Business Irish

Saturday 20 April 2019

Parc life: holiday firm ready for Ireland

Center Parcs' CEO Martin Dalby tells Samantha McCaughren how the tourism empire was waiting in the long grass to enter the Irish market

Martin Dalby, CEO of Center Parcs. Photo: Jason Clarke Photography Ltd
Martin Dalby, CEO of Center Parcs. Photo: Jason Clarke Photography Ltd
Samantha McCaughren

Samantha McCaughren

Visitors to any of the five Center Parcs holiday resorts in the UK can be safe in the knowledge that each one sticks to a tried and tested formula. At the heart of each is a water park, high-quality self-catering accommodation and a number of family-friendly restaurants. But the company has broken away from its standardised layout for its first Irish resort.

"It was pretty clear almost immediately that actually having a good Irish family pub with good food, good ales, etc, is what would go down really well. So we've built that into the mix of the areas," says Martin Dalby, CEO of Center Parcs.

Since announcing plans for a €230m investment in Ballymahon, Newcastle, Co Longford - and indeed for some time before - Dalby has become a regular visitor to Ireland. He has seen the pub culture firsthand.

"We've actually noticed it coming out to Dublin. You go out at 10 o'clock at night and the places are absolutely throbbing with people. Whereas in the UK everybody's gone to bed," he says.

Yorkshire-born Dalby, dressed in a sleeveless jacket and casual trousers, is also taking care to make sure the pub as authentic as possible.

"We're working with an Irish designer, an Irish company in terms of the menu development. So we want everything to be absolutely Irish. All the sourcing, the food supply, everything is all from the island of Ireland. And that's been a key factor actually all the way through the project. We've really said right from the beginning, as much as is humanely possible we want to source all of our goods and services from Ireland. We want to become a part of the business community, a part of the local community as well."

In Britain, Center Parcs needs no explanation, particularly among its core customer base of affluent families. But there will be some surprises for Irish visitors who are not familiar with the Center Parcs model.

For one, it's based on a very tightly regimented system. The holidays slots are broken down into weekday breaks and weekend breaks. Visitors have a window during which they can arrive and leave. For laid-back Irish holidaymakers, a new mindset may be required.

Dalby is confident that Irish customers will adapt and embrace the model. "The way that we manage Centre Parcs is very regimented," he says. "It's a massive logistical exercise.

"So, for example, on changeover day we ask our guests who are leaving to be out of their accommodation by 10 o'clock. And the guests who are arriving for the weekend, we ask that they join us at three o'clock. Which means we've got five hours, which is a small window to clean hundreds of units of accommodation. It's no mean feat. So unfortunately it has to be like that. You couldn't have people just deciding to come out whenever they felt like it, it just wouldn't work."

Another aspect of the group's five British resorts which Irish tourists will notice when the Longford property opens this summer will be cost. According to Dalby, the holidays will be keenly priced. Yet while the water park is included, additional activities are extra and can add up for larger groups.

But add-ons such as activities are central to the group's business model.

"Approximately 60pc of our business in the UK is from selling the accommodation. And the other 40pc is then based on what you do when you come to Center Parcs," he says. "So restaurants, bars, cafes, leisure activities, the spa, all those things where you pay to do those things is about 40pc of our business."

There will be a learning curve at Ballymahon, which is aimed squarely at the domestic market. But Dalby is very confident that it will work and that Center Parcs is here for the long haul.

He references Woburn in England, which opened in 2015.

"It was an instant overnight success, because it was opening in the UK where the brand awareness was already extremely strong and high. And everybody knew what Center Parcs were all about. Most people you'd meet on the street have actually been at some point."

"That won't be the case in Ireland, clearly. We think it will take two to three years to build up the amount of occupancy and the level of demand for the products in Ireland."

He believes word of mouth will play a huge part in that, although the company is already investing heavily in marketing here.

"But we are absolutely crystal clear that within two to three years Longford Centre Parcs will be 95pc occupancy, it'll be no different to the UK. It'll be part of everyone's repertoire for a short-break holiday where they can spend time with the family, make some great memories, and we'll become part of the establishment."

Dalby himself comes from a working-class area near Leeds and was ambitious from an early age. He left school at 16 because that was what every else did at the time.

"There was one or two posh kids that stayed on into sixth form, but the majority of kids left at 16 and they went to get a job because they needed money. The family needed money. It wasn't just about the individual," he recalls.

Soon afterwards he joined a small regional office of brewing company Scottish & Newcastle and they offered him further training. "I used to go every Friday for five years and at the end of it I was a fully qualified accountant," he says.

"My whole career experience proves that if you work hard and are driven to make a career of something then anything is possible. You know, I didn't leave school at 16 thinking 'One day I'm going to be the CEO of Centre Parcs.' But I always knew I was going to be something."

Scottish & Newcastle bought Center Parcs in 1990, as part of a diversification strategy, which at that time was in Europe and the UK. Ten years later it sold the business, splitting it into two businesses - one in the UK and one in Europe. There were three Center Parcs in the UK then and two have opened since.

The Irish one, owned by the UK operation, will be the first international expansion for that business.

"We've been looking at Ireland for over a decade or so. And then, of course, the financial crisis came along. It seemed to make sense just to hold back," says Dalby.

"So we sat back and just watched the world correct itself and all of that. And then probably in about '12/'13 or so, we felt we could see the green shoots in Ireland starting to come and things were picking up."

Finding a site is always the biggest challenge for Center Parcs and Longford might not seem like the most scenic of holidays destinations.

For Dalby it ticks all the boxes. "Because we look for certain characteristics. It needs to be 400 acres in size. We need a coniferous woodland. We need it to be fairly wet. We need the building conditions to be good.

"And the main thing is the access for people in terms of the road network is very good. And strategically, and if you drew the map of the whole of Ireland and stuck a pin in the middle, you'll land on the site."

He is not unduly worried about the possible impact of Brexit on their Irish plans.

"First of all, this is a product for domestic customers in Ireland. I think the other thing is this is a very long-term investment for the company, we're going to be here for many, many years to come. I'm sure that all the issues of Brexit will be long resolved and forgotten about as we continue to trade in Ireland."

In fact, he believes the company will perform well through economic challenges. "We really are not concerned. If you look at the track record of Center Parcs through recession and the financial crisis in the UK we were one of the very strongest companies out there. Our occupancy levels of over 95pc continued all the way through the financial crisis."

Just like in the UK, the company expects its target market to be relatively well off, although he says that during "off-peak periods the prices are very attractive and absolutely affordable".

But generally "slightly more affluent, larger families, are the main target market for our business".

And although families make up the bulk of visitors, adult groups also go - with the high-quality Aqua Sana spa a particular draw, says Dalby.

Irish customers sometimes feel they get fleeced by British companies with operations here, but Dalby says not so with Ballymahon.

"It's slightly cheaper than the other ones," he says, partly because location such as Woburn target the affluent London market.

As well as the Irish pub, Center Parcs has made a couple of other changes for this market.

It won't have a Starbucks, as the company's research found Irish people prefer independent coffee houses.

And the research also found that there isn't the same love of Indian food as there is in the UK.

"We've actually developed the menu, and we've been trialling it in the UK, to introduce some more Asian dishes as well to make it a bit more Thai/fusion-based. And they are going down really well in the UK."

Center Parcs Longford Forest opens in the summer, although the exact dates has not yet been confirmed. So Dalby won't have long to wait to see if the research has paid off.

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