As Butlins celebrates its 80th birthday, managing director Dermot King explains how the archetypal staycation brand stays likeable and lucrative in the 21st century.
Butlins is well aware that it is not what it once was. At its peak in the 1960s, Billy Butlin’s industrialisation of the British holiday comprised ten camps across the UK, Ireland and the Bahamas. Over subscription was the order of the day. But as aviation costs plummeted through the 70s and 80s, package holidays were made available for millions of ordinary Brits and the staycation stalwart inevitably shrivelled.
It is now half a century since Butlins opened a new resort. Today just three remain, yet the company, now owned by Bourne Leisure, is still a formidable player in the UK market. For managing director Dermot King, changing with the times and finding alternative routes to expansion is a full time job.
“We are investing heavily to reinvent the seaside break to meet the needs of today’s families and other holidaymakers to provide a range of accommodation, food and entertainment,” says King, referring to the ongoing redevelopment of his three remaining sites.
The Bognor resort has three new hotels – the latest one costing £25m. Minehead has benefitted from £17m in new chalets and the original Skegness site now includes a £25m waterpark. While modernisation is key to staying relevant, King stresses that money is no panacea: it’s as much about about understanding what works about Butlins and using new technology to repackage it for new markets.
“Butlins is a business with a great history,” he adds.“Our highly-developed values and culture of doing everything possible to meet the needs of holidaymakers – to ‘delight’ them by working as a team – is shared as an approach that can be applied to customers of any organisation or business.”
Social media plays a leading role in Butlins perennial renaissance. In 2013 the company had 75,000 facebook likes – today it has a quarter of a million. “Our digital strategy is important,” King declares. “It provides quick answers to questions while receiving useful feedback. We also take online bookings and have the space to describe in words and photos the wide variety of holiday breaks available.”
“Only Butlins can deliver the Butlins experience.”
With this new medium, King has succeeding in translating Butlins appeal to new cohorts of clients. The “Just for Tots” breaks for parents with children under five is becoming significant, as is the highly lucrative business of corporate away-days. Since its launch in 2012 the latter has grown by 147 percent, now attracting more than 10,000 delegates each year.
“We can host a boardroom meeting for 12 or a product launch for thousands,” he adds, “along with a variety of team-building exercises including treasure hunts and even exclusive access to the fun-fair.”
The overall figures already reflect this resurgence. Pre-tax profits hit £27m last year, while annual visitors rose 2 percent to 900,000. In 2016 King expects visitors to surpass 1.2m – up by one third – and profits to reach £30m.
“We offer something very different,” King attests, refuting any potential threats from phenomena like AirBnB. “Only Butlins can deliver the Butlins experience.”