How Rockefellers fell in love with idea all the way from Yorkshire
The recession hastened expansion as the Spence family took advantage of falling land values and renewed interest in holidaying at home. It now has 15 sites, including lodges and cottages in Cornwall, Scotland, Wales, Lanzarote and the States.
“We were lucky, we had a very good recession. We also have joint ventures with a lot of big country estates and that works well. They have land and we have the expertise in building and letting,” says Matt.
There are plans to build Natural Retreats cottages near Pickering and Matt is working with the Duke of Argyll to create holiday lets on his estate in Scotland.
Opportunities in Britain abound but it is the USA where growth looks set to be stratospheric. This is largely thanks to the backing of the Rockefeller family.
“We’d been on family holidays to Yellowstone National Park when I was young and I loved it. It had a big effect of me. It was a dream of mine to take Natural Retreats to America so in 2010 I flew out and made a few enquiries with people in the property world.”
One of those contacts secured him a meeting with Mark Rockefeller, the grandson of the legendary John D.
“It was a mad rush to get to New York to see him but it was serendipitous because he had a wilderness lodge just outside Yellowstone and was looking for someone to help expand the idea.
“The next thing I knew I was on the 50th floor of the Rockefeller building in J.D.’s boardroom telling Mark about our Yorkshire farm and the Natural Retreat site in Richmond. I told him how we pushed the boundaries of design and helped people connect with nature and he loved it.
“The Rockefellers were founders and donors for the national park system in America, so he was interested in what we’d done,” says Matt.
“His backing has given our brand credibility because the Rockefellers are like royalty in America.”
Part of Mark’s lodge site at South Fork on the Snake River in Idaho has now been turned into a Natural Retreats site.
“There are lot of hotel brands in America and they are waking up to the fact that there is a need for self-catering accommodation for families, so they’re creating two bedroom suites, but noone specialises in what we do, which is accommodation in and around national parks. There is a massive market out there and the American people have really taken us to their hearts.
“We now have three sites in the US with eight more in development and the numbers will grow and grow,” says Matt, who estimates that there will be 30 Natural Retreats across the world by this time next year.
Work means that he now splits his time between Yorkshire and Washington.
“I like the US and it’s where I need to be because that’s where a lot of the growth is,” he says. “But I love Yorkshire and I’m really proud of my roots, which is why I fly the white rose flag in my back garden.”
Deportment for Dukes and Tips for Toffs is the original comportment guide for aristocracy and it has been reprinted by British Library Publishing.
Top tips include: “Never point your gun at your fellowsportsmen (even in jest) without previously consulting the wishes of your host”; “avoid the vulgar and objectionable habit of conversing with your fellow travellers” and “be on your guard when asked a civil question; if you cannot answer rudely do not reply at all.”
MAIN IMAGE: Where it all started: Natural Retreats, Richmond. From left to right: The lodge site at South Fork, Idaho; founder and MD Matt Spence and ther new Natural Retreats site at John O’Groats in Scotland. The luxury eco-lodge brand which began in North Yorkshire is expanding into the American market, and has caught the eye of the Rockefeller family.