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The Future of Glamping, Experiential Tourism And Eco-Resorts, Episode #054

How to start a glamping business

Today I am speaking with Sarah Dusek of Under Canvas USA and Enygma Ventures, a purpose-driven business support fund and investment organisation. We talk about everything from glamping business news to investment success and current market updates. I also asked Sarah what her view is of the glamping industry today and where she thinks it’s going with experiential accommodation, boutique luxury services and new eco-resort offerings in the future.

glamping business startup

Uncovering the Exciting Opportunities of Glamping with Sarah Dusek

Join us for the latest episode of The Business Of Glamping And Unique Holiday Rentals Podcast, where we explore the dynamic world of glamping, experiential tourism, and eco-resorts. Our special guest, Sarah Dusek of Under Canvas USA and Enygma Ventures, shares her in-depth knowledge and experience in the industry, from the newest developments in glamping businesses to investment prospects and market trends.

Sarah’s love for Africa and the great outdoors sparked her journey in the glamping industry and she is now considered a leading authority in the field. During our discussion, Sarah offers her perspective on the present state of the glamping industry and gives us a look into the future of experiential accommodation, luxury boutique services, and eco-resort offerings.

Whether you’re an experienced camper, a curious traveler, or a business enthusiast, this episode is a must-listen. So tune in to discover more about the future of glamping and the exciting opportunities it holds.

Today’s episode is brought to you by The Start-Up And Grow Club which offers an accelerator program and support group for those who want to set up their unique holiday rental, eco-resort or glamping businesses quickly.

More information about this episode:

Under Canvas® – Upscale camping near USA National Parks

Enygma Ventures  – A purpose-driven business support fund

The Glamping Academy – Everything you need to start up and grow a retreat, unique holiday rental or glamping business

The Glamping Business Podcast Shownotes

Additional Resources And Links Mentioned

Listen to the podcast here:

Want To Feature On The Business Of Glamping And Unique Holiday Rentals Podcast?

If you have something inspiring to offer the world of Glamping and Unique Holiday Rentals then get in touch with Sarah Riley and share it on the Podcast. For more information contact Sarah here.

Listen to previous episodes here:


Sarah Riley: Today I am speaking with Sarah Dusek, who is the co-founder of Under Canvas, a glamping business in the US that has a huge number of sites now, all based around the wonderful national parks. So having received new investment, they are able to expand even further. But what helped Sarah and her partner become so successful with their endeavors and what she think now about the way the glamping industry is going Welcome to episode 55. Glamping and unique holiday rentals are surging in popularity with the growing desire of customers to book holidays that deliver an experience. They are also the new business of choice for those wanting to improve their work-life balance. So how do you build a strong business like this that gives you the life you need and a great investment I’m Sarah Riley, and I want to share what I’ve discovered after being immersed in this industry for over 20 years to inspire you to find out more about what’s going on. Welcome. This is the business of glamping and unique holiday rentals. Sarah, thank you so much for joining me today. In my many conversations with people in this industry, it always starts from somewhere. So a camping trip, an experience with family, or maybe in your childhood, because you’ve been so really, the first personal, certainly one of the first people to really get into glamping. Where did it start Where did it start for you personally

Sarah Dusek: It started in Africa, Sarah . I would never have said I was the camping type. I would not have even said I was the outdoorsy type. And certainly, like many British children, we had camping holidays as, as a child, but, and I have very fond memories of them. But I think our glamping inspiration really came from our time, my time in Africa, in my early twenties. And I, after I graduated university, I went to work for an N G O in Zimbabwe and fell in love with Africa. and fast forward seven or eight years later, marrying and meeting my husband, who’s from Montana, who’s a huge outdoors man, and loves hunting, fishing, camping, being in the outdoors and really, really roughing it. We realized there was a little problem in that, we quite liked each other, quite liked each other a lot, but this particular area of our lives was not terribly, easily combined. and that’s where glamping came in. You know, I had loved the being out in the, the safari in on safari in the bush, but in beautiful surroundings and tents and furniture and running water and, you know, all the rest of it. So much more comfortable. and we just had this crazy idea that maybe we could recreate that in the US and bridge the divide between us both, with being in the outdoors and maybe doing it in a little bit more comfort and style.

