No Change Here

While Covid-19 will affect glamping, it won’t change it, concludes Kate Morel.

Girls running through a field
Photo: Getty Images

Well, what a year so far. We’ve had Brexit, flooding and are still dealing with a pandemic that’s had a phenomenal impact on life as we know it. It also completely shut down the hospitality industry – some businesses permanently. We live in challenging times, so when Tally asked me to write about the impact of Covid on our industry for this issue, for once I wasn’t quite sure where to start, because we’ve never been in this situation before, have we! However, after a little musing I arrived at the conclusion that whilst Covid will affect glamping, it will not change it.

That might sound a bit cryptic, maybe slightly zen, possibly a tad non-committal! But let me explain why I came to that conclusion, although as usual I might have to generalise here and there given the diversity of glamping these days and that Scotland and Ireland in particular are still developing.

Before and after Covid-19
Before Covid-19, the glamping industry was already way ahead of the game in a lot of ways. It’s an outdoor, back-to-nature experience that, I believe, has been instrumental in developing this worldwide wave of experiential tourism. As such it might be interesting at this point to look back briefly and track its course to date.

In the UK, glamping started just over 15 years ago with pioneers such as Larkhill Tipis, and a few years later, Trellyn Camping; small indie businesses run by landowners and smallholders who decided to share their land and lifestyle with paying guests. The guests stayed in handmade tipis and yurts set out in the fields – proper glamping, one could say. This type of glamping prevailed for some years but then sites started to get bigger, franchises popped up and ‘glamping’ became a lucrative bolt-on for tourist attractions and holiday parks. I got involved 10 years ago and when I look back at how things were then it was a different picture, it was niche, I knew every glamping site in the UK.

It’s now a mainstream sector in its own right and I’ve long lost track of glamping sites, but it’s not all been roses has it? Glamping has come in for some criticisms too – overpriced, bad facilities, poor H&S measures and structures that don’t meet any British standards. I can’t argue with that, I’ve visited places that ticked all those boxes! Yet it’s still growing in popularity, why?

Here’s my theory for what it’s worth. As a society we’ve become less and less connected to our indigenous culture and heritage, our food sources and our land – a survey headline announced that 50 per cent of children couldn’t identify a nettle. That says it all, right there. However, I don’t believe people are really content when they are disconnected from things that were a fundamental part of the development of their species (same with animals, but they don’t book glamping holidays so we’ll skip over that for now!). This is why I believe glamping has enjoyed, and will continue to enjoy, growth as a hospitality sector, people actually really do need it.

Sometimes they don’t know they need it until they try it – it’s like taking a lion out of a circus and putting it to grass for the first time; all of a sudden life has meaning, it feels right. Am I waxing too lyrical and going off topic? Possibly but this is fundamentally why I love my work. I was lucky enough to grow up in the countryside so nature is an inherent part of my life, and now I get to create places that help others reconnect to it – best job in the world if you ask me.

Before lockdown, glamping trends were on a steady trajectory. The number of UK staycations were increasing year on year, and each sector, structure type and demographic had its own development pattern. In the indie boutique sector, guests were increasingly looking for private-use facilities and better standards, whereas in the mainstream sector, demand for more character and authenticity was on the up. In essence, these two opposing markets were seeking out what the other was good at and a polarised market was, at least a little, beginning to blur at the edges.

More new glamping sites were offering an experience beyond accommodation by including activities or hosting events as part of the business model, and more established sites were diversifying to do so. When it came to types of accommodation structures, new sites with pods and huts were slowing down in some areas due to saturation, and even stalwarts such as safari tents were becoming less popular due to market saturation, again in some areas – unfortunately I don’t have the space to go through the UK by county.

Food set out for a picnic
Photo: Getty Images

After Covid-19 – future trends
So, glamping post-Covid. As I said at the start, glamping was already way ahead of the game before all this. Most glamping accommodations have distance between them, the locations are natural, open air environments and associated activities are outdoors, food or craft related. All the things that people are craving as the lockdown lifts – space, fresh air and nature – are in glamping’s DNA. As such, I believe it unlikely that pre-Covid trends will change much, although some might accelerate as guests seek out more secluded accommodations with private facilities.

Right now, however, one trend seems to be in reverse because we are seeing a higher demand for more basic accommodations that were previously (in England and Wales) heading in decline. This is probably due to a surge of post-lockdown guests seeking a much-needed outdoor break meaning that some sites which weren’t doing so well pre-Covid might enjoy a renaissance, but will this last?

More new and existing glamping sites are adding pods and bell tents, maybe as an affordable way to meet current demand, but sooner or later one wonders if the market will recalibrate and return to pre-Covid trends. It could go one of two ways, more people might have tried glamping instead of camping and will stick with it, giving the industry a new wave of guests, or when (if?) things return to normal, people will once again want better facilities and we’ll have even more entry level accommodations competing in a shrinking market.

For the time being at least, as long as quarantine on inbound travel is on the cards, the staycation trend, regardless of accommodation type, looks likely to remain robust as more of us forgo the hassle of travelling abroad.

One trend that shows no sign of abating is activity and experiential breaks and their associated accommodations. In fact, I’m going to predict that they will have an out and out surge in popularity, and no, I didn’t need to consult my crystal ball for this one.

