This story is part of The Road Ahead, a series that examines the future of travel and how we’ll experience the world after the pandemic.
Six months into the COVID-19 lockdown, I got a terrible case of cabin fever. I had stared at the four walls of my house so long, it felt like they were caving in on me. In a panic, I searched for places to vacation safely in the midst of a pandemic.
That’s how I stumbled across Getaway, an upstart hotel company that builds tiny-house-style cabins on rustic sites outside major cities, including New York, Los Angeles, and Seattle. Each stylish guesthouse comes with a kitchenette, full bathroom, gallery window, outdoor fire pit, and picnic table—and no Wi-Fi connectivity. There was a location in New Hampshire, an hour from my house in Boston; I booked on the spot. Days later, I was greeted by the smell of pine as I stepped into my cabin and plopped into a cozy bed, where I could stare out a floor-to-ceiling window with a view of a forest and a babbling brook. For a brief moment, my pandemic angst melted away.
It turns out, my experience was playing out across the country. Most Americans stopped flying and staying at hotels during the pandemic, but they were still eager to get out of their homes. Many took road trips and searched for socially distant lodgings in the great outdoors. That led to a run on camping equipment last summer, with sales increasing by 31% compared to the previous year. But it also meant that a lot of outdoor neophytes were discovering how to have a more tempered wilderness experience: According to a 2020 survey by Kampgrounds of America, a collection of privately held campsites in North America, 28% of people who had never gone camping before were open to “glamping”—vacations that blend staying in nature with deluxe accommodations.
Hospitality companies that specialize in creating comfortable lodgings in idyllic locations answered the call. AutoCamp, which launched in 2016 by setting up Instagrammable Airstreams on campsites in Yosemite and Sonoma, opened four new locations in 2020: in Cape Cod, the Catskills, as well as the Zion and Joshua Tree national parks, thanks to an influx of $115 million in VC funding. Cabana, a self-described “mobile hotel” company that rents out high-end camper vans, raised $3.5 million during the pandemic; Kibbo, another van startup, launched last year. All signs point to continued interest in glamping. Outdoorsy, which dubs itself the Airbnb of RVs, has seen its sales climb to more than $1 billion in revenue. And Hipcamp, which pairs travelers with campsites in state parks, as well as on wineries, orchards, farms, and more, landed $57 million in funding in January 2021 to continue its blockbuster growth.
Getaway was among these winners: During COVID-19, bookings grew 150% from the year before and the company’s cabins reached an unheard-of occupancy rate of 99%. The startup, which launched in 2015 with a single location (the one I visited in New Hampshire), had grown to nine outposts with 40 cabins apiece by 2019. During 2020, it built six new locations and expects to reach a total of 17—with 800 total cabins—by the end of 2021, thanks to the $41.7 million Series C that it raised in February, led by the hospitality-focused VC firm Cetares. “From the moment we launched the business, the extent of the demand was a surprise to me,” says Jon Staff, Getaway’s founder and CEO. “I think it’s because as a society, we’re finding that being in nature—away from your day-to-day grind—is now an important wellness ritual.”
Still, questions remain about Getaway’s future. Can it convert its success over the past year into long-term growth, or will interest in its tiny cabins diminish once vaccinated travelers feel safe hopping on planes and staying in hotels? Experts are optimistic. “The world has always been open to millennials and Gen Zers, but the pandemic allowed them to discover that road-tripping, glamping, and camping can be really enjoyable ways to travel,” says Erin Francis-Cummings, CEO of travel analytics firm Destination Analysts. “When people are familiar with a way of traveling, they’re very likely to return to it. We predict glamping is going to continue to do well.”
For a generation that’s looking to disconnect, Getaway and its ilk are packaging the basic appeal of the great outdoors with just enough creature comforts to make it feel more accessible. In doing so, they appear to have hit upon a gold mine.
How do you put the genie back in the bottle?
My first trip to the New Hampshire Getaway was so rejuvenating that I decided to go back. Getaway has dynamic pricing that goes up with demand; one night in the Catskills outpost these days can run you upwards of $350. But to make things more affordable for regulars, the company also offers Getaway Often Packs, which allow travelers to pay up front for several nights at a time, lowering the price to just over $100 per night. And for every nine nights you stay, you’ll get the 10th free.
Staff says Getaway will continue to offer these packages after the pandemic is over, to encourage visitors to make regular trips. There are also discounts for students, artists, healthcare professionals, veterans, and first responders. “We’ve tried to create many back doors to make Getaway more accessible to more people,” Staff says.
I purchased a six-pack so I could head out every month. The 140-to-200-square-foot cabins became like a second home. They’re no-frills, but have all the creature comforts you need: a two-burner stove and dishware, a hot shower, and my favorite part: a fire pit surrounded by Adirondack chairs. Getaway gives guests a complimentary package of s’mores fixins’, and you can order additional provisions in advance if you don’t want to bring your own food. Before you arrive, Getaway texts you a personalized key code and the location of your cabin, which have charming names like Ethel, Maurice, Marguerite, or Gladys. “We deliberately picked names that were popular in the 1950s,” says Staff. “We want guests to feel like they’re going to their grandparents’ cabin in the woods.”
One of the best parts of Getaway, for me, was the ability to cut myself off from the stressful 2020 news cycle. There is no Wi-Fi signal on the campgrounds and each cabin has a cellphone lockbox to encourage you to keep your smartphone out of sight. I booked a trip for the night of the presidential election so that I wouldn’t spend the evening watching the results come in. Instead, I made my free s’mores and went to sleep early. “We’ve been seeing an increased demand for outdoor experiences for several years, particularly among millennials,” says Chantal Haldorsen, VC lead at Certares, which invested in Getaway. “But we were particularly intrigued by Getaway’s unique yet comfortable experience, with fresh linens, a stocked kitchen, heat, and air-conditioning. All you need to do is show up and disconnect from the stresses of your life.”