Sarah Riley: Absolutely. Well, I had a very interesting conversation with a taxi man actually in the US and he was a very outdoorsy man. He couldn’t understand the concept of glamping and what it meant. And when I described him, well, could you imagine, you know, going with your partner doing camping in the way that you don’t No, no. She doesn’t like that. She doesn’t like camping, she doesn’t like going out. But, you know, I always do it on my own. And I say, well, what if you could actually leave her somewhere with the family where she’s enjoying the luxury and the stay and you could go off and do your big mountain hikes He’s suddenly the penny dropped. He suddenly realized what glamping could bring to him as a family. So . Absolutely. So when you were thinking of Under Canvas back in the day when you started out, which was about 2009, I believe, what made you combine under Canvas with the whole, national Park experience

Sarah Dusek: Well, the quick answer to that is, failure in the sense that when we first launched our initial glamping site, which was really, really small, we started on my husband’s, farm, ranch in, in the sort of on the prairies in Montana, really a million miles from anywhere. Really real wilderness really. and what we realized was, cuz at the time there was no real sort of confidence in wood, people like this idea of staying in nice tents in wild places. and what we realized from when we first started, our original concept was that people loved the idea, of being in beautiful tents. And we would get phone calls all the time about where can I get your tents from Where can we buy these tents And we started to realize, gosh, people want the tents. They don’t necessarily want them where we’ve put them .

Sarah Dusek: so we had this sort of aha moment really, that the tents were a thing. but that, where we were trying to encourage people to come and be out in Montana was not really a big draw card for people. And the tents were not enough by themselves to sort of draw people in. And so that was when we sort of realized, oh, but where are the people already going Where, where are they already flocking to you And obviously Montana has two huge, amazing national parks, Yellowstone being one and Glacier National Park being in the other. and we, we realized maybe we should take the tents to where the people are. and that was what we did next. We piloted the idea of a small camp, in West Yellowstone. So out just outside of Yellowstone National Park, which obviously gets a lot of visitors a year.

Sarah Dusek: and experimented with this idea of could we create a tinted hotel outside of, one of the most famous national parks in the country and, and still had no idea whether that would work. but that’s what we did next. And so, and of course the rest is history really, because that totally took off, which increased our confidence in their national parks and also the realization of just how well visited national parks are, but how underserved and under-resourced they are at the same time. and the us’ you know, most national park sort of hub towns have very limited accommodation based on the number of people that wanted to visit. And the quality of that accommodation is also not necessarily very nice. So being able to bring another offering into that space, was an incredible and is an incredible opportunity.

Sarah Riley: So obviously things have changed in the industry since you originally started, so ha do you think that now having those structures, those tents, that uniqueness is enough to draw people in Or does that have to be something else added to a service

Sarah Dusek: I think, I think it’s now much easier, to draw people in, with incredible tents and and you know, over the last decade we’ve seen all sorts of, wonderful and wild creations, be developed. and people start utilize from not just yts, but cowboy, Chuck wagons being converted into sort of glamorous, you know, places to sleep and all sorts of unique ideas. and so, and I think there’s a real drive and a real demand now, unlike there was, you know, over a decade ago to really get outside and to be in nature. And there’s so many more options now for, for bridging than divide. and I think even people just looking to escape a city weekend, you know, an an hour outside of the city, I think glamping resort have been incredibly successful, all over the place, in non destination places. And that’s the power of, of, of an industry being created over the last decade, really, that it’s possible to do this now all over the place. Whereas it wasn’t possible when we started cuz nobody had ever heard of the idea of glamping. And now people are much more inclined to want to go glamping than they are necessarily to think about, oh, I want to go to this place. can I glamp there So I think that’s been a fascinating transformation actually over the last decade

Sarah Riley: And seeing that people now understand what the word actually means is, is really quite crazy.

Sarah Dusek: Yes. We, we were constantly using the word luxury camping because people did not understand the word glamping. just to try and help people under understand what it was, and put some terminology around it that made sense to people. But yes, it was, yeah, it was early days were challenging.

