Dutch leisure accommodation specialist, Molecaten, has grown from its origins as a family camping park on the shores of Lake de Veluwe to encompass fifteen holiday parks in the Netherlands, a park in Hungary and luxury safari camps and lodges in Zambia and Malawi.
Molecaten’s Tim Slager spoke to Blooloop about the company’s Splash (Splesj) Waterpark in the south of Holland, the ‘localising’ of theme parks and the changing expectations of visitors.
Slager studied International Business in the north of Holland at the University of Groningen before returning to the family-owned company:
“– I’m the fourth generation… We operate self-catered accommodation, and at one of our self-catered accommodation sites in the south of Holland there is also a water theme-park called Splash.”
Splash started life sixty-five years ago as a municipal swimming-pool and is now among the largest and most impressive water parks in Western Europe. It has grown organically, explains Slager, “just adding attractions which we find by travelling, for example, to IAAPA or just by seeing new attractions – we add them.”
“There’s no designer, there’s no master-plan, it’s like a hobby grown out of proportion.”
There is certainly something of the enthusiastic hobbyist about Slager.
“It’s an absolutely fun industry, ” he enthuses. “It’s always hectic – we’re into entertaining people; giving them an experience; letting them have real quality time with family and friends. It’s energising to be in this sector; to work in this industry; to see all those people having a wonderful time. That’s really worthwhile.”
The water-park is aimed at families and is suitable for a whole range of ages. There is a large water-spray park; boats to handle in the exciting Super Crater; a Wild Water River Ride; a number of slides and tube slides including the Kamikaze, the Waverider and the eleven metre half-pipe Sidewinder; a 50 m swimming-pool, as well as a ‘natural’ swimming pool surrounded by sand that is more like a lake, but incorporates water-slides.
For younger children there is the Splash Castle where children can climb and empty water from the bucket of the tower, the Splash (Splesj) Express which takes passengers on a trip through the waterpark and last year’s addition, a fun-filled, nature-inspired Waterplay splash pad.
The focus, maintains Slager, is on social interaction.
“There are a large number of slides and things to do but there is also a focus on people sitting together on the grass, having a great time, going for a swim, chatting with the family.”
Splash Waterpark is adjacent to Molecaten’s self-catered accommodation which makes a difference when marketing the theme-park.
“We do attract visitors from outside, but mainly visitors come from the self-catered accommodation park itself. The proposition towards marketing is therefore a bit different from the normal one.”
In the Netherlands, an increasingly symbiotic relationship is evolving between hotels/self-catered accommodation and their associated theme parks and activities.
Slager, while wholeheartedly enthusiastic about the leisure industry, is nevertheless clear-sighted about the increasing challenge of competition, climate, and the difficulty of attracting visitors.
“In the old days we used to attract more people from outside, but what we’ve seen in Holland in the last years is that the Park has become more regional; more local.”
“People tend to travel less and less to have a nice day out.”
Molecaten has capitalised on this shift by offering membership which, Slager explains, has become a significant revenue stream.
“We have a steady flow of local people who have a recurring subscription and can visit the park as often as they like, which gives us a nice steady cash flow …then we try to expand on that … by trying to get the schools to visit the park for school projects and small school holidays, and encourage them to return in the future with their family and friends.”
The other main marketing drive is via virtual platforms such as YouTube and online social media.
”While it’s great if people from outside come and buy a ticket to enter the water theme-park, our focus is always a bit more on fulfilling our self-catered accommodation, which makes it easier for us to make decisions which are not attached to getting in customers.”
Does the sheer size of the park and the variety of attractions on offer keep the competition at bay?
“Of course, it can always be bigger, but it is one of the largest, and we try every few years to bring in new attractions – to stay ahead of the competition and to attract people to visit.”
“You need to keep investing in order to impress your customers.”
“The competition is not other water-parks, it is the rest of the attractions industry and everything which focuses on taking customer time away from our water-park.”
Slager feels that in recent years the competition has grown more than could have been anticipated.
“Even the garden centres where people buy their plants for spring and the time they spend in the garden is a competitor for us, because the money spent on plants and the time spent working in the garden could have been spent at our water-park or in our self-catered accommodation.”
Another challenge entirely out of his control is the weather. The park only reaches capacity when the temperature in Holland is above 25 degrees.
“… It’s rather sad to walk through the Park when the temperature is less than 20 degrees, because there’s no-one there. So, it’s very volatile, but again, because of our self-catered accommodation next to it, it’s viable to keep it in the market.”
Slager maintains that the key to competing successfully with other attractions starts with the product itself. It is important to create something which is genuinely attractive in its own right. Thus, in 2014, the park added a collection of child-oriented play pad attractions by Canadian aquaplay specialist, Waterplay. The result is a safe, fun, nature-inspired waterplay zone with tall grasses, flower showers and friendly insect characters.
“If you never disappoint a customer you will get busier and busier all the time.”
“I think word-of-mouth advertising is still the best advertising there is.”
Slager contends that public expectations are changing. Nowadays, people are willing to travel to reach the big, top-of-the-bill experiences in a way that was not the case in the past.
“If I take myself as an example, if I want to see an opera, I’ll go to Milan or to Rome. If I want to see ballet, I’ll fly to Moscow. If I want to see Cats the Musical I’ll fly to London.”
In short, either an attraction has to be at the summit of its category – the sort of experience on everyone’s bucket list, where people will travel long distances and be prepared to queue for peerless thrill rides or it has to settle for being the best local attraction it can be, where visitors come for a day out several times a year, perhaps buying a membership and travelling for an hour at the most.
“We cannot compete with the real big theme parks which are this bucket-list experience, like Blackpool or Tivoli in Copenhagen, ” he says.
His feeling is that, as the emphasis continues to shift to the importance of local, regional attractions, people who are not staying in the self-catering accommodation will become a more significant proportion of the customer base.
“We will continue to expand, ” he says. “We will continue to monitor the needs of our customers – both from the self-catered park and from outside – and to see that we accommodate them as well as possible..”