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Center Parcs Brings a Water Attraction to a Ski Resort

by Juliana Gilling

For Michel Linet-Frion, creative director at Pierre & ­Vacances Center Parcs , the new Aquariaz water park at Avoriaz shows the “marriage of know-how” that is transforming the business. It is the first Center Parcs Aqua Mundo at a Pierre & Vacances ski resort.

“In a Center Parcs, you expect an Aqua Mundo. You come because there is one,” says Linet-Frion. “But putting an Aqua Mundo packed with green tropical plants into a ski resort was completely unexpected. It’s a novelty, and it’s going to make a huge difference to the resort.

“We’re exploring new territory, and it’s a big experiment,” he says. “Aquariaz hasn’t gone through a winter season yet, but already in the summer it’s full every day and it’s very appreciated, so it’s sure to be a success. We could probably do an Aquariaz in other ski resorts that we operate. I think it will become popular in the French Alps and maybe in U.S. ski resorts once they know about it.”

New Generation of Parks
PVCP designed, developed, and financed Aquariaz as part of a resort expansion at Avoriaz. The town’s tourist office operates the €13 million (US$16 million) water park. Its design builds on the conceptual process that began after Pierre & Vacances’ takeover of Center Parcs Europe in 2003.

There are now 20 Center Parcs Europe sites, each with an Aqua Mundo, across France, Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands. The business achieves an annual turnover of €600 million (US$735.5 million) and attracts 3.9 million visitors a year to its short-break destinations. Blackstone independently owns four UK Center Parcs, with a fifth expected to open at Woburn in late 2013.

“Center Parcs’ (Europe) sites were either built a long time ago, or taken over from the competition and refurbished. They hadn’t built a new site for 15 years,” says Linet-Frion. He realized the need to “revitalize the concept more than reinvent it.” Les Trois Forêts, which opened in 2010 in Moselle, France, represents the first of the new-generation Center Parcs.

“Moselle had to feel like a Center Parcs, but be more contemporary,” he says. “We had to rethink every component and bring the concept back as a frontrunner.” The group innovated in every field, from the Aqua Mundo to the guest cottages, leisure activities, natural settings, and staff programs that underpinned the brand. It is a phased project: A Master Blaster water coaster opened there this year, and future plans include an Eden Spa.

Linet-Frion wanted to preserve the Aqua Mundo’s “indoor landscape,” differentiating it from typical water parks. Its signature greenery fulfils Center Parcs’ goal of immersing guests in nature, giving them a place to disconnect from their daily lives and reconnect with their families. Linet-Frion worked with Center Parcs’ botanist, Jean Henkens, to maximize the planting.

Linet-Frion pushed the landscape concept further, eliminating traditional “swimming pool vocabulary” (tiles, steel, geometric lines) in favor of natural materials and organic shapes. Moselle’s wave pool uses two specially engineered wave machines to achieve a more natural-looking lagoon. Bamboo screens off the slide tower, while stone and wood sculptures reinforce the tropical theme. 

The Right Mix of Attraction and Landscape
Linet-Frion next focused on the attractions: “Our guests expect us to have the latest and the best,” he says. Raft slides are a recent addition: “Before, we only had body slides. Raft rides are much better for families, because they can do them together, and it’s where innovations are happening.”

Linet-Frion sees children’s play as another important area: “We started developing that at Moselle, and we’re focusing on getting even more water play for kids,” he says. In addition to designing distinct zones for toddlers and older children, he is keen to introduce multi-use equipment that can be used by different age groups.

The green sustainable theme will continue to be the cornerstone of Aqua Mundos, insists Linet-Frion: “Guests find authenticity in our resorts, even in our water parks. They walk on real stone, they are surrounded by real plants, and our Aqua Mundos don’t look like artificial pools. It’s made-up authenticity, but people feel like it’s real.”

