After our successful study trip through England, it was time for our southern neighbours Belgium and France. The program included a visit of several days to perhaps the best theme park in the world, Puy du Fou. For many Dutch individuals it’s still unfamiliar, but it can’t be missed by a true recreation entrepreneur.
Of course, we also visited an old friend, Laurent Valcke, the only 32 year-old offspring of the famous Valcke bowling family. He makes a multimillion investment in the O’Learys Entertainment Center in Ghent, Belgium.
We have discovered the new attraction Fraxinus, perhaps the successor to the standard soft play indoor playground. This first Active Fun Park offers a unique Treetop Adventure at the top of the trees in safari park Le Monde Sauvage.
At last we visited Danny Troch, former marketing director at the Plopsa Group. Danny is now a marketer for the famous caves of Han and told us about the ambitions for international tourism.
Day 1: FEC O’Learys Sportsbar/Restaurant – Belgium
Laurent Valcke opened on September 9, along with his business partner Steven Malysse, the unique O’Learys Sports Bar, a restaurant for 250 people, 18 bowling lanes, miniature golf in various sceneries, curling on artificial ice, shuffle boarding and a game corner. Why Ghent? Laurent Valcke states: ‘Ghent is a dynamic and trendy city with many innovative projects. The city has a creative image, large companies and start-ups, universities and colleges. The combination with Dock North, the future Docklands of Vlaanderen, made the connection to establish the first O’Learys’.
This first O’Learys Sports Bar of Belgium is on the third floor of the new shopping complex Dok Noord in Ghent. Pleisureworld met Laurent and Steven previously, on their discovery in Gothenburg, Sweden, where they tested the concept. We went on a tour, through the big building in Ghent, covering an area of more than five thousand square meters of Family Entertainment.
The complex already had a karting centre and a complete indoor soccer sports centre with up to 12 football fields. In 2017, on March 23, during the congress especially for Family Entertainment Centres (FECs), Laurent is going to speak about the success of the start-up issues in this first year of the opening. Obviously Pleisureworld also organizes a study trip to Ghent!
Our main outcomes:
- Family Entertainment Centres (FECs) are the new daytrips
- Sports bar O’Learys is a franchise concept that is very suitable for the Netherlands
- Gastronomy, food, drinks and activities: mixed together
- Only new investments if they can be mega-sized
- Brand awareness enhances the perception and ensures acceptance of higher pricing
Day 2: Center Parcs Les Bois aux Daims – France (review score: 9.3!)
The formula of Center Parcs remains strong. This year, the company will open its sixth park in France, ‘Villages Nature’ at Disneyland Resort Paris. Pleisureworld visited the newest park that opened its doors last year: Les Bois aux Daims, the fifth park in France and also by far the largest one. Les Bois aux Daims is the most southern park in France, situated in a magnificent 260-hectare nature reserve in the French department of Vienne, in the Loire region, an hour’s drive from Poitiers.
The Center Parcs success formula consists of two independently operating organisations. England has five resorts, and the organisation on the European mainland contains 21 resorts in 4 countries. As far as the consumer concerns, this organization operates as one.
Our findings in both, Center Parcs Woburn Forest (England) and now here in France at Les Bois aux Daims, creates many expectations of the future development of the “Holiday of the Future”. We find ourselves at the beginning of transforming the all-in-one bungalow to the ultra-luxury holiday resort. There is still a big challenge of getting the staff at the desired level of hospitality. And will it remain affordable for a wide audience?
An extra trigger that is not located in the park is the Pack & Go Futuroscope: enjoy a nice nature holiday at Center Parcs Bois aux Daims, combined with a visit to Futuroscope, the second largest theme park in France. Read more in our previous blog: Study trip The French battle.
Lessons to learn from Center Parcs Les Bois aux Daims:
- Introducing unique live expedition with rangers heading for wild animals
- Storytelling at the ‘Action Factory’
- Functional and powerful designed Market Dome with retail and food concept stores
- Smart strategy in the operation of the Cycle Centre (bike rental)
- Tree houses as accommodation: so huge and beautiful, truly amazing!
Day 3: Futuroscope, theme park of the future – France (Review Score: 6.5)
All rankings indicate Futuroscope as the second park in France, after Disneyland Paris. Unfortunately, since the last couple of years, it shows a decreasing trend in visitors. With figures of ca 1.6 up to about 1.8 million a year. We hardly noticed any foreign visitors and after visiting the attractions it made sense.
There is a large interactive play area for children below 10 years, but other than that, elderly visitors are only getting variations presented of films in 3D and 4D. Like La Loi du Plus Fort and Le Monde de l’invisible. As a foreign visitor you find yourself in a bad French attraction, usually a large dark area with a storyline that you can’t understand. The English translation box didn’t work properly.
