Features | From Pivot Magazine

Glamping comes to the Rock

How solar-powered tents and luxury bedding are changing the way Canadians camp

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Shaun Majumder's custom-made, hand-stitched tents for his 'Ome Sweet' Ome business in Newfoundland, CanadaA cozy-chic tent at ’Ome Sweet ’Ome (Photograph courtesy of ’Ome Sweet ’Ome)

Looking back, Shaun Majumder can see how Plan A may have been overly ambitious: a grand-scale eco-hotel in Burlington, Newfoundland, a remote fishing and lumber community with a population of 314, six hours from St. John’s. Still, his motivation to share his hometown (’ometown, as the Newfoundlanders say) was strong. It’s why the L.A.-based actor and former CBC star bought the plot of land that was once the site of his childhood schoolhouse. Architects were hired, blueprints drawn up, and a TV series (Majumder Manor) was even launched to chronicle his journey from actor to luxury innkeeper. But when his team didn’t secure full funding for the resort right away, they changed direction and decided to build a community greenhouse for season one. Its opening provided the climactic season finale for the show, and an excuse to throw a party called The Gathering, now an annual food, music and comedy festival.

“That’s why we first got the tents, because we were hosting chefs and musicians, and there was nowhere to sleep them,” Majumder says of the white canvas prospect tents that were placed around the property. In the summer of 2014, when he married his long-time partner, Shelby Fenner, guests stayed in the same basic lodgings, decorated with cozy-chic touches like one-of-a-kind quilts and turquoise Muskoka chairs. A friend suggested the tents could work as a way to demonstrate proof of concept to investors while welcoming guests and getting the word out. Putting them up on Airbnb meant they could sidestep a good deal of red tape. The original tents were replaced by custom-made versions, hand-stitched in Newfoundland and in keeping with Majumder’s overall goal of a socially responsible, sustainable business. ’Ome Sweet ’Ome launched officially in the summer of 2016, charging $75 to $100 per night and pulling in $28,000 in the first season (June to late September). By last year they were up to $120,000. Somewhere along the line Majumder arrived at a realization: “We thought, wait a second, maybe these tents aren’t just a temporary solution—maybe the glamping thing is the main idea.” 

And a good one at that, given the growing interest in luxury camping, a travel option that offers the wonders of the great outdoors minus the work. Taking inspiration from African safari tents, the glamping trend first emerged in California about 10 years ago—the term itself entered the popular lexicon in 2012, when El Capitan Canyon resort was featured on an episode of the Real Housewives of Orange County. Majumder and Fenner took a trip to the Santa Barbara destination in 2013 and learned that the tent accommodations (rather than the cabins or main hotel) were always the most popular. “People want to have this rugged, outdoor, under-the-stars experience, but they don’t want to set up the tents, they don’t want to get wet, they don’t want to worry about safety,” says Majumder. At ’Ome Sweet ’Ome, tents are solar-powered and have propane heaters. Compost toilets are a two-minute walk and Wi-Fi is available only at the house where guests check in. Initially a practical limitation, it’s now seen as a selling point. “The whole point is that we want people to unplug and take a break from their devices,” he says—fewer iPhones, more eye contact

Comedian Shaun Majumder and wife Shelby Fenner with their dogs by the waters of NewfoundlandMajumder and Fenner (Photograph courtesy of ’Ome Sweet ’Ome)

The luxury camping market is projected to reach $1 billion by 2024, according to the research firm Arizton. Over the last few years, high-end tents and variations thereof (tree houses, pods, yurts, igloos) have popped up all over the planet—and then all over Instagram. Here in the Great White (and green and burnt-orange) North, our vast supply of nature makes us a prime location for upscale outdoorsiness. At the recently launched Blue Bayou Resort in South Harbour, Nova Scotia, near the northern tip of the Cabot Trail, guests stay in heated geodesic domes equipped with washroom facilities, electricity, hot water and charcoal barbecues. The Clayoquot Wilderness Resort in Tofino, B.C., is considerably swankier: 25 tents surrounded by untouched rainforest and accessible only by plane, helicopter or boat. Starting at $4,500 per person for a three-night stay, guests experience five-star flourishes like horse-and-carriage transport and a tasting menu featuring locally foraged ingredients. Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop website called it a “once-in-a-lifetime experience.” 

“What we’re seeing with glamping is the evolving definition of luxury,” says Canadian travel consultant Claire Newell. Particularly with the millennial market, luxury is about exceptional experiences. “People want the most unique, the most exclusive, the most remote,” says Newell. And they want to feel good about the choices they’re making. The trend to sustainability has moved into the hospitality market, says Bob McMahon, a retail and consumer business analyst at BDO Canada. “Consumers are willing to pay more for experiences that reflect their core values, and for a lot of people, caring about the future of the planet is part of that.”

A hotel is no longer part of Majumder’s plans. Sometimes, he says, you follow an idea where it takes you. Down the road he hopes to offer fishing and foraging excursions at ’Ome (current health and safety regulations mean guests must bring their own food or visit one of two nearby restaurants). For now, though, the focus is on expanding the brand all over Newfoundland, then the East Coast, then possibly the rest of Canada and beyond. The concept, he says, is ready-made for the franchise treatment, since the whole idea of ’Ome is showcasing and celebrating the surrounding environment. In Burlington, that means ocean views, summer icebergs and whale watching. “We have the best sheets, sure, but that’s not the point,” he says. “What’s great about the tents is that they can put you in this magical location.”