As the leading foodservice agency we’ve yet to miss an Arena Savoy Lecture, which is arguably the jewel in the crown of the networking association’s calendar. This year it was the turn of Martin Robinson to take the lectern and enlighten the gathered ‘movers and shakers’ of the out of home world. Martin is the Chairman of Center Parcs UK as well as The Casual Dining Group (Tragus). He started out ‘back in the day’ studying geography at university including a somewhat left field dissertation on the effect on the local economy of the Last of the Summer Wine series (interesting!). His career then progressed via Bonjela, Dettol, Sara Lee, lingerie in Paris (a high point), management consulting across brewing, oil and food and onto Scottish & Newcastle, culminating with the start of his current role at Center Parcs in 1997. But Martin, by his own admission, is bored easily and likes to have a few things on the go. So not content with just having one high flying job he also managed to multi-task across a number of senior roles including Holmes Place, Disneyland Paris and a middle east property investment company (the latter two of which he is still involved with).
The Center Parcs concept was the inspired brainchild of a Dutchman back in the fifties (1958 to be precise) – a genius idea, the concept was completely new and focused around the following ground breaking features: families taking short breaks, getting away from the city to the countryside, being active and doing outdoor activities, being environmentally friendly, people arriving either on a Monday or Friday, being car free and based around bikes and offering guests lots of choice in what they do. It worked, and has been especially successful in the UK, where consumers are keen to spend money on leisure and holidays (often taking up to six holidays a year) and where often exiting our beloved island often involves costly and high stress air travel (especially when considering 75% of guests come with children this is a key factor for choosing Center Parcs over a package holiday abroad). Currently Center Parcs has a 97% occupancy rate and a 68% repeat rate which are impressive figures. It manages to keep its market position by sticking to the original concept, investing in the business, keeping close to customers (guests) with consumer feedback routes, clever revenue management (there is no set tariff it sets the price for optimum margin similar to budget airline flights) and of course innovation, ensuring the concept is kept fresh and keeps those guests coming back time and time again. The other handy thing that works in Center Parcs’ favour are the huge barriers to entry. Even with its proven track record and contacts, it took the company ten years to get planning for Woburn so it really has been able to corner the market.
One of Martin’s many other strings to his bow is his Chairmanship of The Casual Dining Group. He takes a keen interest in the sector and predicts that the market will continue to grow with 2 to 3% added to the size of the out of home market each year through casual dining openings. He also expects to see themed concepts experience some ‘weeding out’ as only those that are truly differentiated and authentic succeeding. He also foresees branded concepts taking healthy eating more seriously and delivering in the mainstream, the rise of mass market premium brands as the middle ground dwindles, the proliferation of eating occasions in line with all day dining, and the rise of fast casual concepts like Nandos. With casual dining, QSR and coffee shops blurring into one, the market is changing and he believes only those brands which offer the consumer what they want when they want it will thrive.
As for the ever present issue of customer service and staffing, across the industry he can see a real gap where a ‘lost’ generation went onto university rather than into hospitality roles, but in recent years with the increase of university fees this is coming back around with vocational learning and apprenticeships picking up. However we are left with this legacy and he is passionate about getting good talent into the industry. Anne from Springboard pointed the great work the charity does and especially the Future Chef programme which generates a pipeline of talented chefs for the industry. But with dry GCSEs in business (as Martin has experienced with his daughter) and hospitality still battling to build a more positive perception of the industry as a career of choice there is still much more to do.
Following a few ‘challenging’ questions from the floor around the quality of the food offered at Center Parcs it was time for the networking to commence and then it was on to dinner prepared by the team at the Savoy. As you would expect it was excellent, (although I have to say I am not one hundred percent on-board with basil meringue – but top marks for pushing the boundaries!). Well done to Lorraine, Berenice and the team at the Savoy on another great event – we look forward to the next with Andrew Guy CEO of Ed’s Easy Diner on 26th June. To find out more about Arena you can visit www.arena.org.uk