Center Parcs’ new £250m venture in Bedfordshire heralds a new dawn for the business
- Credit: Archant
Center Parcs is a UK holiday success story which has captured the public imagination. Business editor Shaun Lowthorpe was among a handful of journalists invited to meet chief executive Martin Dalby, inset below, as the business got set to open its new site at Woburn Forest
Center Parcs chief executive Martin Walby bounces on to the stage to greet the assembled gathering of journalists.
Smiling broadly the holiday chief is here to welcome the press to the Venue at Center Parcs Woburn Forest ahead of the official opening of the firm's fifth holiday site.
Holiday makers in this part of the world will be familiar with Center Parcs Elveden Forest, but now all eyes are on the new £250m venture in Bedfordshire.
Close to the M1 and also a major rail link to London, Mr Dalby says the aim is to appeal to travellers from London and the South East.
'We are very much a domestic holiday destination - 98% of our guests live in the UK and 75% live within a two-and-a-half hour drive time to their favourite place, where you can come with your family,' he explains.
'If you consider why Center Parcs has been successful these past 27 years that's one of the main aspects.'
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With its mix of woodland living, wildlife, and activities both outdoors and indoors, Center Parcs has cornered the lucrative family market, with its appeal to young holiday makers a key factor of its success.
In fact, the business enjoys occupation rates of more than 90% and a high level of repeat business.
It has also been particularly immune to the effects of the downturn, appearing to have benefited as hard-pressed families have shunned overseas holidays in favour of shorter stay-at-home breaks.
'I think this is another reason why we have been so successful,' he adds. 'If you look over the last five years at a time when the world has been in a very deep recession, Center Parcs wasn't in anyway affected by those conditions. Our occupancy levels remained in the high 90s.
'We have never fallen below 90% and in the last five years we have had 96%-97% occupancy every single year, that means pretty much full every day. I don't think there is any other holiday business that's achieved that sort of performance.'
In fact he said around 3% of the UK population had enjoyed a holiday at a Center Parcs site.
Other Center Parc sites include Elveden in Suffolk, Longleat Forest in Wiltshire, Whinfell Forest in Cumbria, and Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire.
And Mr Dalby said while the focus was on getting Woburn up and running, the business had pondered opening a sixth holiday village in Ireland.
'This is very much a domestic short break business,' he notes. 'We have no plans to take this product out of the UK. We think there is sufficient demand within the UK to fill all five parks.
'In terms of the future we do not believe there is a sixth [Center Parcs] in the UK. We have got all of the UK covered.
'We are interested potentially in Ireland and we have looked at that market. For the time being it is all about this place.'
The new village boasts a subtropical swimming area, 625 lodges, a 75-bedroom hotel and restaurants, shops and leisure facilities.
Center Parcs' owners, asset management firm Blackstone, has invested £100m in the Bedfordshire village, with the rest of the money coming from four banks - Barclays, HSBC, Lloyds and RBS.
But the business faced a long planning battle to get the scheme off the ground, failing to win over local councillors or even the planning inspector to the idea.
Instead it was then communities secretary Hazel Blears who approved the plans on the green belt site in 2007 determing that the job and economic benefits outweighed the green objections.
Mr Dalby said he was pleased the plans had finally come together.
'After years of hard work, dedication and passion, we're thrilled to be welcoming our first guests to Woburn Forest and strongly believe the new village has all the ingredients for a very special family break.
'Woburn Forest, set in the undulating woodland of Bedfordshire, opens up the Center Parcs experience to more people in London and south east England.'
He went on: 'It will provide a massive boost to the area, injecting approximately £20m per annum into the local and regional economy.
'In addition to the 1,200 people employed in the construction of Woburn Forest, we have recruited and trained 1,500 employees, 40% of whom are within the 16-24 age range and 90% live within 15 miles. These are local jobs for young local people.'
Last year Center Parcs welcomed 1.7 million guests to its four existing facilities, which is expected to increase to more than two million with the opening of Woburn Forest. The first to open in the UK was Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire in 1987.
Elveden Forest, near Brandon in Suffolk, opened in 1989, with Longleat Forest in Wiltshire starting in 1994.
The fourth centre near Penrith in Cumbria, now known as Whinfell Forest, was taken over by Center Parcs in 2001.
Joe Baratta, Global Head of Private Equity at Blackstone, is also convinced of future success.
'Blackstone is delighted to have supported the investment for the development of Center Parcs' fifth Village at Woburn Forest,' he says. 'The Center Parcs story is one of extraordinary success. It provides a unique offering to its guests. Martin Dalby and his management team are absolutely dedicated to the business and I have no doubt that Woburn Forest will be a huge success.'