By Emily Merrell
Camping has always been intimidating to me, it feels too primitive. Yet, a few years back, I had my first stay in a safari tent. Since then I’d been hunting for my next glamping experience and was thrilled to find Wildhaven Sonoma in Healdsburg. The beds were super comfortable, the campsite is minutes from wine tastings and downtown Healdsburg and the experience is super chill. My favorite part about the location is that you can either dine in town or cook your own food on the fire pits or BBQs. Learn more how Ken Barber and Brian Lawrence founded the hottest new glamping destination.
SDS: How did Wildhaven Sonoma go from an RV park to a luxe glamping destination in Healdsburg, CA?
KEN BARBER & BRIAN LAWRENCE: Brian and I were looking to build a glamping resort in a beautiful setting that had the infrastructure ready to go (including electricity, water and bathrooms.) The spot we chose was a campground for 50+ years and then an RV park for the previous 10. We spent seven months on improvements, building the tent platforms and fixing up the property (fences, landscaping, river access, bathrooms, showers, etc.) We hired a top-notch staff with hotel and resort experience. We also built a new brand to reflect the upgraded property and more elevated guest experience.
KB & BL: We met after joining a social activity group in SF called Urban Diversion, shortly after we each moved to SF. We had similar backgrounds hiking and camping across the country – and previously starting businesses. We recognized that glamping made sense for overworked Californians who wanted to get into nature and would appreciate a low-stress outdoors experience where the hard work was taken care of.
SDS: Tell us about your very first introduction to glamping.
KB & BL: Glamping takes many different forms. Both Brian and I would stay at huts and cabins in the outdoors where often the bed, kitchen, supplies and bathrooms were already provided. You just had to bring a sleeping bag. This approach opens up the outdoors to more audiences who may not have the gear, knowledge or confidence to jump right into camping. They have these networks of high-mountain huts in New Hampshire and Colorado, for example.
SDS: How does Wildhaven Sonoma differentiate from all other glamping experiences out there?
KB & BL: We spent 19 months traveling across California looking for a location that would set us apart from not only glamping resorts, but other lodging experiences. We found a spot surrounded by vineyards on two sides and a beautiful river on the third. It’s 10 minutes from the amazing restaurants and culture of a quaint small town (Healdsburg), and only 1 hour 15 minutes north of SF.
But we knew that the location alone, and even our large custom safari-style tents, would not be enough to set us apart from others. We put a strong focus on the 3 C’s that make for a memorable glamping experience:
- Comfort (we researched and purchased very comfortable beds and linens.)
- Cleanliness (we obsess over this inside our tents and in all common spaces.)
- Customer service (glampers want help and support enjoying the outdoors, so we assembled a very friendly team with hotel backgrounds and train them rigorously.)
Guests don’t expect an outdoors experience to focus on these areas, so we’ve been pleased to read reviews on our Google and Yelp pages that specifically call these out as things that surprised and impressed them about Wildhaven Sonoma.
SDS: What’s been the most surprising thing about opening up a glamping experience during Covid?
KB & BL: The demand! Our guests view glamping as a safer option during COVID-19 times since they aren’t inside a hotel sharing recycled air from other guests. They have their own tent cabin with a front deck and front yard to call their own. They are away from others, but with lots of fresh air. We also saw how it was an easy way for parents to provide a safe vacation for their kids who were already feeling cooped up and too connected to screens. Parents’ lives have become even more stressed due to Covid. Glamping makes sense as a way to easily bring the outdoors to their kids, since most things are already provided while glamping.
We were also surprised to see lots of reservations from multiple families who wanted to travel with each other in a safe way. At Wildhaven they each get a tent cabin next to each other, but far enough away to feel safe. Their kids can all play safely on our property while they sip wine from their individual front decks. They are outside – separated, but together.
SDS: Since the last time I was up there, you’ve added double queen deluxe tents and so much more! What can we expect from you guys in the months to come?
KB & BL: Yes, our booking site now includes our nicest group of tents yet, our Riverside tent cabins. They have our best location and views, along with enhanced features out front (double hammocks) and inside (christmas lights on the ceiling and rechargeable lanterns). We also just built two outdoor showers on the bluff overlooking the river. The next big announcement will be our new store selling local wine, beer and cider, as well as meats, cheese, and other snacks for a wine country picnic. We will then focus on new offerings for our guests: wine tastings, outdoor yoga classes, food trucks and live music. After that, we will launch a rental business by next spring with kayaks and cruiser bikes. We have six tasting rooms that are just a 10-minute bike ride away!