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Treehouses Take Hospitality to New Heights

Bynewsmagzines

Apr 28, 2023
Skamania Lodge, owned by Pebblebrook Hotel Trust, has built nine treehouses since 2016 as part of the company's plans to grow its alternative accommodation offerings at the resort. (Pebblebrook Hotel Trust)


Treehouses as travel accommodations have become popular among guests looking for something different and more experiential stays.

In recognition of Arbor Day, Hotel News Now reached out to traditional and non-traditional owners and operators about their treehouses to learn about their investment decisions, how they work and what guests seek when booking a room among the trees.

The treehouses included in this article and slideshow vary in what they offer guests, but they all provide a higher-end experience than what parents typically build for their kids in their backyards. Be sure the check out the slideshow below of different treehouse properties around the world.

When Pebblebrook Hotel Trust acquired Skamania Lodge in 2011, the property in Stevenson, Washington, near the Columbia River Gorge was on 200 acres of land. Jon Bortz, chairman and CEO of Pebblebrook, said the prior owner was looking to add single-family housing, but that didn’t appeal to the hotel real estate investment trust team.

“We were looking for other ideas, and our [general manager] one day said, ‘Well, there’s a TV show about treehouses. What do you think of building some treehouses?’” Bortz said. “We said that seemed like a pretty cool idea.”

Pebblebrook executives were uncertain about building the treehouses in or around actual trees, so they instead designed cabins that stand atop steel beams, he said. The first two opened in September 2016, with a projected seven-year return on investment. It ended up being a five-year payback. The first two treehouses built run an average rate just shy of $500 a night, about double the rate for guestrooms at the main resort. Since the start, the treehouses have averaged occupancy of about 66%, also higher than the resort’s rooms.

“It was moving along very quickly, which is why we started the next two [treehouses] within maybe two years after that operating performance,” Bortz said.

The second phase of treehouses opened in October 2017, and included enhancements such as an alcove with a queen bed that’s surrounded by glass on three sides for a better view of the forest scenery. They average a higher occupancy and about $100 more in rate than the first treehouses.

In February, Skamania finished adding more treehouses, bringing its total to nine.

The treehouses are well-built cabins that should be perpetual, Bortz said. They’re more expensive to build per unit than a typical guestroom. The steel structure, foundation and support add about $100,000 to each unit. The overall cost has likely doubled since the first ones were built in 2016. The insides aren’t different from the inside of a resort or hotel room, so they should be on a five- to 12-year life cycle for soft goods and case goods.

As the treehouse units were an experiment with alternative accommodations in a more traditional resort setting, Pebblebrook took a methodical approach to it all, he said.

“There was no place we could look at and say, ‘Hey, we can look at this experience that they’re having, and we’ve been underwriting that, and we can move forward with 100 units,’” he said. “We just don’t know.”

It’s about maximizing returns at Pebblebrook’s properties, he said. The company isn’t buying plots of land and buildings with treehouses on them. They’re building them as part of a resort property that has excess land.

It’s a $7 billion hotel REIT investing approximately tens of millions of dollars into alternative accommodations, Bortz said. The first two treehouses cost about $1 million to build. The treehouses have proven enough of a success that Pebblebrook is adding other alternative accommodations to Skamania. Its next phase will include five glamping units, two cabins and a villa. Including the three treehouses that opened in February, the price tag comes to about $12 million. There are also plans for a farmhouse with gardens that guests could rent as well as luxury RV spaces.

They’re small return-on-investment projects, just like Pebblebrook would do at other properties, he said.

“In this case, it just happens to be alternative lodging accommodations, and it seems like it fits really well with the resort, and it’s an exciting, unique offering not being done elsewhere,” he said. “It’s a bit of a differentiator for these properties as well.”

Kevin and Laura Mooney purchased 15 acres of wooded land in Glenmont, Ohio, 20 years ago with plans to build a family cabin. That plot of land grew to 77 acres, and the couple spent time at the cabin with their children, extended family and friends. After the kids grew up and went to college, they found they weren’t using the cabin as much. Kevin had sold his consulting business, and they were trying to figure out what came next.

The Mooneys considered building some rentals on the property. A nearby zipline facility had shared that many patrons wanted overnight accommodations, not just tent camping. The Mooneys started building more cabins on their land, but then a friend suggested they build a treehouse.

