The great indoors

30 October 2002 by
The great indoors

Deep in a wood in northern California, on the border of Big Basin State Park, a boutique hotel company is trying its hand at a new market - luxury camping. Located on the coast, an hour south of San Francisco, Costanoa is a resort for people who want a taste of the outdoors but don't want to rough it.

That the company behind it, San Francisco-based Joie de Vivre Hospitality, owner of 22 Californian boutique hotels and one spa resort, is more used to providing upmarket hotel accommodation is obvious: total spend on the resort was $22m (£14.3m) and even the most basic accommodation here is indulgent by normal campsite standards. Although visitors can pitch their own tents, most go for one of the tent bungalows scattered across the 40 acres of woodland.

There are four types of these "canvas cabins", made of fireproof vinyl-laminated canvas. At the lower end, for $70 (£45.50) a night, guests get a canvas room with three beds and provide their own bedding. At the higher end, for $130 (£84) a night, the bungalow has a queen bed with heated mattress pad, two chairs, electric lights, bathrobes, towels and toiletries. A step up from these are the fir cabins at $175 (£113) a night, with beds and bedding, open fireplace, fridge, telephone and dataport and heating. Finally, for those who want the full hotel experience, there is a separate lodge at about $250 (£162) a night with 40 rooms with en suite bathrooms, plus Jacuzzi and massage service.

For cabin guests, bathroom facilities are shared, although they are a world away from the usual campsite offering. These "comfort stations" are courtyards with open fireplaces, sauna, heated concrete floors, private showers and flushing toilets.

The concept was dreamed up by Joie de Vivre's chairman, Chip Conley, who took inspiration from Molokai Ranch in Hawaii, a resort with tent bungalows operated by Starwood Hotels and Resorts. Costanoa, finally launched in 1999, claims it is the first company in the country to offer the variety of luxury camping it does, although competition is getting stiff.

And although annual occupancy is fairly low (about 30%), it is doing better than the company's hotels, which suffered post-11 September. General manager Daniel Medellin says average occupancy for 2002 is running at about 50% in June and July, and on summer weekends it is fully booked. He hopes to improve weekday business with discounts and more conferences, which make up 40% of business. He adds that profit is up 86% in 2002 compared with the first year (1999).

The idea behind Costanoa was born 10 years ago, after local residents and council officials opposed Joie de Vivre's original plan to build housing on the land, then owned by a Japanese company. A proposal for a luxury holistic retreat was put forward by another developer soon afterwards, but again was rejected. Following more legal wrangling, Prime Property Capital bought the land and Joie de Vivre won the management contract.

Still up against fierce opposition to commercial development, Joie de Vivre put forward the Costanoa idea. There was some heavy negotiation over a few more years, but Medellin says that all parties came to an agreement that was, in part, down to Joie de Vivre's good community reputation.

"The company wasn't just a nameless, faceless corporation that was interested only in making a profit. Joie de Vivre has a track record of being a really good neighbour and contributing to the community," he says.

Medellin adds that one of the company's strengths is its ability to create a new trend - in this case, despite many hurdles. However, there were lots of concessions when launching the concept - shared bathrooms being one. "We were told, "You're going to have a limited number of buildings, you can only have so many flushable toilets," Medellin says.

Costanoa is also restricted in its food and beverage facilities. The permit allows for a 10-foot delicatessen, no kitchen and limited seating. Yet with only a convection oven, steamers, a sink and, occasionally, mobile kitchen facilities, Costanoa manages to provide up to 500 meals a day at weekends and also caters for conferences. The food - all fresh, with dishes including tamale pie and clam chowder in a bread bowl - is prepared on-site or, in the case of some of the pies and desserts, bought from local stores. Dishes are prepared at the General Store, which also sells snacks, gifts, beer, wine and Champagne.

Medellin says high labour costs cancel out any food and beverage profits. Clearly frustrated with the restrictions, he wants some of them lifted but is reluctant to discuss the details. "We're looking at trying to get a restaurant in the near future," is all he will say.

Costanoa's target market began as the sort of people who buy off-road vehicles but rarely drive off-road, those who want to feel that they are connected with nature while not getting their hands dirty. But soon after the opening, the customer demographics expanded. Some of the young professionals who visited from San Francisco started having babies, and a family market emerged.

Which poses a problem for Medellin. He acknowledges that couples coming for a romantic break may not want children marauding around outside their cabin, so has divided the camp into "villages", with the smaller, queen-bed-only cabins clustered away from the less expensive ones with more beds, which families tend to go for. "We're still working on that through natural barriers," he says. "It's not always polite to segregate families, but naturally it tends to happen because of the way we have the accommodation designed."

Yet despite the luxury touches - heated mattresses and Shiatsu massages at $115 (£74.50) a pop - Costanoa endeavours to abide by campsite etiquette. There is "quiet time" from 10pm to 7am, and there are no televisions, only radios.

