How Elveden Forest’s Center Parcs survived fire and recession to celebrate 25 years

The blaze at Center Parcs on April 4, 2002. Picture: Andy Abbott The blaze at Center Parcs on April 4, 2002. Picture: Andy Abbott

Tuesday, August 5, 2014
9:57 AM

It opened promising to bring an entirely different holiday experience to the region.

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And as Center Parcs this week celebrates the 25th anniversary since the opening of its picturesque 480-acre resort at Elveden Forest, its action-packed quarter of a century has had an impact not only on holidaymakers but on the area’s wider economy.

Since 1989, thousands of children, parents and grandparents have enjoyed the wide variety of activities designed to cater for the whole family, such as climbing, canoeing, swimming and relaxing in the spa.

Reg Silvester, a councillor who covers the area and moved nearby just as Center Parcs was opened, said it had done more than provide people with relaxing summer or winter breaks.

“It’s had a big effect on the area and really put it on the map,” he said. “What else would you know Elveden for is it wasn’t for Center Parcs?”

Elveden Center Parcs timeline

Autumn 1987 – Building work starts on the new resort.

August 1989 – Elveden Forest opens for the first time to guests.

July 1998 – Botanist David Bellamy opens a wildflower meadow at the site.

2000 – An archaeological dig by the British Museum and Time Team unearths evidence of human activity dating back 400,000 years at the Elveden site.

April 2002 – Devastating fire destroys the central plaza.

August 2002 – Redevelopment is launched, with a time capsule containing press cuttings and holiday brochures from the time buried at the site.

July 2003 – £60m rebuild project is finished and the new Center Parcs is opened to the public.

2008 – Cable waterskiing is introduced.

2012 – The Tropical Cyclone water ride is unveiled by Paralympic gold medallist Ellie Simmonds

2013 – Venture Cove, a new water playground, opens.

2014 – The zip wire is extended to 270 metres long, making it the longest at any Center Parcs site in the country.

But he said hopes that people would move out of the park and visit the wider area had not materialised.

David Walls, Center Parcs’ on site revenue manager at Elveden, said the firm had invested heavily in increasing the number of activities and facilities over the years – not least after the devastating fire which gutted the central plaza in 2002.

“The first few times people come, they might not go out much,” he admitted.

“But after they have been a few times, they will venture out and do different things. We do have tourist information stands around the village.”

Teamwork saved the day when fire struck

David Walls was on duty at Elveden Forest on the day the devastating fire broke out in the central plaza in 2002.

“The radio went off to say there was a fire alarm,” he said. Mr Walls jumped on a bicycle expecting it, as usual, to be a false alarm.

“I got round the corner and saw this black smoke,” he said. “I thought: ‘Oh my god, this is real.’”

As sports centre manager and a first responder, it was Mr Walls’ job to help evacuate the site while firefighters tackled the blaze. There were about 400 workers and 3,500 guests there at the time.

“It was one of those amazing days when every department worked together as a team,” he said. “The adrenalin started flowing and all the training that we had snapped in.”

Mr Walls is one of the 1,500 
employees at the Elveden Forest resort and has worked at the site in various roles since it opened, starting as a lifeguard and moving onto four management roles.

His journey through the company is an example of how Center Parcs has brought a huge employment boost to the region, creating jobs at all levels and career progression opportunities for its workers.

It was all – if only very briefly – under threat following the 2002 fire.

As a nearby resident, Mr Silvester remembered the effects at the time. “People were devastated,” he said. “They thought it would be the end of Center Parcs.”

However it was most definitely not the end, as Center Parcs quickly committed to a £60million rebuild and reopened the site within just 15 months.

Mr Walls, who was at the time involved in the redevelopment as Elveden Forest’s sports centre manager, said: “Out of disaster rises the phoenix and what it gave us the chance to do was look at improving what we previously had.

“We took a lot of time thinking about what was good and what we could now add. At the time I think it was one of the fastest rebuild projects in the UK.”

With families cutting back on holidays after the financial crash of 2008, one may have also be forgiven for thinking that Center Parcs might take a hit during the recession.

However Mr Walls said: “I think we’ve done better in the recession. People may have cut down on long breaks but rather than going away for a fortnight, they’ve come for a midweek break to Center Parcs.”

Today Center Parcs’ occupancy rate stands at an average of 97pc. It was packed yesterday with families sitting back to enjoy the 25th anniversary entertainment display.

“It’s one of those things like Marmite,” said Mr Walls said of Center Parcs. “Either you love it or hate it.

“People come and they love it because of the mixture of activities. You can relax and do activities you couldn’t do anywhere else. It has something for everyone.”

The goal for Center Parcs now, he added, is to continue to provide fun-packed holidays for the whole family – so the youngsters of today will visit with their children and grandchildren long into the future.

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