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Leisure Management
2014 issue 3

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Leisure Management - Martin Dalby


Martin Dalby

As Center Parcs’ fifth park opens, the company’s CEO talks to Magali Robathan about overhauling the planning process, eyeing up Ireland and further afield

Magali Robathan, CLAD mag
Martin Dalby, Center Parcs' CEO
Center Parcs Woburn Forest is spread across a 362 acre site in the Bedfordshire countryside. The Dome overlooks the lake
Center Parcs Woburn Forest is spread across a 362 acre site in the Bedfordshire countryside. The Dome overlooks the lake
The Tornado is one of three new water rides
The Subtropical Swimming Dome is the UK’s largest
The Plaza
The design of the lodges at Center Parcs’ other UK villages has been tweaked for Woburn Forest
The design of the lodges at Center Parcs’ other UK villages has been tweaked for Woburn Forest
Center Parcs offers a Segway experience, with tuition and a chance to ride the machines on a practice track
The outdoor infinity pool offers views over the forest;
The salt steamroom uses Himalayan salt to detoxify
The Crystal Steam Bath
Lava Volcano Sauna
The Blossom Heat Room

On 6 June, Center Parcs’ fifth UK village, Center Parcs Woburn, opened to the public. It was a long time coming for many people; none more so than Center Parcs’ chief executive Martin Dalby.

“It was a bit surreal,” says Dalby, of the opening day. “I was up at six, pacing around the lodge where I was staying. We’d been working on the park for so long, and had to jump through so many hoops to get to this stage, I couldn’t quite believe we’d done it. The dream had finally come true.”

It took 10 years from finding the site to opening the new village, and at one point it looked as though it might never happen, when the planning permission was refused by Mid Bedfordshire District Council. Center Parcs appealed the decision and permission was eventually granted in September 2007.

But just when it looked as though things were back on track, the recession hit and construction was put on hold, delaying the project further.

In 2012, the company refinanced its debt and raised £150m towards the construction of Woburn Forest (with Blackstone committing an additional £100m), and in May 2012 construction began in earnest. Two years later, on a sunny June morning, Dalby and the team got ready to welcome the first paying guests to the park.

“It was a day to remember,” says Dalby. “Around 10am we got the first 20 families into the park together. We gave them a glass of champagne, I said a few words of welcome. The sun was shining brightly. It was a nice moment.”

Center Parcs has stuck to its existing formula with Woburn Forest – with occupancy at 97.2 per cent over the previous 12 months across the other four UK villages and 1.7 million people visiting, the management are not likely to muck around with their offer too much. The site is 362 acres, and it features 625 lodges, a 75 bedroom hotel, a lake, 16 restaurants and bars, more than 100 leisure activities, an Aqua Sana spa and of course the Subtropical Swimming Dome, which is at the heart of all Center Parcs resorts.

Although the offer is very similar to that of Center Parcs’ four other UK villages, the company has taken the opportunity to update the design and accommodation in Woburn Forest.

“It’s 2014 so it’s more contemporary in its styling; we’ve used new interior designs, the place is very spacious, the quality of materials is very high. The whole place has a real quality feel to it,” says Dalby.

The Subtropical Swimming Dome has also been updated – it is the biggest in the UK, and features three new water rides; Twister (an enclosed bodyslide flume), Typhoon (a two seater tube ride) and Tornado, a family ride raft that starts with a dark tunnel and a 45 degree drop before propelling riders into a huge funnel at speeds of up to 20mph.

“It’s pretty frightening and great fun,” says Dalby, of the Tornado ride. “It took me an hour to persuade my wife to go down it, but once she’d tried it I couldn’t get her off!”

The Aqua Sana spa has also been updated, with Woburn Forest embracing a new spa concept developed by Schletterer Wellness & Spa Design and Sparc Studio. The three floor facility is split into six smaller themed spas, featuring 22 treatment rooms and 25 experience rooms, as well as six spa suites. (For more information on the Aqua Sana facility, see p36.)

Dalby left school at 16 for a traineeship in the accounts department at Scottish and Newcastle. From there he worked his way up, rising through the ranks to the position of financial controller. In 1995 he joined Center Parcs as financial controller, and was instantly impressed with the welcoming atmosphere of the company. “It doesn’t take long for the whole ethos and culture of Center Parcs to get into your blood,” he says. In 1997 he became finance director and in 2000, when the previous chief executive stepped down suddenly, the chairman asked Dalby if he wanted to take up the role.

