A break from the past

The Butlins brand may be well known and trusted, but it is also entrenched in the past. A new hotel is set to put an end to that. By Jonathan Harwood

It’s as British as fish and chips, knotted hankies and striped deckchairs, but after opening a modern hotel in Bognor Regis, Butlins is hoping to shed its Hi-De-Hi image and reinvent itself for the 21st century.

Few brands can claim a place in the national consciousness to rival Butlins, which is owned by Bourne Leisure. The name conjures up images of enthusiastic Red Coats, rows of chalets and knobbly-knee competitions. But those aren’t necessarily images that modern holiday companies want to be associated with.

To many, Butlins is a brand trapped in its 1950s heyday. But the company is striving to move with the times and at the opening of its new Shoreline hotel last week the famous Red Coats were joined by a troupe of kung fu-fighting Shaolin monks.

The &£10m investment in the glass and steel, 160-room hotel may be replicated at the holiday company’s two other resorts in Minehead and Skegness if it proves a success and helps the brand to broaden its appeal. As Butlins hotel project manager Jim Forward says: “We wanted to create a contemporary space. We want people to say: ‘I didn’t expect this from Butlins’.”

Butlins spends &£5m a year on advertising. PHD Compass handles its planning and buying account after winning it earlier this month. Apart from developing the image of its resorts, Butlins is focusing on the short-break market and its latest campaign, devised by Mustoes, aims to sell the brand to young families, literally pointing out the fact that “kids love it”. Bands that appeal to the young, including McFly, have been booked to play at its resorts, Bob the Builder is licensed to appear and the company is running a DJ Academy for children this summer.

Interbrand executive director Graham Hales explains that the brand’s heritage is a strength, but he adds that Butlins also needs to be seen to be moving with the times. “It almost feels like it’s part of our past,” he says. He adds that Butlins can’t hope to fill the same role it did in the post-war years. “It cannot compete with cheap foreign travel,” he says, but because people now have more leisure time than before the brand is right to concentrate on short domestic breaks.

Will Anderson, account handler for Butlins at Mustoes, says he was pleasantly surprised by the quality of holiday at Butlins when the agency took over the advertising in 2003. “It was not what I was expecting,” he admits. He points out that repeat bookings run at over 90 per cent and that Butlin’s image problem is more in the eyes of those who have never been there.

Other observers agree: “It is the people who don’t go there who have the most negative perceptions, but they don’t know what it is really like,” says Smarter Communications managing partner Jeremy Aspinall, whose previous company, Senior King, once held the Butlins account.

Anderson goes as far as to compare Butlins to another once-derided brand that overcame its image problem. “It reminds me of Skoda,” he says. And he adds that interest in Butlins is “definitely” on the up. Visitor numbers to its website have increased and brochure requests are up this year.

Research also shows that the domestic holiday market is on the rise. According to Mintel, Britons now take 100 million-plus domestic breaks a year compared with the 40 million breaks taken overseas. Mintel says six per cent of adults visited Butlins between 2001 and 2003, a figure second only to Haven, another Bourne Leisure brand, with eight per cent.

Observers say rival Center Parcs is popular but it offers a more activity-focused holiday, while Butlins has the edge over its direct rival Pontins, which was used by three per cent of adults between 2001 and 2003 (Mintel) and has eight sites, with 16,000 beds. As Butlins seeks to develop a modern brand image, surely its core values of fun and entertainment, personified by the Red Coats, will never go out of fashion.

Facts and Figures

– Butlins was founded by Billy Butlin, who was born in South Africa and arrived in England in 1921 from Canada. He opened his first holiday camp in Skegness in 1936. Over the next 25 years a further eight camps were opened across the UK.

– In 1972 Butlins merged with the Rank Organisation.

– Between 1986 and 1999 almost &£240m was invested in resorts at Bognor, Minehead and Skegness. The others were sold off.

– Bourne Leisure bought Butlins from Rank Group in 2000 in a &£650m deal that also included the Haven and Warner brands. Since then it has invested &£44m in the three sites.

– The Shoreline hotel in Bognor Regis cost &£10m to build, boasts 160 rooms and is modelled on a cruise liner. All rooms have widescreen TVs and floor-to-ceiling windows.

– In 1936, one week’s holiday at Butlins cost &£2.12s.6d per person. A week at the Shoreline for a family of four costs about &£300.

– Butlins’ three resorts, which have 18,500 beds, attracted 1.3 million visitors last year.

– Famous Red Coats include Des O’Connor, Johnny Ball, Dave Allen, Jimmy Tarbuck, Michael Barrymore and H from Steps.

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