Center Parcs: A minor blip, or the start of a slump?
Center Parcs has quietly become a middle-class institution over the last 20 years. It has a unique offer, and is famed for its excellent service. Oh, and the fact that you pay, oh yes you pay, for this genuinely unique experience.
With our two children now being prime Center Parcs ages – 5 and 8 – we have been 3 times in the last couple of years. Each time has absolutely delivered on their vision “to be the escape where families come together”.
Going back at Easter this year, the whole family was hugely looking forward to a break from the intensity of day-to-day life, and to have four days of genuine family togetherness. The excitement when we mentioned to the kids that we were going back to Center Parcs was incredible – it truly is one of their favourite places imaginable.
The leisure and hospitality industry’s challenge with staffing, both from a recruitment and Covid perspective – has been extremely well documented. We weren’t entirely surprised, therefore, to receive an email from Center Parcs a week before our holiday letting us know that they were suffering from some staff shortages. More worryingly, the email stated that some restaurant bookings and activities may not be available, but that we’d be told if it affected us. Whilst we appreciated them being up front about their challenges, it did leave us somewhat on edge, waiting for a follow up email. Was our itinerary safe?
Thankfully, by the day of departure, we still hadn’t received a follow up email, so we left for Sherwood Forest under the assumption that our meticulously planned itinerary (you have to be on the money!) was still intact.
The entrance to Center Parcs is one of the great ‘crossing the threshold’ moments in the customer experience, and in our previous experience, they had always done so well. The last time we visited was shortly before Christmas, and as we approached the check in cabins, a series of Elves were dancing around, chatting to children in the cars, and really building up the anticipation and excitement. Being Easter, we’d kind of assumed that some Easter Bunnies or similar might be awaiting us. However, this time, there was nothing. A few nice decorations, but a pretty functional entrance awaited us. Merry (8) was particularly disappointed, because she’d drawn a picture to say thank you to the elves from Christmas. Instead, we handed it in to the check in assistant, who, to be fair, was extremely helpful. Presumably, the staff shortages meant that other areas had to be prioritised.
Our first job was to park up and then go and collect a bike for me, as we’d only been able to fit three on the car’s bike rack. It was at this point that the cracks in service and the stresses on the Center Parcs team began to show a little. On previous holidays to Center Parcs, we’ve never needed to pre-book bikes. There are, quite literally, hundreds of them in their cycle centre. As I approached the booth, the thought of not being able to hire one of the many hundreds of bikes I could see in front of me hadn’t even crossed my mind. However, this time was different. Apparently, a new rule had been put in place stating that all cycles had to be pre-booked. This was news to us, and we couldn’t remember seeing anything about this on the website (we could be mistaken though). It did seem ridiculous – there were hundreds of bikes waiting, doing nothing, surely they couldn’t all be pre-booked? I was told to book for tomorrow on the website, and hopefully they’d be able to give me one then.
I slouched back to the family, all waiting on their own bikes, and told them the news. This was something of a pain, as the Center Parcs experience is all about the family being together, on our bikes, in a wonderful care-free environment. We felt rather flat.
Now, if you happen to have had the pleasure of meeting my wife, you will know that she is a force of nature, and she was not going to let a technicality get in the way of our holiday! After politely enquiring about this issue with two separate team members in customer services, Charlie finally managed to speak to a manager. Unsurprisingly, once this had happened, a call was made to the cycle centre, and I was on a bike within minutes. But it had taken us a good half-hour of grumbling, and soured the start of our experience. At the cycle centre itself, I asked the attendant what was going on. She was bemused – “there are always hundreds of bikes here, I don’t know why they wouldn’t let you have one”. Something wasn’t quite right in the previously perfect Center Parcs experience.
Over the rest of the four days we did, unfortunately, notice a few more cracks in the experience. The restaurants were clearly under tremendous pressure. We talked a number of times about how rushed the poor team members looked – they were working exceptionally hard, racing between tables, almost at a run, and never stopped. But, inevitably, this resulted in problems with food and service. Wait times were hugely extended which, with 5 and 8 year old kids, is something of a problem. When our food did arrive at one of the restaurants (Hucks – previously our favourite), Leo’s tomato pasta was freezing on top and scorching on the bottom – it simply hadn’t been stirred. Something had to give in the kitchen. We sympathised with the teams but, then again, there hadn’t been a reduction in the price of our holiday, so why should we be putting up with an inferior experience?
Despite the problems (all minor, but all part of those thousands of small gestures that build brands) we still had a fantastic time. The activities were, as ever, excellent, with the tree top walk and zipwires being a particular highlight. As ever, the swimming pool was the biggest hit with the kids, as was just cycling round and exploring the beautiful site.
Whilst Center Parcs, perhaps understandably, has slipped a little in terms of the overall experience, there’s no doubt that nobody does Family Togetherness quite like them. With staffing levels now returning to a more normal level, I’d expect the experience to be as good as ever.
The one main area of focus for them would be the F&B experience, which is starting to feel tired and outdated. The casual dining experience has moved on, and it feels like Center Parcs is crying out for a Dishoom, Wagamamma or even a Pizza Express to add some variety and elevate the F&B offer.
Overall, Center Parcs is still well aligned to its brand vision, but it might be time to put on those brand goggles and revisit the customer experience to ensure that each and every element is fully aligned.