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Tentrr, The Airbnb Of Camping, Comes To Pennsylvania

Mary Esch
In this Friday, June 29, 2018 photo, Michael D'Agostino, left, sits with David Derstine at his Tentrr campsite on a 200-acre organic farm in Berlin, N.Y.

It's not like Scott and Christina Dietrich have anything against traditional camping.

The Harleysville couple has visited more than 30 national parks, many of which they hit on vacations while raising four active sons. Show them another family trip that offers as much bang for the buck.

The biggest drawback: crowds. It's hard to satiate that call of the wild when the next campsite is right on top of you.

About 13 years ago, the Dietrichs decided to make good on a 40-year dream and find a secluded property of their own. They were thinking 20 acres — but wound up with 425 in Carbon County, about 7 miles north of downtown Jim Thorpe.

Finding peace and quiet is not an issue out here. Drive down a long, rocky road and you come to an intersection. The path forward takes you another half-mile or so to their recently built cabin. The path to the right takes you down a steep hill called Jessie's Jog, named after their late dog, to a hollow along the babbling Bear Creek.

For $170 a night through an online service called Tentrr, the Dietrichs in May began renting out the campsite to a new kind of camper.

Tentrr is the Airbnb or Uber of the great outdoors. The New York company installs standardized campsites — with more than $1,200 of equipment — on remote corners of large, private land. It charges property owners a one-time fee for the equipment and then connects them with campers who value seclusion, convenience and something a little different.

So-called "CampKeepers" like the Dietrichs get 80 percent of each booking and are responsible for relatively little maintenance between stays. On their longtime weekend escape, you'll find a large canvas tent with a queen-sized bunk bed and two Adirondack chairs on a platform. There's also a wooden picnic table, stone fire pit and metal grill, among other things.

In Tentrr, the modern sharing economy taps into the age-old desire to connect with nature. So what if the experience comes without the trials and tribulations of pitching a tent?

Scoff all you want, but Thoreau carried his dirty laundry home from Walden Pond for his mother to wash.

Solitude Inc.

Founded in 2014 by Michael D'Agostino, an investment banker and outdoors enthusiast, Tentrr built its business in the Catskill Mountains, expanded into New England and, this year, into northeast Pennsylvania.

Millennials, Tentrr's top generational customer, tend to be more open to different accommodations and types of camping. They are part of an even bigger and growing tradition in the U.S., where nearly 39 million households camp at least once a year, up 20 percent over the last four years, according to a 2018 study supported by Kampgrounds of America Inc. And the number of households that camp three times or more each year has increased by nearly two-thirds since 2014.

Seizing on that trend, Tentrr opened a 3,000-square-foot logistics hub and warehouse outside East Stroudsburg this spring and sent postcards to owners of at least 10 acres, inviting them to consider becoming CampKeepers.

"Between the beautiful mountain ranges, access to the Appalachian Trail and the fact that the Poconos is already a hotbed for tourism, jumping into northeast Pennsylvania was a natural transition," Brian Polnasek, Tentrr's Pennsylvania team leader, said this month.

Among those who showed up to a Tentrr information session this spring at Eight Oaks Craft Distillers in Lynn Township was Karen Thatcher Smith of Lower Mount Bethel Township. After eight years of raising alpacas on her hilly 42-acre farm, the pediatric nurse was looking for a new secondary source of revenue that could at least cover the taxes on her property, where she and her husband, Ron, are raising 15-year-old twin daughters.

She was happy to learn that Tentrr provided $2 million in general commercial liability coverage to CampKeepers, and decided to take the Tentrr quiz to see if her property was a good fit.

In the survey, Tentrr asks if any roads are visible and any traffic can be heard from the prospective campsite. Does the site provide enough privacy that campers would feel comfortable walking around naked? Are there streams, ponds or other water features? Can the property owner or a trusted person get to the site within 15 minutes?

The Smiths passed the quiz, and following Polnasek's site visit, became the Lehigh Valley's first participants.

