(Bloomberg) -- According to a report by the Outdoor Foundation, Americans log 598 million nights a year under the stars. At an average of $40 in expenses and fees per night, that’s $24 billion spent on campsites alone. Add in all the related costs—gear, transportation, food—and the Outdoor Industry Association figures the industry generates closer to $167 billion annually.
But former investment banker Michael D’Agostino, who grew up camping on a farm in Litchfield, Conn., still calls the industry a broken business.
The tipping point came a few summers ago, when D’Agostino found himself on vacation “directly across from a campsite of 40 people at a Wiccan convention: robes and UFO spotters and streaking and all.” It wasn’t what he’d imagined as a quiet weekend with his wife—counting stars, listening to crickets, bellies full from prime steaks grilled over a man-made fire. “We definitely took them up on some mead,” he said of the Wiccans, “but we had to keep the dog in the tent—she was going bonkers—and it was kind of like camping in Times Square.”
The experience led him to create Tentrr, a free iPhone app that takes the guesswork out of camping. It lets users find and instantly book fully private campsites in vetted, bucolic settings, all within a few hours’ drive of major cities. The sites themselves are all custom-designed by D’Agostino and follow a standardized footprint: They consist of hand-sewn canvas expedition tents from Colorado, set on an elevated deck with Adirondack chairs. You’re also guaranteed to find Brazilian wood picnic tables and sun showers strewn around the campsites, as well as portable camping toilets, fire pits, cookware, and grills. As for the sleeping arrangements? Air mattresses with featherbed toppers, not sleeping bags, are the name of the game.
Tentrr beta-launched last summer with just 50 campsites in New York state, while D’Agostino figured out how to get liability insurers on board with his slice of the sharing economy. Despite the soft opening, the app has already logged $4 million in funding and 1,500 bookings—40 percent of them by people who’d never gone camping before.
In the days leading up to Memorial Day, Tentrr will move past its beta phase with a newly expanded collection of roughly 150 campsites spread across the U.S. Northeast. By July 4 an additional 100 sites will gradually come online, not including a 50-site expansion into the Pacific Northwest. Next year, D’Agostino plans to tackle the “San Francisco-Yosemite corridor, the American Southwest, and counterclockwise around the perimeter of the U.S., all within a few hours of major metropolitan cities, until all of the country’s top-50 hubs are served.” His ultimate vision, however, is global.
The trick, said D’Agostino, is shifting campers away from national or state parks and working instead with private landowners. Among his campsite keepers are a set of fourth-generation dairy farmers, a contractor who runs a recording studio in his barn, and an “unnamed” actress with expansive property in New York’s Hudson Valley. All have dozens, if not hundreds, of acres to spare—making them perfect for Tentrr’s semipermanent campsites. (The tents are heated by cylinder stoves through November; after the camping season ends, either the tent keepers or Tentrr employees dismantle the sites and put them into weatherproof storage.)
It sounds limited, but Tentrr is setting up 10 to 20 campsites per week, with tent keepers paying a one-time, $1,500 membership fee to join. (It covers the setup of their site, which itself is valued at $6,000.) “We’ve been spreading by word-of-mouth like wildfire,” said D’Agostino. “We set up one camp, and one turns into 30.” But he’s wary of expanding too quickly and is limiting his company’s growth to no more than 35 new campsites per week—an effort to ensure demand continually outpaces supply.
How It Makes Money
Including a 15 percent booking fee, the average eight-person Tentrr campsite costs $144—a steal or a splurge, depending on how you look at it. That number is more than three times the industry average, but the tents require no setup, and some are even stocked with Frette linens.
A cut of the profit goes to the landowners—last year the average tent keeper made $6,000 from June to Thanksgiving. Add the cost of gas, groceries, and supplies, and D’Agostino estimates that for every 100 Tentrr sites, $1 million will be injected into the local economy.
For those who aren’t keen on a weekend full of endless Kumbayas, Tentrr is also in the business of connecting campers with local activities. When selecting a campsite, for instance, users can screen for locations that have access to wineries, swimming holes, horseback riding, or skeet shooting, among other pursuits. And soon the app will offer an application programming interface (API) to local vendors who’d like to sell these types of services directly to Tentrr’s adventurers.
Find Your Comfort Level
“If you want to have a very posh weekend in the woods, you can do that,” said D’Agostino. “Or if you want to fish for your dinner and cook it over a campfire, you can do that. We’ll give you the tools and the setting to do whatever will make you relax and recharge and reconnect.” Perhaps that’s why his app has drawn bookings from radically different types of travelers: honeymooners, billionaires-turned-Tentrr-investors, Brooklyn-based hipsters, and (least surprisingly) onetime Eagle Scouts.
Just don’t call it glamping. “My mother told me I should never use the word ‘hate,’ but I hate the word ‘glamping,’” D’Agostino said. “It implies a certain bourgeois quality where a butler shows up with a silver tray of croissants. Camping is supposed to be a rustic experience.”
His version of luxury consists of having acres and acres of land all to yourself—truly breaking with your busy, urban existence. That doesn’t just mean reconnecting with nature. For D’Agostino, camping is wrapped up with a bit of self-discovery, too. “We want you to go home to your city apartment with a real sense of accomplishment … maybe even feeling a little like Bear Grylls.”