while I was working in the gift shop at a local caravan park. We both have such fond memories of our teenage summer jobs and loved talking to the holidaymakers that visited, maybe subconsciously it’s why we now run the business we do!
What made you decide to start offering glamping accommodation?
After turning two redundant farm buildings into holiday cottages, a friend of Rob’s suggested he offered a small field for touring caravan breaks. Having had a taste of the hospitality business, a feature in a Sunday supplement about MegaPods in 2009 caught Rob’s eye and, after a conversation with Ian Bone from the Pod Company, a few weeks later a MegaPod arrived. Bookings went well and just before I met Rob in 2012 two further MegaPods were installed.
A couple of years later I suggested we convert shipping containers into more glamping pods. Why not? We ship potatoes from the farm in shipping containers! This was way before George Clarke got in on the act. The Purple CargoPod was built in around six months using a 30ft container and a couple of retired builders who are family friends. It was a fun project and everyone was pleased with the results – for a good few years it has been the top earner amongst the farm’s glamping pods.
Wanting to offer guests a good choice in glamping accommodation has been one of our USPs and a visit to a trade show for further inspiration resulted in a conversation with Archie Hunter at Armadilla and a deal was struck to buy three of their structures, which our younger guests (millennial 20 somethings) love as they have mood lighting, TVs, DVD players and Bluetooth connectivity.
The second CargoPod was built after the Armadillas and the business went from strength to strength. Adding private log fired hot tubs to each property ensured ongoing bookings, but we were regularly turning folks away especially for key weekends such as bank holidays. We needed to expand, but carefully, without losing our ethos of providing luxury accommodation in large separate private spaces.
Rob’s family agreed with the decision to expand and became involved as part of the farm’s diversification plans. We looked around and decided on the next location, a little way from the original location, but with fantastic views across the fields to the estuary of the joining rivers Colne, Crouch and Blackwater. Hobbes Field was born (named after the field – though we still don’t know who Arthur Hobbes was). This was of a larger scale and much research was given to funding and choice of accommodation over a period of two years.
After much consideration, and a trip to Slovenia, we met with the team from Lushna. That was decision made, the team drove over and installed 12 fabulous Lushna Cabins. Four different designs, each one in its own huge 25m x 15m plot, which are already proving extremely popular with our guests.
How did you research the business before entering it?
Regarding research, Rob began with one MegaPod on a gut feeling really. The following additions were made based on existing success and researching what was in the marketplace. Wanting to offer guests a good choice of accommodation, but equally trying and maintain a USP from other sites.
Tell us about your location and site
Our location is the best thing about our glamping site. Just a short hour and a quarter drive from London near Clacton on Sea, we are located down a quiet, peaceful lane where, except for an odd tractor, the noisiest thing you’ll hear are the birds and bees in the hedges and trees. The views across the fields to the estuary beyond are fantastic and the nature reserve, beach and marshes at the end of the lane are a place of natural wonder. At the moment we are the only site in the UK to offer Lushna cabins. We don’t have any attractions on site as we encourage our guests to either relax in their pod or Lushna and private hot tub, or to go and explore the local area. We are ideally situated to explore both the Essex and Suffolk coast and countryside.
How did you tackle getting planning?
Planning was the toughest challenge we had to overcome. NIMBYism resulted in a much-lengthened planning procedure and some of the local councillors failed to recognise the benefits to the area of the business. We were offering something incredibly different to the usual caravan parks in the district and, having no attractions on site such as a clubhouse, we encourage guests to go and explore spending their cash in the local economy. Luckily, with the help of a good planning consultant and the councillors who did understand the concept, we managed to get our planning application through.
How did you finance the project?
Initially Rob started the business with income from his potato trading work, plus some family loans. The Lushna site was funded with income from the farm and an EU Grant that Rob and his brother Iain spent much time working on.
What glamping accommodation do you offer?
Our accommodation options stem from wanting to offer breaks 365 days a year to generate all year round income (we have a good number of our pods and Lushnas booked for Christmas day and Boxing day this year) and to offer choice to our guests so they can return and try something different, but know they will have the same customer service each time.