“It was an amazing thing – to be asked to become CEO of such a fantastic brand was a real honour,” says Dalby. He was just 38 at the time, and had only ever worked in financial roles before. Was he daunted? “No, no, not at all,” he says.

You get the impression that not a lot phases Dalby, which is a good thing, as he’s had his fair share of challenges during his 14 years at the helm of Center Parcs. The company has gone through several changes of ownership since he took over – in 2001, Scottish and Newcastle, who’d owned it since 1989, sold out to Deutsche Bank Capital Partners. The operating side of the business was floated on London’s Alternative Investment Market, and the property part of it was sold off in a sale and leaseback deal. In 2005 the operating company moved to the main listing on the London Stock Exchange, before private equity firm Blackstone bought it a year later, in March 2006.

Center Parcs had a challenging time as a public company. Despite having high occupancy and good profits, the company was hit with several problems during this time, including an outbreak of gastroenteritis at its Longleat village and soaring energy and rates prices. When Blackstone bought it, it paid 80p a share – 20p below the 100p floatation price.

Then, of course, there was Woburn. Center Parcs first found the site in Bedfordshire back in 2004, and announced that its fifth UK village would open by 2008. However they reckoned without the planning process – it took five years and £5m to get the project through planning, and permission was only approved when then communities secretary Hazel Blears ignored the advice of the planning inspector and decided that the economic, ecological and employment benefits outweighed any perceived harm to Green Belt land.

“It was very frustrating at times,” says Dalby. “This is a massive project, with a massive impact, both on Bedfordshire and tourism in the UK. It injects more than £20m into the local economy, it creates 1,500 jobs, it’s great for the environment, it avoids people having to commute out of Bedfordshire to go and find work. With that in mind, why does the planning process takes years and years and millions of pounds? For big projects like ours, there must be a better way.”

Dalby’s lowest point was in the council chamber on 18 July 2006. “We were nine committee members for the project, nine against, and the chairman decided to cast his vote against. That was a pretty disappointing thing for him to do,” he says.

Did Dalby ever think the project wouldn’t happen? “No, I’m too determined for that. After that meeting, we went back to our hotel, had a few beers, then thought, to hell with these guys, we’re going to appeal it.”

“It’s only through the perseverance of our company that we made it to this point,” says Dalby. “Many other companies would have fallen at some of the hurdles we’ve had to jump.”

It’s time for a rethink of the planning laws in the UK, argues Dalby. So what would he suggest? “There’s too much that gets tied up in the local process, with the local authority making decisions on projects that are of a national scale,” he says. “I think there needs to be some sort of process that takes these significant, economically important projects and finds a way to fast track them and bypass the local authority involvement.”

After all the challenges and hard work of getting Woburn Forest up and running, the next 12 months will see Center Parcs in a consolidation phase.

“The most immediate thing is to bring Woburn Forest into the fold – get the place settled in, get everything running really well,” says Dalby. “For the longer term, my role as CEO is to look for opportunities for growing the business, to think about where the next site might be.”

Woburn Forest is likely to be the last Center Parcs Village on the UK mainland, with existing villages in the Lake District, the Midlands, the South West, the Eastern counties and of course Woburn, slap bang in the middle.

“We’ve got the whole place covered, quite frankly,” says Dalby. “The population of the UK is 63 million, and two million people will come and have a holiday with Center Parcs in the next 12 months. That’s more than three per cent, so our penetration of the market is very high. There’s not really any need for another facility.”

Ireland is a different matter, however. “There don’t seem to be any facilities in Ireland for the type of customers that come to a Center Parcs. It’s certainly an attractive market for us,” he says.

Have they begun looking for sites there yet? “We’ve had a couple of little trips over there to see how the land lies, but there’s nothing specific at this stage.” What would they look for in a site? “It’s the same ingredients as over here – some coniferous trees, about 400 acres of land,” he says, adding that somewhere central would be ideal. “You’ve got to think about the whole of Ireland – north and south – as the marketplace.”

Further ahead, the company would be open to building a park overseas. He has mentioned China and India in the past, but is vague when I ask him. “Who knows? We don’t have any particular boundaries, so we’d go wherever the market and economic conditions were right. We’ll probably go a bit closer to home first though.”

