This is a longer version of an article which was featured in the June edition of the International Glamping Magazine.
As a result of the number of different campsites we work with we have gained a unique insight into the Glamping industry as a whole. People often talk to us about their business ideas, about what structures work for them, how they set up, and also about their issues, even on an emotional level. Its quite eye opening, a lot of it is because we treat them like family, some have been our clients for over ten twelve years, so the trust goes both ways. We see the industry like being part of a large family and at times we feel like we bring them all together, because whilst they compete with each other (so to speak), we are their tent makers.
So as we are trying to view this whole industry as a family we can look at it this way, the structure or tent makers keep selling their dream homes to others, and the site owners are selling their dream lives as a product, so Glamping is a product that we all provide, an experience of a dream life we create for others.
As early as 2008 I was talking to a campsite owner woman in what was one of the most renowned sites in France, and the picture she painted was, that the success of there site, having been in the papers, turned it into a constant stream of people visiting, she said they were like vampires, all wanting to find out about her, and telling her how she is living the dream, but in reality she felt broken, like they sucked the joy out of that dream life, as if she was actually selling her life, and they came to her campsite for it, rather than to enjoy it, so what started as a really nice small campsite that enjoyed families with young kids and open attitude, lost its charm and she felt it also lost its appeal as far as she was concerned, and eventually the site was sold.
I am over dramatising a point, because this industry works with people in their best moments, when they holiday when they get married, or at a festival, so usually there is a general positive vibe, and people are happy, although of course people complain about tents and being in nature etc, but the case im trying to highlight is of where we all were and where we saw it going, as a vision that is somewhat lost in interpretation.
The Heartland programme starts with us all as a family, whilst trying to bring back the focus of sustainability to the thing that matters most, our own lives, and our dreams, as tent makers and as site owners, it seeks to bring back the values and meaning and the feeling of being one tribe, to create a reality that sustains the owners and tent makers, and one that has environmental sustainability as a core.
For many years all of this was just something that took place while we made tents for our clients, we tried to make some changes and influence the industry as a whole as early as 2009 when we made the world gathering of yurt makers, it was meant to be followed by a similar event for site owners. But like other things running a small business and our own way of living took precedence and so although we felt strongly about all of this we did not take it further, everyone seems to be occupied in running their sites, and trying to hack a living from this new life style business.
The Industry has grown exponentially since then, and we try to do our best by holding some kind of centre for it as a family, helping our regular clients with support and advice, because we are all in it together. We focus a lot on collaboration because it allows us to do more, and we like taking part in more projects.
It has provided a good livelihood for us, one that is hard work, but allows us to see the results immediately, sometimes we reflect on a tent we are making, realising that some 800 people are going to have amazing experiences in it, so its rewarding, although at the same time we feel we have been doing it for so long, especially in the run for Easter, when we have to wake up at 4am for months to catch up with all the new covers for another spring rush, all our campsites clients are opening up needing those new covers. We hold our breath for some 50 different covers to match the frames we tailored them to. Every client needs his covers yesterday, and its demanding meeting all of their different needs at the same time, but we enjoy it, and having got to know so many of the site owners on a personal level, its like a game we all play once or twice a year, and it works.
What we want to talk about in this article is are own unique vision for this industry, and so our story takes us to an exciting country, Italy. We have branched out into Italy to start our own campsite because we felt like the UK is a little saturated and the land based link and vision with rural development was broken, as a whole, we felt like something was missing in all of it, a meaning.
Here was a perfect chance to influence a developing market in a more integrated way. Upon seeing where the country is at and especially in those marginal mountain villages that are spread along the dragon backbone of the Apennines, we decided to try and do something much braver than we set out in the first place. We decided to try to tackle the Italian depopulation and rural abandonment through the tools of sustainable tourism, and the truth is that it was not all easy.
We have found first, that Italians do not understand the back to nature approach, and why should they, everyone has some nona in the countryside, this is where you go to get bored, not to holiday. There is so much to choose from, the whole country is up for grabs and especially in the mountains. In the UK you can’t buy 5 acres of land to develop, in Italy people were offering us castles for maintenance fee only. Yet they themselves will prefer to go and holiday by the sea and eat lazily into the piazzas, so it took some convincing to get them ignited, to get them to understand why people want to go and live in a tent where there is nothing.
To further explain this issue, we need to look at why camping is so sort after in the UK, and the reasons to me are two, one is that as a trend the country side is seen as somewhere to enjoy, and although this is admirable it stems from the countryside not being available to live in, the UK planning law makes it really hard for people to go and build in the open countryside, and so prices in the countryside have become extremely high, and it is as if nature is a commodity we can only see but not live in. The other point is that the trend or attitude we have to the countryside in the UK is taken from the upper classes. People do not see the country as somewhere you go to work yourself to the bone, it is seen as somewhere you go to enjoy, to holiday, to take the air.
