U.S. Influence Shaping Many British RV Parks
Editor’s Note: Julian Gothard was born in Singapore, has lived in Germany, England and the U.S. and has traveled extensively in Europe and North America, including Canada and Mexico. He is a freelance writer and photographer for examiner.com and an enthusiastic advocate of the RV lifestyle. This column appears in the July issue of Woodall’s Campground Management. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Holiday and residential leisure parks in the United Kingdom operated by companies like Butlins and Pontins – and immortalized by the 1980’s BBC TV show “Hi-de-Hi” – provided a uniquely British summer vacation destination from the 1940s through the 1970s.
But the entry of Dutch firm Center Parcs to the U.K. market – the company opened its first village resort in Sherwood Forest in July 1987 – heralded a sea change in the British holiday camp market.
Today, vacationers can choose from a tent and RV campground in static caravan parks – operated by companies like Haven Holidays and Park Holidays – or opt for premium destinations like Center Parcs or Don Amott Leisure Parks.
In the U.S. too there are similar differences between park operators from KOA and Jellystone to Encore/Thousand Trails and RVC Outdoor destinations.
Holiday caravan park developments in Britain often consist of serried rows of static caravans lined up at popular seaside destinations, though the attractions of such resorts have always been lost on me. According to Samantha Heap, director of Don Amott Parks Ltd. and the third generation of the family involved in the management of the business, the original parks dreamt up by her father might also have ended up cut from the same cloth were it not for a fortuitous visit to the United States.
Trip to the U.S.
“The whole setup of our parks changed after a visit to America. My parents’ holiday in Palm Springs… and when my dad used to get bored… he used to travel around all the RV parks around California and look and see how they did things differently,” said Heap. “We had just bought a park in Lincolnshire and started developing in that traditional way where the Brits lay all the caravans along the coast in lines.”
According to Heap, when her father, Don, returned from the U.S. he halted all development work with the comment “We are doing it all wrong. Scrap the plans. Start again. The Americans have got the right idea.”
Today, many aspects of Don Amott’s business look like they have been transplanted from North America. “We create massive bays. We give people proper gardens with features in. We put them in forests. It changed the whole landscape of our business,” said Heap. “Every subsequent park we bought we developed in the same way,” she added. Don Amott still spends six weeks every summer in America – always in a different state and invariably astride a Harley-Davidson motorcycle – and scours the Union for the best and most innovative ideas to add to his company’s state-of-the art holiday parks. “All the time we’re pushing forward and reinventing our parks and doing new things that nobody else does. We are always looking for new ideas,” said Heap.
Don Amott’s American travels from east to west – through Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and California – have certainly been productive. However, while those sweeping loops and teardrop park designs with extra wide gardens and picture perfect aspects may have been inspired by their U.S. campground and resort counterparts, the implementation of such concepts has clearly benefited from Heap’s barely contained passion for her business.
Of course, said Heap, park development just like any other real estate-based business, has to strike a balance between a number of competing factors not least that, “you have to make the land pay otherwise you haven’t got a business.” Where once customers may have been happy with a caravan (travel trailer) or motorhome parked in a field alongside a fishing pond, today’s customers “want entertainment. They want good food. Whatever facilities they have in their (home) town, they want in their (leisure) park.” Indeed, “most of our customers are business people. They have a high standard of living at home and they want the same standards in their holiday home,” said Heap. “Everything around them is landscaped and manicured… That’s what they pay for. We look after them.”
According to Heap, the average size of units in the holiday parks is 38 feet by 12 feet. “The fashion here is for these big UPVC verandas, double doors at the front and usually a forest or lake aspect… (often) in bays in big cul-de-sacs with no through traffic,” said Heap. Prospective buyers can then choose the physical location of their static caravan (known as a park model in the U.S.) on the property which, more often than not, is dictated by a desire to be close to the golf course, tennis courts, indoor swimming pool and solarium or other on-site attraction or feature.
New and existing holiday resorts are developed in 10-acre parcels and “it’s always really exciting working out how we’re going to lay them out and what view we are going to give everyone… At every stage we learn something, so every (subsequent) development gets better and better,” said Heap.
Future Don Amott park developments along Britain’s East Coast – including the development of the final 10-acre parcel at the company’s flagship Lakeside Park in Lincolnshire – seem set to follow a more environmentally friendly eco route. “We’ve got a lot of homework to do on that,” said Heap, “because caravan parks don’t tend to be eco-friendly… It’s taken us three years just to introduce recycling and proper waste management in our parks… You can imagine when we are full to capacity how much waste our customers create, so recycling is a major deal.” This is likely something that the company will continue to work on in the months and years ahead. “We’ve all got a carbon footprint and we should all be doing our best to reduce it… We all have to think about the legacy that we are leaving behind,” said Heap.
Weathering the ongoing recession in Europe has proved challenging for all leisure parks said Heap, especially given the seasonal nature of the Don Amott operation. The frequency of annual visits has fallen. “Our footfall has dropped in terms of people coming and going off the park because of the cost of the trip.” The leisure parks differ from the company’s three residential counterparts (two in Lincolnshire and one in Staffordshire) in that they only operate March through November.” We want people who can afford a holiday home. We don’t want people living in our leisure parks.”
Although the rental market is one of the fastest growing sectors in the U.K. holiday market, “our customers like to know who they are going to wake up next door to” and, according to Heap, owners (as opposed to renters) invariably take better care of properties.
The average cost to Don Amott leisure park customers is around £3,000 ($4,500) in fees per year – which covers the cost of the land, utilities, maintenance and free access to all park amenities – plus the one-off cost of the park model for the site including, for one year only, an exclusive £32K ($48,000), 35 feet by 12 feet, 50th anniversary Demi-Siécle park model, manufactured by Swift. Only the flagship Don Amott Lakeside Leisure Park has an adjoining premium campground (with 150 sites) for motorhomes and touring caravans, likely because luxury RV resorts like the North American Orange Beach-based Heritage Motor Coach Resort & Marina on Alabama’s Emerald Coast – where RV sites will run you a cool $200,000-$500,000 – is a business model that’s unlikely to be successfully replicated in the U.K. where the vast majority of RVs rarely extend beyond 29 feet in length.
In addition to cherry picking the clientele, by only allowing owner-occupied park models on site (there are no rental units), Don Amott leisure parks also have to battle with Britain’s notoriously inclement weather. “Everything that we build has got to be undercover or protected,” said Heap and, once again, the parks “borrowed” a covered in-patio design that Heap’s father had seen on a U.S. trip. “It’s got heating in. It’s got lighting in (and) we put easy lounge furniture inside.”
Don Amott – which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year – has changed dramatically since it began trading back in 1963, from a disused railway station at Eggington Junction in Derbyshire. The business which currently operates a number of leisure and residential parks as well as selling a broad range of touring caravans, motorhomes and mobile homes was once heavily involved as a distributor of holiday homes to park owners so, “we had half a dozen lorries (trucks) on the road and were supplying 2,000 caravans around the country,” said Heap. The company also briefly dabbled with motorhome manufacturing. However, “It’s all very different now,” added Heap. Although the company supplies park models for its own leisure parks, the business mix has changed, as has the recreational customer profile. “Everybody has different expectations now. Customer service is smarter. The product had to get better. The manufacturers have had to pull their socks up.” Don Amott’s business philosophy of “copy and improve” – a practice first pioneered by Japanese manufacturers in the ’50s – seems the perfect option for an ever-evolving market place. Here’s to another 50 years.