TruDomes: Hi James, thanks for catching up with us. Looks like you’ve been really busy with the recent launch of your new glamping business, tell us about the inspiration behind the idea to create Dartmoor Domes, and how you made the idea a reality?
I was made redundant in July 2020 as a result of Covid. However, I was lucky to have 20 years of service and was well looked after. Walking up to see our Alpacas one day my young son said to me how much he hated my working away. A gut-wrenching moment for me as a dad.
So the mission started to find something I could do work-wise locally, could we even have a business at home? Glamping came out on top. Like many, we tried to get planning permission but soon realised that certification with Greener camping was the best option for us.
Next was the glamping show in September, and very quickly decided what we wanted. We needed a structure that could be easily moved down into our meadow (there is no vehicle access). Frankly, we purchased domes from TruDomes because we liked Kelda and her really honest approach to her product. We didn’t want to buy from abroad, or risk shipping issues over Brexit, it was a great choice.
In late October we were certified and started the build. In November we dug the drainage to drain the meadow by hand and laid the water pipes. By the time this was done the weather had turned. So I got a job over the winter. With the exception of Christmas week when we carried over 2000 lengths of timber over 150m down a path and into our meadow.
Come February it was full steam ahead. We laid a new path using 40 tonnes of 805 stone moved by wheelbarrow and started to make the dome bases from decking.
In March and April, the domes turned up two at a time, and are a really easy build. In lockdown it was just us, but I found that I could build a dome with my three young kids in a day. This is how great a product they are. In May it was plumbing and fitting out Kitchens, Bathrooms and furnishing domes, and we opened on the last May bank holiday.
TruDomes: The domes look amazing and you have obviously made a fantastic effort on the interior to make your guests as comfortable as possible, what has the response been so far to the domes?
We are amazed by the reviews and feedback we have received. Emma is a nurse and I worked in construction so we have no experience in this industry. However, our family loves the outdoors and camping so we knew what we wanted to make.
For the interiors, we followed our ethics where we could. Recycled, or natural carpets. Fully insulated domes. King size beds with award-winning Emma mattresses were all a must. Other bits like solid wood furniture, not flat pack, just give us the feel that we want. The finishing touches came from a friend of ours who came to have a look and then made and posted us bunting for our domes.
TruDomes: What’s unique about your glamping business location and what would you say to guests thinking about travelling to stay with you?
I don’t know if we are unique. We are not trying to be clever or outdo anyone else. We wanted to make a low-impact site for people to enjoy a relaxing break. All materials were sourced as locally as possible. No machinery was used to make the site.
So it is just a handmade, off-grid, back to nature experience. I think it is well researched and equipped though. The showers are getting a lot of compliments, as well as the fridges. Both are fairly unusual in an off-grid experience I think.
The best part though is we get to share our amazing location. We are on the southern tip of Dartmoor. Devon beaches and coast path are nearby, the naval city of Plymouth is spectacular. A great location, but the meadow is also lovely. 150m down through the woods we have opened up the meadow for only four domes. The stream runs past and it is a lovely spot with wild deer, great birdlife and amazing views of the stars at night.
TruDomes: You’ve been working on launching Dartmoor Domes throughout a global pandemic, how has that been and what challenges did you face? Do you have any advice for people aspiring to have their own glamping business in the future?
I am one of life’s annoying people who believe they can do anything! I have run businesses for twenty years and a rough attempt at a P and L taking an evening showed it would work. That’s all the encouragement I need.
Most importantly, who is your customer, what do they want, and does this match what you can provide? What are your values, do you believe in it? Be really clear on this.
Once you know that it is worth the investment it is like any other project I have run before. Work out the key milestones, create a giant gantt chart and press the go button, and keep control of the cost/quality/time balance.
We had many challenges like not having people to help put the covers over the domes, but our family stepped up to the challenge, including my parents and kids. Having great people around you is a must, there will be tough times. Moving 2000 lengths of timber by hand was a tough couple of days.
Advice for others is always harder. Honestly, I would say be comfortable with what you want to do. If it will lead you to financial stress or hardship don’t do it. Do you think you have the capacity and the skills to do it? Be honest with yourself before you start, if you aren’t you will fall over.
Honestly, I feel guilty most of the time knowing how many people dream of finding the land or running a business like this, and for us it was a matter of months.
TruDomes: Times have been tough for the hospitality and tourism industry, how do you feel about the future for the glamping industry, are you optimistic about the road ahead?
Look, we had it tough as well. I was made redundant, Emma is an end-of-life care nurse so you can imagine the year she has had. The kids were being homeschooled, our household income had dropped hugely and I was in investing mode, and we fell through every bit of government support.
Everyone will have a tough story from last year, and I am not sure we are past it yet. However, as I said before I am always optimistic. We are in a very strong position here, as we have completed our build with no debt, and a cheap to run site. Having a low-cost base will mean if we ever have to be competitive we can be.
However I only see cities growing, and more and more people needing to escape them to relax and find themselves. Never before has an off-grid back to nature retreat from 24/7 connected life been more needed.
TruDomes: What’s your favourite part about running a glamping business, and what’s your least favourite part?
The people are the best bit. We genuinely haven’t had a bad customer experience yet. If you love people this is the business for you. My least favourite part is that now it is built I am getting a little bored.
TruDomes: Did you know when you decided to build a glamping business that you wanted to use geodesic domes as your guest accommodation, or did you research various routes, and if so what did you find?
No! We had no idea what we were doing at all. The site demanded that we had to have something we could transport in parts down to the meadow. We also don’t really like the Pods, although we know they are popular.
We literally went to the glamping show, looked at the options, and decided on the day pretty much. I don’t think Kelda thought we were serious when she met us! The domes were spacious, insulated, and the panoramic windows for me make them better than a yurt. But it is all personal preference, but for me I got what I liked because I believed in it.
TruDomes: Did you have a vision for Dartmoor Domes when the idea was born, or did the unique style and feel come to life naturally?
As I said before I don’t know if we are unique. I did a lot of research and I knew I wanted an eco site but didn’t want to compromise on certain items. For example a great hot shower, solar power, a fridge, stoves, double hammocks by the stream. All these items are really important to me, as it helps people relax. Our job is to get people back to nature, switch off and relax.
TruDomes: What are your hopes for the future for Dartmoor Domes, any plans to expand and grow the business?
Hopes for the future is a funny one really. Someone asked me recently where did I see myself in 5 years’ time? A normal question I guess before Covid…. Now it seems crazy to think like that! Simply, we just hope to be able to offer people the chance to escape back to nature and spend great time together as a family. If we achieve this I’ll be delighted.
To be honest we have only really just started thinking about expanding. We would like to go to six units as it makes much better business sense. Any more than this and we will lose the feel of the site and the relaxed atmosphere we are trying to create.
If you’ve enjoyed reading about Dartmoor Domes’ journey, give them a follow on Instagram and Facebook at @dartmoordomes and check out their availability for Summer here.