Martin Robinson, Chairman Center Parcs UK, delivers one of the best Savoy Lectures in Arena history

By Berenice, Friday 27 March 2015

Martin Robinson delivered an Arena Savoy Lecture that will certainly stand out as one of the best in Arena’s history. The chairman of Center Parcs UK and non-executive chairman of Casual Dining Group gave an incredibly candid and thought-provoking Savoy Lecture with fantastic reviews from the audience.

“Some of the best content I’ve heard at an Arena event,” said David Wilkinson, commercial director, Bar Foods and “One of your best speakers by a distance,” added Martin Kersh, director, FPA.

The refreshing honesty and conviction with which Martin spoke and the diversity and strength of the guest list was also praised, with Paul Harbottle, group commercial director of Enterprise Inns, stating: “Martin Robinson gave a good insight into the casual dining market and current trends, and it was a great opportunity to network with a different group of people.”

So, why was Martin such a successful speaker?

Martin’s speech began with an incredible insight into the success of Center Parcs UK followed by his views on the growing casual dining market.  However, the conclusion of his dynamic speech when Martin identified five areas that businesses must recognise and grasp if they are to survive proved a real ‘wow’ factor.

The success of Center Parcs UK - Sticking to a genius of an idea:

The Dutch entrepreneurial founder of Center Parcs, Piet Derksen, had, in the words of Martin Robinson, ‘a sheer genius of an original idea’.  For 1958 the principles that underpin the continued success of the holiday park were ground breaking and testament to its brilliance, the ideas of creating a short break of three or four days, arriving only on a Monday or Friday, escaping from an urban environment, an active holiday with freedom of choice, an environmentally-friendly park that is car-free, and charging for everything apart from the pool, still apply today.

Under various ownerships and despite numerous recommendations from ‘experts’, Martin, who has led Center Parcs UK since 1999, has vehemently and unashamedly stuck to his guns and to the principles of Derksen, modifying and adapting as appropriate. As a result, the UK model is the most successful with 98% occupancy, 65% repeat business and profits growing every year, even during recession.

Martin also attributes the success to a brilliant management team who are exceptionally good at operational complexity; closeness to customers, with an extraordinary one third of customers filling in online questionnaires; revenue management that enables them to make the most of the offering at any given time and maximise margins; and keeping on top of the capex.

A continuous innovation ethos is also at the heart of Center Parcs UK. Many guests will return year on year, and with each visit they will spot two or three new things, from a new activity to a new food outlet.

External factors contributing to Center Parcs strong position do not go unmissed.  These include the UK’s challenging planning process that prevents others coming into the market, for example the Woburn site took ten years to achieve despite having the right contacts; the poor provision for leisure time in the UK; inadequate and time-consuming airports that make going abroad more difficult, especially with children; and the willingness of the UK consumer to spend disposable income enjoying themselves if the product is good.

The growing Casual Dining market:

Turning his attention to the casual dining market, Martin confidently shared that the market will continue to grow as it is very good at adapting to consumer demand. Citing the US as a good guide to what is happening in this sector he predicted a blurring between casual dining and quick-service restaurants, and even coffee shops, stating: “Those that blur the best will do the best.”

He also made a case for the importance of increased differentiation and successfully owning your part of the market. Using his Casual Dining Group’s brand Café Rouge as an example, he said despite being neglected for some years, it is a great brand and will do well because it is differentiated and people know what it stands for.

Finally, he declared that theming has reached its tipping point, moving in favour of authenticity, and healthy eating will bite in the end.  He warned the industry to stop paying lip service to healthy eating in the hope that it goes away but to fully embrace it, as it will be a significant business factor in the long run.

Hospitality’s big five:

Concluding his dynamic speech, Martin considered the wider industry and identified five areas that businesses must recognise and grasp if they are to survive:

Bifurcation: the division between the mass and premium market.  Using BMW, the fourth bestselling car in the UK, as an example he illustrated that “one can be both mass and premium” and this is what hospitality should be aiming for, warning that the middle ground should be avoided.

Proliferation of occasions: taking advantage of consumers’ portfolios, in the case of Center Parcs the move to more frequent shorter holidays in a year.

Innovation: when it comes to the essential need to innovate, businesses either tweak, twist or break new ground but Martin is yet to discover one that can do all three.

Capex: keep on top of the maintenance of your business.  Consumers are savvy and they will notice if you cut back on this.

Children:  75% of guests at Center Parcs come with children, who are after all the business people of tomorrow. Martin said: “As an industry we don’t do a fantastic job of attracting young people to think that hospitality is a good place to be.”  He urged his colleagues to push really hard for apprenticeships and internships to attract new blood and fill the gap of the generation lost to ‘new universities’ when apprenticeships went out of vogue 15 years ago.

Moving onto the lively drinks reception, guests continued to talk about taking much of what they had learned from Martin back into their own businesses. If you hear your colleagues and industry peers saying we need to ‘tweak, twist and break new ground’ you know where they heard it first!