Center Parcs set to go wild at ‘subtropical’ Longford resort

UK holiday operator plans to open its €233m Longford Forest park in late August

Center Parcs chief executive Martin Dalby  at  the Fachjan Project Plants facility in the Netherlands where the company has sourced tropical plants for its new holiday resort in Longford

Center Parcs chief executive Martin Dalby at the Fachjan Project Plants facility in the Netherlands where the company has sourced tropical plants for its new holiday resort in Longford

 

Fachjan Project Plants is a wonder of the horticultural world. Situated in a suburb south of The Hague in the Netherlands, the private greenhouse operator grows exotic plants as high as houses in hothouses spread across nine hectares.

Only two such facilities in the world exist for the transplantation of exotic plants. Unsurprisingly, given its reputation as the flower capital of the world, they are both in the Netherlands.

This is one of the main nurseries in Europe for subtropical plants of the type you find in leisure centres, large atriums and cruise liners.

It is from here that UK holiday operator Center Parcs sources all of the plants for its subtropical swimming resorts, the centrepiece of all its short-break holiday villages. These plants have more than an aesthetic purpose. They provide oxygen and their foliage deadens the inevitable cacophony of a crowded environment.

The ones bound for Centre Parcs’ Longford Forest are flagged with red tape. Jean Henkens (inset), Center Parc’s long-time botanist, speaks at length of the process of taking exotic trees from their home in southeast Asia and replanting them in an enclosed heated dome.

Two palms will dominate the Longford subtropical zone, one a Barringtonia, 10m high and weighing 3,000kgs, which began life on a riverside in Burma. The other is a Caryota, better known as a fishtail palm, which was sourced in Malaysia.

Artificial environment

The trees were injected with latex to temporarily suspend their growth processes and then loaded into shipping containers and taken to the Netherlands. They spend a year acclimatising in an artificial environment before being shipped to their final destination along with thousands of other tropical plants, big and small.

Henkens is confident Longford Forest will be a success. “Some of the trees are already 300 years old, they can survive another 300 years,” he says.

The temperature is a cloying 29 degrees, but it doesn’t stop Center Parcs’s energetic chief executive of almost 20 years, Martin Dalby, bounding from one earmarked bush or tree to another.

The foliage will be shipped to Ireland during the first week of May. When will Center Parcs Longford Forest open?

Originally Center Parcs set November of this year as its opening date, but that cautious timeline has been brought forward because of the progress in the building programme.

The company is now taking bookings from August 23rd. That is the guaranteed opening date although Dalby anticipates they will do better than that.

Centre Parcs Longford Forest: the resort, which includes a subtropical swimming pool and 500 lodges, is due to open in late August. Photograph: Center Parcs
Centre Parcs Longford Forest: the resort, which includes a subtropical swimming pool and 500 lodges, is due to open in late August. Photograph: Center Parcs

But he won’t be drawn on a definitive date. “That will come forward once we get more confidence around the build programme,” he says. “We have not officially announced a date. We are absolutely on schedule and on budget. Everything is going to plan. We will be releasing the opening date in the next few months.”

The subtropical facility and the ancillary buildings around it have been built and are being fitted out. Half of the 500 villas have been constructed with the company estimating that they will be finished in five months’ time and ready for an August opening.

Eighty people have already been recruited to work in Center Parcs’ Longford resort and the recruitment process is ramping up now. About 4,000 people attended a recent recruitment fair at Longford rugby club and the company has said 1,000 people will ultimately be employed on a permanent basis.

When operational, the new holiday village will add about €32 million to Ireland’s gross domestic product each year, Center Parcs has said.

It is less than four years since Center Parcs stunned the Irish tourism industry by announcing that it intended to build its first resort here in Longford of all places, a county so off the beaten track that it merits just eight paragraphs in the 750-page Lonely Planet guidebook for Ireland.

Longford regularly finishes bottom in any county-by-county tourism league table in terms of visitor numbers and spend, and has a population of just under 41,000, according to the latest Central Statistics Office census data.

Center Parcs will be able to accommodate 2,500 visitors at a time. If its occupancy levels matches those claimed for its British resorts – 97.5 per cent – it will transform the profile of the midlands as a tourism destination.

Bewildered taxpayers, counting the the colossal cost overruns on the National Children’s Hospital build, can only look on with envy that the largest private tourism project in the history of the State is on schedule to be delivered on time and on budget.