Sarah Riley: Absolutely. So wh when you were setting up under canvas and you were growing it and it was developing, did you actually have a vision for where you were going to go, where you were gonna end up over that period of time Which I think was about, was it a decade or a bit more than that

Sarah Dusek: A decade Yeah, that’s right. We, not until we launched our first national park site, so we didn’t launch our, our camp in Yellowstone until 2012. So we had three years of sort of fumbling around and trying to make things work and not working and working a little bit and not working a little bit. and it wasn’t until 2012 really that we both, my husband and I kind of had this aha, which was kind of like, oh, this is it. This is the, this is the, this is the nugget that works. and the work that I do now, we call that product market fit. I work with startups all the time now about, launching and scaling their businesses. And we call that moment sort of recognizing and knowing that you’ve got product market fit, which is that people want your product and people are prepared to pay for it and that you know it and you’ve got demonstrated proof of it. and it wasn’t until we sort of hit that moment that we realized actually we’ve got something that we could scale and we could replicate and we could do more of. And then we started to imagine, we could, we could create an under canvas national parks all over the country. and that was the beginning of a, of a growing that business journey.

Sarah Riley: So I always talk about often people have to put themselves out of their comfort zone to see immense growth because that’s where the growth happens. Would you relate to that That sometimes you have to take these big risks and it’s scary

Sarah Dusek: Yeah, I don’t think it stopped being scary for about a decade. I mean, it was excruciatingly painful. and, and that’s the trouble with trial and error too. There’s a lot of error and there’s a lot of getting things wrong and there’s a lot of figuring things out and all of that looks messy. and that’s painful and it’s risky and it’s expensive and, but, but that is the way you get to coming through the other side. You don’t get, nobody has success without any pain. It just doesn’t exist. and you know that, you know, those, those who dare and those who take big risks, you know, are, are likely to have the possibility at least of succeeding. And it’s like, if you don’t make any risks and you don’t take any chances, there’s absolutely no possibility you’ll succeed at all. but, you know, success depends on taking big risks for sure.

Sarah Riley: Absolutely. I would agree. Definitely. And in terms of the glamping industry, you seem very excited about it still. And would you say that there’s anything, specifically any direction that you can see Is there really more exciting direction that it’s going in or something that you can really see coming onto the horizon in terms of the glamping industry

Sarah Dusek: I think one of the things that excites me the most still, over a decade on, is the possibility for levering glamping for conservation and, and sustainable travel and environmentalism. And I think, there is no other vehicle, unlike glamping that has quite the potential in, in the same way, to create access to amazing places because you can build a glamping resort in a very light way in comparison with the way you would build a hotel or even cabins or lodges. I mean, just, just the possibility of, of glamping is so much more of a light footprint. and we typically will use less water and less resources in, in the building and the operation of all those things. and I think the ability for ongoing sustainable, travel is so, so important. and I, and that’s still what excites me about people sort of cottoning onto the fact that we, you know, I mean Covid was incredible for helping us all remind ourselves how much we loved traveling because as soon as it’s taken away and we can’t do it, you know, we’re, we’re like caged animals.

Sarah Dusek: And, and I think just the, the boom post covid and during covid even was, was an extraordinary thing to see with like, there’s so much hunger. and so the challenge with that for me is can we lever the hunger Can we, can we lever people’s desire to be outside and experience, the outdoors in new, new and new unique ways Can we lever that for good Can we lever that for conservation Can we lever that for rewilding Can we level that for green spaces Can we level that for, sustainable tourism and so this vehicle that exists now that’s known, I think could be an incredible force for good in the world. Mm-hmm.

Sarah Riley: do you think that during the pandemic and having the clear skies and no airplanes and other things, humans just weren’t scattered around moving around and doing what they normally do, do you think that had a big impact on people maybe questioning how will they use their downtime How will they use their leisure time And then they started looking for glamping more and the industry started to have a real rise. Do you think that’s kind of all connected, or is that just coincidence

Sarah Dusek: I think it’s totally connected, and I, I think, I mean, COVID did so many things to help us see just, you know, our footprints on our planet. were so radically reduced and our, you know, pollution radically reduced. I mean, it was just an extraordinary phenomenon, to see just, you know, and, and, and unprecedented right to to ground everyone worldwide for, you know, a period of time. Just, just really extraordinary. So I, I know it will change the way we will travel. I know it will change the way we think about what is worthy of our, of our tourism dollars in our travel dollars, and thinking, you know, and I hope it will, will cause us to put more pressure on, the way we travel, and how we think about being sustainable while we travel and who we choose to travel with. I, I, I think, I hope we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg in terms of, of, of a shift that will be long lasting. we’ve obviously got a long way to go, but I, I think it’s rattled many of our cages and put issues that were maybe not, not on our radar or our radar, but maybe the first time ever.

