The man who dragged camping into the 21st Century
If you plan a camping holiday you’ll almost certainly come across Dan Yates’ wonderful website Pitchup.com. It’s the single most useful resource for campers, listing 5,000 British campsites. Whether you want to glamp in the New Forest or park your Avondale Rialto caravan in Skegness, it’s your one-stop-shop.
It even lists yurts.
As Pitchup’s founder and boss, Yates has become the “voice of camping.” Whenever the BBC or broadsheets want a spokesman he’s the man on speed dial. He’s a regular at travel industry events too, especially awards ceremonies.
Pitchup has won a basketful of gongs, including Best Strategic PR campaign at the Travel Marketing Awards, Best Site at the Travolution Awards and a shortlist on the Good Web Guide’s Site of the Year award.
Not bad for a 35-year-old first time entrepreneur.
Yates makes it all look so easy. Which is why it’s reassuring to learn that although the site is only two years old, he spent the best part of a decade planning it.
Speaking from his Putney headquarters he explains: “I grew up on a campsite, my parents ran one in North Devon. I’d been toying with the idea of a website like Pitchup since 2003. I’d set up the website for my family’s campsite and could see the potential for a booking site.
In 2009 Yates was working for Lastminute.com. He observed that hotels and flights were fiercely contested by dotcoms. But camping holidays remained untouched by the web.
So he raised angel funds from family and friends and quit Lastminute.
In fact there were good reasons the travel majors didn’t cover camping. The camping industry is fragmented. There are thousands of campsites, most of which are manager owned. Many are so technologically backward they can’t take bookings. And there is huge variation of the service on offer.
“The sector is more diverse than it looks. You’ve got places to pitch tents, caravans, teepees, eco-pods and yurts, and there are more than 80 different amenities to consider. Hotels are just big concrete boxes, much simpler by comparison.”
The first challenge was getting the campsites to list on Pitchup. Solution? A freemium model. “We made it free for camp sites list on Pitchup. This made sure they had nothing to lose. After a year we added online booking functionality, which has a fee.”
For sites which couldn’t process online bookings Yates offered a simple work-around. “We created a method whereby sites would give us a fixed amount of pitches to sell, say 50, and then ringfence those slots for us. Today 72 per cent of the market can’t take online bookings, so this is a valuable way for them to attract holiday makers who want to book using the internet.”
Pitchup is responsible for many locations entering the cyber-age. “Last year we only had six sites which could process bookings online. Now we have 200. Once they see how Pitchup can help them attract customers they quickly want to build an online booking facility.”
Yates’ real talent is making the site usable. Even a technophobic can navigate with no problems. “We consciously made Pitchup reflect the simplicity of the industry we are in. For example, the booking page is just a single page. A holiday site needs to be enjoyable to use.”
Which isn’t to imply the site is basic. In fact, information on destinations is supplemented with reams of third-party data. “Look at a site and you can see what the Good Pub Guide has to say about the area. We have National Trust properties and cycle routes.”
Every extra layer of information adds a barrier to entry to any would-be competitors.
To promote the site Yates opted for public relations (well, he could hardly afford a national TV campaign, unlike Lastminute or Expedia). Fortunately, he’s got a gift for PR: “My agency, Flagship Consulting, is great. The key to PR is to leap on issues and news. For example, the boss of Thompson holidays talked about holiday parks to The Sun claiming visitor numbers were down.
“We contacted the business editor of The Sun with the real facts and he published them. That’s how you get coverage in newspapers – by responding fast and approaching the right people direct.”
To keep costs down Yates runs a flexible employment structure. “Our industry is unbelievably seasonal. So it makes sense for us to have a mix of employees, staff and freelancer. At peak we have ten staff.”
He’s also been lucky in the timing of his venture. The global downturn has meant boom years for camping: “The timing for Pitchup was just perfect! Foreign travel is down 20 per cent on 2007. People want a staycation. There is the issue of carbon emissions too. There is an awareness of the environmental considerations of flying abroad. And there’s the rise of glamorous camping.
“Camping holidays have gone ballistic.”
Putting a valuation on Pitchup is difficult. The revenue model requires campsites to upgrade to the booking system offered by Yates. That number is rising, but is still only a tiny percentage of the total. Over time more and more campsites will add that functionality and Pitchup’s revenue will rise with it.
It is also possible that Pitchup’s success will attract some of the bigger holiday brands to expand their booking service into camping. This isn’t too big a danger though, as Pitchup has developed such strong links with individual camps.
The real key is that Yates lives and breathes camping. Raised on a campsite and now running the UK’s largest website on camping he lives and breathes the trade. Naturally, camping is still his favourite way to escape from London.
“I go camping a few times per year in the West, most recently in Herefordshire and next up, a camping pod.”
Expedia and Lastminute can’t compete with that.