From hi-de-hi to lah-di-dah: Butlins goes upmarket

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The Independent Online

In a blaze of publicity, and a flurry of adjectives such as sophisticated and contemporary, the company launched what it called its first resort hotel at Bognor Regis on the Sussex coast.

The Shoreline Hotel is as far away as it is possible to get from the 1950s image of Butlins - a mix of draughty wooden sleeping chalets, works-canteen style dining rooms, and those ever-smiling jollity enforcers, the Redcoats, crying Hi-de-hi! and Wake Up Campers!

The £10m Shoreline, reminiscent of a cruise liner in shape, offers king-size beds and wide-screen televisions, as well as all-day check-in, room service, an English bistro restaurant, a cocktail bar, landscaped gardens, and leisure space.

Those staying in the hotel's Nelson's Staterooms - the top-of-the-range accommodation - get fluffy bathrobes and slippers, reserved parking spaces, and balconies with sea views, complete with a telescope, while for the children there are funky bunk beds and separate television and games consoles.

And hey, there's more. Floor-to-ceiling windows with central window opening and balcony rail. Ensuite bathroom with shower, bath and heated towel rail. Tea and coffee making facilities, hairdryer and safe. Internal phone. Travel cot available (free of charge if requested at time of booking).

The Shoreline, says the promotional material, combines style with all the fun of Butlins at affordable rates - starting at £79 per night for a family of four. And it has to be said that the hotel itself looks bright and airy and a world away from the traditional image: the flavour aimed at is Manhattan, or the Côte d'Azur.

But it's still Butlins. And it's still Bognor, come to that. Can the firm really succeed in climbing Mount Cool? The people running it think so. "It isn't going to happen overnight, but we believe a perception change is already starting to work, and this is showing through in our bookings," said John Dunford, a director of Bourne Leisure, the company that now owns Butlins. "The days of knobbly knees competitions and wake-up calls at 5am are long, long behind us."

From nine holiday camps at its height in the 1950s, Butlins now has three holiday resorts, at Bognor, Minehead and Skegness, with a total of 4,500 apartments: a million guests a year pass through them. It plans to replicate the Bognor Shoreline at its other two locations.

"There's already a new generation coming to Butlins," Mr Dunford said. "If we make what we are offering to families contemporary, people will come."

But it may still be a battle to alter the way the brand is regarded, as it became one of the defining images of a whole era: the first example of the mass organised holiday experience by the British working class.

Torremolinos and the Spanish package tour were not even dreamt about when Billy Butlin opened his first holiday camp at Skegness in 1936. The experience of living in the chalets - no bigger than modern garden sheds - and of being bossed around by the Redcoats and their sing-songs and glamorous granny competitions is as much a part of the memory of the 1950s as Brylcreem, lino and National Service.

Now Butlins is heading for the 21st century, and the sunlit uplands of Style.

Good luck, chaps.