It’s a warm, intermittently sunny, September morning and Adline is driving up a meandering trail in Sherwood Forest. The road, surrounded by heavy woodland, is a welcoming and rather fitting introduction to the Center Parcs world.
There is a problem, however. Maybe it’s down to enthusiasm, being nosy, or even an inability to correctly follow a map, but Adline is not in the right place for its meeting with sales and marketing director, Colin Whaley.
Whaley is not, as we would have possibly preferred from a visual perspective, running his marketing team from a tree house. Instead, and just a few miles north of where we are, is Center Parcs’ recently opened, New Ollerton headquarters. So, undeterred by our directional faux pas, we get back on the road to meet the man whose job it is to communicate what the Center Parcs brand is all about.
\"There are too many misconceptions out there, that’s the challenge,\" commented a confident Whaley, within moments of sitting down in his office. \"I have to be honest, before the process began, I didn’t know much about Center Parcs. I knew the name, but probably had the same vague impressions that too many people have who haven’t been. They know about the forests and probably about the dome, but they don’t really know how the two come together or what else is on offer.\"
So how did Whaley get from knowing next to diddly-squat about the brand to being the driving force behind it? \"The brand is really interesting and exciting,\" said Whaley. \"When I started investigating and meeting with people, I just loved the culture, the customer focus, the uniqueness of the product and the quality feel. All of those things fit with what is close to my heart and what should be put at the centre of the business.
\"This brand is very on-trend for where the UK consumer is going: The interest in nature and environment, the interest in getting back to basics with the family and spending time with them and the need for people to escape from the real world.\"
Center Parcs began life in Holland as a holiday that delivered short breaks away from the hustle and bustle of the outside world. It now exists in France, Belgium and Germany, as well as in the UK, where it was launched in 1987 with the opening of the Sherwood Forest village. In 2002, the UK part of the business became independent from its European counterparts and now with four villages – Oasis Whinfell, Sherwood, Elveden and Longleat – Center Parcs UK has been floated on the London stock exchange.
\"It’s great for families and that’s what we’re best at,\" explained Whaley, \"but the important point is that it’s not just about the kids. The real differentiation for us compared to other experiences you might get is the whole family will enjoy it. A lot of people have short breaks or holidays, and they go because they want their kids to have a good time and their attitude is ‘if the kids are happy, then we’re happy.’ But with Center Parcs everybody genuinely has a good time, and that’s something that I’ve discovered since I’ve been here.\"
Not content with capitalising on the leisure market, Center Parcs also offers a range of corporate opportunities, whether it’s as a secluded meeting location or as somewhere for a team-building break.
Whaley joined Center Parks from ebookers, where he spent about a year as UK marketing director. His career began, however, at British Airways. \"I spent 11 years with British Airways and, latterly, British Airways Holidays. I didn’t start in sales and marketing, but it was there where I’d always hoped to end up.\"
With his vast experience in the leisure sector, Whaley admits that the biggest factor in the decision to move was not about joining Center Parcs, but leaving his home near London where he and his family were very happy. However, the more he thought about it, the more the move made perfect sense. \"We have two young babies, so the change was right for my life stage. I no longer need be out and about in London.\" And nor, it would seem, does Whaley’s marketing agency.
\"Historically, I would have worked with London agencies. At BA it was Saatchi’s and M&C Saatchi, so that is what I am more used to. But, part of the brief to Haymarket [which helped Whaley and his team coordinate a pitch list] was to find a regional agency, because Center Parcs is not a London brand and, with the culture of the company in mind, I wanted something more appropriate.
\"We were working with Burkitts DDB for overall brand and advertising, who did a really good job on previous campaigns, and then for direct [marketing] we were working with WWAV North in Leeds. But coming in during November and fully taking over in January, I took a look and decided to freshen up the approach.\"
Following the pitch, the £5 million account ended up in the hands of McCann Erickson Communications Group, formally McCann Erickson Manchester.
\"We were looking for someone who tapped in more to the challenge of the future, which was more about integrating customer insight and our CRM strategy with all the channels, and I think that’s what McCanns can offer us,\" stated Whaley, explaining the challenge that faced his team and new agency.
\"We really need to attract new people to try us. Once people have tried Center Parcs they tend to stay. There’s a lot of loyalty once they’ve experienced it, but if you haven’t, there’s all these misconceptions like: ‘Isn’t it just a holiday camp? And, what’s the difference between this and Butlins?’ Which puts us in the wrong camp. We see ourselves as offering a higher quality, a much different product and a completely different experience.
\"We’re also not expecting people to give up their annual holiday to come to Center Parcs,\" he continued, \"We’re seeing it as an add-on, an additional short break to rejuvenate at other times of the year. Although school holiday periods are obviously very busy.\"
September is one of two peak booking periods for Center Parcs and so Whaley has been closely monitoring the success of its latest marketing activity, which includes a ten-minute showcase DVD and a direct response TV ad. In January, however, a heavier-weighted campaign, created in the most part by McCann, will aim to \"get under the skin of the brand, communicating the offering to people who haven’t been, as well as helping people who have been to communicate the experience to others.
\"TV will always have a place because there needs to be this mass-market message around the brand and building the empathy and emotional link, primarily with ABC1 families. However, we need to focus a lot on the web, because that’s where you can get a lot of rich content and functionality to explain what it’s about.
\"Over time, I do expect us to have much more of an online focus and it fits with our brand challenge of getting across the depth of the offering.\"
For the online side of its marketing, Whaley has appointed London-based Global Beach, which will work alongside McCann and Center Parcs’ other agencies to develop the firm’s communications strategy. Whaley added: \"A spattering of press and classified will be included in the activity, as well as a lot of direct marketing.
\"Very much at the heart of everything will be a strong CRM programme. We’re going to put a lot into our database to be much more sophisticated about understanding what our customers and potential customers are doing, and how they’re interacting with us.\"
Whaley said that life in Robin Hood-land is treating him very well, and it seems the same can be said for Mrs Whaley. \"As a family, we’ve been to Center Parcs for breaks a few times since I arrived and, funnily enough, my wife and her girlfriends are due at Sherwood Forest this weekend for one of our spa breaks, so we’re certainly making the most of living up here.\"