Not-so-happy campers may bring an end to the Pontin's era
It was a time before the British holidaymaker had even heard of the Costa del Sol, and when the package holiday abroad was a mere twinkle in the eye of a man called Vladimir Raitz who pioneered the idea of chartering planes and booking hotels en masse for the ordinary Briton.
In the early 1950s only the very rich holidayed abroad. The rest of the population stayed in traditional English seaside B&Bs or caravans. Those who were more daringly modern opted for an "all-in" holiday camp, where the food, entertainment and fairground rides were all free at the point of use. Butlin's was the market leader. Those with a bit less cash opted for Pontin's, which yesterday finally went into administration after a crash in the number of bookings.
If the recession has finally killed off Pontin's, it has felt a long time coming. The business, whose holiday park staff were called Bluecoats in emulation of the Butlin's smarter red version, were started in 1946 when Fred Pontin opened the first Pontin's Holiday Park in Brean Sands, Somerset. At its height the Pontin's empire encompassed 30 parks. In 1978 it was worth £56m. Not bad for a place whose celebrity acts were naff even by the standards of the time. Keith Harris and Orville were big names. So was Bobby Davro.
But through the 1980s and 1990s it faced tough competition from overseas package holiday operators, rising operational costs, and the rapidly changing tastes of the British public.
In 2009, Pontin's announced a £50m improvement package for its UK operations. "We're looking forward to a fabulous future," said Ian Smith, chief executive of Ocean Parcs, which bought Pontin's for £46m in 2008. The hope was that recession and the weak pound would lead families to switch away from foreign holidays towards what became known as "staycations".
It was not to prove a successful strategy. Last year Pontin's closed one of its camps, in Blackpool. But yesterday the accountants KPMG, who have been appointed administrators, insisted that it was business as usual for customers and the 850 Pontin's staff. Its five sites – at Brean Sands, Camber Sands in Sussex, Pakefield in Suffolk, Prestatyn Sands in Wales and Southport in Merseyside – will continue to operate.
No redundancies have been made. The plan is to find a buyer with the hope that the Pontin's name will live on. KPMG plans to appoint an "experienced leisure operator" to help run the company until a buyer can be found and pledged to honour all reservations.
The collapse of the firm has been caused by cash flow problems following a drastric fall in bookings over in the past year. But a KPMG administrator Jane Moriarty was publicly optimistic that the firm could still be saved. "Pontin's is an iconic British brand which forms the backdrop to thousands of treasured family holiday memories," she said. "It has unfortunately struggled in the current economic environment but, with some support from new management, we are optimistic that it will be part of thousands of family memories in the years to come."
Bob Atkinson, a travel expert at TravelSupermarket.com, said he was "amazed" that Pontin's had gone into administration, describing it as "an iconic British brand and a stalwart of the British holiday industry". But holidays and breaks out of peak season, he said, "have often been sold at rock bottom rates, leaving companies with little room for healthy margins."
KPMG has set up a helpline for people who have made bookings at Pontin's: 0844 576 8481.
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