Simon Calder: Paradise - coming to the Home Counties soon

The man who pays his way
  • @SimonCalder

Ninety-seven-point-two: a reasonable temperature for a human, and a very healthy occupancy percentage for a British travel business. Many enterprises will be at, or close to, capacity this month. What makes Center Parcs different is that the UK company's four sites – in Wiltshire, Suffolk, Nottinghamshire and Cumbria – are full almost to the brim year-round. And judging from the prices I have paid over the years, the company has no apparent need to engage in deep discounting to achieve its impressive annual average. Even in the first weekend of December, the lowest trough of the travel year, the cheapest villa at Sherwood Forest costs £459 for a family of four.

"The brand has 100 per cent awareness," says Center Parcs' chief executive, Martin Dalby, "and over the years we've gained a reputation for delivery." He and I are standing in the rain in a forest clearing in Bedfordshire, looking at a half-built Utopia – the "Subtropical Swimming Paradise" that's at the heart of every Center Parcs.

Just in case you are not among the 1.6 million guests each year who help the firm reach that magic 97.2, let me briefly explain the Center Parcs principle: to allow people to re-engage with nature in a safe (some would say bland) woodland environment while simultaneously providing a range of indoor activities for the occasions, such as today, when nature is too cold and wet for comfort. "Center Parcs is the holiday the weather can't spoil," says Mr Dalby.

Center Parcs migrated from Continental Europe in the Eighties and soon took root in our cool, damp and pleasant land, initially at Sherwood Forest – which remains the company HQ.

Each venue has the same basic pattern. A patch of woodland is populated with "forest lodges," typically sleeping four or six. These functional-but-comfortable villas are knitted together by a network of paths. The accommodation orbits around Paradise, in the shape of a big swimming pool with lots of slides: a premium version of your local baths, if you like. There is also a sports hall, again an upmarket edition of a council leisure centre. Add a jumbo car park, a lake and some mid-market eating options, and a family has all it needs for a short break. You can choose to stay three nights from Friday to Monday, four nights from Monday to Friday, or bolt two together for a full week. Whichever you choose, bring some spare cash: the basic price covers only accommodation and use of the pool area. Everything else costs extra.

It's Woburn, but not as you know it

How does a highly successful and profitable company grow? One route is acquisition. In the Nineties, the owners of Butlins decided to compete and created a park called Oasis at Whinfell Forest in Cumbria. Soon, though, they sold it to Center Parcs: "They designed it OK, but operationally they didn't quite know what they were doing. We acquired it and put it right," says Mr Dalby. For further expansion, a green-field (or green-forest) location was needed. It was easy to narrow down the search. South-east England is the richest travel market in Europe, yet a mere satellite to planet Center Parcs, whose geographic centre of gravity is close to Burton-on-Trent. "A site north of London, somewhere in the M1-M40 area, was where we wanted to be," says Mr Dalby. "We did look at a number of sites, but this one was by the far the most appropriate."

Nine years ago, he bought a 99-year lease on a commercial forest from the Duke of Bedford. By 2014, the shift from timber to tourism should be complete. "Woburn Forest" is the chosen name for the new venue, even though it stands on the opposite side of the M1 to the stately home of Woburn. The site is sandwiched between the main north-south motorway and the East Midlands rail line from London St Pancras to Leicester, Derby and Sheffield.

The launch is being handled carefully. Woburn Forest is due to open next spring, but you can currently book only for September 2014 onwards. Unlike other big travel developments, such as the launch of the Dreamliner, Center Parcs is making only promises it is confident of keeping. As the project nears completion, the booking horizon will get progressively nearer.

A quarter-billion pound investment in British tourism is the company's last big bet, to take it to two million guests a year – as many UK holidaymakers as visit Greece annually. The Center Parcs boss insists no more will be built: "Five centres in the UK gives us complete coverage."

West of Center

Personally, I prefer the Continental version of Center Parcs: the venues in Normandy and The Netherlands feel much more connected with their surroundings. You can wander off-site into a pretty French village for lunch, or hop on a train to Amsterdam for the evening.

Soon there will be another option beyond Britain, because Center Parcs is looking at a site in Ireland. But where? Given the relative emptiness of the island compared with England, there is plenty of choice. My guess is the Republic, because families in Northern Ireland already have reasonably easy access by car and ferry to the Cumbrian site. The driving times from Dublin and the other main population centres of Cork, Limerick and Galway will decide the precise location. From any of these, it's not a long way to Tipperary – my tip for the next Paradise.