How to create an emotional connection with unique glamping and indie boutique accommodation.
Once upon a time, far, far away (sorry, couldn’t resist) I did a lot of travelling, and although it was a long time ago, I can still clearly recall some of the places I stayed in. They had such an impact on me that I can still sense myself being there, even while sitting at my desk on a spring afternoon in Somerset. When I think about what made these places so special, it’s because they had some sort of story about them, which created a particular atmosphere making them impossible to forget.
When it comes to hospitality accommodation, there are several ways that we can create a unique selling point that will set our development apart or ahead of the crowd, one of which is through this kind of storytelling. It creates a unique and engaging experience, and when I say ‘engaging’ I mean that it evokes an emotional connection, one which leaves an indelible mark in our memories.
In my mind at least, there are two types of story here, one is organic which develops naturally from an existing feature or subject, the second is borrowed from another source.
I tend to see borrowed stories as more of a fabricated ‘theme’ because something is being replicated from elsewhere such as a period in time, a design style, or fictional place. Themed accommodations can be small or large scale (the Alton Towers hobbit houses are a good example of the latter) and although they might lack a personal connection to the land or people, on the up side there aren’t any limits to what style their design might take. Themes can be really useful in the absence of a strong organic story, or where the accommodation is an add-on to an existing business, however it’s worth remembering that they might also be easier to reproduce by others.
At South Causey Inn, the themed accommodations are a super example of taking quirky ideas and making them all your own (www.southcausey.co.uk).
‘The Boot’ in New Zealand has to be one of the most uniquely themed accommodations (it’s certainly up there with the ‘Dog Bark Inn’ in Idaho) where they’ve brought the ‘old woman who lived in a shoe’ tale into full-scale life (www.hostunusual.com/categories/themed/the-boot).
The journey begins
When creating an organic story, the bones of it are often right underneath our noses and it’s a case of finding a hook that all the components of the experience can hang from – the logo and branding, structure design, interiors, facilities, features and guest activities. This creates a cohesive and congruent experience for our guests, from their first impression as they land on our website, to their last over-the-shoulder glance as they reluctantly check out.
There are many ways we could create a story or themed experience and here are some pointers to consider as possible sources of inspiration, along with one or two personal experiences:
- Landscape: Both natural and human created features such as woodland, water, caves and quarries can all be a great source of ideas for our story. For example, during a site visit last year I learned that there was an Iron Age fort on the land, just uphill from the proposed glamping location. It turned out to be a fabulous example with ditches and ramparts clearly defined, I was suitably taken by surprise. Equally surprising was that nobody had considered this could be the key to a great story for the glamping development, especially as we were in Wales with its strong Celtic heritage. Naturally my thoughts turned to roundhouse style structures, and as the site was sloped this developed into a semi-subterranean design. The project concept took further shape as I considered layering contemporary Celtic over tradition and could actually ‘see’ the finished structures overlooking the sweeping Welsh hills – echoes of the past blending seamlessly with contemporary design. I appreciate that not every site has a rather handy iron age hillfort, but the UK is blessed with a rich cultural rural heritage and there is usually some feature to work with, if not on the land itself, at least near enough. Which leads us nicely onto…
- Previous use of the property or land: This is one of my favourites because of its inherent authenticity. Historical uses can require a little investigative work especially if you’re new to the place or area, but information can be gleaned from deeds, online and local records, historical societies and sometimes even old books about the area. Best of all, I like talking to people whose families have lived in the area a long time, very often they can impart little gems that were never committed to paper. Sometimes though, it’s right there under our noses and we just need a fresh pair of eyes to see it. One such time was about seven years ago. I was walking a site with the landowner whose plan was to add some rather plain huts. I commented on the plentiful hazel which had obviously been coppiced many years ago and was told that ‘back in the day’ it was harvested to make lobster pots for the local fishermen – bingo! I immediately envisioned a rustic weaver’s cabin nestled in the copse with a deep porch, a couple of rocking chairs and throws, bundles of cut hazel leaning against the wall with a couple of woven lobster pots (one half-finished, of course) and some tools of the trade hanging on the wall. As we were in Cornwall, in my mind the rustic theme continued inside with crafted furniture, a log stove, local textiles, Cornish pottery and punched tinware to round out the experience. This one unit would generate the same revenue as two of the proposed plain huts and be more future proof. All that from coppiced hazel – see how easy it can be.
- Owner vocation or on-site business: These stories are inspired by the owners or an existing business operating from the site and are often also connected to the property or land. They’re easy to create because they’re part and parcel of what’s going on at the time and are usually very much fuelled by the owner’s enthusiasm. Loose Reins is a great example of this, with its equestrian themed accommodations and styling, you can even take your own horse with you to complete the ranch experience (www.loosereins.co.uk). I am seeing a lot more enquiries for these types of accommodation, sometimes a whole farm is being turned into a tourism or leisure focussed venture, where alternative accommodation is included as a lucrative aspect of the business model.
- Destination-led experience: Sometimes a property or land in itself might not have a strong enough hook for a story and we’ll cast the net a little wider to find something locally that we can tap into. There might already be a big tourism attraction or historic property, maybe the region is known for a particular craft or produce that we can build a story around, or at least take some design inspiration from.
- The name of the property or place: Another way of teasing out a story if other routes aren’t so fruitful, is to look back in time to how the place arrived at its name. Depending on which part of the country we’re in, names are usually rooted in old languages giving us clues about the history, what the place was known for, who lived there and what they did. Sometimes these are fantastic stories in themselves and if there’s nothing else to hook the story on they can provide surprising inspiration.
At the indie boutique level these types of accommodation can be a little tricky because their success doesn’t necessarily rely on accepted and understood hospitality features like high thread count sheets. Instead they rely on a living story told through a carefully curated experience, using appropriate design, colours, furnishings and details that run through the entire business. For larger scale developments this isn’t so important, a quirky structure design and a nod to something different on the inside will be enough as these are often ancillary to a core business.
This particular business model can also be tricky to grasp and have confidence in because return on investment is directly affected by the authenticity and creativity that goes into the project to begin with. Creativity can be an uncomfortable, unknown factor for some investors but fortunately there are more comparable accommodations in the marketplace these days, which give something to gauge occupancy and rental fees against.
Using storytelling to design unique accommodations is an effective and more future proof way to establish a glamping business or diversify an existing hospitality business. It’s an increasingly popular holiday and short break choice that’s profitable and helps to develop the industry. Last but by no means least, it creates wonderful experiences and memories for our guests.
If you would like to explore the concept of experiential accommodations, how they might contribute to your business, and how to create them, I’m giving a talk about them at the Open Air Business Gathering on 22-23 March. It will be different to any of my previous talks because I’ll be sharing stories and experiences from my own travels, as well as what I’ve learned during almost a decade in the glamping industry. I’d quite like to have a go at creating a project concept for someone there and then, so bring your photos and imagination!
We’re really looking forward to it, see you there – www.oabgathering.com
A leading business and design consultant, Kate Morel’s practical and creative approach draws on first-hand experience that has included managing a leading glamping rental agency, working on glamping start-up and diversification projects, property restoration and holiday property rental. Kate’s consultancy supports projects with expert advice on creating successful alternative accommodation developments, and her design and build company, Morel & Co, is a collective of industry professionals specialising in commercial treehouses and cabins. www.morelconsultancy.com / www.morelcompany.co.uk / firstname.lastname@example.org / www.linkedin.com/in/katemorel24