Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.

In 2009, Sarah Dusek gazed out across the Montana plains and dreamed of Africa.

The knee-high grasses. The meandering waterways. The clutches of trees. The vault of sky. As she looked around her new home, Dusek recalled sitting outside an elegant white tent while on safari in Zimbabwe 10 years earlier. She had been drinking wine at twilight, watching as antelope and zebra bowed their long faces toward a watering hole.

Montana was "very similar in terms of the beauty and the aesthetic and the abundant wildlife," she says. "Obviously, very different wildlife."

The similarities between those vistas inspired Sarah and her husband, Jake Dusek, to build a safari camp on his family's farm in Havre, eight miles from the Canadian border. The couple had moved there from Sarah's native England so their newborn son could enjoy the same outdoorsy childhood as his father. Their first camp, called Sage Safari, was one of the earliest U.S. venues for glamorous camping or "glamping," in which weenie roasts and sleeping bags give way to canapes and high-thread-count sheets.

Today, the Duseks are populating the American West with glamour camps, attracting both the well-heeled and family groups. Their business, now called Under Canvas and based in Bozeman, has revenue of $8 million and employs 30 people year round and up to 150 seasonally. Under Canvas also runs a thriving events business that creates pop-up camps around the world, sometimes with surprising themes.

"We've been asked to design tents for a Game of Thrones birthday party in Iceland," says Sarah. She doesn't watch the show, but Jake is fan enough to replicate the pitched camps of Robb Stark and Tywin Lannister.

The Duseks also have been expanding their camping footprint, with five locations across Montana and three other western states. All except the first camp are right outside national parks.

Caitlin Turner, a yoga teacher and lifestyle blogger, recently stayed at the Under Canvas campground in Moab, Utah, and plans to visit its locations at Grand Canyon and Glacier National Park. "You have this tent in the middle of nowhere and you wake up with this perfect view of nature," Turner says. "But you are sleeping in a soft nice bed with proper linens and you have your own shower.

"It's still camping," says Turner. "But I wouldn't call it roughing it."

Tent revival

Jake and Sarah Dusek met in Taiwan. They were young idealists employed by a China-based NGO: he to work with young people, she to work with women, chiefly unwed mothers. Needing a break from the stress, they moved to England in 2003 and married there two years later.

In the mid-2000s, conversations about economic development increasingly included the private sector. Inspired, Sarah returned to school and wrote a thesis on "business as mission." At the same time, she and Jake started a company to put those ideas into practice.

Big Sky Properties, based in the cathedral city of Winchester, evoked Montana in name only. It was a residential construction company designed to employ and train inner-city residents between the ages of 16 and 20. "We gave them skills so they ended up becoming a painter or a plumber or an electrician," says Sarah.

Then came 2008 and the housing collapse. "We had to lay everybody off," she says. "We realized there was no future in this."

That year the Duseks, with their infant son, moved to the family farm in Montana where Jake's parents still live. "I loved the way I grew up there," says Jake. "It was so open. You made your own fun. I wanted the same thing for my kids."

Wandering around her new home, Sarah was reminded of safaris she had taken while doing AIDS education in Zimbabwe. "The safari experience is magical," she says. "It transports you to this whole other world. You become one with nature."

It was a short jump to the idea of planting a safari camp on this Montana farmland. Pheasant, short-tailed grouse, Hungarian partridge, and various waterfowl were abundant in the area, and the couple thought hunting would attract the fly-fishermen who already vacationed there. Such people tend to be well off and appreciative of distinctive experiences. "We imagined them going for a day out in the field and returning to hors d'oeuvres, drinks, and a five-course dinner under an amazing sunset," says Sarah.

The Duseks financed the nascent business out of their savings, with a small investment from Jake's parents. Friends helped them erect from recycled barn wood a lodge that houses a commercial kitchen and bathrooms.

