Capitalise on global industry movements and embrace your outdoor food offering, says Kate Morel.
My Australian connections and lifelong passion for campfire cookouts might be partially responsible, but I think outdoor cooking has a lot of untapped potential in our sector and can be a valuable business asset in its own right.
More so than ever, my work currently spans several different industry sectors giving me quite a unique overview and, all things considered, I believe the UK rural hospitality landscape will undergo quite a transformation over the next few years. I see the word ‘trends’ used a lot, but when it comes to experiential travel and tourism developments I prefer ‘movements’ because these are a consequence of a changing world and society rather than a fleeting shift in buying patterns.
Factors such as increasing social awareness, a demand for meaningful leisure time and a pull to reconnect with food production and the land are driving an increasing demand for any leisure activity, event or vacation that delivers them. Cooking, local produce, foods, drinks and authentic eating experiences are going to be a big part of this (worldwide) tourism and leisure movement.
So, if you’re currently looking for a way to diversify or develop your hospitality offer in the near future, some style of outdoor cooking facility or food provision could be worth considering, at least, if it sits well within your business model.
In essence, cooking and eating outdoors is a primal activity. There’s something undeniably satisfying about cooking on a real open fire or eating the glorious food it produces, whether it’s a hearty winter stew or smoky summer BBQ. It directly connects us to instincts of survival and comfort – it’s a core ‘experiential’ activity and ties in perfectly with the way the hospitality, travel and tourism industry is developing.
The beauty of outdoor cooking is its versatility, no matter what the business type, we can usually work it into the mix. It could be as simple as a campfire for your accommodation guests to cook on, or a specially designed catering kitchen with adjoining dining area for specially themed events.
‘Come on baby, light my fire’
Traditionally, a campfire has been an integral part of the glamping break experience – even if the ‘cooking’ is just marshmallows on a stick. More engaging cooking methods such as portable pizza ovens are sometimes provided and are very popular with guests, as are Dutch ovens and kotlichs.
Sticking with the ‘keep it simple’ theme, large, purpose-built ovens and BBQs are a great way to host a weekly cook-out and sell food to guests, which also gives them a night off from cooking and a chance to socialise. For example, a place near me, Middlewick Holiday Cottages in Glastonbury, hosts weekly open BBQ or pizza nights throughout the summer where they sell locally produced food and drink from their farm shop. Watching the sun set over the Mendips with a plate of local food, a glass of Somerset cider and a dash of banter is never a chore.
Back to school
Outdoor cooking can also create short, fun workshops or longer in-depth courses, either as a core business or add-on activity tailored to the guest profile, be that couples, families, stag/hen, corporate, educational etc. Crafting a particularly unique outdoor cookery school, or mastering an unusual style of cooking and sharing that expertise, could also be a viable USP or ancillary.
Earth ovens and ancient low-tech methods are often used in bush-craft courses, but there’s potential for them in other business models if we make the surroundings more comfortable. I’ve discussed some quite unusual cooking methods from all around the world in my work – really, we can do so much more than bake and barbecue. I wonder if it’s too much of a stretch to include food production under workshops and courses here, as I’ve sent clients to learn new skills such as gin-distilling or vegan ice-cream making so they could teach as part of their new business, as well as sell the products.
Only the Moon has no atmosphere
An unusual, well-designed, outdoor catering kitchen could make a spectacular feature for the right venue, especially where summer weddings and events are held. Add a covered outdoor dining space and we’ve got a recipe for themed event success. There are specialist companies who design and build outdoor kitchens where only imagination and budget are the limiting factors, but sometimes the challenge of creating something on a budget brings about a design or use of a material that we’d never otherwise have considered.
Either way, when it comes to experiential hospitality, and this definitely falls into that category, the key is to create a truly immersive atmosphere – something that our guests reminisce about when they are at their desks wishing they were somewhere else.
A personal approach
For anyone seriously thinking of adding a cooking facility to their business, I thought it might be helpful to share a few ideas that I usually explore when working on a project that includes food and/or cooking:
• Use the outdoor cooking facility to generate revenue outside peak business periods by hosting workshops, events and/or offering special or themed breaks
• Look for local traditions that include food or drink (most of them do, or at least food production) and host an event or special offer around it. For example, in an apple producing county, we’d create something around Wassailing which, as a bonus, is in January when business is pretty slow
• If you have competition, make yours the absolute best. I could go to at least six Wassails in Somerset each January but only one is my ‘must do’
• Create an annual event according to the type of food/cooking that the business specialises in; if it’s your core business, become the unequivocal authority on it
• Collaborate with local food and drink producers, use/sell their products, help them develop new products or, better still, commission your own
• Collaborate with local chefs, foraging and bushcraft teachers according to the business model. Include them in events or run special workshops or demonstrations
• Research and resurrect local recipes (they invariably need tweaking for the modern palate). If you can’t find one, invent your own – every recipe tradition had to start somewhere, right?
• Champion food and drink that is particular to the region. If you can’t find one, see above…
• Resurrect an ancient or local cooking method, it might need tweaking for practical purposes but ‘inspired by’ is a great way to bring back old traditions for a modern audience – as well as craft out a unique selling point.
The way all sectors are developing, honestly, I don’t think it matters if we’re running a big corporate or indie lifestyle business, we’re all aiming to create something congruent to meet the new leisure movement upon us. So, most of all, I’d say get creative, have fun with the concept, get a few heads together and throw some ridiculous ideas around, then condense them down into something workable and viable – or at least that’s how I do it.
Keep it passionate – find a cooking style or eating experience that sums up your own or your brand’s raison d’être, because when it comes to food there’s no substitute for genuine, home-cooked enthusiasm.
About the Author
Kate Morel’s consultancy work supports diversification and development projects that include experiential accommodations. Design studio, Morel & Co, combines first-hand glamping rental experience and creative design to produce commercially viable treehouses and character cabins.
A leading industry ambassador, Kate writes regularly for business publications, presents keynote seminars at leading events and runs business workshops. www.morelconsultancy.com / firstname.lastname@example.org / www.linkedin.com/in/katemorel24