Sarah Riley: Mm-hmm. Absolutely. And let’s just hope that, that any action that comes from companies delivering services is proper, genuine, authentic action. And it’s not just greenwashing because I have noticed a bit of greenwashing, which is a bit of a concern, but nevertheless, in this industry, in the glamping industry and the, experiential tourism industry, it seems to me that it makes it easier for me people to make decisions about where they’re going to be spending their travel time, which won’t impact the earth in such a negative way without, with still having a fantastic and enjoyable experience that they can still Instagram themselves and put it online and, you know, have memories for their kids and all that kind of stuff. Would you agree

Sarah Dusek: Yeah, I mean, I think some of, I mean, I just think of my own family and my own kids. I think some of our, our most amazing memories and our rawest me, you know, are, are in our rawest moments. and I have two boys and they’re now 13 and 10. so obviously they grew up with us building under canvas, but I, I still know some of our most amazing moments are when we’re, we’re in crazy places seeing, you know, just off the beaten path, making memories together because we’re stretching ourselves and I’m pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone, and being in places that, not truly extraordinary. My, my youngest son and I took a trip, about a month ago now to the Amazon, and we were in the Peruvian Amazon together, and visiting village, you know, remote communities along the, the Amazon River banks.

Sarah Dusek: And it was extraordinary. And he and I experienced things together that we could have only dreamed about before. I mean, it was, it was so, it was so impactful, not just on us both, but on our relationship together too, that we’d taken this adventure, and been, you know, meeting local people and realizing, gosh, just how my tourism dollars are so impactful for the livelihoods of this community and the livelihoods of this community are they, they affect my life on an everyday basis in incredible ways. You know, if we are, if we, if those communities or corporations destroy their habitat and where they live, the world is not going to breathe very well and we are all going to suffer. And just this connection between, can we sustainably support rural communities in crazy places, that where we need their landscapes preserved and protected, and we need these incredible wild places that we depend upon for carbon reduction. can, can we use our travel dollars in those kind of ways And, I think the answer is yes, and we need to do more and more of it, and I appreciate that how we spend our travel dollars, can be so impactful, for preserving and protecting our world. Mm-hmm.

Sarah Riley: and something that’s driven me actually in, in, I’ve been in this industry since you have as well, and something that’s kept me going in it is the fact that people who provide glamping services, they help the general public at large to really fall in love with nature by staying in nature. And if somebody loves something, they’ll work hard to protect it. So in a way, without knowing it, people are being educated to adore their environment, to help protect it, to maybe to change few decisions in the future about how they do things. And, and I think that’s just all amazing and, absolutely will continue to support this industry as a result. And I know that you have, even though you have been famously successful in achieving investment for Under Canvas, tell me a a tiny bit about that, that process.

Sarah Dusek: Yeah. we, we’ve never intended, to raise a lot of money for our business or even sell our business. it just wasn’t particularly on our, on our gender or our focus. our focus was always how could we build something great, and leave a great legacy but we, we bootstrapped our business for a long, long time, almost eight years, seven, eight years. So the , the vast majority of our time growing under Canvas was without outside capital. but we, we came to the point that we realized we could do so much more, and this is what drove the decision, really. We realized we could do so much more, we could grow faster, we could become more than what we were able to become by ourselves if we took outside capital to help us, help us scale faster instead of just plowing our own resources and our own profits from the business back into the business.

Sarah Dusek: If we took what I call cataly catalytic capital, we could do more and be fast, grow faster. So about 2017, we went out to raise what is institutional capital money from the money markets, and see if we could put it to work in our, in our business. and we did that successfully in 2017. And then in 2018 we went out to go again as I’d already spent the money we raised. and that was when we, ultimately, partnered with a private equity firm who brought us outta the business, the majority of our business, and took over control of, of growing it, further.

