An Interview with Big Chief Tipis

UK: As a sixteen year old débutante I attended my first ever Leeds Festival, ending up camped on a hillside with a fortunately close buddy on what felt like an 85% gradient. We spent our nights curled up in the foetal position, reassuring each other that it’d all be okay in the end (it hasn’t been), and somehow propping ourselves up in our sleep with what could be generously referred to as our muscles. We had to sleep with our legs hanging out of the tent and on the first night my wristband somehow evaporated and his wallet was stolen by a wayward bandit. After deciding that I’d had enough of snoozing perpendicular I migrated to another friend’s campsite, in which I slept in a spare tent that was half flooded with botulism-contaminated swamp water.

Maybe it’s just me and my friends getting older, but nowadays people seem less willing to put up with post-apocalyptic campsite conditions in order to watch a few ubiquitous, aggressively middle-of-the-road indie bands. Concurrent with this ostensibly prevailing attitude has been the proliferation of the boutique festival. Alongside these festivals’ focus on niche acts, non-musical installations, gourmet cuisine, and toilets that amount to more than abyssal Kraken-infested cesspools, there has been a greater priority placed on alternatives to slumming it in one-man Tesco value pop-up tents. Somewhere along the line the term ‘glamping was’ coined, a portmanteau of ‘glamorous’ and ‘camping’ almost certainly thought up by a white girl who phrases every sentence with an upwards inflection on the end as if she’s asking a question?

Festival Insights spoke to Hayley Harthern from Big Chief Tipis, who are behind what are possibly the coolest, classiest solutions in existence to personal camping, bar spaces and performance areas at festivals. We spoke about their unique selling points, and the potential reasons for the growing demand for non-musical offerings at festivals. We both used the words ‘tipi’ and ‘glamping’ way too much in the process, to the point that both words lost their meaning. That concept is called ‘Semantic Satiation’ by the way – thanks Reddit.

Festival Insights: Luxury alternatives to typical festival tents come in various forms. What sets Big Chief Tipis apart from its competitors?

Hayley Harthern: Well we create three sizes of tipi: the Big Hat, the Midi, and the Baby. The latter is our ‘glamping’ option, and although it’s smaller in size it’s actually constructed with the same materials as the larger tipis. As a result, they’re of much higher quality than those you would normally see at festivals that will leak at the first sign of rain. Ours are constructed by our sister company, The Tipi Company, right here in Manchester, which has earned our tipis the prestigious Made In Britain marque.

Our products are totally waterproof and wind-proof; each has a durable, woven matted floor, which is put over a waterproof membrane with raised sides. All the wood is sourced from Scandinavia, from really formidable, 80-year-old trees. We’ve even set one of our tipis up in a wind tunnel and it held its own perfectly well. We also put a lot of effort into the décor: our Baby tipis have a porch, a wooden entranceway, a log-burning stove & flume, a four-poster bed with a muslin cloth overheard, an antler chandelier, two tree stump bedside tables adorned with lanterns, a shelf at the end of the bed to put your bags on, and a hanging wardrobe. If there’s power available at the festival you can hook that up inside too.

In terms of proper tipi construction we only have one competitor and they’re based in Sweden, which is a good vantage point for us. Being based in the UK allows us to do a lot of flexible, bespoke projects. So if Cancer Research UK want us to construct four pink, interconnecting tipis, for example, then we can do that.

Glamping interior - The Tipi Company

FI: Speaking of flexibility: Can you provide tipis large enough to house performance spaces at festivals?

HH: Yeah, you can interlink the tipis together, and there’s not really an upper limit on the size of the spaces we can create. The biggest party was for upwards of 1,500 people – which comprised 50 tipis – so the possibilities are endless. We can open up all the sides so people can mosey in and out, for say, an open mic tent. Alternatively we can close them all down and have a single entrance for something that requires a darker, more secluded space, like a silent disco for example. We can attach Baby tipis to these larger spaces to supplement them with more intimate makeshift areas, just in case you want a chill-out area or Hookah lounge or something.

Big Chief Tipis

FI: There’s an increasingly pronounced dichotomy between commercial festivals – that host mainstream musical acts and not much else – and boutique festivals who’re the opposite in their priorities. Since ‘glamping’ represents a huge part of what these latter festivals have to offer, can you attribute the increasing popularity of the boutique festival to anything in particular?

HH: I think the 21st century is all about experiences. That’s why I chose to climb Kilimanjaro last month, because I wanted to have an amazing, singular, novel experience. When you’re really into festivals they become the highlight of your year, as opposed to a traditional holiday, so it makes sense to spare no expense if you can afford it. This is especially true if the novelty of just seeing bands has worn off, and you’re looking to experience everything else on offer.

FI: I think over saturation of the market has a big part to play too. There’s only a finite amount of artists available to book, and anyone over the age of twenty has probably seen the majority of acts they want to see already at the multitude of copy & pasted commercial festivals with no unique element aside from their branding.

HH: Absolutely, and it makes more sense for us to be at those chic, holistic festivals because they attract attendees who are less concerned with the music, and more-so with the finer experiences on offer. Those events treat the experience less like a chance to simply get drunk in a field with your mates, and more like a 5-star holiday. Since our company is still in its infancy we missed out on this year’s festival season, but we’re already in talks to get involved with a bunch of events in 2015.