Think of Butlins and what springs to mind? Hi-De-Hi's Gladys Pugh, poky chalets and poolside knobbly knees competitions? Well, think again.
Scratch beneath the white chalet paint and a business intent on re-invention emerges. With record sales last year and a sell-out season forecast for this summer, Britain's family holiday camps seem to be enjoying a tentative millennial renaissance.
Leading the charge are old-hand Butlins and Dutch import Center Parcs, with Pontin's just behind them - all keen to fight off the foreign attractions and keep the British holidaymaker at home. Their arsenal? Millions of pounds' worth of investment, a refocus on short breaks and new owners determined to drag the industry into the 21st century. What the locations lack in glamour - Blackpool, Skegness and Bognor Regis - they make up for in waterparks, spas, concerts and energetic, perma-smiling, blazer-wearing entertainers. Is the British holiday camp finally back in business?
The figures are encouraging. Earlier this year, market research company Mintel estimated that 26% of UK adults have used a holiday centre in the past two years, up from 22% in 2001. The value of UK centre holidays is likely to top £1 billion this year. Furthermore, the average price paid per holiday has risen as customers upgrade to luxury accommodation units and premium-priced short breaks. Last summer's hot UK weather and security fears surrounding international travel also helped to boost numbers.
With Mintel's good news came newspaper reports quick to regurgitate those 'Good morning, campers!' cliches. 'It is an irritant,' admits Richard Bates, Butlins' operations director. 'I wouldn't say we've never considered changing the Butlins name, but it's a hugely powerful brand and let's not mess with that. Our job is to change the experience rather than the name.'
Butlins, like Pontin's, has a love-hate relationship with its heritage. On the one hand, it seeks to distance itself from its historical image of regimented fun; on the other, it milks the brand's longevity with a new retro range of memorabilia and the continual restyling of the Redcoat entertainers, who have been on hand since the first guests came to Skegness in 1936.
Showing holidaymakers a good time and offering value for money were a winning formula for Butlins and Pontin's.
Founder Fred Pontin had promised 'A week's holiday for a week's pay' when he opened his first camp in 1946, and Billy Butlin had his motto, 'Our true intent is all for your delight', plastered above every resort. It was a message that appealed to thrifty post-war Brits, and at the height of its popularity in the 1950s, more than two million people a year enjoyed an all-inclusive Butlins holiday, which offered such luxuries as hot running water and an inside WC.
By the 1970s, however, the sector was in bad shape. 'A lot of UK tourist destinations were run-down and lacked the investment and good management to be able to compete with the emergence of overseas holidays,' explains Martin Dalby, chief executive of Center Parcs Group. 'There was a recognition by the industry that if the resorts carried on going down, we wouldn't have an industry at all.'
The sector consolidated: Rank Organisation bought Butlins in 1972 for just over £40 million, and Pontin's sold the family business to the Coral Group in 1978, which passed it on to brewery group Bass two years later.
Left high and dry by the availability of cheap foreign holidays, the traditional-style camps went into decline. But in 1987, new entrant Center Parcs opened its first UK resort at Sherwood Forest with an upmarket 'forest village' of high-quality accommodation, covered water parks and lots of outdoor activities for families seeking a relaxing few days away.
It was quickly dubbed 'Butlins for the middle classes'. Scottish & Newcastle saw the potential and bought the group in 1991.
Subsumed within large corporations, all three brands had to fight for investment. But now they're back in the hands of owners dedicated to the UK leisure market. Bourne Leisure bought Butlins in 2000; it also owns Haven Holidays and adults-only holiday centre business Warner. Pontin's was bought back by Blackpool magnate Trevor Hemmings in 2000, and Center Parcs was sold by the venture capitalists that had bought the business from Scottish & Newcastle to a consortium of investors, listed on the Alternative Investment Market in December 2003, with plans to list on the London Stock Exchange by the end of the current financial year.
'At Scottish & Newcastle, we were a small company in a big FTSE 100 (firm), whose core strength was brewing beers,' says Dalby. 'We were always second on the list and a poor relation to the pub side. They didn't invest particularly heavily in us and didn't give us any clear direction. Just to get a capital project approved, you had to put it through layers of bureaucracy - it was horrendous.
We came out of S&N in March '01 with the VC and suddenly we got access to funding. They (DB Capital Partners) were keen to see it grow and allowed the management to thrive.'
Dalby's enthusiasm is palpable. A sense of excitement is discernible at Butlins too. Silvio Liedtke was brought in from Legoland by parent company Bourne Leisure in January to run Butlins Bognor Regis, one of three resorts that is expected to turn over £60 million this year (a 9% year-on-year growth). Bates says the appointment of Liedtke is indicative of how seriously the business is taking the Butlins makeover. 'We want to get out there and get the best people we can,' he says.
