The slide into Winter is a fantastic time to look back and reflect on past achievements and to plan for the future. This Autumn we have been revelling in the announcement that Blackdown Yurts has been made finalist in the Glamping and Alternative Accommodation category of the 2019 Devon Tourism Awards. For a little more than a month we have been wondering whether we will achieve Gold, Silver or Bronze at the awards ceremony. We haven't got long to wait now (the awards ceremony is on Thursday night in Torquay!), but whatever colour our award turns out to be we are over the moon to be considered one of the top three Glamping sites in Devon.
It is a very welcome endorsement of all of the hard work we and our team have put in during the last three years and eight months since we arrived at Halsbeer Farm and Blackdown Yurts in March 2016. Many of our guests ask how we ended up out here in the Devon countryside running a glamping site. Neither Mark nor I (Katie) have any background in the tourism sector other than the experience of going on plenty of holidays ourselves! So how on Earth did we end up here?
We met when Mark was 22 and I was just 17. We both had an adventurous spirit even then. Shortly after we met Mark went off travelling to Australia and New Zealand before starting a ski season in the French Alps. He was having a post-university gap year having studied film at Staffordshire University. Meanwhile I was on a pre-university gap year during which I spent three months living and working in a forest reserve in Tanzania and an expedition to Nepal which involved white water rafting to deliver a doctor and medical supplies to remote villages in the west of the country, trekking in the foothills of the Annapurna and tiger-spotting in Bardia National Park (we didn't see any but I did get my first experience of glamping in a (fairly basic by today's standards) safari tent!).
Scroll forwards a decade and I had completed a degree in zoology and a doctorate studying British bat species and we had moved from Bristol to London where I worked for the Bat Conservation Trust, the national charity for bat conservation, and Mark was travelling all over the world as a Director of Photography for documentary, drama, commercials and film, (something he still does alongside working here at Blackdown Yurts).
We loved travelling together before children, exploring Vancouver Island and the Canadian Rockies; back-packing from Mexico City to the Yucatan Peninsula via Guatemala and Belize; visiting friends in La Paz and staying in the Bolivian Amazon and spending seven days trekking to Macchu Pichu in Peru; travelling round New Zealand in a campervan for five weeks and so on. One of the places that really sticks in my mind is a wonderful collection of unique cabins at Hostal Las Olas in Copacabana on the shore of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. We were enchanted by their use of wood, stone and coloured glass to create something really magical.
Scroll forwards another ten years and we were living in Surrey with two children and to be honest quite a bit of boredom. I was volunteering at the children's school but no longer working and Mark didn't want to be working abroad as much as he was so we decided to start looking at moving out of commuter-ville and into the countryside to give our children a more rural upbringing.
We hit on the idea of purchasing a business somewhat by accident but once the seed had been sown it kept growing. We first saw Halsbeer Farm, its holiday cottages, yurts and 30 acres of land in May 2015. Its bygone charm and natural beauty had us hooked. To be honest we thought it looked like The Shire from Tolkein's The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, books that had captivated us both individually in our childhoods (see we are a match made in Middle Earth!).
By November we had negotiated our sale and purchase and we moved in March 2016 to begin our new life in the country. We arrived at the very start of the Easter holidays so had to hit the ground running with a full complement of cottage and yurt guests moving in on Good Friday. Luckily Peter and Jaz, the previous owners of Halsbeer Farm and Blackdown Yurts, stayed around for a few weeks to show us the ropes including how to actually put a yurt up as we hadn't got a clue!
It soon became apparent to us that there were some major projects that needed attending to at both the cottages and yurts but we had to prioritise and plan not only due to finances but also time constraints. One of the real challenges of running a seasonal tourism business is that all of the maintenance has to be squished into the closed-season which is usually also when the weather tends to be at its coldest and wettest! This brought challenges we hadn't anticipated.
Having completed some major refurb at the cottages during our first year including a total refit of the swimming pool, new deck over the pond off the conservatory and a new kitchen in Cider Cottage, we turned our sights to the yurts in our second winter. We set about a complete refit and modernisation of the barn's bathroom facilities.
The weather was not particularly kind to us - we ripped out the old bathrooms and poured a concrete floor just before Christmas in 2017 - due to the cold temperatures it took ages to go off properly. The process of installing four new shower rooms began but was hampered by the extremely cold Winter and the "Beast from the East" in March 2018. We eventually got the shower-rooms and the refit of the barn front finished with help of a fantastic volunteer from the WWOOF scheme.
After debating it for a while we decided to move Buzzard yurt down from its original hilltop position onto a new deck in the main yurt field during the Winter of 18-19, alongside refurbishing Willow's deck, kitchen and fire area. This has made changeovers easier for us and guests seem to have appreciated not having to walk up the steep hill!
We have plenty more refurbishment and development projects planned for this winter and next year which we will share with you in future blogs. In the meantime read on for some tips we've come up with from our experience of running Blackdown Yurts over the last three years.
Top tips for running a glamping site
Get help (you can't do everything yourself!)...
Listen to your customers to help you evolve and grow...
We've taken on board feedback to introduce child-friendly activities in the yurts such as the colouring sheets and we now allow dogs to visit with their humans. We will be changing some of the beds this year to increase comfort and practicality in the yurts too.
Never underestimate the weather... We have set about making our lives easier at the yurts, for example by building a drying room in our storage barn where we can run heaters and dehumidifiers to suck all the moisture out of the yurt canvas and felt before storing it for winter. We have also invested in new storm caps for the yurts and an interlayer of roofing membrane between the yurt outer canvas and the felt inner lining to further weatherproof them. We are lucky in having the communal barn for guests to shelter in if the weather is really inclement and the wood burning stoves in the yurts and barn keep everywhere cosy and warm.
Above all it's important to maintain a sense of humour and realise that running a business (or two) is a constant learning process where you are always having to adapt and develop.
It has been a rollercoaster of a journey so far. We've really enjoyed most of it (maybe not putting yurts up in the snow, that was a bit chilly) and especially getting to know our guests, our fantastic local community and the beautiful landscape in which we are lucky to live.
Long may it continue, oh and please wish us luck for Thursday night! Whatever the colour of our award we are pretty proud of ourselves.