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Brand Deep DivesNovember 11, 2022

How Center Parcs Conquered The Hearts Of British Holidaymakers

November 11, 2022
Ashley Lightfoot Photo
Ashley Lightfoot
Content Marketing Manager

Though it has its roots in continental Europe, Center Parcs, a brand of well-kept holiday villages, is nowadays a uniquely British institution. Ever since the first site was opened in 1987, it has offered British consumers a popular alternative to the dominant options available to them in the travel and leisure industry.

Even as budget airlines opened up sunnier climes to more and more British consumers — and even as Airbnb made it easier than ever to find a cottage, lodge, or villa in unspoiled natural settings — the brand has gone from strength to strength.

But why does Center Parks continue to be such a hit with British consumers?

The answer lies in a brand identity that deals in the currency of aspiration — each holiday village is a mini utopia, an idealized family-focused place where consumers can make memories and be in close contact with nature. Over its more than 30 years of providing staycations for British consumers, it has deftly positioned its key USPs through the lens of aspiration — creating an iconic brand that resonates effectively with scores of consumers across Britain and, as of 2019, Ireland, too.

In this article, we’re going to explore exactly how Center Parcs has built its aspirational brand and how it uses branding campaigns to promote values that keep British consumers coming back again and again.

But first, let’s take a look at how it all began.

Constructing A Staycation Sensation

Center Parcs’ story begins in the 1950s with Dutch businessman, Piet Derkson, who opened a range of successful sports department stores, Sporthuis Centrum, across the Netherlands.

Capitalizing on a trend for camping that had swept the nation in the late 60s, Derkson purchased a tract of woodland near Reuver where consumers could rent large tents, inspired by the “tradition of the European workers-union camp or American corporate retreat”. Though the concept of Center Parcs would evolve over the years, this small campground would be the progenitor of the brand’s first-ever holiday village, “De Lommerbergen”.

Eventually, the tents were replaced by villas as Derkson enlisted the help of Dutch architect, Jacob “Jaap” Bakema, to create a destination that allowed for close contact with nature. The original plan included “30 villas clustered around a ‘Center’ that combined a swimming pool and some basic outdoor sports facilities” — a design that endures to this day in the brand’s latest parks. The villas themselves were “simple, single-story bungalows with low flat roofs, sunk into the ground to minimise visual impact”. Their large windows slid open to create a “literal connection to nature.”

The concept became an instant hit, and high demand predicated a building spree between 1970 and 1980 when five more holiday villages were constructed. The sixth park in the Sporthuis Centrum collection, known as de Eemhof, included a revolutionary new feature — a “Subtropical Swimming Paradise” — which would soon become a staple across all of the brand’s locations.

In 1978, Derkson sold all 17 of his Sporthuis Centrum stores to concentrate on the running of his holiday parks — and in 1986, with a view to expanding internationally, the name was finally changed to Center Parcs. A year later, the first UK village was opened in Sherwood Forest, England — featuring an enormous dome that contains the Subtropical Swimming Paradise and a range of other centrally located attractions and facilities.

More locations were opened on an almost yearly basis, but in 1989, Derksen sold the business to concentrate on ventures related to his Catholic faith. Under new management, Center Parcs continued to expand — however, in 2001, the four locations that comprised the UK wing of the business were sold to Deutsche Bank Capital Partners, breaking the brand into two parts: Center Parks UK — which would eventually become Center Parks UK and Ireland — and Center Parks Europe.

Though they were now two distinct business entities, the two would continue to share a common brand identity, making them nearly indistinguishable to the average consumer. However, for the remainder of this article, we’re going to be focusing on Center Parks UK and Ireland.

Capturing British Aspirations

The continental European brand was an instant hit with British consumers when it arrived in 1987. A column from May of that year in the Nottingham Evening Post proclaimed that the “£37m revolutionary holiday village in Sherwood Forest, has announced boom business before its opening day on July 3” with several summer weeks fully booked even before construction had been completed. The English tourist board described the park’s opening as “the most important innovation in British Tourism since the war.”

Exactly why the brand landed with such a splash in the United Kingdom is hard to pinpoint, yet worth scrutinizing. According to Peter Moore, Center Parks’ Marketing Director in the late 80s who was tasked with opening the first Sherwood Forest site, the company “felt there was a gap in the market for people who wanted a little bit of quality and a touch of leisure” that could compete with increasingly accessible holidays to sunny destinations abroad.

Indeed, Center Parcs has always deftly positioned itself to leverage the aspirations of the British public. It’s not just the promise of nature — which could be found in many of Britain’s national parks — that draws consumers to the brand, but the Parks’ offer of an exclusive, family-friendly environment designed with convenience in mind. Customers can ditch their cars and, within the sanitized confines of the park, find numerous memorable experiences and family activities at their fingertips.

On top of this, the brand has a talent for appealing to British consumers’ tastes by adding extra flair to their offering, in the form of attractions that can’t be found anywhere else — whether that’s the impressive “Subtropical Swimming Paradise” waterparks found at the heart of every destination, exclusive spas with themed rooms, or instagrammable Treehouses — the parks’ most exclusive category of accommodation built amidst the boughs of the British woodland with a range of luxurious amenities.

Needless to say, the brand has continued to expand to the present day and, while other travel trends have come and gone, Center Parcs has crafted its reputation into something of a British institution. By 2019, the brand expanded into Ireland, opening its first park there and, after weathering the COVID-19 pandemic, announced in 2021 plans for a seventh park in West Sussex, just south of London.

Now we know more about the history of Center Parcs, let’s dive into some important lessons we can learn from its brand and some of its most memorable campaigns.