Italy is almost the opposite, anyone can build in the open countryside if only he owns enough agricultural land, but one hectare is enough, the countryside is mainly lived in by lower classes, who view it as some sort of old life they must shed. I know I am again over dramatising a point, because I have not met any people who love their land as much as Italian farmers, but the general trend or view is of disregard to the amazing natural beauty, as if they need someone form the outside to come and help them appreciate it, this point is also why Glamping has not caught as much in Italy, and of course there are many other factors, like the amount of amazing properties available to renovate in the countryside, or simply to buy and move into.
After 4 years of work thorough the Heartland Association, and endless meetings we now run a successful programme in this amazing country, born out of a simple idea to have our own site in which we offer a special sustainable tourism experience, but turning into a whole system for rural development through sustainable tourism.
The programme aims to treat the owners as the first circle, so we try to help people to build smaller sites, with about three units. We prefer to encourage people to open up as an agriturismo, because this amazing Italian scheme is more flexible than setting a campsite, and less restricting, but its the meeting point of organic farming, and using the site as some sort of local engine selling and showcasing the local surrounds, through food an activity, it creates a steady stream of visitors that can have a high quality, slow tourism experience, and it allows the site owners to live comfortably in the countryside, and enjoy it because a small family can run three units easily by themselves, where if those were ten, the focus will be on running the business and not on the lifestyle.
We focus on elements like transformational events, special forms of farm to plate of organic produce, and integration with local community and tradition. One example is the ancient grains of Abruzzo, something we tried to promote as a link to health and the tradition of local farming, We have fallen in love with some of the local wheats, and have some exciting ideas about bringing those into the UK, but that is a matter for another time, every place in Italy has its own produce, its own olive oil, and its own cooking, so its easy to see how this system can work.
Another thing we focus a lot on is volunteers, so getting young people from all over the world to come and take part in our project, to learn new skills and have a cultural exchange, and in a way this part was also the most successful one as far as I am concerned because I have found that getting to people at a certain stage in their lives, before they even get to University and showing them another way can change them forever. Seeing some of those young people change from one end to the other, showcases to me that being exposed to an alternative lifestyle can make so much difference, so those are the elements of this program, its a call for slower tourism, more linked to experiencing the real location, helping the site owners enjoy a country lifestyle.
Because we can not actually meet the needs of all the projects we work with, as we run all of this alongside our tent making, we have gathered an impressive array of structure manufacturers, names like Outstanding tents, Featherdown farms, hot tub, sauna suppliers and log cabin builders. We contacted estate agents in areas that we deem are of special natural interest and of need of rural rebirth, mainly in the Abruzzo region that we love. So we now also have lists of amazing properties to develop that we can offer clients and people interested in moving abroad, and it’s a way for us to help people find properties that they will not have access to otherwise, because we have found that while a lot of people dream of that house in the sun, upon coming to the country they face one estate agent and potentially miss out on their dream home, and its a shame because moving abroad is already a big step, and it should be done correctly, But all of this is also an important part of this program, its collaboration, because we run all aspects with a larger body of others, it helps create cohesion, at times sites even help each other, and people use the same architect, and structures from the same suppliers, and it creates more cohesion and a level of respect for each other’s space of operations.
I guess at some point like any successful venture this whole system has taken wings of its own. We developed this system around a simple model, a small campsite that becomes a shop window for the local community, it sells organic end product on the site, and so the ssite’s own product is actually an experience of a sustainable life.
It creates a system of small sites that have their owners well being and country living at heart, their sustainability and economic well fare first, than they also become something of an ambassador for the local village or town, working with farmers in bringing back old fruit and veg varieties that were grown in the past, weaving it with the traditional food and tradition that Italy is so rich with, and of course bringing a steady stream of visitors to place of amazing natural beauty with historical interest, and in Italy that is the main tool to fight depopulation and abandonment by creating a steady flow of visitors, yet here too the flow has to be sustainable, because otherwise it overwhelms those small local communities and they become overrun so to speak, losing their unique rural footprint.
With the success of it all some new questions came up, and being part of the industry for so long in the UK we asked ourselves, why don’t we apply some of this in the UK too? We always wanted to do things differently, to focus on a more sustainable approach, to bring this family more together. Glamping used to a be family of people we knew, something that has now grown into a massive Industry, yet lost for direction, a common vision, a purpose in the larger scheme of things.
The question is how can we bring it into a role in rural development, and how can we reconnect all of its elements into a larger family that moves in a similar direction? This programme is now running in the UK too, because we see a call to create a system for sustainable rural development and regeneration through tourism.