Company employees set up the standardized campsite on top of a hill well above and out of sight of the Smiths' home. Known as the O'Krekk Farm, it offers guests sweeping views of rollings hills and woodlands to the north and east — and is within walking distance of Franklin Hill Vineyards. The Smiths are asking $100 a night (most of the 10 sites within 40 miles of downtown Allentown go for $100 to $130).

Many of the participating landowners are farmers or former farmers operating under tight margins and looking for another source of cash, Polnasek said. But they don't have the time or interest in assuming the labor.

Campsites accommodate six to eight people, with Tentrr providing a pop-up tent in addition to the main canvas tent. Campers are neither roughing it nor basking in luxury. Among other things, each campsite has a wooden box with a toilet seat and bucket inside, known as the Tentrr Loo.

"I don't consider this glamping," Scott Dietrich said. "There are no chandeliers."

Sharing treasures

The Dietrichs' site is more expensive than most because of it has roughly five miles of trails, backs into Lehigh Gorge State Park and includes a waterfall, among other distinctive scenic features.

Christina Dietrich, who recently retired as chief financial officer of a Lansdale medical research company, stocked a campsite shed with brochures from the Jim Thorpe Visitor's Center. But she and Scott love to hear guests say they spent an entire weekend exploring the property.

"I don't want to say it's endless, but after 13 years we're still discovering new gems," Scott Dietrich said. "We love sharing it."

"Because of Tentrr, it's almost like we're rediscovering everything," Christina added.

Jack Miller owns 330 acres outside Orwigsburg, Schuylkill County, 60 acres of which he rents to a Christmas tree farm. The rest of the property offers a swimming pond and trails blazed by his great-great-grandfather in the mid-19th century. His Tentrr campsite, which he just completed, is off a historic trail that continues over a mountain and into the Coal Region.

An adventurer who's ridden horseback for 40 days across Mongolia and hiked the 500-mile Camino trail in northern Spain, Miller hopes guests will enjoy the history and panoramic views on his land. Depending on how initial stays go, Miller may add campsites.

"It seemed like a cool idea to share this with people who want to have a really nice nature experience and not put up with all the aspects of camping," he said.

Tentrr, backed by $15 million in venture capital, isn't the only tech startup connecting people to nature. San Francisco-based Hipcamp and Netherlands-based Campspace, for example, help people find private campsites. GetAway, another New York business, builds and rents "tiny homes" in secluded areas to vacationers.

Tentrr distinguishes itself by providing basic camping necessities while stopping short of the luxurious setups provided by companies such as Collective Retreats, which typically charges more than $500 a night.

Dan Entenberg, a Stroudsburg High School graduate, grew up backpacking in the mountains. He met his first public campground with disdain and recalls pitching his tent in the more wooded outskirts so it would at least resemble real camping.

But these days, the 39-year-old Manhattanite leaves his gear in a storage unit. Along with his wife, 8-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son, Entenberg stayed at three Tentrr campsites last summer and has a few more booked this summer.

Tentrr provides the privacy needed to truly immerse yourself in the camping experience, he said, and the fare is well worth the convenience.

"It's a big investment if you want to camp somewhat comfortably," he said. "With Tentrr, all you have to do is bring food and linens."

While the hands-off aspect is a selling point to potential landowners, "imagination and creativity takes hold" once they officially become CampKeepers. Some furnish campsites with hammocks, tire swings, lawn games and other things Tentrr doesn't supply, Polnasek said. Tentrr does offer "extras" such as linens, fishing poles, kayaks and bedding at an additional price.

The Smiths, who hosted their first vacationers in May, act as concierges, providing a list of nearby attractions and seasonal festivals. Karen Smith has offered to pick up guests from the Easton bus station, serve as a designated driver or have local food and drink waiting at the campsite upon guests' arrival.

"We have six guys coming in from Jersey this weekend," she said Tuesday. "It'll be interesting to see how that turns out."