Also Arthur, l’Aventure 4D is nothing compared to the similar versions of Disneyland, Phantasialand and Europa-Park. You’ll get lost during the aerobatic show of La Vienne Dynamique. The combination, of theater, circus and movie was something special.
Was everything a disappointment besides that? Certainly not, as the hospitality industry is of high quality and only the architecture of this science park is worth walking through. The atmosphere was nice and with its park-like structure it allows you to relax in a shady area. The evening show, Aquaféerie La Ferme aux Etoiles, co-created by Cirque Du Soleil, is the highlight of the day.
We slept, within walking distance of the park, in the Inter-Hôtel Confort Altéora. Futuroscope can be a nice stop on the way home from Spain. The expected spectacle wasn’t there.
What did we pick up from this visit to Futuroscope:
1. In addition to its own theme hotel there are plenty of hotels in the immediate surroundings
2. Quality of hospitality, excellent lunch and dinner
3. Park is not set on foreign guests and this certainly doesn’t seem like a priority for them
4. Design and implementation of retail is excellent and looked after
5. Focusing on employees gives hospitality an extra boost
Watch the evening show Aquaféerie La Ferme aux Etoiles
Day 4 and 5: Puy du Fou, imagineering first class – France (review score 9.8)
Already on arrival at Puy du Fou, we were surprised by the three special themed hotels with optimal sleeping comfort. Who wants to stay here, must book more than half a year in advance! At the check in they advised to make reservations for dinner immediately, or there wouldn’t be any seats left. So we made reservations for € 53,-, straightaway for two people, yet without drinks and without knowing what the menu would be.
The success of Puy du Fou has arisen from a village rebellion that was brought to scene annually. It has now developed into France’s second park with more than two million visitors. Even the Efteling went shopping at this success story for the development of the park show Raveleijn. Nevertheless, the performance at the Efteling is just a preview compared with the thirteen shows in the park, each with dozens of actors.
There is room for a few thousand visitors at every show who queue up 45 minutes before the show to find a seat. The stories of the stage productions are based on the French Revolution and the special events from the past, such as the story of Joan of Arc. The performances Le Signe du Triomphe (Roman spectacle), Les Vikings, Le Bal des Oiseaux Fantômes, MousQuetaire de Richelieu and Le Dernier Panache are famous nowadays. Despite the fact that all the shows are in French, it is easy to follow for foreigners. There are audio boxes with translations for rent.
There is still plenty to do in the theme park itself beside the shows, like real crafts in matching themed decors. All very realistic performed. You probably can’t imagine, but you will actually see visitors running during the day so they won’t miss the next show. The two major shows are Les Orgues de Feu, every night at 21:45, and La Cinéscénie, staged “only” 25 times a year for 25,000 visitors with approximately 1,500 actors. I’m certainly going back next year for that last one.
Le Signe du Triomphe
Why you should study Puy du Fou:
1. The best theme park in the world because of a mixture of animals, theatre, spectacle and culture
2. An updated map is given everyday
3. Professionalism in accessibility and management of massive public streams
4. Unique sceneries, useful numbers that refer to the locations and map
5. Theme hotels with matching hospitality concepts
Day 6: Parc Astérix, a bang-up theme park – France (review score: 8.5)
A lot of Dutch people know Parc Astérix from their trip to the sunny south, but choose not to visit this theme park. The park opened its gates in the late 80’s, several years before Disneyland Paris has opened. It’s ranked in the top of the most visited theme parks, with 1.8 million visitors a year. The invincible friends Asterix and Obelix obtained their own theme park thirty kilometres north of Paris, thirty years after the release of the first comic book. The theme is reflected everywhere: all attractions are based on the adventures of the cartoon characters.
At the entrance, you are really imagining yourself back in time. Houses from all the countries where the two heroes have been are standing along the entrance road Via Antiqua, filled with shops and restaurants. Of course, the comic museum isn’t missing and an extensive line of visitors is waiting for the meet and great and a picture. Not only comic book lovers, but also thrill seekers can fully enjoy this park. Also particularly nicely performed is the colourful children’s playing village La Forêt d‘Idéfix, named after the favourite dog of the famous big Gaul. In my opinion, the accommodation hôtel des Trois Hiboux is worth a visit!
- Fantastic amusement park for the whole family
- Theming is very professional and made with an eye for detail
- Easy access via a separate exit from the highway and also free parking
- Retail is an example for many colleagues and it’s really beautiful
- Attention to detail, such as non-smoking in the children’s play village and per attraction you can find an age indication via a height sign
Day 7: Domain of the Han Caves: caves and wildlife park – Belgium (review score 8.3)
The Han caves are a system of underground caves in Han-sur-Lesse near Rochefort, situated between the river Lesse in the Ardennes. It is known as one of the largest cave complexes in Europe and is located in a large wildlife park of a few hundred hectares and will be placed on the UNESCO World Herritage List this year.
