My, how quickly they grow up.
Six years ago, Getaway House, a Cambridge-based start-up, began renting out just three tiny houses in the wilds of New Hampshire. The company, which grew out of Harvard’s Millennial Housing Lab, promised travelers rest and solitude in the woods with no Wi-Fi, no televisions, and essentially no interaction with strangers. It was an off-the-grid experience that neatly coincided with the tiny house fad of the era.
But it seems that Getaway’s tiny houses were bigger than the fad itself, and the idea of unplugging, including putting cellphones into lockboxes, was immensely appealing. Occupancy rates shot up quickly. Now the original New Hampshire site has grown from three to 43 tiny homes.
“This was my little dream project about wanting a tiny cabin in the woods without Wi-Fi and where no one would bother me,” said Jon Staff, founder and CEO of the company. “It wasn’t clear in the beginning that this was a business at all, maybe just my personal desire. Would people want to go to what is genuinely a very small place in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do?”
Staff wanted to make sure the popularity of the project wasn’t some kind of “weird Boston-area fluke.” So he opened a Getaway in the Catskills, and then outside of Washington, D.C., and then outside of Los Angeles. It’s been growing steadily since.
New Englanders will soon have another Getaway option. The chain is opening a location in Modus, Conn., in January. Getaway Machimoodus will feature 45 new cabins. It’s a logical move since Getaway’s first location in New Hampshire still has one of the highest occupancy rates of the chain. The Connecticut spot is one of five new locations opening in 2022. The expansion will bring the total number of Getaway locations to 20 across the country, with more than 800 cabins in total.
The cabins come in two sizes: a two-person, 140-square-foot cabin, and a four-person, 200-square-foot cabin. The most striking feature is the large picture windows located behind the beds. The interiors are minimalist, with walls of Eastern white pine. Unlike the early models, which relied on solar power and composting toilets, the new units have standard electricity and plumbing. Units have private bathrooms and mini kitchens. There’s cookware, salt, pepper, and olive oil if you choose to stay in and cook. There’s a private fire pit and chairs outside. If you choose to unplug, there’s a (self-policed) lockbox for your cellphone. In case of emergencies, there’s a landline in the cabin.
The experience is an introvert’s dream. Introductory rates for the Connecticut location are $169 a night. Rates for the New Hampshire location range from $259 to $429 for the 200-square-foot cabin.
We recently chatted with Staff about the rapid growth of his Cambridge-born idea.
It sounds as if you’re almost surprised by the success of the company.
The fact that the New Hampshire locations sold out almost immediately after opening was a real surprise. These were three tiny homes that my dad and I built. It was a real learning curve for me and the very small team we had, who had no experience in real estate hospitality whatsoever. We had a lot of catching up to do to make sure that we could take good care of people. In the early days it was about how do we just make sure, like, literally the lights stay on and the pipes didn’t freeze. We were trying to figure out how to make this a viable business.
One of the things that surprised me was the large number of cabins at each location. I immediately thought of a high-density vacation spot, like an Airstream hotel. A location of tightly packed tiny houses feels as if it would defeat the purpose of your original concept.
A hundred percent. But that’s the art and the science of a Getaway outpost and the way we design it and lay it out. We need to have a certain number of cabins to run the business, as I mentioned. But it’s near and dear to our hearts to make sure that you’re not in a camper or an RV park. A lot of our energy and effort goes into siting these cabins just so on a property so that your big window looks only into nature. When you sit at your private campfire pit you’re not looking at other people’s. When you drive in, you see the other cabins, but typically they’re 150 feet apart from each other. There is no lobby or check-in desk or bar or restaurant.
Do you think a lot of the growth you’re currently experiencing ties into the pandemic and the craving people have for social distancing?
Once folks got comfortable stepping out of their houses, it was “Where can I go safely?” I felt very grateful that we have a business where we could accommodate people very socially distant from one another. We didn’t have to apologize for the pool being closed because there was no pool to start with. So we were able to deliver pretty much exactly our product and the way it was intended to be delivered, with some additional cleaning and safety protocols.
One of the worries we had was that folks were so isolated working from home. We thought, “Maybe they don’t need a place like ours.” But we quickly learned that, yes, even though some of us were isolated in our homes, we needed to get away from our homes in a way we may not have needed to before. Some of us had Zoom fatigue or were just tired of looking at the same four walls. We still needed to unplug, and we still needed a place to find solitude.
It also seems as if someone was hellbent on working remotely in a cabin where they could bring a Wi-Fi hot spot and keep using their phone.
I usually get questions from investors like “This cellphone lockbox, how does it work? How do you police it?” And we say, “Look, dude, usually people aren’t that desperate to get an e-mail.” If you give them the invitation to have a special time and space away from it all, they’ll take it.”
For more information, visit www.getaway.house. Interview was edited and condensed.