A woodland glampsite close to the sea that inspired the creation of the Greener Camping Club
As pioneers of the glamping movement in the UK, Kevin and Claire Bird have worked hard to stay ahead of competition but maintain over 95% occupancy on week long stays by offering a “rewilded” environment and unique accommodation. We talk to Kevin.
What’s your back story – your life before glamping?
I was the owner/director of a company designing and manufacturing marketing, exhibition and display materials.
What made you decide to start offering glamping accommodation?
We (my wife and I) had been running a five pitch campsite as a supplementary activity/diversification to our full time jobs, for two years on the 28 day rule.
One day, a camper was saying that the pitch they were on would be great for a yurt. I said “What’s a yurt ”. That was in 2004 when very few people were familiar with the structure. I hadn’t realised yurts have been around for over 2,000 years!
We opened in 2005 with a yurt and a tipi plus four camp pitches.
How did you research the business before entering it?
We did a bit of research on yurts and went and stayed at Larkhill Tipis. I believe at the time it was the only holiday yurt accommodation in Wales. We could see their potential for providing a really comfortable camping holiday experience and that was enough to spark the imagination.
In 2004 there were just eight or so sites in the whole of the UK that offered openly “alternative” accommodation. Looking back at notes from 2004 I could only find a couple of yurt makers at the time. What we wanted was going to be bigger and different to their offerings, so my wife bought me a book on how to make a yurt and brought me many cups of coffee while I went to work in the shed.
I created what was a unique interpretation of a yurt, with a 6m diameter, standing clearance height walls, and a full height door. It was a mixture of traditional and modern construction stainless steel contemporary fixings mixed with traditional ash frames and a solid hardwood floor.
Our tipis evolved into colourful themed tents with the cooperation of a local artist (Jackie Morris) and printing courtesy of my experiments in digital printing on canvas.
We made sure to plan for the short and long term, and have planted literally thousands of trees to create what we have today. Situated just 200 yards from the sea we have taken industrialised farm land and let it “rewild” with some planned assistance. This untamed “wildness” is at the heart of the landscaping and space we provide for our visitors. It is possible, with favourable conditions and position, to create a woodland with bluebells and all that comes with a wooded area in as little as 12 years from a potato field. We incorporate it all, the good and the challenging that “rewilding” has to offer, including brambles, moles, bats, bees and kids – all are welcome here (except dogs).
Location plays a part in our success being in the National Park and so close to beaches, hills, castles etc. but it’s the other stuff you can control and influence that keeps people coming back. The campsite and experience evolvesyearly to keep repeat customers interested and also to attract new visitors.
For a period of time I joined forces with Gary Loch of Ty Parke (another glamping site) and we specified and designed several other glamping site setups and oversaw the manufacture and installation of yurts and geodesic domes under our own brand.
How did you tackle getting planning?
We are in the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, so full planning opportunity is practically zero. But there is another way… by becoming part of an exempted camping organisation which negates planning for the change of use of the land.
We became a ‘Members Only Certified Site’ (CS) and joined the Camping and Caravanning Club in 2004. We were, for our part, the very first CS site in the UK to operate yurts and tipis. It meant that everyone who stayed with us had to be a member of the club and this allowed us to operate for an extended period beyond the 28 days legally.
More recently, through our own enthusiasm for creating great campsites and glamping holidays, we set up our own exempted organisation with the owners of Ty Parke, that focuses on putting hard cash back into the environment that our visitors enjoy, and so the Greener Camping Club was founded in 2014.
How did you finance the project?
We have mostly self funded the project and re-invested year on year to get to where we are. This business has evolved and enjoyed steady growth and profits. We did receive one batch of regional tourism support for the sauna and pizza oven as it was then perceived as a unique added benefit. It’s important to note we both worked full time for the first five years of our business until it provided sufficient income and all the set up costs had been covered.
What glamping accommodation do you offer and why did you choose it?
