Charles Gulland left accounting to follow his childhood dream of promoting the importance of being close to nature and launched the glamping franchise Wigwam Holidays
Sitting behind a desk in an enclosed office space never interested Charles Gulland. In fact it was what made him realise his true passion – being outdoors. Abandoning his cushy job as an accountant, he fuelled his dream of making people understand the benefit of spending time in the great outdoors and hence Wigwam Holidays, the glamping franchise, was born in 2000. “In the age of an unprecedented choice of being surrounded by technology, depression and anxiety are being recorded at record levels,” he says. “And we believe that you need to break free from that and get outside into nature and just take time to reconnect with yourself. I believe that people are happier outdoors and [I’m] very passionate about it.”
Gulland has harboured this enthusiasm since childhood but it only manifested after his checkered chartered accountancy career. Looking back, after he left his accountancy career and was searching for “something new and interesting” outside of the finance space, the design of buildings piqued his interest. This resulted in him getting a qualification from a college in Dorset and immediately taking on the role of a designer at the Countryside Commission for Scotland. He worked on developing low-cost lodging for the country’s long-distance footpaths such as on the West Highland Way. Projects like these inspired his career in the camping sector. “I came up with a sustainable wooden building made of timber, which we very quickly started calling a wigwam and that was the first camping pod anywhere at all,” he recalls. And with this, in 1992, he launched his first construction and design company: All Round Buildings.
Around that time, Gulland started working with a business coach who helped him truly understand what his company must be centred on. “It made me really think why I was in business and took me on a journey back to my childhood and that’s where the core purpose came from,” he remembers. “And it was the belief – which I still have – that it’s really important to get outside, light a fire, look at the stars, get the wind blowing through your hair and switch off technology.” This indeed was the seed which grew over time and eventually led to Wigwam Holidays’ launch in 2000. “That’s when I realised that we weren’t just a building company but actually also a holiday company,” he declares.
At the time when Gulland launched the novel concept of glamorous camping, or glamping, there wasn’t anything like it, he claims. “If you went to France there was always this idea that you could go to a campsite and live in tents but not in this country,” Gulland argues. “In Wales, they played around with canvas teepees but there wasn’t anything like glamping. The idea was just being born and we were definitely ten to 15 years ahead of time.”
Seemingly, a disruptive idea comes with its own set of challenges. But that didn’t stop him from pursuing his ambition. “With me – there was no easy money, no fast start,” Gulland says. To get the company off the ground, the main ingredient he needed was cash. Having won £2,000 through a national Westminster award during the initial days coupled with bank loans later, he funded his enterprise.
However, Gulland’s aim was to see Wigwam Holidays become a household name for travellers. And that’s when he recognised the power of franchising. For his franchisees, he looked for farmers who owned land and sold his brand to increase his company’s footprint without having to invest additional money. “[Franchising] is all about getting the right people,” he adds. “If there’s one business which is a people’s business – it’s a franchise. If you’ve got a brand that you believe in passionately and if you understand partnership, want a win-win business relationship, then franchising is the best route forward.” Consequentially, he started franchising in 2013.
But it isn’t a cakewalk to become a part of Wigwam Holidays. Gulland is strict when it comes to recruiting future franchisees. Just owning land doesn’t suffice. “We find people that share our core values and it’s gotta be more to it than ‘I want to make a quick buck,’” he says. While having the perfect location which fulfils the geographical need is important, the franchisor also expects commitment from them. “It’s gotta be ‘I get this company, I get the core values and I want to be part of this company,’” he adds.
However, while it may be a challenge to be accepted into the network, successful candidates enjoy an extensive support and training programme. And after a potential franchisee signs the dotted line, Gulland goes the extra mile in all aspects. “We have invested in a comprehensive brand manual and developed a solid digital marketing plan,” he says. Apart from setting up a website and the social media accounts for the franchisees, his franchise development team is responsible for handholding them in all aspects from the signage, uniforms, literature and proper implementation of the operations manuals. “There’s an element of training around the operations manual so everybody understands what’s involved from the beginning,” he adds. The franchisor doesn’t stop there to lend support for his franchisees but also helps them with funding. In fact, his efforts resulted in his franchisees securing a total of £2m worth of leader funding from the European grant for rural businesses.
One of the challenges he faced was to ensure he keeps his brand updated in all areas. “The main challenge is about what makes your brand distinctive – why would people buy a Wigwam franchise?” he says. “Business is not just about money. It extends to understanding what’s going to make a profit and what’s not. It’s sort of multidimensional.”
From the beginning he knew how imperative it was to have a robust marketing plan. Having a slim budget made him capitalise on business shows and distributing leaflets to secure customers. But with the rise of technology, his marketing strategy soon evolved to the online space. “We very quickly learned the power of networking but soon the internet came and changed everything,” he says. “And when the franchise [model] came along it was really understanding the power of digital marketing – focusing on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. It’s the only way forward.” Making marketing the priority, Gulland ensured most of his and the team’s efforts were directed towards keeping the website updated to stay ahead of the curve. “There’s a lot of competition in the age of the internet and you have to strive – and I mean really strive – for excellence,” he opines. “You gotta deliver something special.”
His business acumen and experience gathered through more than two decades can be clearly seen as the franchisor already boasts of more than 25 franchisee sites which stretch as far south as Cornwall to as far north as the Scottish Highlands. He has 16 more in the pipeline. In fact, 2020 might even see the brand go international.
Despite Brexit and the ubiquity of technology surrounding people, Gulland is optimistic about the growth of the glamping sector. Camping purists may sneer but glamping is here to stay with hundreds of sites scattered across the UK according to the franchisor. “We would like you to be able to get in a car and travel for no more than an hour or a couple of hours to take a Wigwam holiday,” he concludes. “We feel that this should be a local brand for people. So you must be able to go ‘It’s Friday night, I’m sick of sitting in my office. I want to go light a fire, lie in a nice cosy cabin’ and we want to be able to make that easy for you.”