Maybe Terramor should be Terrless?

When KOA decided it wanted to get into the luxury end of the campground business—goosed along, no doubt, by its survey findings that there are a lot of campers out there with too much money and not enough ways to spend it at a conventional RV park—the brand-happy brain trust in Billings, Montana, opted to spin off yet another name plate. Even “KOA Resort” must have seemed too plebian for something as grand as was being envisioned for this new venture. Something more lofty and cultured was needed.

So it was that KOA gave birth to the pseudo-Latinate “Terramor,” a designer mashup connoting “love of the earth.” And thus began a protracted exercise in unintended irony.

The first Terramor glampground was created a couple of years ago in Bar Harbor, Maine, on the grounds of the former Woodlands KOA. Problems ensued. Although highly rated overall in Google reviews, a surprisingly large number of negative reviews identified the same basic problems: too much road noise, a lack of parking at the luxury tents, gravel trails that made it hard to haul luggage from car to tent, tents crowded too close together, inadequate outdoor lighting—problems, in other words, that had to do with location and infrastructure limitations. Problems that might put a serious dent in any return business, given Terramor’s site rates of $350 to $500 a night.

So when KOA went shopping for a second Terramor location, it wanted a blank canvas, a raw piece of property in an upscale neighborhood that it could shape more to its liking. That upscale neighborhood turned out to be near the Catskills towns of Woodstock and Saugerties, an area gaining some renown as the new Hamptons for New York’s monied crowd. The property it settled on is a 77-acre expanse of mature forest, providing relatively more space for site dispersal and sound buffering than it had in Bar Harbor, on which KOA is proposing to build 75 luxury platform tents with ensuite bathrooms and showers, each with its own firepit and parking space. Oh, and there also are plans for a 4,000-square-foot restaurant and event center, an outfitter’s shop, a swimming pool and wellness center, and a small cluster of housing units for 28 employees.

But—can this be?—KOA’s prospective neighbors are not happy. Up to 15 of the 77 acres are wetlands, which KOA proposes to bridge with a berm that will disrupt water flow. Talk of evening concerts has raised concerns about noise pollution, with some residential properties only 100 feet from the glamping sites. Increased traffic, wood smoke from dozens of fire pits, loss of wildlife habitat—no, the neighbors are not happy. They’ve formed a group called Citizens Against Terramor, started a petition and a GoFundMe account, and raised nearly $30,000 locally to hire a hydrologist, an environmental engineer, a geologist—and, of course, a lawyer.

Protesters at planning board meetings have been hoisting signs that read “Terra LESS” and “Terramor Means ‘Love the Earth’: What About ‘Love Thy Neighbor?'”

Here’s the promised irony: not four miles up the road is the former Saugerties/Woodstock KOA, a typically modest mom-and-pop KOA franchise that puttered along for years to middling reviews. But that all ended two years ago, and earlier this year the property reopened as—wait for it—AutoCamp Catskills. That’s right: one of KOA’s major national competitors in the glamping sector has set up shop at a former KOA that’s a five-minute drive away. And did it without any of the sturm und drang that is battering the Terramor proposal, basically because it was not changing area dynamics.

Indeed, while KOA is still hoping its contested Terramor project can be opened in 2024, AutoCamp already has generated a slug of fawning press coverage for its first season. The 37-acre site houses 65 converted Airstream trailers, 10 tiny-home cabins and 10 “basecamps,” which comprise an Airstream plus a luxury tent; a central wood-beamed clubhouse with vaulted ceilings provides room for games, craft cocktails and morning breakfast and coffee service. (The discerning reader may note that this is a significantly higher development density than is being proposed for Terramor, making the lack of local opposition all the more notable.)

And, of course, everything is quite expensive, with weekend nights in October (two-night minimum required) priced upwards of $500 a night—not to mention firewood selling for $20 a bundle, barbecue kits for $69 and s’more kits for $15. “I’ve been in this industry for 15 years and I’ve never seen prices like this,” a local travel agent told a skeptical New York Post reporter. It’s also, of course, why KOA continues to flog this particular horse, despite all the ill-will it’s generating locally. There’s money to be made, dammit, and getting it the old-fashioned way—you know, by catering to middle-class families with travel trailers and troops of snotty-nosed kids—is just so dreary. And slow.

