On 6 June, Center Parcs’ fifth UK village, Center Parcs Woburn, opened to the public. It was a long time coming for many people; none more so than Center Parcs’ chief executive Martin Dalby.
“It was a bit surreal,” says Dalby, of the opening day. “I was up at six, pacing around the lodge where I was staying. We’d been working on the park for so long, and had to jump through so many hoops to get to this stage, I couldn’t quite believe we’d done it. The dream had finally come true.”
It took 10 years from finding the site to opening the new village, and at one point it looked as though it might never happen, when the planning permission was refused by Mid Bedfordshire District Council. Center Parcs appealed the decision and permission was eventually granted in September 2007.
But just when it looked as though things were back on track, the recession hit and construction was put on hold, delaying the project further.
In 2012, the company refinanced its debt and raised £150m towards the construction of Woburn Forest (with Blackstone committing an additional £100m), and in May 2012 construction began in earnest. Two years later, on a sunny June morning, Dalby and the team got ready to welcome the first paying guests to the park.
“It was a day to remember,” says Dalby. “Around 10am we got the first 20 families into the park together. We gave them a glass of champagne, I said a few words of welcome. The sun was shining brightly. It was a nice moment.”
Center Parcs has stuck to its existing formula with Woburn Forest – with occupancy at 97.2 per cent over the previous 12 months across the other four UK villages and 1.7 million people visiting, the management are not likely to muck around with their offer too much. The site is 362 acres, and it features 625 lodges, a 75 bedroom hotel, a lake, 16 restaurants and bars, more than 100 leisure activities, an Aqua Sana spa and of course the Subtropical Swimming Dome, which is at the heart of all Center Parcs resorts.
Although the offer is very similar to that of Center Parcs’ four other UK villages, the company has taken the opportunity to update the design and accommodation in Woburn Forest.
“It’s 2014 so it’s more contemporary in its styling; we’ve used new interior designs, the place is very spacious, the quality of materials is very high. The whole place has a real quality feel to it,” says Dalby.
The Subtropical Swimming Dome has also been updated – it is the biggest in the UK, and features three new water rides; Twister (an enclosed bodyslide flume), Typhoon (a two seater tube ride) and Tornado, a family ride raft that starts with a dark tunnel and a 45 degree drop before propelling riders into a huge funnel at speeds of up to 20mph.
“It’s pretty frightening and great fun,” says Dalby, of the Tornado ride. “It took me an hour to persuade my wife to go down it, but once she’d tried it I couldn’t get her off!”
The Aqua Sana spa has also been updated, with Woburn Forest embracing a new spa concept developed by Schletterer Wellness & Spa Design and Sparc Studio. The three floor facility is split into six smaller themed spas, featuring 22 treatment rooms and 25 experience rooms, as well as six spa suites. (For more information on the Aqua Sana facility, see p36.)
Dalby left school at 16 for a traineeship in the accounts department at Scottish and Newcastle. From there he worked his way up, rising through the ranks to the position of financial controller. In 1995 he joined Center Parcs as financial controller, and was instantly impressed with the welcoming atmosphere of the company. “It doesn’t take long for the whole ethos and culture of Center Parcs to get into your blood,” he says. In 1997 he became finance director and in 2000, when the previous chief executive stepped down suddenly, the chairman asked Dalby if he wanted to take up the role.
“It was an amazing thing – to be asked to become CEO of such a fantastic brand was a real honour,” says Dalby. He was just 38 at the time, and had only ever worked in financial roles before. Was he daunted? “No, no, not at all,” he says.
You get the impression that not a lot phases Dalby, which is a good thing, as he’s had his fair share of challenges during his 14 years at the helm of Center Parcs. The company has gone through several changes of ownership since he took over – in 2001, Scottish and Newcastle, who’d owned it since 1989, sold out to Deutsche Bank Capital Partners. The operating side of the business was floated on London’s Alternative Investment Market, and the property part of it was sold off in a sale and leaseback deal. In 2005 the operating company moved to the main listing on the London Stock Exchange, before private equity firm Blackstone bought it a year later, in March 2006.