German-born Liedtke says he wants his resort to reach the same levels of customer care and interaction as Legoland has achieved. He admits that at the moment Butlins' level of investment doesn't come close. But the plan is to create an entertainment-led experience, where every guest is treated as an individual.
Says Bates: 'It's not enough just to process people any more. What customers are saying to us is: Treat me like an individual, not as a number. We don't call them packs - we've eradicated that language from the organisation.' There are other dirty words in the Butlins lexicon. Top of the list are the two c-words: 'chalet' and 'camp'. Instead, use 'accommodation' and 'resort'.
With a £160 million facelift by former owner Rank in the late 1990s, Butlins' entertainment areas were transformed into modern-looking venues.
The Skyline Pavilion, designed by Millennium Dome engineers Buro Happold, adds a futuristic backdrop to each resort, and houses a football pitch-sized arena stage.
The emphasis now is to concentrate on what appears on it. Butlins scouts regularly travel the world for new acts - Cuba, South Africa, Kenya and Russia. 'We don't want anything on our stage that you can see elsewhere and that's really hard,' says Bates, who jokes that Siegfried and Roy would have been perfect if the tiger hadn't got there first.
Bringing real pop stars to Butlins - last year Ronan Keating, Atomic Kitten and Blue played - is critical to the company's attempt to bring in a new generation of customers; as are its entertainment breaks, where you can indulge in three nights of '80s Madness or strut your stuff in a Disco Inferno. Pontin's is trying the same strategy, but opts instead for Bobby Davro, and snooker and salsa weekends.
Then there is the issue of accommodation, which, at Butlins, is classified into deluxe, gold, silver and standard, and ranges from £135 to £200 per person for a four-night self-catering stay in August. Externally, the gold apartments look remarkably un-chalet like, with faux timbers and balconies, but it's not quite enough to lure the more discerning customer.
MT met Deborah Meredith on her first visit to Butlins, and she, her husband and stepson had booked into silver accommodation: 'The room was dirty, the walls too thin and the mattresses plastic,' she reports. It was her first trip to Butlins, though it was her husband's fifth. She spent an hour crying on her arrival, much to the consternation of her husband, who had been very happy with his previous Butlins sojourns. When she complained, the family was immediately upgraded, but the damage was done - she won't be coming back.
Says Liedtke frankly: 'Part of the evolution is to improve our accommodation, some of which we do not consider to be fit for the 21st century. Part of our plan is to provide holidaymakers with a much better quality of accommodation. This makes our business model much more sustainable as well.' Liedtke is overseeing a £10 million, 160-room hotel build on his site at Bognor, scheduled to open next year, and it will, he argues, be the foundation for the future of the resort.
With hotel facilities and roaming Redcoat entertainers, it's difficult not to think that there's something distinctly Disney about the Butlins makeover. 'Yes,' agrees Ruth Connor, sales and marketing director for Butlins. 'Disney is a very, very high aspiration and we would love to be spoken of in the same breath as them in terms of customer experience.'
Disney is just one attractive competitor among many, although, predictably, Butlins doesn't see it that way. It believes that for most families, a trip to EuroDisney is a one-off event and that organising a break abroad is often too much hassle for harassed parents with young children, even though it might be cheaper.
The short break is the concept on which Center Parcs was founded. Today, 97% of holidays booked at its four sites are four-night stays, reflecting the holiday habits of the modern British family - a two-week summer stay in the sun, supplemented by two or three long weekend breaks in the UK.
Unlike the traditional camp holiday, it deliberately offers little in the way of organised entertainment. 'Center Parcs is about relaxation, tranquillity, spending time together, recharging your batteries,' enthuses Dalby. 'It's about doing things together or doing things apart. It's a whole variety of things.' Something for everyone, then.
Center Parcs attracted 1.4 million visitors last year to its manicured woodland settings, and enjoys a 60% repeat business rate - Butlins scores 70%. These enviably high figures may be a sector strength, but they conceal a big weakness. Extending the appeal of Butlins and Pontin's to a new generation is critical to the future of the industry, and overcoming the Hi-De-Hi perception is their biggest challenge.
It's less of a problem for Center Parcs, says Dalby, who considers his visitors to be ABC1s, three-quarters of whom are family groups. 'Our customers are more affluent than the likes of Butlins and Pontin's - Middle England sort of people.' The business has been going so well that a fifth resort is planned for somewhere in the south of England, at a cost of £130 million and three years' development.
In less than a year's time, Center Parcs will reach capacity at its 400-acre sites in Suffolk, Nottinghamshire, Cumbria and Wiltshire, although the plan is to add an extra 20-30 units to each to cope with demand. 'The thrust of our expansion will be converting the accommodation from standard to executive. That doesn't increase the number of customers but potentially changes who those customers are,' explains Dalby. 'We should be aiming for slightly more affluent customers and charge a slightly higher price.'
