An ‘adults only’ city glamping operation just outside York with bespoke pods and grand plans for next season
After being inspired on holiday by three pods that were used as extra rooms at a B&B, Donna Harper commissioned her own unique pods and The Little Hide was born. Open Air Business discovers more about her venture.
What made you decide to start offering glamping accommodation?
I first saw some camping pods in Northumberland while on a family holiday. We had taken over a large self-catering house that was a B&B during the summer, and it had three pods as extra rooms in the garden. I loved them, but was about to start a new job in Formula 1, so they were just a passing interest. When that job finished I was travelling home from Oxfordshire wondering what I could do next, and remembered the pods.
My two uncles owned a caravan park on the edge of York, so a couple of phone calls later I was planning like mad. I started planning the site in early 2012 and got the bank to agree to lend me the money in March. The pods went into production shortly afterwards. We got six of our eight pods open for Easter weekend 2013, although we were still putting doors on the toilet block as darkness fell on Good Friday.
How did you research the business before entering it?
I spent a lot of time on the internet and stayed in a few camping pods (once in January when it was -5°C) to see what I liked and what I didn’t. Then I put a business plan together.
I wanted to furnish the pods, as we are only three and a half miles out of York and I thought it would suit the location and I would be able to charge more per night for them. However, the pods I had tried didn’t really work for that, so I sketched a design and found a local joinery that could build them to my specification.
My pods are the only eight of their kind in existence. I felt that the shape was the most important bit to get right. The shape of our pods is more Gothic arch than a typical pod because we wanted the walls to be flat so that the bed, sofa and other furniture could stand against them before the curve starts.
I got a massive amount of help from my family. My Uncle John, who owns a landscaping company, was a huge help. My parents, Linda and Graham, helped with building sheds, painting, waxing and staining all the pods. They also used their house to guarantee the loan.
Tell us about your location and site
We are on the north side of York, three and a half miles outside the centre. It’s a rural location on a caravan and camping site (Willow House Caravan Park) where there is also a farm shop and café (The Farm Shop & Café Wigginton).
The site is adults only, and I did wonder if that would affect my business, but I think it has actually enhanced it. We get lots of people looking for a kid free weekend and it means we can leave them to get on with it without interfering.
The people that come to stay are looking for a city break that is a bit different, so they are not the usual glamping in a field in the middle of nowhere type. We have a high turnover of one night stays, but I think that is a plus point as most places in York insist on a two night stay. The under 30s are our staple customers and they cannot always afford to, or may not want to, do that.
How did you tackle getting planning?
When we first looked into it we didn’t need planning. The caravan park already had planning for a new toilet block, so I took that over and paid for it, and we now share it. However, the planners then came to site for something else and decided we should have had planning permission, so we filed for it retrospectively. As we had taken down four huge derelict poly tunnels to build the site, they decided that as the site was actually now more open it would pass easily and it did. The only compromise we had to make was adding bike parking on site.
What other glamping accommodation do you offer?
We now have the eight pods for double or twin occupancy. We converted our laundry cabin into a rental cabin in spring 2015 and have had a bell tent up over the summer period for 2014 and 2015. However, we have just changed it for a yurt from BCT (that we saw at last year’s Glamping Show), which will have a longer season and has a more usable space than the bell tent.
How do you publicise yourself?
We went onto Booking.com early on, and to be honest have never looked back. Yes, it takes a 15% commission, but it’s only on the bookings we get through the website and we can also use its booking matrix on our site, which is commission free. I think it is the first place most people look for a place to stay.
We are also on a few ‘free to list’ sites, but between our own website, Facebook, Trip Advisor and Booking.com, we don’t advertise anywhere else or really need to. We once did a Wowcher deal, but I would probably only recommend that for a start up to get some quick cash in the bank and get the name out to people.
How would you describe your ‘style’ or unique selling point?
Our unique selling points are the fact that the site is for adults only and that we offer a city break out of the city. We have a bus stop at the end of the drive and a park and ride a few minutes away, so you can come on foot and easily get about.
How did you choose your interior decoration?