“I looked at him like he was out of his mind,” Kevin Mooney said.

The friend showed them a book about treehouses and told them about a class they could take on building them. The class was taught by Pete Nelson, a treehouse builder and host of the Animal Planet show “Treehouse Masters.”

The Mooneys met with Nelson and ended up building their first treehouse, the Little Red Treehouse, for the third episode of the show’s first season in 2011. They built out the treehouse for the show but didn’t finish it entirely during taping. They were able to finish it in the weeks leading up to the episode airing so that it would be ready to rent out. It required roughly $100,000 for all the underground utilities to finish the treehouse.

“Once the show aired, we blew up,” Kevin Mooney said. “We couldn’t build a treehouse fast enough. I couldn’t find people to build them fast enough.”

The Mohicans Treehouse Resort and Wedding Venue in Glenmont, Ohio, offers guests nine different styles of treehouses, including the El Castillo treehouse. (Chris McLelland at Mohican Media)

Since then, the Mooneys have built nine treehouses that offer indoor full or half baths, heat and air conditioning, electricity, kitchenettes and other modern amenities. They also have four cabins and two country homes available for guests along with their wedding venue.

When the Mooneys first started the business, they had to start from scratch, Laura Mooney said. They created their own operations as the company grew organically. They handled cleaning, reservations, guest correspondence, marketing and other responsibilities on their own initially, but they eventually reached a point at which they had to hire a team, especially after their business attracted media attention.

“We made a lot of mistakes, but in the end, if you just keep working toward being the best that you can be and hiring the right people and training them and supporting them, things are really on track,” she said.

Laura and Kevin oversee everything and are on-site several days a week. There are different teams, such as housekeeping, reservations and events as well as builders and other remote workers. They also hired a hospitality consultant to help them stay up to date on the latest trends and innovations.

For upkeep of the treehouses, the housekeeping staff have to travel from treehouse to treehouse, carrying supplies and linens in a canvas bag up into the structures, Laura Mooney said. They clean the treehouses, change linens and towels and generally refresh them. There’s a housekeeping hub in the lower level of the wedding venue that has commercial washers and drivers. It also stores supplies.

Guests are checking in and out daily, sometimes with multi-night stays, so the housekeeping staff follows a traditional housekeeping schedule, she said.

Because the treehouses are remote, there’s no internet, and cell phone service isn’t consistent, Laura Mooney said. Even handheld radios can have trouble because the area has a lot of hills. If the general manager needs to get in touch with a particular housekeeper, such as to help prepare a treehouse for a guest who arrives early, the manager has to hop on a 4×4 utility vehicle and drive over to where the housekeeper is to pick them up.

“We have a lot of hurdles just because of our unique location that makes the day-to-day challenging,” she said.

With a wedding venue on-site, the treehouses are popular with wedding parties. The business prioritizes that demand, giving wedding parties first crack at booking the treehouses well in advance using a special code online.

“If you look at our business, you’re like, ‘Oh my god, they’re booked up all year,’” Kevin Mooney said.

Wedding parties have the option to book up every treehouse on site for the duration of their reservations, but if there are some treehouses left open, the general public can book, he said. That booking window is typically about three months, but it can sometimes be as short as 30 days.

“When somebody does get a treehouse now, they feel pretty special because the weddings take them so much,” he said.

Treehouses have proven a popular accommodation for guests at Skamania because it’s camping with heating and without getting rained on, Bortz said. Guests actually like staying in the treehouses during the winter because it’s within a peaceful and quiet cabin up in the trees. They still receive all the service they would normally get if they stayed in the lodge.

It’s all part of the outdoor experience the property provides, whether it’s the hiking trails, the zipline, the aerial adventure park or the ax throwing.

“It’s all the things you want to do in the great outdoors in the Northwest,” he said.

Guest feedback has also guided Pebblebrook in its treehouse design over the years, Bortz said. The idea for the alcove came from guests who wanted to bring their kids along. Feedback also led to extended decks, more windows and further upscaled bathrooms, among other changes.

When guests come to stay in one of the Mohicans’ treehouses, they’re looking to immerse themselves in the moment, Laura Mooney said. Cell phone service is limited, and there’s no internet or Wi-Fi. They’re bringing games to play, food to cook. It may be a romantic getaway or downtime with the family. They want to connect with nature.

“It’s going to be a disconnect vacation,” she said.

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