A change of ownership is also likely to be on the cards at some point in the not too distant future – there have been several rumours that Blackstone is exploring its options for exiting the business. “Clearly we’ve got to get Woburn Forest open and stable and get the accounts in place first, so I think it will be some time off yet,” says Dalby. Is he worried about the possibility of the company going public again, after last time? “Not at all,” he insists.“Our world is very different today. The company is much bigger than it was last time, and is in a much stronger position than it was back then. We’d be very happy to do that if that’s what Blackstone wanted to do.”

As for Dalby himself, he has no plans to go anywhere. “I’m afraid Center Parcs is stuck with me for a while yet,” he laughs.

Martin Dalby
Quick-fire Questions


Martin Dalby
Martin Dalby CEO Center Parcs

What do you attribute the success of Center Parcs to?
Three things. Firstly our reputation – we’ve built the brand up over the past 27 years, and people trust us. They know that if they come to Center Parcs they’ll have a good experience. It’s a very aspirational brand, and that’s been part of its success.

Secondly, we reinvest our profits significantly back into the business every year to upgrade the park, maintain the quality, innovate and bring new additions to the facilities. Over the last six years, we’ve invested more than £350m in the four core business parks – we could have built another park with that money, but it’s really important that our parks are well maintained. That drives the level of repeat business and therefore the very high level of occupancy.

The most important factor in our success is our staff. We have 7,500 employees now. These are the guys that deliver a fantastic experience, and that really make the difference.

How much has the company changed since you joined?
I joined Center Parcs more than 20 years ago. Back then we were owned by Scottish and Newcastle and our head office was in Rotterdam, so we went over to Holland a lot. The ethos and vision of the business hasn’t changed though. It’s still about being with your family in a forest environment, about healthy living and active holidays, about lifestyle and caring for the environment.

How has Center Parcs’ commitment to the environment evolved?
Center Parcs has always been a leading company in terms of caring for the environment and its sustainability credentials. It’s very important to us – it’s in our blood.

When I joined, caring for the environment was important, but it has definitely become more prominent in the business. We now have a sustainability manager who does nothing else but think about how we can become even more sustainable. Before we make any investments, we absolutely consider their impact on the environment. With Woburn Forest, we are aiming to use 25 per cent less carbon than in our other villages. Across our parks, we’re fully committed to reducing our carbon emissions by 20 per cent by 2020. We started in 2010 and we’re already over half way there.

It’s also important to us to educate our guests – to show them that you can save money and look after the environment at the same time.

What drives you?
I enjoy setting objectives, and achieving those aims. For me to be the head of a fantastic family brand that just about everyone has heard of, that’s delivering a great holiday experience – that’s enough to drive anyone.

What has been your biggest achievement?
During my time as CEO, we’ve seen Center Parcs grow significantly in terms of its profitability and the value of the business.

Every year for 15 years we’ve been able to grow the profit, push hard on occupancies. That’s got to be my biggest achievement.

How do you spend your leisure time?
I do a bit of wood turning in my spare time, making fruit bowls and lamps and so on. I have a workshop that I disappear into – that’s my ‘me time’.

What’s your philosophy?
If you’re going to do something, do it well. If not, don’t bother doing it at all.

What is your ultimate ambition?
To carry on doing what I’m doing.

"If you’re going to do something, do it well. Otherwise, don’t bother doing it at all"

Aqua Sana at Woburn Forest


Woburn construction director Don Camilleri

“This is the biggest, most innovative spa we’ve ever created, a concept that has evolved from the success of our existing Aqua Sanas,” says Woburn construction director Don Camilleri of the Aqua Sana spa at Woburn Forest.

The facility is actually made up of six smaller spas all inspired by nature and combining different approaches from many of Europe’s leading establishments. The six spas are themed around Fire and Ice, Mineral and Gemstone, Blossom, Herbal, Sensory and Salt.

Each spa holds a variety of multi-sensory experience rooms and there is an outdoor infinity pool looking out across Woburn Forest.

The Aqua Sana concept was designed and developed by Schletterer Wellness & Spa Design and Sparc Studio.

As well as 25 experience rooms there are also 22 treatment rooms across the six different areas with products from Elemis, Decléor and Bliss.

