When I spoke with Don Camilleri, construction director for Center Parcs UK, in February, he said he’d be spending £1m a day for the four months running up to the opening of the company’s new holiday village in Woburn Forest. It gives an indication of the scale of the project.
Ten years in the making, Center Parcs Woburn Forest opened in June after a £250m (US$427.8m, €316.2m) investment from US owner, Blackstone and other banks. At full capacity the 625 lodges and 75-bed hotel, situated in a 362-acre (146-hectare) forest setting, will be able to accommodate 3,000 people.
The Woburn site is Center Parcs’ fifth holiday village in the UK and all are popular with families and groups of friends alike: last year average occupancy across the four sites was an astonishing 97.2 per cent. The new Woburn village features a whole roster of leisure activities – over 100 in fact – from pony trekking and watersports to a state of the art pool complex. and every type of sport. For those who want to escape the hubbub, however, there’s the Aqua Sana spa.
Around £17.5m (US$29.9m, €22.1m) was carved out of the budget for the Aqua Sana which spans 7,200sq m (77,500sq ft), but according to Camilleri the amount was never questioned, as spas are considered a valuable asset. Altogether, the four existing spas welcome more than 300,000 guests a year and contribute £15m (US$25.6m, €19m) annually to the group’s £300m (US$509.1m, €378.7m) revenues. Significantly, the turnover of the spas accounts for half the monies generated from all leisure activities.
Spread over three floors, the Aqua Sana facilities at Woburn Forest include a bright airy reception with retail and manicure stations, a Vitalé Café Bar and 22 treatment rooms. For dedicated spa-goers, there are also six luxury spa suites with their own private lift to the spa. These – a first for Center Parcs – were designed by Sparcstudio, the company responsible for the interiors of the hotel and the spa’s dry areas.
The standout feature, however, is the World of Spa wet and thermal zone which boasts 25 multi-sensory experiences and a large outdoor pool. It’s what Camilleri is most proud of because, quite simply, “there’s nothing else like it” in the country.
The vast majority of spas are designed with a focus on revenue generating areas. Priority is usually given to treatment rooms, with a handful of heat experiences and a pool squeezed into the remaining space. Not so at Center Parcs. The company has turned this model on its head – and with phenomenal success.
Having a cutting-edge hydrothermal zone has been a key part of Center Parcs’ Aqua Sana concept since the early 90s. Camilleri, who’s worked for the company for 28 years, recalls: “Center Parcs was famous for its Sub-Tropical Swimming Paradise, but it wanted to continue evolving and the directors felt the growth of spa was going to be an important one. I was given the challenge to come up with the ‘next big thing’: to design an Aqua Sana that was going to be the best in Europe.
“My idea was to split it in two – to have the treatment rooms, and a new part, which is what we now call the World of Spa. The inspiration came from visiting the Epcot theme park in Florida with my kids. It showcased different cultural experiences – you can go to Morocco or France and walk around a lake. I thought I could do something like that in a spa with cultural flavours and a pool instead of a lake.”
After many dead ends, Camilleri eventually found an Austrian-based wellness design and equipment manufacturer Schletterer Consult (see p78) to help turn his vision into a reality. The companies have worked together for the past 15 years and their latest World of Spa at Woburn Forest is the most impressive to date.
A world apart
Covering 3,000sq m (32,292sq ft) and spread over two floors, the World of Spa takes up just under half of the Aqua Sana building at Woburn Forest. Schletterer Consult designed the area and also supplied the 25 different multi-sensory experiences. The experiences have been grouped together in six different zones or ‘mini spas’ with four or five individual units – such as wet and dry heat experiences, rain walks and relaxation lounges. In keeping with its setting overlooking the forest, each zone has been inspired by a different part of nature – Mineral & Gemstone, Salt and Sensory, Herbal, Blossom and Fire & Ice.
The latest technology and design has been used to bring the experiences alive. In the Sensory Experience, which makes its world debut at Woburn Forest, lighting effects, large screen projections and newly developed acoustic sequences and scents take customers through a journey of the four seasons (see p106). In autumn, for example, guests hear rustling leaves and feel a temperature change and damp mist on their skin while a sweet sharp scent of wild berries fills the room. In another first, the Mineral Room has crushed particles of healthy minerals – such as amethyst, magnesium, lithium and rose quartz – which infuse the air along with a refreshing lemongrass scent to energise the senses and calm the nerves.