3 Branding Lessons We Can Learn From Center Parcs

1. When it comes to Brand Identity, Leave Nothing To Chance

The success of Center Parcs can not be attributed to just a single factor, but it cannot be denied that its brand identity plays an important role. Indeed, just like its holiday villages, Center Parcs’ brand identity is well-kept and preened, nothing is left to chance and even the tiniest details are considered.

Every element of a brand’s identity represents a choice and, with Center Parcs, no stone has been left unturned. For example, despite splitting off from its European counterparts in 2001, the brand’s name still proudly wears its European heritage — Center Parcs instead of _“Centre Parks”, _a detail that lends an air of continental sophistication to its identity.

For Center Parcs, crafting this identity requires a lot more than just running sumptuous ad campaigns that highlight the host of activities that can be enjoyed at one of its parks — though it does that, too. But, the experiences of each and every customer during their stay feed into their perception of the brand, and in the presentation, design, and delivery of its services, Center Parcs also looks after every detail both big and small.

A 2003 article from The Observer sums it all up — “It's twee, manufactured, but safe, clean, polite, unpolluted, tranquil and above all very enjoyable.”

“Over the course of both trips we heard the f-word once, saw kids smoking once, and encountered hundreds of 13-19 year-olds who clearly and demonstratively felt that Center Parcs, despite the presence of all those mums, dads, grandparents and baby brothers, was 'cool'.”

By curating an environment that appeals to “middle England” and creating a safe, sanitized simulacrum of the English countryside, the brand has found a winning formula. Although it must be added, that sometimes it's possible to over-egg the pudding! Following the death of Queen Elizabeth II, the brand — like many others — went out of its way to show respect and reverence to the departed monarch, originally decided to close all its parks for the Queen’s funeral so that its employees could take part in the historic day.

Following a huge backlash from angry holidaymakers, some of whom faced being evicted from the park halfway through their break with nowhere else to go, Center Parcs backtracked. Despite this, the brand still restricted check-ins on the day of the Queen’s funeral, asking guests to delay their arrival until the next day — a move that will have cost them some loyal customers.

The Takeaway: The ways that consumers can interact with your brand are numerous beyond count — make sure to go over every design, UX, campaign decision, and every instance of customer interaction, then, think about the choices that have been made. Ask yourself, do these choices resonate with the preferences of my target audience? If they don’t, it’s time to make other choices.

2. Build Your Brand Proposition From Audience Insights

We’ve already observed that Center Parcs leaves nothing to chance when it comes to its brand identity, so it should come as no surprise that the brand utilizes market research to build its campaigns.

In 2021, Center Parcs ran a new campaign called “Family. Refreshed.” which ever so slightly repositioned the brand’s laser-sharp focus on providing a place for families to get together.

Market research had shown that “during the pandemic and lockdowns being together as a family was no longer an issue.” However, parents felt “increasingly exhausted and in need of being refreshed.”

With just a small twist, Center Parcs still led with images of an idealized family enjoying time together, but by adding a battery bar filling up as they spent quality time together, they appealed to current consumer demands and placed themselves in an advantageous position to compete in the post-lockdown travel and leisure landscape.

The Takeaway: Market research is an indispensable step when building your brand, as it can offer insights that can make your core messages resonate more effectively with consumers.

When you’re planning your next branding campaign remember that research could give you the edge against the competition, whether you’re tracking the performance of your own brand, measuring the size of the market, or just finding out consumers’ tastes and preferences.

3. Adopt A “Whole Brand” Approach To Foster Loyalty

The final lesson that we can learn from Center Parcs loops back to the brand’s attention to detail, particularly when it comes to the experiences of customers within their parks. As a case study, the brand acts as a great reminder that your brand doesn’t start and end with the runtime of your latest commercial — and it isn’t limited to the confines of billboards, display ads, or even the UX of your website.

Center Parcs understands that repeat bookings and brand loyalty rely on building a “whole brand” experience that not only builds hype for their service through aspirational branding, but delivers on those promises while customers are spending time in their parks. Once they leave, how the brand interacts with them in the days that follow could be vital for clinching a booking next year.

Just one way that the brand delivers this “whole brand” approach is by printing a magazine and distributing it to “300,000 regular visitors of Center Parcs”.

The aim of the magazine was “invoke memories that would result in repeat bookings” for those consumers already engaged with the brand, while also reinforcing the brand’s core message of “family togetherness”.

The resulting Village Life magazine was a huge success, placing a “strong emphasis on storytelling – such as the ‘Locally Sourced’ series focusing on local food producers” while imparting the brand’s vital “luxury feel.” The results? The following year saw a “139.2% increase in bookings from those receiving the print edition of Village Life.”

Takeaway: All interactions with your brand will affect consumers’ perceptions of it — whether that’s making an order online, opening a delivery, contacting a customer service representative, or seeing a commercial that grabs their attention just for a second.

It’s not always easy to interfere with other departments and change how they function, but by doing whatever you can to make sure that your brand’s values sit at the core of every team, you’ll be working towards a more consistent and successful brand.

Final Thoughts

Regardless of the industry your brand competes in, meticulously crafting its identity, so that it resonates effectively with consumers is vital. The story of Center Parcs teaches us that, with insights from market research, it’s possible to build a brand that forges strong bonds with customers and that by adopting a “whole brand” approach, you can deliver a consistent experience across every interaction.

If you’re looking to adopt a similar approach, market research might be your first step — and if that is the case, you might want to consider a brand tracker like Latana’s, which allows you to evaluate the health of your brand, understand market size, and gauge consumer perceptions and preferences. It could be the dividing line between a forgettable brand and one that turns into an institution, like Center Parcs.

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