Center Parcs has arrived in the heart of Ireland – with prices that are as unfamiliar as the concept of a “sub-tropical swimming complex” with water at a constant 29.5C.
Longford Forest holiday village officially opened at 10am on Monday morning just east of Ballymahon. The location is an unfamiliar one for tourism, even for most Irish people: just north of the centre of the island of Ireland.
Existing points of interest are thin of the ground: the canal that runs beside the site on its way between Dublin and Athlone, and the town of Mullingar 20 miles east, where Niall Horan of One Direction was born and Michael O’Leary of Ryanair lives.
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Ryanair had brought the first three guests to the latest Center Parcs: three British men who are not the key demographic for the new location. But as aficionados of the Center Parcs model, they were relishing the opportunity to explore a new site and see how the template translates to Ireland.
The swimming pool (with associated water slides) comprises the core of every Center Parcs, together with a “village square” of bars, restaurants and shops. (While Starbucks works in Britain, the global brand is replaced with a generic Coffee House in Ireland.)
A sports hall includes a climbing wall, bowling alley and badminton courts, which will be useful when the weather is less benign than on opening day.
The guests are accommodated mostly in self-contained lodges, though the Irish site also includes 40 apartments.
Center Parcs was created in the Netherlands more than 50 years ago, as a way for city dwellers to experience the countryside. It arrived in the UK in 1987, with the opening of Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire.
Ireland has nothing to compare with the concept. The marketing director, Colin Whaley, says that when asking focus groups in the republic what they wanted from a family short break, they described almost exactly the Center Parcs concept: “It ticked every box.” He is responsible for selling the notion to the Irish and earning a return from the €233m (£219m) project – which was delivered in time to cash in on the school holidays in Ireland. So far, the omens are promising: it has been selling out swiftly despite prices soaring to €1,249 (£1,113) for a three-night stay in a three-bedroom “Woodland Lodge” beginning on 23 August.
As parents familiar with Center Parcs will attest, on top of the basic price, most of the activities – from archery to “adventure golf”– require additional payment.
Yet Irish families appear willing to pay dearly for the opportunity to explore what is believed to be the country’s biggest-ever leisure investment.
Four out of the first five breaks are sold out – though the resort will not be completely full, since occupancy has been capped at 90 per cent of capacity while the operation beds in.
The first Irish families through the door had positive first impressions: Mike from County Cork, who had arrived with his wife and two daughters, said: “After driving in the gate it looks amazing.”
Martha from Offaly, with three young children and a husband in tow, said the prices were justified: “You get quality for money, don’t you?”
The project has been broadly welcomed by the local community in one of the least prosperous parts of Ireland. One thousand people have been working on the construction, which has already benefited the area.
Lorraine Danaher, the human resources manager, was born in the nearby village: “Since Center Parcs made the announcement it’s been a massive boost to Ballymahon, with new bars and restaurants opening.”
Carl, an IT specialist who works near the Center Parcs site, said some locals questioned how widely the benefits will spread: “People are likely to stay in Center Parcs rather than exploring the area.”
But Martin Dalby, chief executive of Center Parcs, said it will entice British visitors to explore the republic more widely: “They can take a 10-day holiday in Ireland and spend three or four days here in the middle.”
Center Parcs has, over the decades, constituted the part of the travel industry impervious to economic gloom and political upheavals. The Irish location will show if it can remain impressively profitable despite Brexit.
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