New Facilities in Europe
A new Center Parcs project in the Vienne region of France, near Futuroscope, will provide another evolution. Construction is likely to start next year, with completion expected in 2015. “This one is going to have something extra—a theme in the landscape,” says Linet-Frion. “But we have to be careful because, unlike a theme park, we’re not taking guests away to some place. We’re simply saying, ‘We brought these stories in to decorate our parks because we like them and we want to share them with you.’ That’s part of our way of taking care of guests.”

Plans for another French project at Roybon “have slowed down for administrative reasons.” In Germany, building is under way on Center Parcs Bostalsee, slated to open in June 2013, and the group has purchased a Munich site. “There’s room for more sites in Germany, but securing financing now is a big headache,” says Linet-Frion. He also sees potential to add outdoor water parks to the group’s coastal resorts.

The Ultimate Escape
Center Parcs’ approach to indoor water parks differs from that of U.S. operators, according to Linet-Frion: “There are places like Wisconsin Dells, ‘The Waterpark Capital of the World,’ where everyone has one. Indoor water parks are getting bigger and bigger, with more rides and attractions.” Yet water park operators can sometimes forget people’s motives for visiting, he believes: “You go to an outdoor water park to have a nice day’s experience in a place that almost feels like a beach, where you can have fun with others and cool off in the water.

“An indoor water park, when it’s big and full of people, can be a noisy and stressful environment. It tends to cost a lot to get into a water park now. People want to stay longer to get value, but they can’t if the conditions aren’t right and they come out exhausted. Rather than always going for the latest and most fantastic equipment, one of the ways forward is to create relaxing areas for everyone, not just for the elite few who can pay for private cabanas.

“For me, the water park is a world of freedom, where you shouldn’t be solicited to spend money,” he adds. “You take your clothes off, you take your life off, and you step out of the consumerist world for a while.”

He believes spas make perfect partners for indoor water parks, provided they are separated from the hustle and bustle. Vienne is likely to feature the first tropical-themed Eden Spa from Center Parcs. “Before we didn’t have many adult-only offerings; now we have the spa concept. We didn’t have raft rides and kids’ equipment; now we have them all over the place. Putting these products together makes sense from a technical, economic, and social point of view. It’s all about synergies and how we can enhance the guest experience.”

Contact Contributing Editor Juliana Gilling at julianagilling@gmail.com.

High hopes for Aquariaz

As “the only water park of its kind in the French Alps,” Aquariaz is having a significant impact, says Stéphane Lerendu, director of the Avoriaz tourist office that manages the attraction. A month after opening on July 1, Aquariaz had welcomed more than 30,000 visitors, surpassing initial expectations. “Visitors are saying it’s amazing to swim among 1,500 tropical plants and trees,” he says.

Lerendu estimates the water park, which took “a hard two years” to build, will draw 70,000 visitors in the resort’s nine-week summer season. During the winter season, from Dec. 15 to the end of April, he hopes Aquariaz will attract 400,000 people.

At Avoriaz, Aquariaz has the advantage of being in a popular high-altitude resort, close to Geneva’s airport. In turn, Lerendu explains how the water park is changing the resort’s business.

Why is Aquariaz right for Avoriaz?
Before Aquariaz, Avoriaz suffered in the winter season because we didn’t have very strong après-ski activities, apart from music events. In the summer, we had outdoor activities, including mountain biking, hiking, climbing, and golf, but no indoor offerings for when it ­wasn’t sunny. That’s why we decided in 2004 to build Aquariaz.

It’s good for the resort to have more people in the summer. Also, having a leisure attraction is good for the beginning of the winter season because you ski in the morning and have to stop early when night comes. ­Similarly, at the end of the season, you stop skiing at noon
because the snow isn’t very good.

This winter we will have new “Ski Aquariaz” passes, which will allow you to ski in the morning and go to Aquariaz in the afternoon. It will change the behavior of customers. We know that people don’t want to ski all day, every day. Aquariaz offers them an opportunity to do other things and to spend time with their children, which is not always easy when their skiing levels are different. It’s important that we offer this for families.