Center Parcs is being built with the consent of the Government, Longford County Council and locals in the county. The number of objections to it were insignificant given the scale of the €233 million project.

“We are working with two very good contractors. Both Sisk and Roadbridge are doing a fantastic job,” Dalby says.

Cost control

“Overruns happen all the time particularly in the construction sector. In the UK and Ireland, often projects do run over significantly. In the end of the day, it is all about management and controlling what you are doing. The minute you start making changes you start increasing the costs.

“Take the example of Woburn Forest [in Bedfordshire, near London, opened in 2014]. It was bang on budget, bang on time. Ireland is going to be the same. We have great people managing our projects.

“We did a lot of predevelopment work. We understood fully what all the ground conditions were all about. The main thing is that when you set out on a project of this scale, you don’t make any changes halfway through. Once you start doing that the cost is getting out of hand,” adds Dalby.

Center Parcs has also issued its first prices for Longford Forest. The company has never claimed to be a cheap destination, but it will argue with equal conviction that its amenities offer good value.

Former taoiseach Enda Kenny with chief executive of UK holiday operator Center Parcs Martin Dalby at the launch of its Longford Forest resort in 2015. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Former taoiseach Enda Kenny with chief executive of UK holiday operator Center Parcs Martin Dalby at the launch of its Longford Forest resort in 2015. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

The Longford prices are comparable to those of Center Parcs Whinfell Forest in the Lake District – one of five locations it has in the UK. “We felt from a demographic perspective that was most similar to the Irish market. We then did some research in the market,” Dalby says.

“We looked at the prices in the Irish market for going to a family hotel for the weekend. Using all that information, we have created that pricing structure. There is a price for everyone.

“If you wanted to come to a woodland lodge in an off-peak period for four nights, that is around €400. That lodge can hold four people for four nights – €25 per person per night is very reasonable for what you get when you get here.”

Those are the lowest off-peak prices. For the opening weekend in August, the cheapest lodge remaining is €1,049 for a three-night stay in the two-bedroom woodland lodge. The price for the same lodge drops to €699 the following week when the school year resumes.

Pricing structure

This is in line with the general pricing structure of Center Parcs, which is, unsurprisingly, more expensive during school holidays and cheaper during the off-peak season.

There is clearly demand for its most expensive packages as its four-bedroom executive lodges are sold out for the opening weekend with the exception of the most expensive lodge, which could be yours for €3,094 for three nights.

Center Parcs offers three different packages – a weekend three-night stay from Friday to Monday, a midweek package from Monday to Thursday, and weekly stays.

It has also begun an extensive marketing campaign across Irish media. The brand has a middle-class cachet in the UK where it needs little introduction. Preliminary market research carried out in Ireland last year showed Center Parcs had some way to go to explaining itself to an Irish audience as nothing like it has been available in this country before.

The company rolled out its marketing campaign in December, when thoughts start to turn to the summer holidays, with the tag line “epic family time”.

“For an investment of this scale, we have definitely done our homework on the demographics of the Irish population. We have modelled it all the way back,” Dalby maintains.

“Five-hundred lodges is absolutely right for Ireland as is the location. If you were to stick a pin in the middle of Ireland, you would probably stick it in the site.”

Repatriated profits

At the time of its announcement, Center Parcs was seen as a vote of confidence in a country that had just recovered from the 2008 economic crash. Now it faces the spectre of Brexit. The 15 per cent fall in the value of sterling after the Brexit referendum added €35 million to the construction costs of Longford Forest but, as Dalby noted in the immediate aftermath of of the vote, all repatriated profits will be in euro so it is a case of swings and roundabouts.

Meanwhile, Brexit has provided something of a silver lining for Center Parcs in its home market, making its packages more competitive compared to sun holidays abroad.

“We have a 30-year track record,” Dalby says confidently. “We have ridden through the recession and the financial crisis and we have never really missed a beat. It’s a very resilient business.”

That may explain why Center Parcs seem relaxed about missing out on most of the summer season, which is its busiest time of year for family holidays.

“It is a long-term investment. It’s not for a few years. It’s for 30, 40 or 50 years. Whatever happens with Brexit, it will be long gone and sorted out by then,” he says.

“The Irish Center Parcs is for the Irish people, it doesn’t have any impact in terms of exchange rates or border controls or anything like that. It will be fine,” Dalby adds.

“We love Ireland, we love the people. We are looking forward to guests coming in the summer. They are going to be blown away by what we are creating.”