With roots in The Netherlands, Center Parcs started to challenge established ideas about the traditional family holiday market over 40 years ago, and has been doing the same in the UK since opening its first ‘Village' at Sherwood Forest in 1987.
A specialist in short break holidays in forests on a year-round basis, the firm now has six such sites across the UK and Ireland, which all feature wood lodges for accommodation, a range of indoor and outdoor leisure facilities, swimming, a variety of popular chain restaurants, shops and a spa. The company reports an annual occupancy rate in excess of 97%, and in August 2015 Center Parcs UK was acquired by Brookfield Property Partners, one of the world's largest commercial real estate companies.
And then the COVID-19 pandemic happened. Which, as Elena Ragone Marriott, its Head of Digital and Media, explains has a huge impact when you're a vacation company. She says:
We've spent the best part of 16 months giving money back, rather than taking it. COVID-19 definitely put a whole different spin on things — and it was only towards the end of it all where we stopped to reflect and say, wow, what this would have been like pre-digital transformation for us? It all made us all feel a little scared.
That's because Center Parcs was actually able to weather the COVID storm a lot better than many of its competitors — thanks in large part to a website and internal process refresh it had already commenced in partnership with Adobe, as well as an overhaul of its front and back office products.
The initial problem was that data was fragmented and siloed, so personalization was not possible. That meant guests needed to keep entering their details every time they booked, and a guest was treated as if they were coming on to the website for the first time, every time. In addition, email marketing campaigns were often slow to get out the door, due to needing to brief multiple third parties and segment data accordingly. Ragone Marriot explains:
We had already started a digital transformation programme, of which I was the business lead, and we had a number of challenges way back when we initiated the project — a lot of it stemming from the technology that we had in place that we really needed to renew and reinvest in.
These limitations, she said, included having an externally hosted database built in the days of snail mail, as well as processes that could take over 24 hours to process data on the worst days. Ragone Marriott adds:
This wasn't working for us. We also had a website that was probably about 15 years old at that point, and it was also built on top of a reservation system which was quite an old system as well. So, it meant that we had little flexibility and of course, any change was a big deal.
We were not particularly user-friendly. Obviously, we did our best within the realms of what we had, but we knew we could make all this so much better.
Center Parcs set up an initial project team of three, led by Ragone Marriott, to decide what to do next — over time, that number increased to 25, reflecting how fundamental this work actually became. Ultimately, to address the customer experience issues, in 2016 Ragone Marriott decided to replace a large swathe of Center Parc's legacy with Adobe Experience Cloud. Center Parcs has also used a number of other Adobe marketing support products, including Campaign, Adobe Target, Adobe Analytics and Adobe Experience Manager.
The team spent the first year understanding what was needed, then the firm started to engage with suppliers, which is when Adobe came into the picture. Ragone Marriott told us:
Adobe was the best candidate because we didn't want to be responsible for putting products together ourselves, so we wanted the best alternative, which was taking best-in-class from the market.
As a result, she explains, now the holiday company can recognize and tailor its outreach to both the lead booker, plus any companions/family joining the excursion, or booking something to do. In fact, the whole party can now view and add to a shared itinerary, which was not possible before, while Center Parcs' marketing team can now communicate with all party members — for example to encourage them to book an activity or a restaurant reservation, or for service messaging.
In the run up to COVID-19, she adds, the project had centred on bringing the database in house and re-platforming all of its brand websites, which included putting in a whole new enterprise services layer in the activities portion of the Center Parks website, which was to all intents and purposes a separate site. And things had more or less completed about a year before the pandemic, which meant an immediate switch of focus. Ragone Marriott says:
Back in the day, it used to take us probably about two weeks to get an email or a text message out the door. In COVID, where we're closing villages or an experience and we need to get a message to a guest in 30 minutes or less, that would not have been acceptable to anyone.
Significant CX improvement
Center Parcs now has a lot more control over its website than it used to, with the ability to put messages within the booking engine, so guests should always be 100% clear on what is available or not for their chosen break dates. Ragone Marriott says:
There were so many examples that we just would not have been able to do ourselves, prior to making these changes. We also now have a constant development resource in place, which is very different to how we used to work so we can react so much quicker: for example, when we started to reopen and we had to introduce pool booking slots that meant a development on the front end to be able to help with that, which we turned around really quickly. So, while there are still challenges there as well, bookings are through the roof.
Obviously there's still things we could do and make better, but the website is significantly improved from where it was before. The link between accommodation booking and an activities booking is much more seamless than it was before — guests now have an account that they can log into, they can share itineraries with the companions that are coming with them, it's all much more functionally-rich than it was previously. This has always been about significantly improving Center Parcs' customer service and experience.
There's work still to be done, says Ragone Marriott, and now that the Vaccine Economy is kicking in, priorities are taking shape:
I would like to pick up back from where we left off, which was that personalization goal that we still have. Clearly, we made some strides with that pre-COVID, and to a degree we've managed to continue with very, very small baby steps with it throughout the COVID period.
But the more COVID is behind us the more we're going to be able to focus back on improving the personalization of journeys for guests, through the whole journey. That will mean whether they come to us from an email or from a social media channel, right through to the web journey. Prior to COVID, we were also looking at doing a proof of concept around customer data which we can now move ahead with, too.