I have a question for you, if you found yourself with more time on your hands and at home during lockdown, what did you do with it? Did you take to the garden or veg plot? Dig out your baking tins? Pick up an old hobby or craft, or learn a new one? Turn preparation and cooking into an event? Take time to enjoy good food and eating meals? Spend better quality time with your children, crafting, exploring, playing in the garden? (OK, I know home-schooling may have been tough!) Did the one hour of exercise make you go for more walks and appreciate small roadside flowers that you’d normally drive by at 30mph? Did you camp out in your garden?!

I’ve been watching the UK in amazement, I really have, as people immersed themselves in pastimes and hobbies, and observed nature in the smallest detail delighted by what they were discovering. The British people showed us exactly what they’d rather be doing when they are not working. Who needs surveys, statistics and reports? It’s plain to see what we want to do with our leisure time.

The Covid pandemic has brought loss and suffering on many levels, but for some it also provided a space in which they could express their passions, as well as re-evaluate their lifestyle and workstyle. I include us as business owners in this too. Maybe we now want to work smarter not harder, change how or even why we do business, or simply sell up and retire. If we’re not already a business owner, we might have gained the motivation to start that dream lifestyle business where we wake up in the morning thinking ‘let’s get at it!’ rather than facing a long commute for a day working to someone else’s agenda.

What to do next
Given these lockdown insights for existing and new hospitality providers, glamping or otherwise, there’s an opportunity here to review and develop our businesses, so let’s take a look at this. It could involve a change in the business model, or simply develop it to include activities, maybe adding extra accommodations to facilitate this. But where to start, because sometimes the most favoured or obvious diversification or activity isn’t the most financially viable. We need to consider aspects such as the strengths and weaknesses of the existing business model, the location, the owner’s interests and skills, resources, relevant space, catchment area and investment funding available.

My overriding piece of advice is to be creative and do it in your own way, because there’s very little that hasn’t been done before. Personally, I’m a fan of juxtaposing opposites so here’s a very brief example:

 


Strengths and weaknesses: Positives – affluent catchment, good access and highway sightlines, good parking area, water on site, existing clearance in woodland. Negatives – no electricity, planning permission might be an issue (check out cert exempt potential), tight budget)

Location: Rural Sussex

Owner’s interests & skills: Bushcraft and forest school crafts, camp cooking, interior design, hosting parties, good organisational skills, very creative

Resources: Local friends with equipment, time to dedicate, already has equipment and furnishings in storage

Relevant space: Owns the woodland

Catchment area: London

Investment funding available: £100k

 


Looking at the brief, I’d look at running bushcraft courses, obviously, but with a difference – a luxury experience with chandeliers and vintage sofas, and a fully laid dining table with the usual bushcrafter’s silk parachute for cover, of course. Some equally lavishly furnished canvas accommodations with very posh trailer loos and showers. Given the budget it would have to be a summer only set-up (at least initially, PP permitting I’d look at adding all year structures in year 3), marketed and branded as a limited, exclusive experience with commensurate rental fees. You might think that’s completely mad, but you get the idea. The most successful spaces and experiences offer something special and memorable. Surprise people.

Table being set outside underneath a string of lights
Photo: Getty Images

The benefits
Diversifying and adding activities not only generates additional revenue streams but can increase marketing opportunities because there’s more to talk about and more evocative images to share. Get it right and new diversifications can help fill those low season and midweek slots that are sometimes hard to fill without discounting. It also facilitates something else we’ve been doing in the glamping industry for a long time – working with and supporting our community and other local businesses. Collaborating with local activity providers, food and drink producers, farm shops, pubs and restaurants is a great way to help our guests to get a real flavour of the region and to ‘travel like a local’ as well as share the business around.

And finally
A personal note. During lockdown my local cottage/glamping site extended its farm shop by three times its size to sell more and more produce on behalf of local shops and garden centres that had to close, and for local producers who saw their usual orders dry up overnight. I know that many other rural business communities throughout the UK rallied together, with a genuine sense of solidarity and community that I can only imagine existed many decades ago before franchisee high streets and retail parks.

Post-Covid, it would be great if this collaborative mentality continued. It will help us better future proof ourselves in a developing rural business landscape and build a solid base for longevity.

Writing this, I wondered if there was a rural business network that had an authentic support ethos, so did an internet search and found one. I’ve just finished speaking with its founder, Jo, who recently set up the Rural Business Network (www.rbn.org.uk) as a means for rural businesses to support each other. I admire her ethos and what she is trying to achieve so here’s a blatant plug – membership is £5 a month, less than an overpriced, over-flavoured G&T in a fancy (or even not-so-fancy) bar. Do consider joining, I think she’s starting something that small to medium rural business will find helpful as it grows and develops.

Till next time, Kate.

 


ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kate MorelA leading diversification consultant specialising in the experiential accommodation sector, Kate’s unique approach balances practicalities with creativity to produce innovative developments. Drawing on first-hand experience in business development, holiday property rental and seven years managing a leading UK glamping agency, Kate’s time is now shared between consulting and her design and build company.

Because of her own lifestyle and passions, both consultancy and design follow the same approach, by viewing return on investment within the context of authentic and creative direction, “because when it comes to experiential tourism, nothing else works”.

Kate is a regular contributor to Open Air Business and a familiar figure on the professional event circuit, presenting innovative seminars and sharing knowledge on expert Q&A panels. www.morelconsultancy.com / www.morelcompany.co.uk / LinkedIn: katemorel24

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