And now for something completely different! Introducing a new column from Louis Thompson, CEO of Nomadic Resorts, an international glamping resort provider with insights from some of the most beautiful and sensitively designed projects worldwide.
In this monthly column I will share insights from my experience of designing and building tented camps and eco-resorts throughout the world over the last 15 years. The intention is to offer a practical guide to the realisation of hospitality projects and help readers to avoid some of the common errors and misconceptions that can turn a wonderful idea, elaborated over a couple of bottles of wine at a dinner party, into a muddy version of Fawlty Towers.
Before launching any kind of glamping, treehouse or tented camp venture, it is critical for the developer to gain a clear understanding of the physical and cultural context of the project. Over the years our team at Nomadic Resorts has put together a checklist of considerations we use to evaluate the suitability of each location for the proposed venture. I have summarised the main themes of the list into three categories: accessibility, physical characteristics and historical context, to help developers get a handle on whether a site is suitable for a tourism activity:
The proximity of the site to urban centres and infrastructure is really important. We have often seen projects fail catastrophically simply because it was too complicated for guests to get to the site or it was simply impractical to build there. For example, the Mergui archipelago in Myanmar is one of the most beautiful beach locations in South East Asia and the home to the Mokan Sea Gypsies – a string of hundreds of fabulous islands with white sand beaches, turquoise waters and incredible biodiversity – but it is almost impossible to get there. You can charter a boat in Phuket (at great expense) or you can take multiple flights from Bangkok but even then you needed a special permit to visit the area and a local guide to stay with you. Despite the massive potential, the destination will only develop once the access is facilitated or the government changes policy to reassure investors and operators.
In developed destinations these kinds of challenges are not so much of an issue but it is still worth doing a bit of research:
1. Check out the site on Google Earth and identify the itineraries from major population centres to see how long it would take to get there. Some remote destination with specific appeal may well work out if there is a specific attraction but ideally the site would be within 2-3 hours drive of an urban hub with appropriate transport facilities. Bear in mind that more and more people are taking rural breaks to escape the city
2. Research local tourism arrival figures to see who visits the area and for what purpose – in many cases local government agencies have accurate records that allow you to understand regional trends that can be a useful addition to your business plan
3. Find out whether utilities are available on site. Water and electricity are not prerequisites but take into consideration that an off-grid location will increase the initial capital investment required to get the project off the ground and paying local authorities to tap into the grid may prove onerous
4. Land type and planning permission – the permissions process for each project varies according to national and local regulations. In some locations you may have to dance your way through national, regional and local planning permissions even for temporary structures; in others relevant guidelines barely exist. Our advice is to follow the process – in our experience backhanders often backfire. The last thing you want is a repeater client who arrives every few months with an empty briefcase
5. Political and economic stability is also an important consideration – the tourism sector is highly vulnerable to all kinds of catastrophes. Over the years, many of the projects we have worked on have been on the wrong end of political upheavals that have turned a high occupancy rate and a successful project into a fight for survival. The 2008 political crisis in Thailand, the gilets jaunes movement in France and more recently the terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka are prime examples of how a project can be scuppered despite your best efforts.
The natural physical attributes of the site may take your breath away – the rolling hills, the dramatic waterfall or the placid lake – but they may not be enough. Over the years I have had the privilege to travel to some dramatic locations – the mountainous plains of Laddakh, tropical islands in Thailand or the dramatic desert landscapes of the Middle East, but the feasibility of a project does not depend exclusively on its inherent beauty. Safety considerations are a serious responsibility, and a proper site evaluation could prevent an ill-fated misjudgement.