Glamping. Yeah—that’s the ticket.

Jan. 25 author’s note: This post has been lightly edited to make some corrections, but because this is an evolving story, the reader is encouraged to look at the subsequent post for updates.

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Glampers riot over boxed wine

Sheriff’s deputies and Maine state police responded in force Friday afternoon to the MIA glampground in Bar Harbor, where approximately three dozen deep-pocketed campers went on a destructive rampage after realizing that their afternoon soirees had been serving boxed wines. Tents were toppled, bed linens were strewn around the grounds and the heated swimming pool was tinged a dark red, with empty wine boxes bobbing on the water.

Glampground employees, who had barricaded themselves in the exercise room until law enforcement authorities responded to their frantic cell phone calls, said everything had been normal at the 20-acre facility until the afternoon wine and cheese party. At that point, said glampground manager Horace Quimbly, “one of the guests screamed that she couldn’t endure it any longer–that there was a limit to how much she could take. That seemed to trigger something in the other guests, and the next thing you know they turned into a raving mob.”

A state police representative confirmed the manager’s account, noting that the glampers had become so unruly that caviar had been smeared on guests’ cars in the parking lot. “What kind of animals would damage their own property?” he asked, shaking his head ruefully while pointing at the streaked windshield of a Jaguar F-Type sports car, “this place sucks” scrawled in the dripping roe.

Police ended up handcuffing three of the most belligerent glampers and writing arrest warrants for a dozen more for disturbing the peace and malicious destruction of private property, and by early evening a troubled peace had descended on the premises. But clumps of glampers in animated conversation could be seen around the grounds, furtively glancing over their shoulders as they exchanged complaints about the facility.

“The port and blue stilton were of acceptable quality,” fumed Olivia Sharpton, 46, of Mamaroneck, N.Y., describing the day’s events to a reporter. “But we had been wondering about the pinot noir that they were pairing up with a very nice gruyere –the cheese quite overwhelmed the wine, which was extremely distressing. Quel dommage! But then we discovered, quite by accident, that we’d been served an Oregon boxed varietal that they had decanted into Chateau Latour bottles. What were they thinking? That we wouldn’t know the difference? That’s outrageous!”

“That was absolutely the last straw,” chimed in her husband, Oliver Sharpton, 73. “It’s been one thing after another, ever since we arrived Monday. The hot tub was consistently at just 99 degrees, no matter how much we complained. The thread count of our linens could not have been higher than 400, which means we essentially were sleeping in burlap sacks. And the weather! Fog in the mornings, showers in the afternoons and mosquitoes in the evening–do these people have no regard for their paying guests?”

As others in their small group nodded in agreement, a portly gentlemen in a white linen suit who declined to give his name summed up the overall sentiment. “I’m all for roughing it and getting out into nature,” he said. “But there are limits!”

[Editor’s note: this should go without saying, but this post is a satire–just barely.]

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Nothing beats the great — indoors?

Waddya gonna do when you get that itch to hit the trail, sleep under the stars, cook over an open fire and embrace the great outdoors–but the great outdoors just isn’t all that welcoming? When the horizon is aglow with forest fires and the air is thick with ash, or the skies have opened up with downpours that wash away everything in their path, or the winds are howling with an incessant fury that. . . .

Well, hell. Why not take the great outdoors and simply move it indoors, right?

Welcome to the Basecamp Hotel in South Lake Tahoe, which has elevated (?) the glamping concept to a head-spinning new high with its “Great Indoors” rooms. Large safari tent: check. Camping chairs and picnic table: check. Electric fake log fire in front of a wall-size photorealistic view of the forest: check and check. But also a king-size bed with triple-sheeting, high-speed wireless internet, a walk-in shower–and Harrah’s Lake Tahoe casino mere steps away. How better to combine the best of all possible camping worlds?

Actually, it’s a toss-up whether you choose to view the Basecamp as a dystopian omen of the future for camping or as a witty bit of playfulness, perhaps evidenced by its replacement of the standard-issue Bible in each hotel room with the “Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook.” The playful touch is just light enough to have charmed a New York Times reviewer in December, who described it as having “the low-key, homespun feel of a hotel started by your hippest friends.”