Then there's the option of building 200-acre mini-Center Parcs - quicker to build and cheaper to run. The idea is under serious consideration, as is the high street roll-out of Center Parcs' award-winning spa, Aqua Sana. Butlins has been quick to emulate the idea, opening its first spa at Skegness last month.
Although Butlins has come a long way from its proletarian origins, Pontin's, with its more modest offering, lacks the confident edge of its rival.
Of the three big-sector players, it is the least glamorous and the most likely to be recognised by Gladys. But when a four-night family holiday costs just £99, few can complain.
In contrast, Butlins, voted Travel Weekly's 2004 UK Holiday Operator of the Year, is quite serious about its Disney-proportioned dreams. 'I want us to be a surprising, intense, entertainment experience, the likes of which you can't get unless you fly to Las Vegas,' says Bates.
Butlins, Pontin's and Center Parcs may never have the appeal of a voguish beach hut in Southwold - but that is not what they claim to be. If the current renaissance holds out, the great holiday makeover might just succeed.
1936: First Butlins camp is built in Skegness, Lincs.
1937: Billy Butlin goes public with a share capital of £220,000. Butlins opens camps in Clacton, Ayr, Filey and Pwllheli within two years.
1946: Fred Pontin opens his first holiday camp at Brean Sands, near Weston-super-Mare, Somerset.
1953: Piet Derksen, who later founded Center Parcs, opens his first Sporthuis Centrum department store in Rotterdam.
1960: Butlins' holiday resort in Bognor Regis opens; Minehead camp launched the following year.
1967: Derksen establishes his first forest village near Reuver, Netherlands. First self-catering holidays introduced at Pontin's.
1969: The launch of Pontinental - Pontin's on the Med - with first site on Sardinia.
1972: Butlins bought by Rank Organisation.
1978: Derksen sells all 17 Sporthuis Centrum branches to develop the parks. Sir Fred Pontin sells Pontin's to the Coral Group.
1980: Coral sells Pontin's to Bass brewery group.
1981: Sporthuis Centrum opens its first holiday park outside the Netherlands, in Belgium.
1986: Sporthuis Centrum becomes Center Parcs. An initial £40m is invested into three Butlins resorts; the investment continues over the following five years.
1987: Center Parcs opens its first UK forest village at Sherwood Forest, Notts. Blackpool magnate Trevor Hemmings (above) heads biggest-ever MBO in the travel industry to acquire Pontin's from Bass for £57m.
1989: Center Parcs opens another park in Elveden Forest, Suffolk. Derksen pulls out, selling his shares to Scottish & Newcastle, giving it a 74.8% holding. Hemmings sells Pontin's to S&N, netting £100m in shares.
1991: S&N acquires the remaining 25.2% shares to take full ownership of Center Parcs.
1994: Third Center Parcs village opens at Longleat Forest, Wilts.
1995: An £11m investment by Pontin's signals start of a four-year, £55m programme to upgrade accommodation and leisure facilities.
1996-97: Phase two of the investment programme starts at Pontin's.
1998: Six family holiday centres refurbished by Pontin's; other two family centres completed for '99. More than £75m spent in upgrading Butlins at Bognor, Skegness and Minehead; the other sites sold off to Haven.
1999: A further £140m is invested in the three Butlins resorts with introduction of the huge Skyline Pavilions.
2000: Pontin's re-purchased by Trevor Hemmings. Bourne Leisure acquires Rank Holidays. Butlins introduces the Arena concert concept; Skyline Pavilions built at each resort by Millennium Dome's engineers.
2001: Scottish & Newcastle sells Center Parcs Europe (controlling the 10 parks in Continental Europe) to a 50/50 joint venture between Pierre & Vacances and DB Capital Partners. Center Parcs UK taken over by DB.
2002: Oasis Holiday Village in Cumbria Lake taken over by Center Parcs UK.
2002: Center Parcs UK announces £18m investment scheme at its Sherwood Forest village, introducing a spa concept called Aqua Sana. An MBO of DB Capital Partners creates MidOcean Partners.
2003: Pierre & Vacances acquires control of Center Parcs Continental Europe from MidOcean. MidOcean retains Center Parcs UK but on 4 December sells it to a consortium of investors; their firm is floated on AIM.
2004: Butlins' Bognor Regis resort applies to build a 160-room seafront hotel; Redcoats receive latest image makeover. Center Parcs UK plans a full listing on the London Stock Exchange.
The price of a three-night, self-catering deluxe break for two adults
and two children under the age of 12, arriving 3 September. Prices quoted on 5 July, 2004.
Camber Sands: two-bedroom Club apartment, £199
Minehead: three-bedroom Deluxe lodge, £348
Elveden Forest: two-bedroom Executive villa, £488
Paris: two-bedroom cabin and four four-day passes, £770
'H' from Steps
Sir Cliff Richard
Vicky Entwistle (Janice from Coronation Street)
Duncan James (of Blue)
Sean Williams (Barry from EastEnders)