“The one I really, really like is the [Himalayan] Salt Steam Room,” says Camilleri. “We’ve had salt steamrooms before, but have never had actual salt crystals in them and I think it gives a much more intense feeling.”
The spa zones are accompanied by reflexology footbaths and an 18m outdoor pool with a terrace and Zen garden.
To help guests navigate the number of experiences, spa hosts greet people when they enter the World of Spa and talk them through the journey options. “The more you use it, the more you understand the ingredients and how to apply them to yourself,” says Camilleri. “If you want something that’s energetic you can try something that will really blast you out. If you’re feeling tired and want to relax, then maybe you’ll try the Sensory Experience and gently absorb the atmosphere before using the pool and the massage jets.”
This is the first time the World of Spa has featured mini spa zones – at the other sites the heat and wet experiences sit around the perimeter of a large central area. Camilleri says: “I wondered whether splitting up the relaxation areas into small cocoons was the right thing to do. No matter how good your team is at sorting the [communal] guest area, it’s difficult to manage a big space. Other more recent spas I’d seen on my travels had these pockets [groups of experiences], with anything from six, but no more than 15 people, in them and I thought it worked really well.”
Splitting up the spa has another added bonus of delivering a more intimate spa. The World of Spa is a social space which can accommodate up to 150 people at a time and groups of friends who go there may use the time to catch up, talk and relax together. But as there’s a physical limit to how many people can use the mini spa zones, there’s always a tranquil area for people in need of quieter corners.
New market generator
Of course, all of the equipment, water systems and technical requirements of the World of Spa, not to mention the sheer size of it, make it an expensive addition to the Aqua Sana. In total, it cost around £10m (US$17.1m, €12.6m). But Camilleri says the figures stack up: “Half of our spa revenue comes from the World of Spa,” adding that it’s open to day spa visitors as well as on-site guests (see p80). Interestingly, a World of Spa session enables Center Parcs to add extra value to a spa day package too instead of offering a complimentary or discounted treatment.
“The World of Spa is also less labour intensive,” says Camilleri. “Overall the Aqua Sana employs around 90 staff and only a small percentage of them are required to run the World of Spa.”
The World of Spa is more than just a revenue generator, however. It’s a key differentiator for Center Parcs and it’s opening the spa up to a number of new markets. The price of a spa treatment can be a barrier to entry, but the affordability of the World of Spa means it’s attracting spa virgins – around half of the customers have never been to a spa before says Camilleri. “Go to the cinema and have a snack and you spend £30, or go to a football match for two hours and you spend the same amount. We’re charging £37 [at entry level] for a three hour session so, by comparison, it sits very well and we’re providing a much more exclusive and exotic product.”
It’s also helping to attract men, who make up 40 per cent of World of Spa customers. “I don’t know whether it was a stroke of luck, but it’s the single most successful ingredient we have to bring men into the business,” says Camilleri. “They don’t see it as a ladies-only place, they see it as an adult swimming area for men – almost a wet playground if you want to call it that. After a while they try out the saunas and the steamrooms and they love it. They then start getting curious about the smell or the temperature and start asking questions. Once people ask questions, they’re involved.”
He adds that the World of Spa is even helping to drum up extra business for the resort itself. “The day spa visitors come in groups and many of them haven’t been to a Center Parcs village before. They come because a friend’s told them we have the best spa, but that’s another opportunity for us to get people to cross the threshold and come to Center Parcs.”
Never stop trying
Although the Aqua Sana has only just opened, Camilleri is already thinking about the future. As part of the second phase of development there’s permission to build six more spa suites. “It’s a very exciting move to bring in spa accommodation,” he says. “I’m pleased that the spa suites have direct access to the spa, but I feel there’s an opportunity for the hotel rooms to have a direct link too. Whatever product you have, you should never stop trying. You should continuously test it and make sure you are your best critic.”
He adds: “We can’t relax as we’re always looking for new markets,” and points to the steadily increasing corporate business as another potential avenue.
There’s also a possibility to expand the spa into the adjacent woodland to include an outdoor spa, possibly with barefoot walkways. Camilleri concludes: “The overall goal is to keep innovating and making the spa better. But for now, we can say quite unashamedly that we have the best spa in the UK.”
Read an interview with Center Parcs managing director Martin Dalby in our sister publication Leisure Management: http://lei.sr?a=7C2h7