Then again, one can wonder if this isn’t the logical evolutionary end-point of the whole glamping phenomenon. First started as an effort to make camping more comfortable, glamping quickly evolved into a quest for more and then still more luxury, from high thread-count linens to cappuccino machines to hot tubs. But despite all that opulence, such nuisances as pesky bugs and wind-driven rain persisted–so why not put the whole package inside four walls and under a roof, where every input can be controlled?

Why not (gasp!) invent a motel?

Two footnotes to the Basecamp Hotel. One, it doesn’t permit pets, so perhaps that’s taking the nature-at-one-remove a step too far. But two, and on the other hand, it also doesn’t have air conditioning, so that’s a bit of camping authenticity for you. Of course, that’s also the biggest source of complaints in the Basecamp’s online reviews, going to prove that you just can’t please everyone.

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Luxury and rustic camping, part 2

If “the intersection between luxury and rustic camping,” detailed in my last post, doesn’t strike you as absurd, consider the following real-world example of just how looney-tunes this can become :

For the past couple of years, a proposal to build a 57-site glamping campground on the Gallatin River in southwest Montana has been bumping along despite vociferous local opposition. The problem? The proposed 16-acre Riverbend Glamping Resort is being planned for a mile-long spit of land that sits between two channels of the river, all of it either in or surrounded by the floodway. The locals think that’s nuts. As one wrote to local officials: “You know the land is going to flood. I know it is going to flood. . . . Anyone with the sense god gave geese knows this is going to flood.”

Then there are the gas, fiber-optic and sewage lines that have to be drilled under the Gallatin, just so glampers can relax in one of a shifting mix of safari tents, teepees, Airstreams or Conestoga “wagons,” the last bearing the same relationship to real prairie schooners as a Norwegian cruise liner has to the Nina, Pinta or Santa Maria. The locals aren’t wild about that, either, as they contemplate the possibility of line breaks and river contamination.

And if the mix of accommodations sounds a bit indefinite, that’s because the project itself seems to be a work in progress–something else that gets local juices flowing. To date, it’s not clear if a comprehensive proposal has ever been submitted for public review. Permit applications have been filed piecemeal, one for drilling under the river, a different one to build gravel site pads on the site. Fresh details emerge sporadically, such as plans for a second well–drilled right in the floodway–incidentally included in an unrelated filing. Planning restrictions seem irrelevant, including the provision in the Galatin Gateway Community Plan that new development “should be designed to avoid the flood plain and to provide a setback from the river.”

On balance, then, local residents see little upside and a whole lot of down. As adjacent landowner Kris Kruid claimed in her written objections, the proposal threatens to transform “a pristine, natural, blue-ribbon trout stream with a healthy ecosystem of plant and wildlife to a polluted, trash-filled waterway . . . and bank degradation from uneducated trespassers trampling the fragile riparian habitat.” Others bemoaned the impact of such development on the island’s beaver, whitetail deer and bald eagles–the kinds of attractions trumpeted in an ad campaign for the project that asserted, “tourists visit Montana to experience our natural beauty.”

Hogwash, wrote Scott Bosse in an op-ed piece in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. It’s “obvious” that the developer’s “primary motive is to make money off tourists who are willing to shell out a few hundred bucks a night to camp in a high hazard zone on a storied river.”

That was in February, when public comments on the gravel pads application were closed. In early April, the Gallatin County Commission unanimously decided that the project could move forward, with some stipulations. And on June 13 and 14 the Gallatin reached its highest flood stage since the record-setting flood of 1997, cresting at 6.7 feet above normal, nearly 9,000 cubic feet a second of water tearing down both channels of the river and covering much of the island that splits them.

During the public hearings, the glampground’s developer had responded to concerns about flooding by pointing to his planned use of Conestoga wagons. Utilities to the wagons would have quick shut-off couplers, permitting rapid relocation to higher ground. “The whole thing can be done with one staff member in under four hours,” he was quoted by the Chronicle. “We’re talking about less than four minutes for each wagon.”

