How to create, conserve luxury tented camps

In this novelty-crazed day and age, the bar for creative hospitality solutions has never been higher. Whether you seek a treetop hideaway in Italy, a safari-style tent in Costa Rica or an open-air suite in Botswana, the options for innovative lodgings in remote, off-the-grid locales are as varied as they are impressive.

Contributed by Graeme Labe, Luxury Frontiers, Johannesburg, South Africa

 Today, the modern-day luxury traveler seeks off-the-beaten-track adventures that are equal turns surprising and nature-focused, and now with the impact of COVID-19, this sentiment has never been more relevant, especially as we look ahead into 2023.

Herein lies a great opportunity for hotel owners to meet the demand and adapt to the changing times by looking for creative ways to implement more sustainable business practices such as designing light-on-earth structures and employing sustainable building materials.

Camp Sarika tent at Amangiri in Utah, created by Luxury Frontiers

In the past, to capitalize on evolving consumer preferences hoteliers would look to revamp their properties through traditional methods, including general renovations, upgrades to amenities and enriched programming. Though these efforts are commendable, for today’s purpose-driven traveler these methods do not go far enough in addressing the growing desire to adopt sustainable business practices and meet the increasing demand for adventure, nature, wellness, and outdoor experiences. Hence, the question becomes ‘what are existing properties to do?’

Luckily, there is a viable solution to address rising sustainability concerns and create a meaningful story to re-engage guests. Hotels and resorts sitting on excess land can transform idle property by adding revenue-generating accommodations while embracing the sustainable travel movement.

Building experiential tented camps

Like any development project, it takes excellent planning and a holistic understanding of the environment, the ability to integrate smart design that aligns with the desired aesthetic, and if required, cutting-edge architecture.

There are two main reasons for considering a tented camp:

  • To achieve an adventure-forward aesthetic and a highly experiential feel
  • The applicable planning and building codes require a non-permanent or semi-permanent structure, in which case a tent is a good choice in comparison to a traditional structure.

Thus, when it comes to developing a tented camp, specifically, it’s important to understand the climatic conditions of the site to inform the guest’s journey, both from a design and architectural standpoint. Whether you’re building in the remote desert or the middle of the jungle, researching the site and its natural environment is imperative to creating a successful experiential tented camp.

Creating micro-spaces within the overall interior space allows for a multi-functional space and allows guests to engage with the property in different ways.

The maintenance questions

Like any structure, tented camps need to be maintained properly, and thus it is imperative that the following key maintenance takes place:

  • If it is a tensile membrane (meaning the roof is constructed using a fabric membrane held in place using steel cables), the tension cables need to be checked on a regular basis and serviced and re-tensioned on an annual basis. During this period, the membranes need to be checked for tears and stress to ensure performance and longevity.
  • All types of membranes need to be checked and washed on a monthly or quarterly basis.
  • If a tented camp is built under a tree canopy, the tree canopy needs to be checked for possible rotting or falling branches as these elements can create the most damage to tented structures.
  • Rollup panels and any zippers should be checked weekly.
  • Most tented camps are constructed on floating timber platforms both for internal and external decks. So, any timber flooring needs to be maintained properly. Daily cleanings and treating of the timber floors and decks on a monthly basis is recommended, with a deep oil clean about every six months depending on the final finish and coating used for the timber floors.

An advantageous quality of tented architecture is that since tents are often designed and made with different panels and components, these parts can be changed without having to replace the whole tent. For instance, if the inner ceiling gets damaged, that ceiling can be repaired or replaced in isolation of the rest of the tent, reducing maintenance times and costs.

Typical renovation schedule

The schedule is highly dependent on the climatic conditions that the tent is set in and the original choice of materials.

In general, the most basic seasonal tents using natural cotton fibers as opposed to synthetic materials would last anything from three to five years.

When one employs technical fabrics, the lifespan of the components increases to upwards of 15 to 30 years. Often, the interior finishes would also undergo some level of FF&E and soft refurbishment every three to five years.

Challenges with tented camps

Each site comes with its own challenges. For example, one of our projects in the middle of the Okavango Delta in Botswana is not easily accessible and the logistics of getting materials to the site were very difficult. During the construction phase, we often required a combination of special four-wheel drive trucks, boats, or in some cases, a level of portering of materials by hand to the site.

Other challenges that we have faced surround climatic conditions such as high humidity, strong winds, heavy rainfall, and even snow loads. These are resolved through either the general architectural design or engineering of the tents.

What the future holds

Investing in luxury lodges can provide many advantages as well as a profitable solution for hotel developers and owners. They meet the leisure demand continuing to resonate with travelers – offering adventure, nature and outdoor experiences that provide a rich sense of place.

From luxury tents and treetop structures to eco-resorts, these hospitality creations can be environmentally sensitive, prioritize local materials and resources, benefit the community, and offer travelers unforgettable memories enticing them to return soon.

From a business perspective, projects can offer the following benefits:

  1. Endless storytelling opportunities
  2. Monetizing idle, excess land while increasing its value
  3. Product/amenity diversification and market diversification
  4. Lower per key development cost compared to the traditional room construction cost
  5. Incremental revenue resulting from additional inventory
  6. Rate premiums and incremental operating profit
  7. Leveraging existing infrastructure and branding
  8. Heightening brand reputation through environmental and social sustainability practices

In relation to this last point, integrating sustainable practices to create unique and authentic travel experiences is no longer a trend but fast evolving into the mainstream of luxury travel expectations. From my vantage point as a development consultant, add-on accommodations that employ alternative materials and/or construction methods can be the perfect way for land and hotel owners to enter the sustainable travel marketplace strategically and profitably.