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Leisure Management
2013 issue 4

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Leisure Management - Michel Linet-Frion


Michel Linet-Frion

As Center Parcs Europe opens its latest village in Germany, the company’s creative director Michel Linet-Frion tells Magali Robathan how he makes sure the company is always one step ahead

Magali Robathan, CLAD mag
Michel Linet-Frion
Les Trois Forets in Moselle, France, was the first new-generation Center Parcs
One of Center Parc’s concept pillars is the idea that guests disconnect from their daily environment by immersing themselves in nature
Ninety per cent of guests come to a Center Parcs village because it has an Aqua Mundo waterpark
A prototype treehouse, which will be built in Moselle and Vienne ©Groupe P&V Center Parcs
The market café at Parc Bostalsee aims to encourage guests to eat out
Aqua Mundo uses landscaping to make guests feel as though they’re outdoors

What does your job involve?
As creative director of the Pierre & Vacances Center Parcs Group, my job has three main focuses. Firstly, I’m always on the lookout for any new innovations that we can use. Secondly, I’m available to offer creative input into projects within the company, and to answer any creative questions.

The last part of my job, which is the most time-consuming, is defining new products, so everyone knows what we’re going to build and how much it will cost. Once the project starts, I’m very active in putting together an out of house team, briefing them and getting the project off the ground.

What’s your career history?
I’ve worked for more than 25 years in the leisure industry for Walt Disney Imagineering, Parc Astérix/Grévin & Cie and now as creative director for the Pierre & Vacances Center Parcs Group.

Why did Pierre & Vacances take over Center Parcs Europe?
It had a lot of potential for development and it was clear there was room for more Center Parcs sites across Europe. Center Parcs is the development vehicle for Pierre & Vacances.

Why were you brought in?
When Pierre & Vacances bought the European branch of Center Parcs from Scottish & Newcastle in 2001 [see box out for detailed history on p60], they decided to build a new site in France – Le Lac d’Aillette – the first co-created new village.

Although it’s a great and unique leisure experience resort, complete with unrivalled activities, it’s a bit of a mixed product – half Center Parcs and half Pierre & Vacances.

After that site opened, I came in, and we decided that it was important to go back to the origins of Center Parcs and make sure that we really understood the product.

I was asked to revisit the Center Parcs concept, to rejuvenate it and make it modern, while still keeping the core Center Parcs values intact.

What have been the biggest recent events for the company?
The Pierre & Vacances Center Parcs Group opened Les Trois Forêts, the first new-generation Center Parcs in Moselle, eastern France in 2010, which was a very big project for us.
In 2012 the group expanded the Avoriaz ski resort in the Alps and put in a new spa and waterpark. In June 2013, we opened our latest Center Parcs – Park Bostalsee in Germany.

How did Park Bostalsee evolve?
We co-financed the project with the regional authorities there, which meant that the project took a long time.

It wasn’t originally going to be a Center Parcs – that decision came later. That meant the site didn’t have all the characteristics we usually require to build a Center Parcs. Here we had a hilly terrain and not many trees, as opposed to our usual forest sites. There was a lake, but it’s a public space, so anyone can walk around it.

Also, it’s smaller than our usual Center Parcs – we could only put 500 cottages in Bostalsee, as that’s all the project could support, whereas we usually put in at least 800. The project became strategically important for us, as it meant we had to put together a blueprint for a smaller – mid-size – Center Parcs village.

This has opened up new horizons, as it means we can now think about going into regions that couldn’t support a full size village.

How has the economic downturn affected business?
We’ve felt the economic downturn both on the real estate side of the business and on the operational side. We’re lucky though, in that Center Parcs sites are short reach destinations, so our guests don’t have to travel too far to get to us, and we’re a bit cheaper than going on a long distance vacation.

Also, Center Parcs is about nature, sustainability and ecology, and these things have become quite fashionable in recent years. So we’ve been less affected by the downturn than some.

What are your plans for Center Parcs over the next year?
Work has started on a site in Vienne, west France. It’s due to open in 2015. Others will follow in France and Germany, but it’s too early to talk about them at the moment.

How did you refresh the Center Parcs concept?
We developed five concept pillars to build on. The first is the accommodation; the second is Aqua Mundo, our indoor water park – that’s a very important part of the offer, as 90 per cent of guests come to a Center Parcs village because it has an Aqua Mundo. The third pillar is the leisure that’s offered at our sites. Fourth is nature, and the idea that our guests disconnect from their daily environment by immersing themselves in nature and using that to reconnect with the people they are with. Our fifth pillar is our staff and the welcome they give guests.

How did you evolve these ideas in Les Trois Forêts in Moselle?
Firstly we re-defined the accommodation, building wooden cottages, developing new architecture, using the idea of bringing nature into the cottages and revisiting the facilities inside. From now on, when we build a new site or renovate an existing one, we’ll use this new blueprint.

We also really looked at how we wanted Aqua Mundo to develop. We wanted to move away from anything related to a traditional swimming pool, so there are no more tiles or stainless steel components, such as ladders and guard rails. We’ve taken out anything that brings you back to the idea of a classic pool and replaced it with landscaping to make it look as though you’re in nature.