We have two 7m geodesic domes and two 6m yurts, one of which we have had from the very beginning having been refurbished several times over the past 13 years. Our most recent addition is the unique two bedroomed “halfling” styled Hobbit yurt constructed from three yurts linked together. In its fourth season, it’s had 95% occupancy on week only bookings. In addition, we have five camping pitches where visitors can bring their own tents. We even get guests bringing their own yurts!
Because of geographical location we operate a short season due to the very changeable weather patterns. We open from the last week in May to the second week in September. We find that we are just a bit too far for sufficient interest in pursuing the off the shoulder market of weekend breaks so have developed a “week only” booking policy throughout the school holidays and added many other extras as standard and included.
How did you work out your brand and how do you publicise yourself?
It’s a woodland we planted and created, so it does what it says on the tin. We use Cool Camping and several other directory sites but we don’t use any third party booking organisations as the business has matured enough to leave out the commission agents.
How would you describe your ethos and unique selling point?
Great holidays delivered with passion and ethically at good value for money. A unique selling point seems to last about one season until its copied, plagiarised or someone does it better. Location and exclusivity is part of the USP, the hospitality and a two bedroomed yurt also make us different to any other site in the UK.
How did you choose your interior decoration?
I would think up a theme and go with it. Be the “sailor” or the “huntsman” or that “shepherd” and ask yourself: ‘What would it look like if I lived there?’
DuckDuckGo it (I don’t use Google anymore, bit more awkward to say though) – sites like Pinterest means there is a plentiful supply of research and idea provoking images out there.
What challenges have you faced?
Competition(!) – all the new sites setting up have meant we have had to up our game year on year, innovating and adding value. We were one of the first sites to offer bushcraft courses on site in 2006, a sauna and pizza oven on site soon followed. Since then, king size beds, solid oak floors, fresh lobsters delivered to your door or pitch, real beds for children (forget futons – have you ever slept on one?), all inclusive facilities, firewood etc. etc. There is still loads left to do in terms of innovation and delivering great holidays and breaks to our customers.
Weather – it rains everywhere but not that much in far west Wales (no really, it doesn’t). It does rain though, so we accept it but plan and provide for it with a covered outdoor fire pit area for every structure and camping pitch.
Location – 200 yards from the sea, yes, but nearly 70 miles from the last bit of the M4 motorway. This is a double edged sword meaning our target customers are less likely to be looking for a weekend break than our competitors that are 45 minutes from large centres of population.
What are your plans for next season?
Classified, or you’ll get a jump on us 🙂
Describe your average day mid-season
Fabulous! From greeting customers to sharing chopping wood skills and cutting grass. The day starts at 8.30am and we usually answer the last visitor enquiry at 8.30pm. The hospitality business holds long hours.
Do you enjoy the business?
Yes… I actually get paid for building dens in the woods and get five months off a year.
What are you most proud of?
The two to three calls a year we get when our customers want to buy the same mattress we provide in our structures, indeed the very same kind we sleep on ourselves. Available from Mattressman, the “Hotel 2 Pocket” – a very comfortable mattress at a very competitive price.
Now we are involved in developing new sites in my other job as director and co-founder of the Greener Camping Club, we feel great pride in assisting new and existing businesses in becoming successful within the organisation and seeing their owners enjoy the “lifestyle” business through sharing the club’s standards and values.
What other outdoor hospitality sectors do you operate in?
The Greener Camping Club which encourages more sustainable quality holiday experiences through camping and glamping holidays. We are able to certify sites by conversion from other clubs, create new sites for members and negate planning for change of use.
What advice could you give to someone coming into the industry?
Really it’s like all successful businesses in any industry but even more so in hospitality: put your customer first and at the centre of all decision making, and the money and rewards will follow. Keep your eye on the cash and remember turnover can be vanity -profit is sanity. It’s not done in a year or even two, ours has been a 17 year overnight success.
Rewild Wales www.rewild.wales
Friar Best www.friarbest.co.uk
Cool Camping www.coolcamping.com
Trellyn Woodland Camping