I had the pleasure of visiting Center Parcs for the first time this week on a flying visit for work.
You are probably aware of the concept – large forest self-catering villages with massive weather-proof aqua parks as the centrepiece and everyone riding around on bicycles as vehicles are not allowed beyond the vast car parks.
In early March the Sherwood Forest village was heaving with holidaymakers all apparently having a great time. Little evidence of the credit crunch to be seen here.
Center Parcs is a hugely impressive operation, catering amazingly well for families with an array of more than 100 activities plus plush spas and well known restaurants and cafes such as Café Rouge, Strada and Starbucks.
The average occupancy level across the four villages in the past year has been an incredible 95 per cent. That means that each is pretty much full year-round, irrespective of the notoriously dodgy British weather and the credit crunch – very much like cruise ships, except that they always aim to leave 100 per cent full.
This tends to suggest that Center Parcs is doing a lot right across its four locations in Nottinghamshire, Suffolk, Cumbria and Wiltshire, with a fifth due to start construction in Bedfordshire in 2011.
But what has a family resort concept set in the heart of hundreds of acres of woodland, slap bang in the middle of the country miles away from the sea, got to do with cruising, I hear you ask.
A surprising amount as it transpires, because Center Parcs sees mainstream cruising as its nearest comparative holiday experience – obviously without the trees!
So where do the similarities lie? Both seek to provide a high quality amenities tied to a strong service ethic and boundless activities to keep all ages of family groups amused and entertained.
Both have realised, in recent years at least, that guest accommodation needs to be modern and adaptable to meet the requirements, aspirations and budgets of different types of holidaymaker.
In both environments, there is a captured audience who need to be kept fed, watered and entertained maybe not quite around the clock but close to 24/7.
Quality and service standards have to be exemplary both on shore and at sea as neither can be deemed to be a cheap holiday.
But it seems to me that what both provide in spades is good value. Center Parcs specialises in short breaks with the vast majority of people staying for either three or four nights with pretty much all the amenities thrown in.
Cruise lines such as Fred Olsen, P&O Cruises, Royal Caribbean International and NCL, have also cottoned on to the benefits of providing shorter cruises or three, four and five-night durations as a way of an introduction to holidays afloat. Indeed, many more taster cruises are being made available from the UK in 2010.
Prices are comparative yet on a cruise you do not have to pay extra for meals or entertainment and you don’t sail self-catering with a barbeque on your cabin balcony!
Yet Center Parcs in the UK attracts 1.5 million holidaymakers a year – this is the same figure as the total number of people from the UK who took a cruise in 2008.
That statistic alone demonstrates how much potential the cruise industry has in attracting people who have never considered a ship-based holiday before.
I’m not saying that every Center Parcs fanatic is a potential cruise passenger or vice-versa but there are enough similarities between both concepts to make me think those who like one would be more than at home with the other.
Center Parcs at sea anyone?