We went quite far with this idea – for example, I didn’t like the wave pools, because they’re very geometric and need high walls to generate the waves. We worked with the wave makers to find a way to develop a new type of wave generator and we designed a new lagoon pool, which is curved and doesn’t have high walls. It gives us more flexibility in the landscaping.

We built it in Les Trois Forêts, and it works, so we’re going to build one in all new parks from now on. In Vienne we will also add a ‘living animals experience,’ where guests can swim between immersed aquariums.

Where we’re really going to evolve in our next village in Vienne is the nature part of the offer. We’re designing the whole park so that we can introduce free roaming deer – it’ll be an animal park, almost, in which we put accommodation and our facilities. It means our guests will get to experience real animal encounters.

As well as the free roaming deer, we’ll build a children’s farm with indoor play, food and beverage, stage shows and a kid’s club, where children can sign up for various activities. We’ll have animals around the farm – a pony farm, horse and pony riding and a petting zoo where guests can pet and feed the animals at certain times.

We have a mini farm on all our sites; we have now developed the first full size farm concept, and opened the first at Les Trois Forêts. It combines the opportunity to interact with farm animals with highly themed indoor and outdoor playgrounds. Vienne will feature an even bigger farm.

How are you developing the children’s water play areas?
We’ve tried to introduce different types of play into our waterparks. This includes expanding the kids’ play zone within our pools and introducing new elements to it. A few years ago we introduced the first ‘tree house,’ which is an interactive water play structure with slides and hoses and sprays and a big bucket that fills with water and spills hundred of litres of water down the structure.

Looking forwards, we’re trying to evolve this product. For example, we’re thinking about having two buckets, instead of one, which adds to the water play possibilities, and also adding a high rope inside in the area.

We added raft slides into our waterparks a few years ago. This opened up many new opportunities because all the suppliers are innovating with raft slides at the moment.

What plans do you have for more Center Parcs sites?
The Domaine du Bois aux Daims in the Vienne region of France will open in 2015. We’ve acquired some land in Allgau in Germany for a new park. That will be the next site in Germany, once the financing has been settled.

We also have to take care of – and renovate – our existing villages; we’re not going to neglect them and just focus on new sites. We’re working on our restaurants because it’s really hard to get people out of their cozy cottages to eat in them. We’re trying to turn them into themed experiences to attract the children.

What’s the spa offer at Center Parcs Europe?
We’ve developed a new spa concept, which will be an important part of our new sites. The idea is for a nature-inspired, tropical spa.

Instead of going inside, into a spa, guests will feel as though they’re in a tropical environment. For example, rather than going into a room for treatments, they might go into a hut or tree house. The environment will also feature communal areas with different pools and hammams and saunas and relaxation rooms.

The first of these spas will open in Vienne. It will be 1,200sq m, with 12 individual treatment rooms. It will also offer different types of pools and a variety of areas, which are heated to different temperatures.

What’s been your biggest challenge since joining Pierre & Vacances Center Parcs?
When I joined the company, Center Parcs had been very successful for around 40 years, so many thought, why change? This success was based, among many things, on innovation; on bringing in new things that people didn’t have at home. For example, we put colour tvs into the cottages before most people had them.

The challenge was to revisit the concept and introduce the best from an ever-evolving leisure world, while respecting the brand’s values. It was also a challenge to come into this very strong brand and take it forward.

What’s been your biggest achievement to date?
As part of a multibrand group, I was very interested in transferring knowledge across the company. This is how we came to create the first tropical water paradise – a typical Center Parcs feature – in a ski resort (Avoriaz). We wanted to introduce the idea that a ski resort can offer more entertainment than just skiing. It’s also how we’ve come to build floating houses, and houses in trees, bring theming into our restaurants and introduce wellness as a concept pillar.

I think that this mixing of different products to create a strong concept is my biggest achievement.

Center Parcs Europe recent history
Scottish & Newcastle sellsº Center Parcs Europe to Pierre & Vacances and DB Capital Partners. The portfolio comprises 10 villages: five in the Netherlands, two in France, two in Belgium and one in Germany. 

Following on from the acquisition of Gran Dorado parks, Center Parcs selects the five best Gran Dorado parks and puts them into its European portfolio.

Pierre & Vacances acquires total control of Center Parcs Europe.

New German village: Center Parcs takes over the German village Butjadinger Kuste in Tossens close to Bremerhaven from the Eurohypo AG in Frankfurt.

The third Center Parcs in France, Le Lac d’Ailette, opens near Reims in Picardie. Pierre & Vacances Center Parcs Group acquires the Belgian Sunparks Group, which owns four Belgian villages.

Fourth Center Parcs in France, Les Trois Forêts, opens in Moselle. This is the first ‘new generation’ Center Parcs village.

Center Parcs Bostalsee opens in Germany.

Today, the Pierre & Vacances Center Parcs Group has 22 sites in France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany.

Originally published in Leisure Management 2013 issue 4

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