As a first step glamping sites can simply create a list of add-ons that are sourced locally and sold to the client, from food to craft, exploring the tradition, history and nature locally, and a lot of this is already happening. But what could happen much more, is using glamping as a window to living in nature full time, not just as a holiday, because if you like doing it for a week, why not find a way to do so all year round, it could be like a revolving door taking more and more people into sustainable lifestyles, homes in nature.
We feel that this way two things can happen, people who run sites can find a common ground with their visitors and actually focus more back on the dream that took them into such a lifestyle business to begin with. The point is that talking to a lot of our clients we feel that through working with so many visitors they have had to distance themselves from the site, some owners (usually the ones who run the bigger sites) do not even go on site anymore. And I feel that the initial dream they set out with is lost. What if they could play a role in taking people back to nature on another level too, they could support rural economy by creating a shop window for all the local growers, and more than all they could bring themselves to be sustained in their own dream, because when we speak about sustainability that is the aspect that is ignored most of all, the human element, the person behind the program, the person who runs the business.
Like I said being in the centre of this big family has given us a unique view into the industry as a whole. Often it is very driven by profit and we all forget to ask ourselves where are we going with it, some part of this big family have become very successful, yet talking to them on the phone some days I feel like we are missing something, that tribal feeling we used to all share in beginning sitting around those fires together.
I feel that on some level we failed to create an opening in to an alternative way of life that is more sustainable as a whole, and this is what a lot of us miss, that commonality. It like the shoemaker’s kids walking barefoot, I guess we miss walking barefoot (I’m just joking) Im just saying there is a sell-off and dispersal of the values and life we used to cherish because we all turned them into a product, and so the idea is simple to use the product to take us back to the same place we started at.
I have a friend who is on the on the very interesting one planet development program in Pembrokshire, she is called Samara Hawthorn, this amazing program in Wales has got some 30-40 families through the application process, allowing them to build their homes in the open countryside, they need to showcase they get 60% of their income from the land and the site directly, and it has a set of parameters for low carbon foot print etc.
I think it ended up that a few of those pioneers so to speak, end up working endlessly to showcase another way of life simply by living it, they break their backs to do something which should be more supported, I feel that although planners have done amazing work by allowing people to build in the open countryside that way, and that the scheme as a whole is exactly the type of development we would love to see more of, it could be more sustainable for those families if they taught the life style by creating an experience. Their product can be teaching others to go into similar lifestyle, instead the focus on having to make a living mostly from growing makes the program very hard, because although the land base connection is very important, it creates a reality which is a little like open air museum rather than sustainble, and again the Human aspect is not as sustained as it could be in it, or atleast this is my reading of the situation, and this is a shame because so much good work has been done through this program, and Wales is so proud of it, so I wish we can help planners see it and develop it further, into a more extensive policy of back to nature, and creating small households with an opening to others to enter that lifestyle through those projects, I feel this is a true symbiotic relationship.
In this way Glamping is no longer just a holiday, you come in as a tourist and you end up with a possibility of living it full time on your own sustainable household.
To summarise, the Heartland Programme that has run so successfully in Italy, is now running in the UK market too, and although it’s an older market we feel it’s a chance for us to try and do our part in influencing a more sustainable approach. And through the tools of collaboration and innovation we aim to try and focus on rural development vision in the UK too now, we feel we owe it to this industry and to many in our extended family. I feel that the time has come for this industry to see its role in shaping the countryside in another direction, if we can get planners to understand the scope of it too, so much more can be done, because at times its like fighting an endless battle, with the house market as it is, and farming where its at, I think it is a mistake that a whole flow of people trying to get back into the countryside in this way, isn’t helped more, and that the scope of this industry as a vehicle is missed, the fact that a decision has been made to conserve the countryside and not allow anyone to build in the open, has created a steady flow, a need that people have to touch it, to feel it to be in nature, and that should tell us all, that actually there is an endless need for people to go back to it as a lifestyle.
So you have read it here first!, and if one day you walk into an amazing housing estate that looks like a Glamping site, or you find a small restaurants in a yurt serving organic food that uses ancient local foods with some forgotten Scottish names, or if we all wake up one day and see a whole network of small campsites that teach a different way of life while they bring people into nature, teach people how to do the same. You will then know this program has taken root. its just an alternative future for us in the UK and it is a more sustainable one. And if we manage to solve the housing issue at the same time then it’s an added bonus, because the technology and the solutions are there already, and as a whole there is an amazing movement going this way and we just all need to help it a little, to find a way to work together like the family that we have become, and remember where we all want to go next.
That is how we work at least and this what our dream and vision is for the industry as a whole.