Staff says the idea of disconnecting from technology is what inspired him to launch Getaway. Before starting his MBA at Harvard in 2014, he took a West Coast road trip where he stumbled across tiny houses. The simple, prefabricated homes were not much bigger than a room, but people had built them in idyllic locations to get away from the stresses of everyday life. Throughout business school, Staff continued to ponder their allure. In his twenties, he had felt perpetually burnt out, partly because his iPhone kept him tethered to his work. “Technology is so powerful, but it has also taken over our lives,” says Staff. “How do you put the genie back in the bottle? To me, a tiny house represents a sacred place without Wi-Fi, where you don’t do any work and nobody bothers you.”
At the time, a broader movement was emerging that asked people to consciously disconnect from their devices, a concept that computer science professor Cal Newport describes as “digital minimalism.” Millennials were going on digital detox retreats to get away from their technology. Staff believed there would be a market for places that people could visit regularly to recharge their batteries in nature. He partnered with Pete Davis, who was studying at Harvard Law School, to pilot the Getaway concept by building an outpost of three tiny houses in Southern New Hampshire for friends and family to rent. But first, they had to figure out how to build a tiny house.
Jerry Rigging a Tiny House
Unlike traditional hospitality companies, which partner with developers to build hotels, Staff found himself in the position of putting up the cabins himself. It was possible to buy pre-fabricated tiny houses, but he still had to adapt them to meet the needs of guests coming for an overnight stay. That’s how Staff found himself jerry-rigging cabins with his own hands under the Tobin Bridge in Boston, which is effectively a scrap yard under a highway. His father, along with the Cambridge-based carpenter Patrick Mulroy helped him out. “My lack of experience in the hospitality business is both a blessing and a curse,” Staff says.
Together, they installed one of the most noticeable aspects of the Getaway cabin: the floor-to-ceiling window next to the beds. Each cabin is carefully positioned so that the bed has an unobstructed view onto nature, which lets guests feel like they are sleeping in the middle of the forest. Staff spent hours contemplating bigger amenities, like the shower and kitchen, as well as smaller details, such as where people could store their luggage and hang their coats. When he finally had three prototypes that felt right, the Getaway team attached the tiny houses to a trailer and transported them to New Hampshire, where they had leased a small campground. One of the most complicated aspects of setting them up was connecting them to water and electricity sources in the middle of nowhere. Once they had these logistics sorted out, they were ready for guests.
The pilot, which took place in the summer of 2015, was a success. Visitors reported that they loved the experience. So Staff and Davis decided to officially launch Getaway in 2016. With an initial round of seed funding, they identified and purchased campsites outside Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C., where they could build 30 to 40 cabins apiece. To scale production, they outsourced the work to builders who specialize in prefabricated tiny homes.
During the pandemic, Getaway has given these builders a lot of work: In 2020, the company opened locations close to Austin, Houston, and the Research Triangle in North Carolina. And more Getaways are in the works. With its new Series C funding, the company plans to launch a site outside of Chicago, plus additional outposts in New York and Boston, to accommodate the high demand from these cities. “There’s a misconception that these cabins are just in the middle of nowhere,” Staff says. “But it’s more complicated than you might think to find a perfect place that is two hours from the city and that’s also serene, quiet, and beautiful. One of my jobs is to stand on a prospective plot of land and listen to see if I could hear the highway.”
To Getaway’s investors, the brand’s easy-to-build tiny houses, coupled with its stylish, highly curated in-cabin experience, will allow the company to scale quickly. “Getaway has sorted out the kinks of the business model and can now replicate the experience around the country relatively quickly,” says Haldorsen. “Even before the pandemic, we knew that millennials were eager for outdoor travel experiences. Getaway can meet this uptick in demand quickly.”
But as the COVID-19 crisis comes to an end, what’s next for Getaway? So many people—like myself—came to Getaway out of desperation, searching for a workable vacation in the pandemic. When we’re vaccinated and able to travel again, will these tiny cabins in the woods still be as enticing?
Francis-Cummings of Destination Analysts believes the new wave of glamping startups will continue to thrive. In the immediate aftermath of COVID-19, consumers who have disposable income will spend their travel budgets on flying, since they’ve been denied the option for so long. But others may not have the money to do so, particularly if they experienced financial strife during the pandemic. Nearby camping or glamping trips may be more appealing to them. Many young people are also more conscious about sustainability when it comes to travel. “Among millennial and Gen Z travelers, glamping is not just easier on the budget, it has less of a negative impact on the planet,” says Francis-Cummings.
Staff recognizes that some of his customers will begin spending travel dollars on other kinds of vacations; indeed, he has his own wish list of trips he’d like to take once the threat of COVID-19 recedes. But he also believes that he’s created a concept that can live on in the post-pandemic world. For one thing, he’s tried to frame Getaways not as one-off adventures, but as regular escapes from the high-stress, fast-paced world of city life: The team has carefully picked locations that are just far enough that they offer a change of scenery, but close enough that they make for an easy weekend trip. The Getaway Often packs, which will continue after the pandemic, are priced to make these regular trips affordable. If working from home continues to be a norm, as many predict it will, Staff believes that the value proposition of Getaway will remain compelling.
This aligns with Destination Analysts’ research. “People now consider travel part of their health and wellness routine,” says Francis-Cummings. KOA’s survey found that 40% of people who tried glamping for the first time during the pandemic plan to continue doing so into 2021.
I’m among them. This year, I’ve visited the New Hampshire Getaway about once a month. It’s a way for me to recharge after a draining week and get an up-close view of the trees changing with the seasons. At this point, it’s become something of a routine—one that I intend to hold onto.