Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the February/March issue of Glamping Business Americas, which is now available. It was written by Mike Gast and appears here with permission from Glamping Business Americas.
A year ago, Nathan and Rebeka Self had a problem. Their unique glamping business was maxing out their two locations in Georgia.
The Self’s Timberline Glamping Company had sites at Lake Lanier just north of Atlanta and Clarks Hill Lake near Augusta, and both were running at 100% occupancy. They knew they had to grow fast or get left behind.
A Unique Glamping Product
The Self’s started their company in 2018. What they created is a unique concept that allows them to run their glamping operations on existing campgrounds they don’t own. Nathan Self sought out two existing campgrounds with a few underperforming sites. He signed three- to five-year leases with the campground owners for those sites and provided them a share of reservation revenue.
Using their simple formula the Self’s provide the glamping tent facilities, the housekeeping manpower, and an online reservation system.
The plan worked so well at their first location at Lake Lanier, Georgia that they expanded in April 2021 to the Clarks Hill Lake location near Augusta. That site also quickly filled to 100% occupancy.
Nathan and Rebeka knew they had a choice to make. They could keep adding their own leased locations to their company, buy land and build their own large glamping facility, or consider franchising their model to quickly grow their network of parks.
No matter what they decided, consumer demand was obviously there. They had 15,000 potential glampers visiting their Lake Lanier online booking site alone each month, all vying for one of just seven available sites.
A Franchisor is Born
After crunching the numbers, it became clear that franchising was the right path.
“Our business overhead was so low, it didn’t make sense for us to try to purchase our own property for about $1.4 million, then add about $600,000 of infrastructure,” Nathan said. “Our model works so well because we have no campground maintenance feels, no infrastructure or services to maintain, and no grass to cut. If the water main breaks, it’s not my problem.”
The Self’s also knew that there was value in what they’d learned over the past four years. “We’ve already been through the wringer,” Nathan said. “This has been working so well. We just have to grow our branded locations to better match the supply with the demand.”
Their Timberline Glamping brand had already developed a following. When they opened the Clarks Hill Lake location near Augusta, Ga., in April 2021 with just six glamping tent sites, they had a goal of making $125,000 by the end of December 2021. “We ended up making $225,000 during that period,” Self said. “And I only spent about $300 on marketing and advertising. We knew we had a strong, marketable brand.”
How the Timberline Glamping Franchise Works
“We knew we could coach people to run an amazing glamping location with very little investment,” Self said. “We save new franchisees a ton of time and money by sharing what we know.”
Timberline Glamping Company provides franchisees with a kit that includes everything they’ll need. The kit includes the glamping tent structures, beds, bed linens, furniture, the deck flooring, and all the necessary décor features. There’s also a website and online reservation system.
“The franchisee will have our truck show up at their location with the entire kit,” Self said. “We show them how to build the first tent, then they finish the rest, and they are open for business.”
Franchisees will either make their own agreements with existing campground owners for space or may sub-contract on an agreement Timberline Glamping Co. already has with a campground operator. Timberline Glamping has existing agreements with state park operators in Georgia and Florida and is in talks with state park campground operators in Tennessee and Texas.
“It’s a huge win for the campground owner because the Timberline Glamping franchisee will provide them with a guaranteed revenue stream from previously underutilized land,” Self said. “They are also included in our success because they receive a percentage of the nightly rate as a bonus.”
Self said Timberline is responsible for finding the franchisee’s campground location. “It’s part of the kit they buy from us,” Self said. “We take on the burden of finding the right location for the franchisee’s glamping operation.”
Self said he walks potential campground locations himself to ensure it’s a good fit — and to make sure the available bathhouse is no more than 200 steps away.
“It’s part of taking care of all of the details,” he said. “If we can’t find a suitable location, the franchisee gets a full refund and isn’t out a single penny.”
Timberline Glamping Co. even helps the franchisee find their housekeeping staff. “We have never been hit by the labor crunch that has affected other industries,” Self said. “We pay people well – never less than a living wage. And we know how to target employees who are underutilized in the workforce.”
Timberline employees are only responsible for the housekeeping of the glamping units. The regular campground staff checks in the glampers just as they would any other camper when they first arrive. Glamping guests do have access to a phone number for the local Timberline franchisee or their manager, who are on call should any problems occur.
Guests have access to all the regular campground amenities and can access and book any additional for-fee amenities on the park via the Timberline website.
Self said he recommends Timberline Glamping franchisees start with four to six glamping sites. The tent kit costs along with a $40,000 franchise fee bring the initial total startup cost to about $122,000.
Expansion Exceeds Expectations
The Selfs said they set a personal goal of attaining 10 new franchisees during their first year of franchise sales. Their sales staff estimated they’d be able to garner four. They were all wrong.
“We now have 12 franchised locations with more on the way before we finish our first year,” Nathan Self said. “We’ve far exceeded our goals.”
The Self’s simple business model and low startup costs are getting attention from potential franchisees throughout the U.S., and Self said he won’t be surprised if he sees other glamping franchises created soon.
“I tell others in the glamping industry that we aren’t each other’s competition, we are all an interconnected community,” he said. “The bigger that glamping business community gets, the better it is for all of us.”
Self said the potential market for glamping is massive, and the industry’s best move is to grow glampers as fast as it can, no matter where they choose to glamp.
“I’m not too worried since if I only reached 1% of the population of Atlanta alone, that would be 66,000 people,” he said. “I sure can’t handle that by myself.”
In Business for the Right Reasons
While both Nathan and Rebeka Self acknowledge that they are in business to make money as is any other glamping operator, they hope their franchisees can see the bigger picture.
“We have two small kids and before we started this, we found out that they could have cared less about getting out into nature,” Self said. “That bothered us. We knew there had to be a better way to help all families get outdoors and reconnect.”
“Running a glamping operation is a great, rewarding work life for a family,” Self added. “We have a guest book in every one of our units. Our housekeeping teams send us photos from those books all the time. We know that what we do allows families to change their own relationships. You can’t put a price tag on that.”
For more information on Timberline Glamping Company, go to www.timberlineglamping.com.