CN talks to Butlin’s MD b on how the brand took on big business.
What were your early career ambitions and how did you get started in the hospitality/events industry?
My early career was in the accountancy profession where I qualified having specialised in tax.
In the late 1980’s I joined Bourne Leisure and earned a reputation of sorts by successfully challenging the way the UK implemented the tax rules on the sale of holiday homes. It caused a change to the tax law in this area, reducing the cost of holiday home ownership for most families.
Best piece of early career advice and notable mentor?
A senior partner of an old school firm of chartered accountants said to me once: “Never underestimate the power of asking for help even if you don’t need it. Everyone needs to feel that they make a difference and allowing them to do so is the greatest motivation of all”.
How did the merger of Bourne Leisure Caravan Parks with Rank’s Holiday Division come about and what was the biggest challenge and biggest reward?
The Rank Organisation, under their then CEO, Mike Smith, were conducting a strategic review of their business and decided to focus on gaming and gambling rather than holidays.
As their Holiday Division was also based in Hemel Hempstead, we already had a relationship with the team there and, as our two businesses were so close, they naturally fitted.
The biggest challenges were cultural in the sense that Rank, being publically quoted was generally focused on the things that influenced share price, whereas we at Bourne, being private and much smaller, were focused on our customer experience and the things that influenced that. The biggest reward was how the teams from both sides of the businesses came together and became stronger together.
You took over responsibility for Butlin’s in 2011. Was it a daunting challenge, taking on a historic brand, but maybe one that needed an update/makeover?
The 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s were not great times for Butlin’s. Having lost out to competition from the foreign packaged holiday, the brand turned to the stag and hen do’s market outside peak summer and an inevitable lowering of standards followed.
Bourne’s strategy was to make Butlin’s a proud family brand again and our investment in our first two hotels in 2005 and 2009 was matched by our investment in the team and culture.
My job was to take that momentum to the next stage. The answer was hidden in Butlin’s past. If you want to make a brand great again, find out what made it great in the first place.
Rather than hide our past, we set out to celebrate our heritage. Yes, we continued to invest in new hotels and swimming pools, but our new West Lakes Chalet Village at Minehead was built in celebration of what we are most famous for: chalets.
When we opened West Lakes in 2015, we really used our heritage to create pride in our brand and among our team, which in turn created a guest experience that is worth paying more for.
We have seen the business events sub-brand at Butlin’s develop quickly. Can we expect more investment to develop this stream?
We are not just a business events provider, we set out to be much more than that. Anyone can provide hotel accommodation and a conference venue.
We set out to provide business events that only Butlin’s could provide – where businesses could see and experience the power of a business that is truly built through its team.
We have the facilities on resort to incorporate a wide range of teambuilding activities, but the real benefit is experiencing a powerful team service culture. We will continue to develop this exciting part of our offer and create a targeted strategy for it, because there is huge demand from other businesses to experience what we think is a unique sales and service culture.
Winning an award as Best UK Conference Venue was a milestone in our strategy because personal recommendations and referrals will continue to be our best route to market.
What is your biggest obstacle to the growth of this market?
The fact that are our resorts are not very close to large cities such as London. We work hard to overcome this by highlighting the great package we provide including great catering and entertainment, as well as other aspects that contribute towards putting together an event such as audio/visual technical support. As London continues to become expensive we believe that we offer better value in terms of delegate experience.
You are backing the campaign to cut tourism VAT. How do you think the Brexit vote might affect this and the business in general?
Butlin’s is predominantly a supplier of domestic tourism and Brexit will have little long-term impact. However, Brexit or no Brexit, tourism is internationally competitive. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy, manufacturing and exports will be key to that success.
Tourism is the fifth largest export industry in the UK and the only export that is subject to VAT, yet we pay on average twice as much tax as our European competition for holiday accommodation. That makes us uncompetitive and if tourism could compete without one arm tied behind its back, we could help power UK GDP.
Tourism should be attractive to Government as a source of growth, not just because it is a proven exporter, but because it can create new jobs (and develop careers) quickly and that growth would not be sucked out from another sector of the economy.
Which event industry initiatives do you support?
We are huge supporters of the British Hospitality Association’s campaign: The Big Hospitality Conversation. Hospitality is one of the few growth industries that can create job and career opportunities for young people. Youth unemployment is still too high, yet there is a wealth of talent and potential waiting to be tapped into.
The hospitality industry is in a position to be a key player to stimulate growth, but we can only do it by developing careers for young people. The industry does not get the recognition and investment it deserves from the government. Developing real apprenticeships and work experiences for the industry is key to our ability to continue to attract the best young talent.
Favourite conference or event at Butlin’s?
It would be hard to pick a particular favourite event but what fills me with pride is seeing brands like Astra Zeneca, Holland & Barrett, Argos and Waitrose, among many others, choosing to use Butlin’s as a venue for their events. That tells me we are heading in the right direction.
What changes to the Butlin’s business and, its events arm in particular, can we expect over the next year or two?
All three of our resorts have very exciting plans for new accommodation, new venues, new attractions – anyone attending an event at any of our resorts over the next few years will be able to experience and enjoy the ongoing evolution of Butlin’s.
Biggest change in legislation that would help your business?
The biggest single change would be a reduction in the VAT rate for holiday accommodation and visitor attractions from 20% to 5%. This would not just benefit Butlin’s, but would boost UK GDP by £4billion a year, create over 80,000 new jobs over 2-3 years and deliver £2.6billion to the Treasury over 10 years.
As the Treasury’s own economic advisor pointed out, a reduction in the tourism VAT rate to 5% is “one of the most efficient, if not the most efficient, means of generating GDP gains at low cost to the Exchequer that we have seen”.