Center Parcs hopes to create family ties to U.S.

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AMSTERDAM -- A village is rising on the polders, or reclaimed seabeds, just outside the Dutch capital, and its builders hope to fill it with ... Americans.

More precisely, European family resort chain Center Parcs is plunging headlong into the U.S. market for the first time.

It is partnering with U.S. travel agents and tour operators to lure American families to its 13 vacation villages such as De Eemhof here, which is undergoing reconstruction to repair fire damage from 2000.

All Center Parcs resorts, which combine a villa complex with sports, entertainment, shopping and dining venues, are located near major cities and attractions across France, England, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands.

Jousting at windmills?

Some might think the quest a bit quixotic, given the dip in both transatlantic and family travel since Sept. 11, but to Gino Vanspauwen, the new U.S. director for Center Parcs, the logic is inescapable: The company simply has nowhere else left to market.

"We have brand awareness [in Europe] of 100%," he said, describing the chain as the Coca-Cola of Europe tourism.

"Center Parcs has been so incredibly successful that there's no possibility for us to grow in our home markets," Vanspauwen added, noting up to 80% of bookings are repeat business.

The enclosed Aqua Mundo swimming complex at Center Parcs' De Eemhof in the Netherlands features Balinese sculptures handcarved on site by Indonesian craftsmen. Indeed, western Europeans accounted for 99.9% of Center Parcs' more than 3 million guests in 2001, with the remainder visiting from Israel and other Middle East nations. Last year, however, about 100 U.S. families joined them.

"And this is the year even more Americans will come, though maybe not as many as we'd hoped two years ago," said Vanspauwen. "But we didn't come into the U.S. in a hit-and-run way; we want to establish sustainable business with our travel trade partners."

Center Parcs' first two U.S. to1/4ur operator partners share Vanspauwen's enthusiasm.

Europe Express, based in Bothell, Wash., devoted 10 of 13 "family vacation" pages in its 2002 brochure to Center Parcs, and chief executive Paul Barry -- himself a father with young children -- said he sees the company's formula as key to kick-starting family travel to Europe.

"We believe Americans wish to give their children a more varied experience growing up," he said. "However, many European cities are not geared to kids, so family travel to Europe hasn't been as strong as it could be."

But activity-rich Center Parcs properties, all within short drives of traditional European attractions, make ideal bases from which to tour with children, said Marion Vanede, operations manager at Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Image Tours.

"You can make a deal with your kids: In the morning, they can go swimming, but in the afternoon, they have to go visit a castle with you," she said.

Image Tours -- which was so wowed by the Center Parcs formula that it signed on even after Sept. 11 -- initially will sell the Longleat Forest resort, near Stonehenge and Bath in England, and Les Hauts de Bruyeres in France's Loire Valley as part of packages combining village stays with car rental and rail.

Image pays commission on Center Parcs starting at 12%.

For its part, Europe Express also is selling Les Bois-Francs in France's Normandy region, two other resorts in England -- including one in Sherwood Forest -- three in Holland and one each in Belgium and Germany. Commission is 10%.

Other U.S. tour operator partners include Parra Tours of Orlando and Holland Approach in Gillette, N.J.

A bolder polder

A recent hardhat tour of De Eemhof during the construction race to ready the property for its March 29 opening revealed a resort that seems to combine elements of exotic Club Med, the children-friendly Beaches resorts of Carib-bean fame and the rural privacy of a family cabin in the Catskills.

And -- visions of dikes and windmills aside -- the Dutch property's rebuilt entertainment sector is state-of-the-art vacation territory.

Center Parcs has spent some $68 million building Flow Rider, one of Europe's first indoor wave pools; Aqua Mundo, an indoor water attraction and Balinese subtropical paradise; a Cuban-themed indoor "Action Factory" facility with a cinema, climbing wall and nine-hole golf course; and a Market Square with dining and shopping outlets -- where outdoor palm trees are individually heated to last all winter. De Eemhof also sports a marina and sailing school.

Other properties boast their own special touches. De Kempervennen, also in the Netherlands, features year-round indoor skiing, while Bispinger Heide outside Hamburg, Germany, features a free-fall "Big Swing" attraction.

Thanks to such indoor amenities, Center Parcs enjoys more than 90% occupancy year-round, said Vanspauwen.

At home in Europe

A short stroll or bike ride from the entertainment zone, De Eemhof accommodations consist of two- and three-bedroom villas priced for Americans in three categories: four-person V.I.P., and five-person De Luxe or Style.

There are more basic "standard" category villas, but the company said it considers them too spartan for American tastes.

Each villa features cable television, a living/dining area with an open fireplace, central heating, a full bath and a private garden patio.

Kitchens come stocked with appliances; some have dishwashers. Breakfast is delivered to V.I.P. and Style units every morning.

Also, V.I.P. and Style guests receive vouchers for use at the on-site supermarket; commissionable meal plans are available, as well.

While the furnishings ranged from acceptable to -- in the Style villas -- quite lovely, the European room dimensions might seem slightly cramped to some U.S. visitors.

"You have to be really careful calling them 'villas,' " noted Image Tours' Vanede. "I think 'cottages' is more appropriate. But there definitely is more room and more privacy than you get at a hotel."

Space considerations and the novelty of a European resort stay aside, value might be the biggest incentive for U.S. families to book Center Parcs.

"It's a great deal for Americans," said Vanspauwen, estimating that stays at some properties for a family of five cost from $19 per head, per night.

Europe Express' lowest prices, at Het Heijderbos in Holland's Limburg region, start as low as $406 for four-night De Luxe villa rentals.

Sample rates from Europe Express for De Eemhof, one of Center Parcs' pricier properties, range from $442 for a midweek, four-night De Luxe stay for a family of four in December (or about $27 per person, per night), to $1,509 (or about $43 a head) for seven nights in a five-person Style villa in July and August.

Three-, four- and seven-night stays are available.

GETTING THERE

Europe Express
Phone: (800) 927-3876
Web:www.europeexpress.com

Holland Approach
Phone: (800) 776-4655
Web:www.globaltravelsolutions.com

Image Tours
Phone: (800) 968-9161
Web:www.imagetours.com

Parra Tours
Phone: (800) 727-7226
Web:www.parratours.com

Center Parcs
Phone: (011) 31-10-498-9619
E-mail:[email protected]
Web:www.centerparcs.com

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