Armed with a new sales and marketing director (MW August 28) and about to hire a new ad agency, Butlin’s will announce later today (Wednesday) a series of investments designed to reinforce its place as a British institution.
Butlin’s undoubtedly has a place in the nation’s consciousness – even among people who have never been there and would be horrified by the suggestion that they might enjoy a visit. This year about one in 25 Britons spent their holiday at Butlin’s. The figure is down slightly on the year before, but it is still higher than five years ago.
Knobbly-knees contests, beauty pageants and, above all, the ever-smiling Redcoat, have become part of national folklore – at least partly through the popularity of long-running BBC TV series Hi De Hi, which lampooned the format for years.
The concept has changed little since the company was founded in 1936 by Sir Billy Butlin – who, according to a forthcoming Channel 4 documentary, carried a cut-throat razor in his top pocket for years to protect himself should he fall foul of one of his many dodgy associates. The aim then and now is to provide all-day entertainment – and, again according to C4, sometimes all-night entertainment too, since some staff allegedly plied a steady trade in prostitution.
Butlin’s heyday came just after the war when, with thousands of homes destroyed by bombs, many were drawn to the camps (though the word “camp” is now definitely out of favour) because they offered the kind of facilities people didn’t have at home – inside toilets and hot water, for example.
Now part of Rank, which also owns Odeon cinemas and the Hard Rock Café restaurant chain, Butlin’s five Holiday Worlds are each capable of accommodating at least 5,000 holidaymakers. There are five hotels (and three London theatre restaurants) and 51 caravan and chalet parks around the country. Though the company refuses to reveal details of its investment plans ahead of its announcement today (Wednesday), it is understood that the bulk of the investment will involve the physical refurbishment of the camps and the demolition of hundreds of decaying chalets.
The Rank holiday group – including Haven, Warner Holidays and Oasis – returned an operating profit of 66m in the 12 months to the end of 1996, down 1m on the previous year.
Rank chief executive Andrew Teare commented earlier this month: “Our consumer research is saying that accommodation is where we’re letting down the consumer – the entertainment they’re happy with.”
Butlin’s core customers remain the same today as they have always been: families.
“The majority of people who come to Butlin’s love it. There is tremendous customer loyalty,” explains Butlin’s managing director Tony Marshall. “They love it because it’s an all-encompassing, all-round holiday. They do not have to think about what they want to do. They can come with their children to a safe, clean environment with no worries about flight delays or airport queues, and there is always something to do.”
And all for 700 for a family of four staying half-board for a week. The prices have risen as Rank steers the group away from the days when it was possible for one adult to go to Butlin’s for as little as 12 for a three-day stay.
The perennial problem for Butlin’s, along with most other holiday operators, is how to break out of the circle of discounting, which makes the holiday market appear to be in a permanent state of flux.
It is a problem that Butlin’s is intending to address this year. The company is likely to take the same course as other holiday operators in the same situation and offer clearer pricing bands, rather than an endless permutation of discounts.
Marshall does not admit to having any competitors, which is a bit disingenuous of him since Butlin’s long-time rival Pontin’s is so similar in format as to be virtually indistinguishable.
Like Butlin’s, Pontin’s has long been part of a much larger company, in this case brewer Scottish & Newcastle. It too is in the throes of an investment programme – a 55m exercise which ends next year. Pontin’s has eight Family Favourites centres, six adult-only holiday villages and three Island Holiday centres in Jersey and Ireland.
Marshall’s case for Butlin’s uniqueness is stronger when the centres are compared with the more recent holiday village concepts such as Center Parcs, which opened ten years ago and is owned by Scottish & Newcastle, and the Rank-owned Oasis, which opened in Cumbria in May.
Marshall points out that Center Parcs, based around a giant swimming pool and an artificially created sub-tropical environment, focuses on sport and offers amenities for which holidaymakers pay extra on arrival – entertainment at Butlin’s is included in the price. The Oasis holiday village is very similar to Center Parcs, though perhaps it places slightly more emphasis on the outdoor environment. Neither Center Parcs nor Oasis claim to be aiming at the budget end of the market.
“Most people at Center Parcs don’t leave their bungalows after 7pm. At Butlin’s, entertainment is always provided and that’s why people go,” says Marshall.
He believes the number of customers shows the resilience of the Butlin’s format and that the investment announced this week will bring the centres up to customers’ expectations. “The public has become much more discerning and people in the lower income bracket have become increasingly sophisticated in their tastes,” explains Marshall – and he believes he can market Butlin’s holidays to the increasingly popular short-break market.
He has just appointed Ken Johnston, formerly of Pepsi Cola, to the post of sales and marketing director (MW August 28) and, this autumn, is launching a 3.5m advertising campaign through Lowe Howard-Spink or WCRS (it had yet to be decided which agency would win the business at the time of going to press). This itself is part of an 8m marketing budget for the year, which is significantly up from last year, says Marshall.
Butlin’s made the same noises last year, however, when it appointed the ad agency Leo Burnett to create a branding campaign. This never materialised.
Marshall also sees the forthcoming marketing campaign as an opportunity to rid the Butlin’s name of the dreadful publicity it received this summer when stories of employees allegedly supplying drugs at Butlin’s Somerset World in Minehead hit the headlines.
“People still love what Butlin’s represents: good value fun for all the family,” says Marshall.