The greater challenge was tents. At the time, says Jake, the only ones available were constructed chiefly for hunters, who didn't much care what they looked like. Choosing to design their own, "We took a step back to the 17th century when these types of tents were in wider use for military campaigns," says Jake. Plastic and nylon were out. Wood and canvas were in. Zippers, screen doors, and other functional components were visually minimized. "We wanted a more romantic look," he says.

Working with several local manufacturers, the couple produced four tents, sleeping eight people, and devised itineraries for their guests. Jake would lead hunting expeditions during the day. At night, Sarah would host and cook. "I was not a gourmet cook at the time," says Sarah, who drew on her repertoire of British staples like roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. "I had to learn pretty fast how to be pretty good."

The first few years, most of their business came through the travel website Orbitz. "We had multiple billionaires who would fly in on their private jets and stay with us," says Sarah. "Lots of people out of Texas. Venture capitalists. A whole mixture."

Camping it up

The camp attracted the right kind of people. Trouble was, it only attracted them one month a year. The Duseks had planned to operate through the summer into mid-autumn. They believed vacationers would flock to "a unique Montana experience," says Sarah. "But in the summer, there was not much to do." Bird-hunting--the real draw--didn't start until early autumn. By late October, cold weather made the outdoors less appealing. The Duseks couldn't break $100,000 in revenue.

After two lean years, something unexpected happened. The Duseks started getting inquiries from people who'd seen their website and wanted to rent or buy the tents for private functions. "Rather than have people come to us, we realized we could bring the product to the people," says Sarah.

One of Under Canvas's first event clients, a music festival in New York, wanted to rent 150 tents. Jake stepped up production. Over time, the company amassed an inventory of 600.

Some gigs are enormous logistical headaches, such as one last year that required the Duseks to helicopter hundreds of separate pieces--from tents to water and sewer systems--into and out of a remote location in Canada. Others present unexpected delights. "The very first year, we did an amazing event for an elderly couple in Chicago who wanted to have a safari party for the Fourth of July," says Sarah. "They had zebras and giraffes and other African animals" wandering around the property. "It was incredible."

Prices for events range from around $10,000 to close to $1 million--for the Game of Thrones fete, for example.

The Duseks had a successful events business. They also had a struggling four-tent safari camp open just one month a year. Still, it was the latter that appealed to their sense of mission. "We wanted to give people access to beautiful places, to scenery and wildlife," says Sarah. The only way to do that: open more camps.

Parks and recreation

In 2011, the Duseks leased a property (which they later bought) right outside Yellowstone Park, about a five-hour drive from the farm. There they erected camp number two: a far larger affair than Sage Safari, with 75 tents. Unlike the Havre location, this camp offered a variety of activities, such as horseback riding, whitewater rafting, and ziplining, to entertain guests starting on Memorial Day.

The Duseks, who spent that summer on the property with their two young sons, were unprepared for the dramatic swings in weather. Soon after opening, a storm swept through and leveled the camp. "It was pretty soul-destroying," says Sarah. "But the guests helped us put everything back together. They looked on it as an adventure and worked with us to get through."

Under Canvas has since opened four more parks, all on the cusp of national parks. With seasons starting as early as March, all are profitable. Depending on the type of tent, prices range from $150 to $450 a night.

The parks differ in their landscapes but all are ecologically low impact. They operate on solar power and what Jake calls the principle of "intentional inconvenience." For example, "when you take a shower, if you have to hold the cord down to make the water work you will take a much shorter shower than if you just turn a lever," says Jake. "An entire camp with 100 people in it uses as much water and power as a residential house."

True to their roots, the Duseks look for other ways to add purpose to the business. For example, in May and June they open their Glacier National Park location to nonprofits representing disadvantaged children, who stay at a nominal cost.

"The vision and the mission is to be a bridge to the outdoors," says Sarah. "We want kids to have access to what we wanted for our children. To have campfires. To learn about rivers and trees. To play in the dirt."

 

 

Published on: Apr 3, 2017