How did you work out your brand and how do you publicise yourself?
Our brand is a combination of our concepts and design from Cris Black (Leaping Cow Design). It is slowly evolving and we are currently working on a new website, hoping to launch very soon. We publicise our site by using a combination of online listings and a lot of social media, specifically Facebook and Instagram. This coming year we are hoping to add some video content if I can still remember how to do it!
How would you describe your ethos and unique selling point?
Our ethos is very much ‘hands off’ – we like to leave guests to do their own thing. This has come from our own experiences; we don’t want to arrive after a long journey or to be tied to a specific arrival time to then have the owners come and show us around and make conversation when all we want to do is have a cup of tea.
This saves on staff costs too. Guests can arrive at any time after 2pm and we have a good email dialogue with them from when they book to arrival. The keys are in a key safe by the door of each property and the code is emailed prior to arrival and also sent by SMS to guests’ mobiles on the day of arrival. We also give them a mobile number to call if they have any issues. The office is staffed six days a week.
How did you choose your interior decoration?
We keep things pretty simple with décor. The Lushnas are perfect in their simplicity, all wood with floor to ceiling glass windows or bi-fold doors offering great views. The CargoPods have canvas prints of pictures taken around the local area. We recently purchased pictures and lamp shades from Shepherd Hut Studios in Rye as we fell in love with their style on a visit.
What challenges have you faced?
Planning aside, wet weather has been a challenge, causing delays when we were preparing the sites for new accommodation. The same seems to apply for bookings. When the sun shines the bookings come in, when it rains it definitely slows down a bit, but this is when we tend to add offers to our website and social media to pick things up. We use the same tactic for out of season mid-week bookings.
What are your plans for next season?
We opened the Lushna site in February this year so plans for the coming year include further marketing of this. Over the next couple of years Rob has plans to build another larger cottage and also a luxury tree house. We have a wonderful area of woodland off site by the farm’s fishing lakes and we are thinking about adding further glamping accommodation there.
Describe your average day mid-season
An average day starts in the farm office, discussing the day’s housekeeping and maintenance jobs with our team. Yvonne and Rebecca do a great job dealing with bookings and communicating with our guests. Rob checks on the farm staff and day to day running and, aside from marketing, I keep a check on the glamping sites. I try to walk around at least twice a week to check on all of the properties and chat with our team to see if there have been any issues. Luckily complaints are few and far between, but I always make sure our staff know about them and we work out ways to make things better together. I also let everyone know about the good reviews and messages we receive.
Do you enjoy the business and why?
We love what we do and feel very lucky. We are very much a team at Lee Wick and everyone plays an important role in creating a great break for our guests. More specifically, Rob enjoys planning new builds and responding to reviews while I enjoy coming up with creative ideas and hearing memorable moments from the guests. When we know that guests are planning a marriage proposal, we all can’t wait to hear the positive outcome. Every day is different and certainly never dull, we never thought we would have to put “please don’t put fish in the hot tub” on our T&Cs but yes it has happened. Luckily the hot tub had cooled down and the fish were safely returned to the river after their morning’s spa treatment.
What are you most proud of?
We are very proud of what we have achieved, especially this year which has accorded us more challenges due to some serious health issues (I was diagnosed with breast cancer and Rob’s father became ill).
We have gone from taking bookings and running the site ourselves, including housekeeping and maintenance, to a team of 12 (including us), 20 properties, a campsite, touring paddock and two cottages. We feel really positive for the year ahead.
What other outdoor hospitality sectors do you operate in?
We don’t offer any other outdoor hospitality at the moment; our glamping bookings take up all of our energy, though guests can book each site for a private event. Every year we are asked about weddings, but we don’t think the site is quite right for these as much as we would like to hold them. We are thinking about yoga or fitness retreats, but this is very much at the research stage.
What advice could you give to someone coming into the industry?
Definitely take the time and do your research. Talk to others who have already done it and been through the pitfalls that you might not see coming. There are a lot of ‘experts’ out there who don’t perhaps have the experience necessary to advise you. Think about your brand and what’s already on the market and consider your accommodation choices practically. Oh and do warn guests not to put fish in the hot tubs…
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