“I never had an interest in going into business to just duplicate a product that already existed,” says Alan Bair, founder and owner of Pacific Yurts Inc. in Cottage Grove, Ore. “But early on I realized the yurt is a unique warm space that is limited only by the imagination. When you go into that circular space there’s a feeling of integration with nature-you can hear the rain on the roof or see the snow falling, and feel a part of it while being protected.”
In the mid-1970s, Bair was inspired by a National Geographic article he read about traditional yurts. He had just graduated from college and moved to Oregon with his wife to do reforestation work. “My crew and I were out in the woods on contracts for weeks at a time, and I realized after reading the article just how functional, portable and practical a yurt could be,” he says. “So I made one to live in as a base camp while on contract.”
Catching the business bug
With a degree in English, Bair’s career goals were not initially business-oriented, but when his reforestation crew elected him to its business management council, his outlook changed. “When I started working on bidding contracts and got my first glimpse of the inside of a business, I found it fascinating,” he says. “I knew our crews worked really hard in the field, and I took it as a point of pride to do the best I could to manage things for all of us.”
Little did he know: Bair would soon have the opportunity to apply what he had learned about management to his own company. In the late 1970s, he and his wife purchased a remote piece of land atop an Oregon ridge, and moved the yurt there. “It was bare, beautiful land,” he says. “There were no utilities. Since we were young, adventurous and just starting out, we decided to live in the yurt for a while and get better acquainted with the land. When a local news article featured our yurt, people started to call and ask if I could build one for them. Eventually, word spread and a business was born.”
Developing the market
Few people in the United States knew what a yurt was in those days, which meant two things for Bair: the market was wide open, and he had a lot of client educating to do.
“A friend of mine said we needed to be on the internet and I said: ‘What’s the internet?’ It turned out there was no mention of yurts on the internet at that time and so I was able to register yurts.com,” Bair says. “We devoted a lot of time to our website, including photos and explanations about what yurts could be used for. It was a key selling and educational tool for us.”
A local banker gave Bair his first business loan, as well as a little advice. “Without my having a lot of experience, he saw some potential in the idea of making yurts,” Bair says. “In addition to giving me the loan, he suggested I might want to consider taking a Small Business Administration three-year management course, which I did.”
Bair also met with Oregon’s governor and was awarded a low-interest loan based on manufacturing yurts as a secondary wood product. Because manufacturing a secondary product, such as yurts, from primary timber products creates more jobs, the business was a good candidate for the loan.
“Oregon is a big forestry area, and secondary wood products are a prime investment for the state,” Bair says. “We were particularly honored to receive that low interest loan. That and our involvement with other state programs have added to my dedication to creating a good company and following through with our commitments.”
The final frontier
The inherent versatility of the yurt has also guided Bair’s approach to business, and closely connected to that is the importance of listening to the customers’ needs and ideas. Customer-driven innovations on yurt options vary from adding French doors to installing NASA-inspired insulation. “In the early days we had a customer in the aerospace industry, and he suggested we use NASA space insulation in our yurts. It had been used in other storage and train cars for refrigeration and such, but as far as I know we were the first to use that in yurts,” Bair says. “The insulation package includes a double bubble air space with reflective surfaces that is very effective. It’s one of the reasons we can sell our yurts up north to Alaska and all the way down to the Caribbean and other hot climates.”
To understand clients’ needs and collect inspiration for innovations, Pacific Yurts sends out surveys after yurts are installed and customers have had a chance to begin using them. The company also recently updated its website to include the customized computer-aided design tool-Yurt Builder 3D™. “It can take quite a while for some potential clients who are unfamiliar with the options to know what might be a good fit for them, so in addition to talking to them about their environment and uses, Yurt Builder enables them to create a 3-D picture of the yurt to which they can add doors, windows, colors or other options, and rotate the picture so they can see it from all sides,” Bair says. “We also added the ability to drop the yurt image onto a variety of environments, such as forested, tropical, mountainous and riverside.”
The company’s clients are divided into three segments: personal, business and government. “Each niche has some of its own concerns, and we try to break those out on the website and provide testimonials,” Bair says. “For example, for a business or glamping resort the clients are interested in a quality product that’s going to hold up to public use, generate a profit and be easy to install. For individuals, they’re not concerned about profit but want the same types of functionality.”
Government use is also aimed at generating revenue. Many state parks now have yurt programs that provide more cost-effective structures for lodging, meeting facilities, interpretive exhibits and other uses. Oregon State Parks have approximately 200 yurts and have become what Nation’s Business magazine reported as the biggest money-maker in Oregon State Parks’ history.
“I’ve discovered how exciting business can be when you have a passion for the product, a great staff, and you interact with your customers in a way that creates value for them,” Bair says. “This has been-and continues to be-an adventure that can make a difference in people’s lives.”