The future of the resort, however, is up in the air as Prime Property Capital wants to sell the land. But Joie de Vivre is one of the bidders and Medellin is confident that, whoever buys, Joie de Vivre will continue to run it.

"Joie de Vivre is in a unique position as the expert in running the property, so the likelihood is we will continue," he says.

Factfile

Costanoa Coastal Lodge & Camp
Web site: www.costanoa.com
Accommodation: 100 canvas cabins, 12 Douglas Fir cabins, 40-room lodge
Room rates: $205-$250 (£133-£162) in the lodge; $175 (£113) fir cabins; $70-$130 (£45.50-£84) canvas cabins
Average room rate: $160 (£104) weekdays, $185 (£120) weekends
Annual occupancy: 30% year to June 2002 (25% to June 2001)
Average food and beverage spend: $56 (£36.50) per room in June 2002
Parent company: Joie de Vivre Hospitality - 22 boutique hotels, 1 spa resort all in California

The rough guide to Australia's luxury campsite

Five-star tents have been pitched down under, too. Australian company Voyages Hotels and Resorts, opened 131° Longitude in June near the aboriginal sacred site of Uluru (or Ayers Rock), 2km from the company's Ayers Rock Resort.

Besides a row of 15 luxury tents, there is a communal dining area with a library and lounge and a separate swimming pool. The whole project cost A$8.6m (£3.1m), which, according to the company's chief executive, Grant Hunt, equates on a room-by-room basis to the most expensive hotel in Australia. Occupancy is on target at 50% and the tents are expected to break even in 12 months but the return on investment is not expected for 10 years.

"The return on investment is not staggering," Hunt says. "It's not our aim to be the largest or most profitable company. It was done for other reasons. It is a statement about what can be done in Australia. Our country is famous for open spaces, desert and ocean and we needed a product that reflected that. If it works well, we will go to other unique locations such as Kakadu national park."

At a rate of A$1,350 (£485) per couple per night, it's 25% dearer than the company's other Ayers Rock hotels - such as the five-star Sails in the Desert - but the tariff is all-inclusive, including tours as well as food and beverages. Hunt expects it will appeal to an international clientele. Australia as a whole gets five million international guests a year and it is predicted that figure will double in 10 years. Some 74% of Voyages business is international.

"We're targeting the discerning customer who has tried everything else from Botswana game reserves to the fishing lodges in New Zealand," Hunt says.

The company prides itself on being eco-friendly, so although the building work took only seven months, planning actually started back in 1998. "We did lots of research; for a small project it is out of proportion," Hunt says.

To protect endangered species of flora and fauna, a 6ft-wide services corridor was built for the utility trucks. None were allowed off the track, so all the work was done using telescopic arms from the track and hand-carried buckets, which means none of the foliage has been damaged around the tents and it all still looks mature. The tents themselves are made from pylons, a steel frame and compressed fibre sheeting brought in on small utility trucks. And although it would have been cheaper to set up mains supplies on site, ecological considerations mean the company has run pipes from the Ayers Rock complex.

The 24 staff will all be based at the Ayers Rock Resort a short drive away so there is no need for staff accommodation on the Longitude site. There are 4,500 guests on the main resort, plus 1,200 staff and tour operators.

Supplies come three times a week by road from Adelaide (about 800 miles away) and the trucks then take away the site's rubbish.

Facts

Voyages Hotels and Resorts
PO Box 3589
Sydney NSW 1044
Australia
www.voyages.com.au
www.longitude131.com.au

History of the company

  • 1980 Yulara Development Company Ltd starts to build basic roads, airport and utilities in the Ayers Rock area
  • 1983 campsites opened
  • 1984 Four Seasons and Sheraton opened (now known as Desert Gardens Hotel and Sails in Desert respectively)
  • 1991 Yulara DC renamed Ayers Rock Resort Company, new board appointed and 40% of shares sold off. The hotels were renamed (see above) and came under the one company's management.
  • 1997 ARRC was sold for A$3,220m (£1.16b) to General Property Trust, which led to the company being renamed Ayers Rock Resort Management.
  • May 2000 ARRM changed its name to Voyages Hotels and Resorts

Ayers Rock Resort

FIVE-STAR

Sails in the Desert, 232 bedrooms
131° Longitude, 15 rooms

FOUR-STAR

Desert Gardens, 184 bedrooms

TWO-TO-THREE STAR

Outback Pioneer, 137 bedrooms
The lost camel, 99 bedrooms
Emu Walk Apartments, 58 units
Campsites, capacity 2,540 people
Occupancy: average is 80% (off peak, 60%)

\* The company has an environment manager on the team who writes management and training plans

Some of the competition

\* Sheraton Molokai Lodge and Beach Village, Molokai, Hawaii www.sheraton-molokai.com

\* Buck's on the Brazos, Rainbow, Texas info@buckbrazos.com

\* Maho Bay, St John, US Virgin Islands www.maho.org

\* El Capitan Canyon, Goleta, California info@elcapitancanyon.com

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