To create a coherent masterplan background analysis is critical:
1. Meteorological data over a 10 year period is extremely important: maximum precipitation, snowfall and temperature are all important factors but for tented camps windspeed can be the critical consideration for the structural engineering and insurance of all textile structures. On a recent site visit for a new client, they explained that a freak wind had blown six of their safari tent units straight out of the ground. These off-the-shelf safari tents turned out not to be engineered to withstand the local wind conditions. Fortunately, no one was injured but incorrect engineering and/or poor installation can cost lives. There are almost always technical solutions to accommodate the conditions but in some cases the costs may simply be too high
2. Seismic activity – in many parts of the world earthquakes are a real threat. As we have seen in 2004, violent earthquakes can provoke catastrophic Tsunamis in coastal regions. Having survived the 2004 Tsunami in Maldives and seen the millions of dollars of damage incurred on one of the most famous resorts in the world, I strongly recommend that you take coastal setback regulations seriously
3. Forest fires are another major risk – make sure the materials you are using meet fire regulations and indoor air quality guidelines
4. Once we have excluded some of the above-mentioned risks, we would typically request a detailed topographical survey of the site including the position of large trees and major geological features. The survey allows a designer to consider the natural water flow on the site, the solar trajectory and seasonal waterflow. It is important to avoid areas of potential flooding during the design process, however tempting it may be to position buildings close to water bodies. It also allows us to identify steep areas of the site that may be prone to landslides and understand the direction of prevailing winds and potential turbulence.
5. The biodiversity of the site is, of course, another important part of the design approach. We try to consider the wellbeing of the biotic community within our landscape design process. At times, it almost feels like I am designing a resort for specific animals by including native plant nesting species into the landscape.
At Nomadic Resorts the historical and social context is a key ingredient to an authentic guest experience. Without wanting to sound too esoteric, we strongly believe in what the Roman’s called Genius Loci which is the protective spirit of the place. In our design process we tend to take background research pretty seriously:
1. The vernacular architecture of the area has been developed by local people to accommodate the weather conditions of the area using the available materials. We are fascinated by hybrid solutions that combine the historic wisdom of the indigenous people with the opportunities offered by new generation fabrics. As I often point out, a completely waterproof fabric that lasts 20 years would have been used in virtually every culture across the world had it been available. A combination of different materials can be very attractive
2. Local textiles, furnishings and artefacts can really add a lot of charm to a project. Not only does it reflect a sense of place, but it also provides a link to the surrounding community and can provide an opportunity to buy locally
3. The history of the site itself can also be very interesting to explore – the ownership and use of the land in the past can offer a chance to incorporate the story of the place into the guest experience.
Obviously, the above items are simply a guideline and by no means exhaustive. My main aim is really to draw attention to some of the potential dangers to ensure that operators recognise that there are risks associated with all hospitality ventures.
In many projects, owners like to consider other forms of site analysis into the process. In previous projects we have met Feng Shui masters, experts in Vastu Shastra and even white witches. Sometimes their proposals are anchored in common sense, at other times the approach may be a bit mystifying, but it is important to keep an open mind – we once threw a bottle of olive oil sellotaped with an onion into a forest based on some pretty unscientific recommendations about luxury villa commercialisation, only to find that we did indeed sell the villa over the following days, as promised.
About the Author
Louis Thompson is CEO of Nomadic Resorts, an interdisciplinary design and project development company servicing the hospitality industry with offices in the Netherlands, Sri Lanka, Mauritius and South Africa.
Using a holistic approach, Nomadic creates sustainable resorts, tented camps, lodges and residential projects that reflect a true sense of place and fit organically into their natural surroundings. Its ethos is that designs should serve as a bridge to connect nature, culture and people.
The team specialises in sustainable architecture, contemporary bamboo construction, treetop living concepts, as well as tent design, engineering, manufacture and installation.
Over the last 15 years Louis has worked on some of the leading luxury tented camps across the world including Wild Coast Tented Lodge in the south of Sri Lanka, Soneva Kiri on Ko Kut island in Thailand and Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp in Namibia. The projects have won multiple awards in both the design and hospitality sectors including the 2019 Ahead award for the best resort in Asia and the 2018 UNESCO Prix Versailles for the best restaurant design in the world.
www.nomadicresorts.com Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org