Facilities in the six sections include three saunas, a snow and ice room, six multi-sensory shower rooms, five relaxation lounges, two steamrooms, a heat room, a herbal inhalation bath, two steam cabins, a meditation room, a salt inhalation room, a zen garden and a mineral room.

Also included is a boutique, gym and Vitalé Café Bar serving Mediterranean refreshments and light cuisine.

There are also six luxury spa suites housed on the top two floors, offering direct access to the spa. These feature oversized bath tubs and private balconies, and mean guests don’t have to use the communal changing areas.


Donna McKee is spa manager at Woburn Forest

Centre Parcs Woburn first person
The park

Liz Terry Editor Leisure Management

My first impression is that this is the Center Parcs for London. It has a more urban aesthetic, is more ‘designed’, with higher spec accommodation, more upscale retail, a fabulous spa and a hotel with beautiful spa suites.

With London less than an hour away by rail and road, this is the site which will draw the yummy mummies and co and they won’t be disappointed.

Our light, airy and comfortable house was all ensuite, with its own sauna in the garden and plenty of room to hang out and spend time with family. Built on two levels, it had a balcony with a view of the lake and all the sensible Dutch Center Parcs touches. My only concern would be whether the kitchen cupboards will wear well.

The Subtropical Paradise at Woburn has – in my view – a less lavish and intuitively designed pool and adult waterplay area when compared with the other villages, however, it has a new focus on kids’ waterplay and adrenaline rides: MD Martin Dalby told me research showed visitors thought the pool needed spicing up – hence the addition of some pretty scary drop rides, one of which had me spinning screaming (loudly) and hurtling backwards in a four person inner tube.

Center Parcs’ vision has always been that the sightlines of the bungalows ensured each existed in its own private space. It feels as though this rule has been overridden in places at Woburn, giving the site a less mysterious feel and although the overall look will soften once the vegetation has grown up, the layout is more open and like a housing estate than in previous villages.

The other four villages are buried deep in the woods, so as you arrive you feel you’re withdrawing from the world. Woburn doesn’t do this – you’re straight into the car park with a brusqueness that fails to charm. My preference would be for this to be addressed in the way the customer journey is evolved, by taking a new route in.

Center Parcs is a great model and one I believe could be replicated almost anywhere in the world. Although the team has plans to develop a site in Ireland, I think they should look to global expansion too.

The fact the brand is split with Pierre et Vacances in Europe makes this a slightly more challenging dream, but still one which is possible to achieve.

Center Parcs is a great model and one which could be replicated almost anywhere in the world. Although the current team has plans to develop in Ireland, they should look to global expansion too

Centre Parcs Woburn first person
The spa

Helen Andrews Journalist Spa business magazine

The spa is accessed from the World of Spa reception. You start with a foot bath which has three different massage settings and different essential oils – rose, mint and orange. You can then explore the facility in your own time. The spa is huge, and I as though I wouldn’t be able to do it all in a day.

I really enjoyed the inhalation steamrooms, some of which had warm showers that went off intermittently. The idea of having a separate relaxation room per zone initially seemed a bit extravagant, but this is a spa that’s very much focused on social bonding and relaxation, so having areas in which to congregate and talk makes sense.

I was impressed at the amount of thought that had gone into finding the right design of wheelchair, so that there is a collapsable, easy to manouevre chair that doesn’t heat up too much available for use in the spa, meaning it’s accessible to everyone.

The infinity pool had a bubble jet bench on one side and a bubble bed grate on the other that you could lie down on – but what was really cool were the jets by the pool which massaged your back and shoulders if you stood under them – one of them was so fast and furious it almost hurt.

I had a Decleor Aromatherapy Massage, which focuses on key pressure points. My therapist – Chloe – gave me a full-body massage with a Decleor oil that smelled of citrus in a room where the lights changed from blue to pink and back again slowly. The massage combined soft strokes with occasional bursts of deep tissue therapy. She focused on my thighs and upper back with the deep tissue strokes using her elbows and forearms to stretch my muscles. At some points I wasn’t expecting such an intense pressure but the relief it provided afterwards was just what I needed. She held my hand to massage the full length of my arms, as she smoothed the tension and tightness from my wrists and elbows. I felt totally relaxed afterwards.

Overall, I had a great time, although I’d be wary of how busy it might get during peak times.

Originally published in Leisure Management 2014 issue 3

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