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
"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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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