Is employer-provided housing the way forward? Luxury camping company takes the lead in Coconino County

The Coconino County Board of Supervisors has given Under Canvas, which operates a luxury outdoor resort, the green light to build employee housing near the Valle Airport in Grand Canyon Junction. The company plans to build seven manufactured homes in a cul-de-sac next to a nearby airstrip, complete with parking for 60 employees.

The community will be built at the far end of the Under Canvas Grand Canyon Junction property, which is far from a flashy campground.

A map of Under Canvas shows where employee housing is being built relative to the resort’s current location.

Coconino County Community Development

The camp itself is essentially a luxury resort – only instead of buildings or cabins, there are erect canvas tents.

“All the tents are safari-inspired and have a low-impact philosophy,” explains May Lilley, marketing director for Under Canvas.

To provide a “glamping” experience for guests who pay more than $200 per night for private bathrooms, café-style dining and access to brand new Lu Lu Lemon yoga mats and blocks to use at their discretion, Under Canvas has approximately 60 people per site. They hope to have 54 this season.

Under Canvas employees perform all the tasks typical of a hospitality job, from checking in at the front desk to culinary arts. The difference is that they are literally working under a tarp (tent) and will soon be able to sleep under blankets supplied by the company.

It’s an unusual move, according to Coconino County Development Director Jay Christelman, who said he doesn’t get many similar requests for the table.

“We get very few requests for employee accommodations. Counties in general get very few such requests, mainly because they are not near public transportation,” Christelman said.

Walkability is not a real issue for this particular project. According to Under Canvas Director of Development Dan McBrearty, employees will have shuttle service to and from work.

“It’s a smaller carbon footprint and also less of a burden on the employees,” McBrearty said. He also explained that there are plans to set up a shuttle service from where employees live to off-site facilities such as supermarkets and pharmacies.

In addition to its Grand Canyon retreat, the 10-year-old boutique camping company has locations in Zion, Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone national parks, more than 11 locations from coast to coast.

At each location, McBrearty said, the company helps employees find housing. The Coconino County site is one of two where housing had to be built on the same property as a luxury campground.

“They really struggled to find housing for their employees,” Christelman said. “The applicant said their other sites didn’t have that problem, but were forced to by the lack of affordable housing in the county.”

According to McBrearty, providing housing is one of the things that sets Under Canvas apart. It’s a strategic move, but it doesn’t always have to build from the ground up.

“Finding housing is … difficult in northern Arizona. [Providing housing] allows us to give employees the ability to move from place to place without the added burden of finding housing,” McBrearty said.

Because glamping is somewhat seasonal, there is no need for employees to be at each location year-round.

As a result, Under Canvas attracts young workers, many of whom are international or domestic students who are available during the summer – people for whom temporary housing can be an issue, even in places where there are more housing options than in the Valley.

Under Canvas offers convenient camping near the Grand Canyon, complete with food service (or grab-and-go meals for busy vacationers). In order to provide the glamping experience that this lifestyle brand prides itself on, it employs approximately 54 people in Arizona during the season.

Bailey made from Under Canvas

“By being able to provide these accommodations, we can get them to market and arrive very seamlessly. It also gives them a community among the other employees,” McBrearty said.

Under Canvas said workers should be able to stay in housing year-round, even when their respective camps are closed.

He added that in a place like northern Arizona, the company is interested in hiring more locals to bring more experience and personal knowledge to working with guests.

“It’s great when [employees] can talk about what’s in the area – not just the monument, but whatever else is in the community. Maybe even about this particular viewpoint or this particular hike. As long as it’s within a reasonable distance of a national park, that’s great,” McBrearty said.

Wherever they come from, McBrearty says, Under Canvas is looking forward to welcoming new employees and hopes they’ll consider the property more like home.

According to Christelman, Under Canvas has not yet filed any permit applications. That may not happen until spring.

The community housing for employees will be built adjacent to the Valle Airport runway and will have to meet FAA regulations on setbacks and fencing, according to Christelman.

Lilley said that like the campgrounds, which focus on limited water usage and alternative energy sources where possible (the Bryce Canyon campground is solar-powered), Under Canvas hopes to continue to develop with the environment in mind.

“The common thread, in addition to our passion for the outdoors, is that our employees really align with our philosophy of being mindful,” Lilley said.

McBrearty said the campsites are “thoughtfully designed” to minimize water consumption. He said he hopes some of that carries over to the employee housing site.

Ultimately, McBrearty said the investment in housing for employees makes sense for Under Canvas.

“We’re looking forward to the beginning of the year, just like everyone else. So far, we see that the demand for people who need and prefer an escape from city life, being in nature and connecting with family is still strong. I think that’s the driving force,” McBrearty said.

Sixty parking spaces and a cul-de-sac are some of the features of the Under Canvas employee housing project.

Coconino County Community Development

As a leader in the area and an established lifestyle brand, Lilley said Under Canvas is hopeful for the future of luxury outdoor tourism after COVID-19.

“For our Grand Canyon area, I would say the only unknown we are watching is the return of international traffic. It’s such an iconic destination. We’re seeing early indicators that international guests are starting to come back, with exchange rates obviously fluctuating,” Lilley said.

At the very least, the company is in good shape to operate its 161-acre site west of the airport.

“We’re seeing very, very few, if any, requests for employee housing on the site,” Christelman said, but he mused that given the housing crisis in Flagstaff and Coconino County in general, businesses outside the boutique hospitality industry could start taking a cue from Under Canvas.

“It would be interesting to see if this is the beginning of a trend!” Christelman said.

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