I travelled a lot in my previous job and had always wanted a holiday cottage. I also love interior design, so it was fairly easy to make decisions. Zip and link beds were always on my hit list. I don’t understand why every B&B and hotel don’t use them. If we get a hen party in, we just unzip them all and we have twins, but they zip back into doubles for the next night.
The sofas and other furniture were dictated by size, cost and practicality. We did start out with some lovely unique throws and things, but they all got stolen, so we have gone down the Wilko, Ikea and JYSK route so they are easy to replace and not so desirable. It’s sad, but that’s life. I was naïve to think it wouldn’t happen.
All our pods are named after birds, and we have tried to link the colours to the names. For example, Dove has grey furnishings, Robin is red and Finch is green. We had to stretch the imagination on a couple though. The laundry cabin is a little different; it’s named the Cuckoo’s Nest and has whitewashed walls, with a cabin chic feel, including more furniture and nic nacs.
What challenges have you faced?
The biggest challenge is that I don’t live on site. Although I am not far away, it’s not possible to do a meet and greet 24 hours a day. The caravan park reception is open until 4pm, but for after that I have devised a self check-in that works really well (most of the time!). Clients call in to reception and collect an arrival document off the notice board that has their name on the front. Inside is a code for the barrier and directions to the pods, the name of their pod and a key code for the key safe that is on the front of each pod. Payment is taken at the time of booking, which also reduces the number of cancellations. Guests can arrive at any time of the day or night. We have a mobile phone that is on 24 hours a day, but we are rarely called. The only other problem I have is a lack of space; I have so many ideas!
What are your plans for next season?
I am restoring a 1940s road going Irish bow top caravan for next season, and we hope to open a second site just up the road for families. Our existing site is called The Little Hide and the new site will be called Hide and Seek, so they are loosely linked. The new site will have safari tents and bell tents as well as a few touring caravans and a ‘bring your own’ tent pitch. We are also considering a large yurt and doing the odd wedding with the exclusive use of the site thrown in.
Describe your average day mid-season
The day usually starts before 9am with a phone call. When we get to the office it is a case of downloading the bookings and emails that have come in overnight and processing payments. Kirsty, who joined us last summer and is our only full-time employee, cleans the pods (her job title is pod perfector) at 10am when guests are checking out and they are ready for check-in from 1pm. She then tackles the toilet block, while I respond to phone calls and emails.
I have a fair bit of weekly shopping to do for our packages (birthdays and so on) and for consumables and cleaning products. Our laundry collects and delivers, which is great; we leave the laundry in a storage bin with a key safe and dirty is exchanged for clean. We then send out email confirmations and keep the website up to date as well as keeping Facebook interesting. There is also accounting of course.
Do you enjoy the business and why?
I love the joy it brings visitors and I love the ease of it. It’s not a walk in the park, and is hard work, but it sells itself and brings constant all year round income, which is a novelty for me after being self-employed in the motorsport industry.
What other outdoor hospitality sectors do you operate in?
My sister Nicola is an outside caterer (Two Jays Catering) and is based on site, so she does meal packages for people and will serve them a full three course meal on the deck of their pod, which is very romantic. And of course there is the wedding yurt idea!
What advice would you give to someone coming into the industry?
Look into your area and accessibility, and don’t try to create something that is not right for it. Our pods are fully furnished with white bed linen etc, but if we were on the edge of the North York Moors or Dalby Forest then that wouldn’t work and we would have gone down a more rustic route that would suit sweaty mountain bikers and kids with muddy dogs, for example. As we are on the edge of a city, the most outdoors most of our visitors want to get is a BBQ and a glass of wine on the deck.
Not all glamping has to be bunting, wild flowers and futons. It can be chic and practical too depending on where you are. You certainly don’t have to be on a farm or out in the sticks, and to be honest I think it’s better not to be too far out. Be bold, be brave and be different.
Garden Leisure (on hire) – www.gardenleisurespas.com
BCT Outdoors – 01274 728 469
Two jays Catering – 0788 407 5231
NFU Mutual – www.nfumutual.co.uk
Booking.com – www.booking.com
LOGO & WEBSITE
Wonderstuff – 020 3574 4669
Wiggington, Yorkshire, YO32 2RH