Are gigs the right theme for Butlins?

Butlins is replacing its time-worn offering with themed weekends, gigs and other ‘youthful’ forms of entertainment. But is this enough to compete with overseas destinations and the British weather?

Holiday camps with their knobbly knee and glamorous granny contests are being consigned to the rubbish heap of history. The destinations may still exist, but they are being reinvented as “holiday centres”, offering pop concerts and themed weekends, as they battle to compete against the appeal of cheap overseas package tours.

Recognising that its proposition as a cheap holiday brand is being eroded by less costly breaks in sunnier climes abroad, Butlins has begun a search for sponsorship opportunities through agency Redmandarin (MW last week) in an effort to promote its newly minted positioning as “fun and youthful”.

The holiday centre brand, bought by Bourne Leisure from Rank in 2000, hopes to capitalise on arena concerts by Will Young and other Pop Idol stars at its Minehead resort. In addition, themed breaks, such as a Soapstars holiday, featuring appearances from Hollyoaks and Emmerdale cast members, have been added to its list of attractions. These breaks and concerts are all featured heavily in the company’s Winter Breakaways brochure.

The holiday centre market – which includes Butlins, fellow Bourne Leisure-owned caravan-based Haven Holidays, the privately owned Pontins and the upmarket forest-based Center Parcs owned by Deutsch Bank – has repor

ted improved bookings for this summer, having recovered from the turmoil of the foot-and-mouth outbreak, which closed whole swathes of rural Britain.

According to Mintel 65.8 million domestic holidays will be taken this year, compared with 63 million in 2001 – the year of the foot-andmouth outbreak. But the market has only just passed its 1996 level of 65 million domestic holidays.

This underlying lack of growth in domestic tourism means holiday centres need to attract people to their new product, as well as cultivate the short-break market.

Figures from The English Tourism Council (ETC) also show that the market has recovered from the foot-andmouth crisis, with domestic “trips” – one night or more away from home – up ten per cent for the first quarter compared with the same period last year, reaching 28.5 million. The ETC predicts that a total of 140 million domestic trips will take place in 2002, up from 132 million in 2001.

However, foot and mouth may not have been the unique cause of last year’s downturn. Less than ten per cent of respondents to a recent Mintel poll said foot and mouth had altered their plans for a domestic holiday in 2001. Instead, the UK weather was offered as a major reason for not taking a break in the UK.

Holiday centres, which also saw a downturn in visitor numbers between 1996 and 2001 according to a separate poll by Mintel, have likewise suffered from a change in people’s attitudes. While the percentage of people saying they have visited a centre in the past two years fell from 26 per cent in 1997 to 22 per cent in 2001, the number of holidaymakers that have never been, but have expressed an interest in doing so, has also dropped – from 12 to nine per cent.

Explaining the shift in consumers’ holidaying patterns, an ETC spokeswoman says: “The tendency is for people to take short breaks and additional holidays in England, while they take their main holiday abroad.”

It is no surprise, therefore, that holiday centres are now cultivating the short-break business.

Ian Mounser, sales director of Superbreak Mini Holidays, which offers hotel, and bed and breakfast holidays, explains that the short-break sector has boomed as people delay their holidaying decisions. He adds that the short-break option becomes “habit forming” and the proportion of leisure time devoted by individuals to such holidays is rising.

Andrew Grant, chief executive of Grant Leisure, a leisure industry operator and consultant, points out that recently opened UK attractions such as The Eden Project in Cornwall, the Sheffield Magna centre, and Legoland Windsor have also helped the short-break domestic market.

Recognising the need to attract new customers, Butlins is even considering changing the “Come to life, come to Butlins” strapline for a message that could encourage potential first-time customers. The brand value is “fun” and is being “fine tuned” as part of a strategy review, according to sales and marketing director Marc Jones. He says: “We don’t see a large increase in volume, but rather a stabilising of product. We are managing a good value for money offering, rather than a ‘bottom-dollar’ product. If we cannot compete with sun and sky holidays abroad we will chase the short breaks surrounding the long holiday.”

Rival operator Pontins, which has eight sites offering 20,000 beds and was bought by businessman Trevor Hemmings from Scottish & Newcastle in 2000, is taking a more cautious approach.

Family appeal and children’s activities are still its prime focus, and, while it has developed the out-of-season special events programme, it seems to have an older, more traditional skew, with breaks built around big bands and salsa dancing, and even a Ken Dodd weekend.

Pontins sites are a quarter of the size of Butlins’ resorts, so the resources to stage big-name pop concerts don’t exist. However, Pontins does host one of the more alternative annual rock festivals under the banner All Tomorrow’s Parties at Camber Sands.

Pontins managing director Colin Homer says gentle change is the watchword: “If you do things too quickly and too dramatically the customers swiftly tell you they don’t like it.”

Apart from the entertainment programming, holiday centres have tackled other problem areas such as accommodation and even the UK weather. Homer says: “As standards have risen at home, people expect them to be matched when they go on holiday.” Pontins now has microwaves and satellite television in all accommodation.

Butlins began a £129m investment programme in 1997, introducing the “skyline pavilions” over the central facilities as rain protection. and their upmarket rival Center Parcs has built domes over some, though not all, facilities.

Center Parcs takes a different approach to the programme of frenetic activities at Butlins and Pontins, both of which draw customers mainly from the C1/2, D and E social demographic groups. It emphasises calm relaxation, using the strapline “Time is precious” and offers diversions such as cycling and reflexology, as well as cultivating a feeling of luxury.

Industry insiders believe that in future holiday centres can capitalise on being free of the hassle associated with travelling abroad with children – who tend to dislike hot climates – worries over air travel, and a gradual awareness that too much “sun worshipping” can be unhealthy. However, whether the winter pop concerts and themed breaks will be enough to lure new longer-term customers remains to be seen.

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