When Céline Bossanne and her husband Philippe moved back to their home of Lyon, France, after living in Toronto for a few years, they were struck by how hard it was to find good camping. During their time in Canada in the early ’90s, they enjoyed easy access to nature and places like Algonquin Provincial Park, where they developed a love for the outdoors. Back in France, however, they were disappointed by the dearth of good outdoor space.
Over Zoom, Celine Bossanne tells me, “We would’ve loved to go camping with our kids, but at that time the internet almost didn’t exist and it was very difficult to find information about where to go camping. We also don’t have the same kind of camping available back in France.”
As she tells it, campgrounds were much more run down and overcrowded than they experienced in Canada. Nothing that they wanted existed in France, so they decided to create their own. Philippe was an entrepreneur so the couple got right to creating a brand and a concept that wasn’t on the market at the time. They decided on the name Huttopia, a nod to the sort of camping paradise they envisioned.
Officially founded in 1999 the company started off with one small campground and slowly expanded over the next 20 years to the 47 properties it currently has in France. In their home country the’re an established entity, a power-player in the camping game. Their model, however, sits somewhere between traditional do-it-yourself camping and the recent trend of glamping in luxury accommodations befitting your favorite influencers “outdoorsy” photoshoot.
Bossanne is adamant that they are not doing glamping. She cites the amorphous definition of what glamping is — anything from a tent with a butler to a tiny house. Bossane has no issue with the countless companies that have sprouted up over the past decade, but that is not what they are, she assures me.
“What I’m doing is comfortable camping” she says “right now, in people’s mind, glamping is very expensive. It’s very luxurious and more expensive than five-star hotels. That’s not what we want to do. We want to offer our customers the opportunity to live in and with nature in a simple and comfortable way.”
They opted for elevated trapper-type tents that were popular with those in the Canadian wilderness hundreds of years ago. Except, the entrepreneurs that they are, the Bossanne’s decided to hire a designer and manufacturer to create their own proprietary lodgings from PVC pipes and canvas, all on an elevated wooden frame. They set them up and take them down at the beginning and end of each season. “All the other companies in the camping industry thought that we were kind of lunatics with our tents, because, at that time, nobody was doing that. And it is a lot of work to set them up every year.”
Since their success in France, they’ve expanded to the new world, where the inspiration for the company originated. They currently have one outpost in Canada, near the Vermont border, and four in the United States, three in the Northeast and one in Southern California. Doing a bit of reconnaissance work for this piece, I decided to take a trip upstate last fall to the Adirondacks in order to test out one of their newest locations.
After turning off Route 9N in upstate New York and winding our way up a hill, we found ourselves at the check-in area. A woodchip parking lot sat to the left, a large wooden cabin with a sizable deck overlooking the surrounding woods to the right. Inside was a small coffee shop/restaurant and a small camping shop with essentials one may have forgotten.
We got our keys and were off. Unlike many campgrounds (but not all) in the U.S., at Huttopia you must leave your car in the parking area and port your luggage over to your tent. This is very much by design in order to establish the separation of the outside world and the Huttopia world.
“It’s better not to have the noise of the cars. You don’t have to create the same roads to go everywhere. It’s very important for us to keep the place as it is because every time you create a road for a car, it has a real impact on the site.” Bossanne tells me on our Zoom call. “And the fact that you don’t have the noise from your neighbor’s car leaving when you wake up in the morning is a huge plus.”
And I must say, it really was. Not hearing cars pull in at all hours of the day or feeling the blast of high beams tearing through your tent as you are trying to fall asleep helped to create a nice layer (albeit small one) of separation from outside disturbances. The tent itself was, as promised, comfortable but not glamorous. We had a bed, wood burning stove and small kitchen area along with a real, working shower with hot water. It was comfortable but not frivolous.
“We had this simplicity and comfort we wanted to mix, because it’s very nice to sleep under a tent, but it’s even better when you have a mattress. And it’s nice to camp, but it’s even better when you have a hot shower in the morning. So, it’s this mix of services and essential things related to camping.” Bossanne tells me as to their philosophy behind their designs.
They’re planning to expand their footprint in North America with the goal of launching 10 to 15 new locations across the United States in the next five years. She tells me it’s different here “because in France, we are more like a bigger company and more like a reference in our industry, but in the U.S., we’re considered a startup. It’s kind of fun for us, but it’s also very difficult.”
They have plans for places like Florida, Texas, California and others that may not be typical locations for such things. Whatever they do, though, they want to make sure it’s a local experience bringing in local goods and services and educators for programming in order to add more incentive for campers to come by.
“Our products are for the locals. When you go to the Adirondacks, a lot of people are coming from the city. When you go to White Mountains, a lot of people are coming from Boston. I mean, so we’re for the locals. And I think this is the future of tourism.”
As outdoor activities continue to thrive under Covid looks for more experiences similar to Huttopia to expand, occupying the middle ground between camping and glamping. Camping is big business. In fact it is estimated that the global camping and caravanning market will reach $70 billion by 2026.
Bossanne says many people ask her how Covid has affected her business and she tells them, “Nothing. We’ve been doing the same thing for 22 years.”
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