Center Parcs had a challenging time as a public company. Despite having high occupancy and good profits, the company was hit with several problems during this time, including an outbreak of gastroenteritis at its Longleat village and soaring energy and rates prices. When Blackstone bought it, it paid 80p a share – 20p below the 100p floatation price.
Then, of course, there was Woburn. Center Parcs first found the site in Bedfordshire back in 2004, and announced that its fifth UK village would open by 2008. However they reckoned without the planning process – it took five years and £5m to get the project through planning, and permission was only approved when then communities secretary Hazel Blears ignored the advice of the planning inspector and decided that the economic, ecological and employment benefits outweighed any perceived harm to Green Belt land.
“It was very frustrating at times,” says Dalby. “This is a massive project, with a massive impact, both on Bedfordshire and tourism in the UK. It injects more than £20m into the local economy, it creates 1,500 jobs, it’s great for the environment, it avoids people having to commute out of Bedfordshire to go and find work. With that in mind, why does the planning process takes years and years and millions of pounds? For big projects like ours, there must be a better way.”
Dalby’s lowest point was in the council chamber on 18 July 2006. “We were nine committee members for the project, nine against, and the chairman decided to cast his vote against. That was a pretty disappointing thing for him to do,” he says.
Did Dalby ever think the project wouldn’t happen? “No, I’m too determined for that. After that meeting, we went back to our hotel, had a few beers, then thought, to hell with these guys, we’re going to appeal it.”
“It’s only through the perseverance of our company that we made it to this point,” says Dalby. “Many other companies would have fallen at some of the hurdles we’ve had to jump.”
It’s time for a rethink of the planning laws in the UK, argues Dalby. So what would he suggest? “There’s too much that gets tied up in the local process, with the local authority making decisions on projects that are of a national scale,” he says. “I think there needs to be some sort of process that takes these significant, economically important projects and finds a way to fast track them and bypass the local authority involvement.”
After all the challenges and hard work of getting Woburn Forest up and running, the next 12 months will see Center Parcs in a consolidation phase.
“The most immediate thing is to bring Woburn Forest into the fold – get the place settled in, get everything running really well,” says Dalby. “For the longer term, my role as CEO is to look for opportunities for growing the business, to think about where the next site might be.”
Woburn Forest is likely to be the last Center Parcs Village on the UK mainland, with existing villages in the Lake District, the Midlands, the South West, the Eastern counties and of course Woburn, slap bang in the middle.
“We’ve got the whole place covered, quite frankly,” says Dalby. “The population of the UK is 63 million, and two million people will come and have a holiday with Center Parcs in the next 12 months. That’s more than three per cent, so our penetration of the market is very high. There’s not really any need for another facility.”
Ireland is a different matter, however. “There don’t seem to be any facilities in Ireland for the type of customers that come to a Center Parcs. It’s certainly an attractive market for us,” he says.
Have they begun looking for sites there yet? “We’ve had a couple of little trips over there to see how the land lies, but there’s nothing specific at this stage.” What would they look for in a site? “It’s the same ingredients as over here – some coniferous trees, about 400 acres of land,” he says, adding that somewhere central would be ideal. “You’ve got to think about the whole of Ireland – north and south – as the marketplace.”
Further ahead, the company would be open to building a park overseas. He has mentioned China and India in the past, but is vague when I ask him. “Who knows? We don’t have any particular boundaries, so we’d go wherever the market and economic conditions were right. We’ll probably go a bit closer to home first though.”
A change of ownership is also likely to be on the cards at some point in the not too distant future – there have been several rumours that Blackstone is exploring its options for exiting the business. “Clearly we’ve got to get Woburn Forest open and stable and get the accounts in place first, so I think it will be some time off yet,” says Dalby. Is he worried about the possibility of the company going public again, after last time? “Not at all,” he insists.“Our world is very different today. The company is much bigger than it was last time, and is in a much stronger position than it was back then. We’d be very happy to do that if that’s what Blackstone wanted to do.”
As for Dalby himself, he has no plans to go anywhere. “I’m afraid Center Parcs is stuck with me for a while yet,” he laughs.