The former marketing director of the Plopsa Group, Danny de Troch, is responsible for marketing the Domain of the Han Caves. During a tour Danny said: “We are crawling out of the abyss at this point and the last few years we finally see the number of visitors grow again exceeding 350,000. The aim is to reach the limit of 500,000 within a few years, but there still has to happen a lot.”
In the wildlife park you will find European wildlife in its natural habitat, with a lot of freedom for the animals. A small train takes you through the various habitats of the wild animals. Since two years, it is also possible to make a decent walk where you can have a face to face get-together with a red deer and wild pigs. You can sleep in the wild alongside the European brown bears.
The sporty types among us go through the Parcours Speleo to the hidden galleries of the Han Caves; an underground tour, where you crawl through the mud of the river and over rocks. After our visit to the wildlife park with also a walk through the trees at an altitude trail, we were immersed in the adventure of the caves.
The Han Caves combined with a stay in the region is a perfect family getaway. Nature remains a powerful story, but focus on quality is necessary. Also at the Han Caves is work to be done to improve the overall product offering. Especially the hospitality and storytelling through the guidebooks deserves more attention.
Our main findings:
1. Wildlife park has more perception than the traditional zoo
2. The caves are a unique attraction that can’t be copied
3. A train journey brings visitors in the right mood and is a key part of the trip
4. Catering, retail, as well as the storyline, can be more elaborated
5. Opportunity for a combination between nature and attraction for the museum and visitor centre
Day 8: Safari Park Le Monde Sauvage & FEC Adventure Park Durbuy – Belgium
Durbuy Adventures: We made a short visit to the FEC Durbuy Adventures on our way to safari park Le Monde Sauvage. A good example of a regular outdoor sports company which evolved to a family outdoor centre. There are smaller ‘low rope’ courses and a themed playground especially made for the little children. The hospitality will get a boost and barbecuing is part of the variety as well.
There are teepee tents for a multiday visit, mainly to cater to groups of students, associations and corporate events. A new attraction is the Airbag Jump: jump off a 10 meter high tower and end up in a big black air cushion, for the real daredevils! There are still a lot of things about to happen in Durbuy, Marc Coucke, a wealthy Belgian entrepreneur wants to develop a large-scale recreational park here in the Ardennes. The ‘greatest adventure park of Europe’ must become a combination of animals, holiday houses and outdoor activities.
Safaripark Le Monde Sauvage:
Our visit to safari park Le Monde Sauvage and the eccentric elderly owner, Mr Joseph Renson was the special surprise during this study trip. Here you can see that an attraction, a safari park and a zoo (or whatever it may be) doesn’t always have to satisfy the highest standard to offer a fun day out. All animals can be found here, you can take a ride in a safari train or on the back of a dromedary.
The whole park looks basic: unpaved paths, plastic patio furniture and catering which includes a real chip stall. The animal cages suggest that they have not maintained it after construction. The reason of our visit is the purchase of the new attraction Fraxinus. It is the first Active Fun Park, a unique Treetop Adventure, provided by Active Constructions BV.
A Dutch company who is specialized in climbing forestparks and unique high rope courses. With the Active Fun Park, the company sets a new standard in active playing for indoor and outdoor as a counterpart to the soft play constructions. You can discover more in Le Monde Sauvage, for example a sea lion show, and you can have a picnic with the giraffes. We skip the raptors after our visit to Puy du Fou. The pricing in the hospitality is noteworthy: almost everything is offered for € 5. We are heading home questioning about how long a day recreation facility can survive with the appearance of a tavern.
1. The purchase of Fraxinus provides a second gate attraction and therefore extra income
2. Interesting for new audience, thanks to the new Active Fun Park attraction
3. Low entrance fee compensates for the entourage of an outdated day recreation facility
4. Hospitality is very competitively priced
5. The Big Five is present, but in an outdated zoo
What did we see at the southern neighbours
Our study trip to France and Belgium has given us a lot of information and inspiration. The second gate (second entrance fee at the same location) makes its appearance at the smaller daily recreation businesses. Theatre and evening shows, with or without fireworks are an emerging trend and letting traditional animation program eat their dust.
Theatre based on a historical and authentic story, as at Puy du Fou, makes it extra special. But nature remains a strong base: look at the newest addition from Center Parcs in France, Le Bois Aux Daims, where nature forms the basis of a unique concept which reinvented itself. Finally, we noticed increasing growth in cross-border tourism, making it more and more important for recreation businesses to connect with foreign visitors. There are exceptional new initiatives across the southern borders, such as the first O’Learys in Ghent. There certainly are opportunities in the Netherlands for this first FEC franchise concept from Belgium.
Hans van Leeuwen, trendwatcher and advisor
PS Pleisureworld is starting soon with the initiative of the first cross-border marketing agency, with experts from different countries under one umbrella. Useful for those who want to attract more German and Belgian guests!