That seems like an optimistic timetable, but being rousted in the middle of the night so your covered wagon can be hauled out of a river is the very definition of “rustic” and sure to be a hit with the glamping crowd. Now if only there were some way to throw in a buffalo stampede . . . .

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Amping the glamping

Bella Solviva, according to its owners, Brad and Sandy Carlson, supposedly means “beautiful hope.” “Beautiful hype” might have been more like it, as perhaps signalled by its inexplicable mash-up of two different languages.

Bella Solviva was unveiled in 2015, amid fawning media coverage and lavish online pictures, as a 229-acre first-class Michigan glamping resort. Visitors would be able to book a dizzying array of accommodations, from converted yachts and an airliner to luxury tents, travel trailers and treehouses, and would have access to such amenities as a fitness center, massages and catered meals. The “eco-chic” facility would feature organic cotton linens and grey water recycling. As reservations started rolling in, Bella Solviva’s website also offered annual memberships, a rewards program and purchase of gift certificates of up to $5,000.

It was all a scam. The pictures were copied from other sites, ground was never broken and various necessary permits were never obtained–even as Bella Solviva continued soliciting reservations. After two years of growing consumer complaints, the Better Business Bureau issued a consumer alert observing that the company had not “even started initial construction,” and less than a week after that the road-side sign marking the property had disappeared. Bella Solviva as a corporate entity was dissolved a year later, in July of 2018. But it took another three years after that for the Carlsons to be called to account–if you can call it that–as they pleaded no contest this past week to multiple state charges of larceny. Their penalty? Two years’ probation.

This wasn’t the couple’s first exercise in financial recklessness (to be kind), as they had juggled several businesses over the years with no apparent success and had filed for bankruptcy just a couple of years before starting the glamping grift. But the more dismaying aspect of the entire episode is how Bella Solviva lives on in some quarters, a zombie scam that refuses to die even though it’s been defanged.

To whit: this past June 15–which is to say, months after the Carlsons were indicted and years after their scam had gone up in smoke–a website called RVshare published what it described as an updated version of an article it had previously published April 13, 2016. The headline on the 2021 “update?” “Luxurious Glamping in Northern Michigan.” The text went on to rhapsodically describe a facility “that will offer guests a combination of contact with natural beauty and all the creature comforts of modern life,” while also acknowledging that “the resort is still in its preliminary stages.”

Indeed. Proving, yet again, that just because you read something doesn’t mean it’s true.

Cognitive dissonance

If you want to experience mental whiplash, pick up the most recent copy of Woodall’s Campground Magazine and open to page 3. The top and middle of the page feature Noah’s Ark pictures and stories of recent flooding of campgrounds in Louisiana and Pennsylvania. Subsequent pages have stories about KOA reopening its Florida Keys campground, four years after it was demolished by Hurricane Ida, and about California’s campgrounds working “to stay on top of [the] wildfire situation.” America’s campgrounds, in other words, have been getting pounded by extreme weather.

But then, as if to declare that not all is gloom and doom, at the bottom of that same page 3 is a story headlined, “Glamping Show USA Anticipates Large In-Person Event.” Oh, those plucky glampers.

The glamping extravaganza is scheduled to start this Monday in Aurora, Col., and organizers say registration is “way ahead of the pace” from the pre-Covid display in 2019. More than 50 glamping “structures” are being featured, from tipis to yurts to large tents, cabins and conestoga “wagons”–all of which, it should be noted, are sitting ducks for destruction by flood or fire. RVs, if nimble, can be moved out of disaster’s path relatively easily. Structures, even lightweight canvas ones, not so much.

On the other hand, there may be heightened demand for more glamping opportunities these days: it turns out that the Veranda Suite at the Beverly Wilshire has been closed until next year for renovations, which is sure to create a demand for alternatives. The roof-top Veranda Suite, for those who haven’t kept up with this sort of thing, includes a 2,140-square-foot terrace on which is perched a 10-foot tall, 16-foot diameter tent, outfitted with a queen-size bed, crystal chandelier, marble lamps and fur rugs. It also has an unparalleled view of the Los Angeles skyline, backlit by the occasional forest fire in the surrounding foothills.

That’s $3,500 a night that would go a whole lot further in Aurora, where first-class hotel rooms can be had for less than $200.

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