Sarah Riley: Wow. So are you still involved in the company now or are you

Sarah Dusek: Yes, so I still sit on the board. My husband, I still sit on the board of Under Canvas, so we’re very involved, at a board level now. and we still own a small piece of the business, so we’re still very passionate about under Canvas and seeing it grow. it’s, we’ll always be passionate about under Canvas. It’s like our first child, so . so yeah, we, we were very involved still not that’s good in a day to day anymore.

Sarah Riley: That’s really good to hear. It’s lovely when the founder is still able to be part of the journey as the business evolves and grows a massive pair of wings and really takes off because it is growing and growing across the US and it’s lovely to see those successful stories. So that obviously allowed you to then change your focus slightly as well. So you had a bit more time on your hands to be able to do other things, and that moved into for you, a new project. So I understand you’ve started in NMA Ventures. Tell me a little bit more about that.

Sarah Dusek: That’s right, yes. So in 2019 we launched a venture capital fund to focus on investing in female founders and female founders in Africa. And one of the things that we were keen to do, you know, we felt like we, our lives was of moving full circle, if you like. I’m coming back to Africa and giving back to Africa for all she had effectively given to us was really, really, critical for us. And my own journey of being a female founder and trying to grow and scale a business, I realized there was so much I didn’t know, and that if I didn’t know these things than many other women, probably didn’t know them either. and realized that we potentially could lever our own journey and our own experiences, and our own resources to help other women go on the journey that, that we’ve been on too.

Sarah Dusek:  And I passionately believe, that businesses can be a force for good. and not only that, but wealth creation, you know, who has the power to create wealth, is who, who are the people who are building our world. You know, I often think of entrepreneurs as being the builders, of the future, because the companies that have created, affect how we act, how we behave, what we spend money on, what we spend time on. and we think even about the tech revolution that’s happened in our lives over the last 20 years, you know, those that has changed culturally, changed the world. The way we live today is completely different than the way we live a decade ago. My children find it hard to believe there was a time that there were no iPads in the world, . I was like, it actually wasn’t that long ago. and so we created this fund to think about, investing in the future, empowering women, to build a better world, and to help uplift Africa by, building businesses that we believe will change the continent.

Sarah Riley:  So is there any specific businesses that you are looking for or business, kind of areas you’re looking for Or is it all about the individual and you know, the person that has just the passion to move forward

Sarah Dusek: Yeah, we, we consider ourselves sector agnostic, which means there’s no industry that we won’t look at. but generally we are looking for businesses like ours that could scale. and, and by scaling we, we often just means cans business grow exponentially. So there’s a difference between a business that can grow year on, year on year, and a business that can scale really quite dramatically. and so we are always looking for, for women with ideas and some track record of, of building things that could really be quite substantial and really have a, a huge impact, so affecting millions of people’s lives rather than, you know, tens or 20. So that’s, that’s really main, our main criteria that we look for. Now,

Sarah Riley: Are you hoping some of those might be in the, unique accommodation industry

Sarah Dusek: I, I , I love, I still love looking at travel businesses, and we’re actually just in the process of, expanding, our fund to be a larger impact fund. So, we’ve started with the sort of pilot, entrepreneurship fund and we’re just in the process of launching now a larger impact vehicle of which the majority of which we are hoping will be in this, in this spec, in this sector to invest in and develop, all over the world, outdoor lodging concepts that have a real connection to conservation.

Sarah Riley: Yes. Wonderful, wonderful. Sounds really exciting. And how would, people find out more about Inua Ventures

Sarah Dusek: So you can head on over to our website. We and Enigma is spent with a y, so E N Y G M A.

Sarah Riley: Wonderful. And just to go back to under Canvas as well, if anybody would like to visit the under Canvas locations, how do they find out more about where they are

Sarah Dusek: You can follow us on Instagram or head on to our website under and we are currently at 11 locations across the US with more coming in 2023.

Sarah Riley: Oh, that’s amazing. Sounds really exciting. I can’t wait to go be back there and visit and definitely will check out one of those sites. Sarah has been amazing. Thank you so much for giving me your time today and I really do wish you the best of luck with Enigma Ventures. It sounds absolutely brilliant to give women and, you know, fledgling industry entrepreneurs, just that kickstart that they need and I think it’s a great project. Thanks,

Sarah Dusek: Sarah.

Sarah Riley: You take care.

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