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Interview with Alain Dominique Perrin, Founder of Original Camping

After spending most of his career in the luxury world, where he achieved the position of Chairman of the Board of Directors at Cartier International and Cartier S.A., and CEO of the Richemont Group, Alain-Dominique Perrin decided to invest his talent, energy and convictions in a new adventure: camping. In 2008, he took over the Domaine des Moulins, that is located on the coast and has a "Wellness" focus. It received the supreme distinction of 5-stars. Just a few kilometers from there, the entrepreneur also took over Camping du Midi (in Barbâtre). This property was renamed Domaine Le Midi and climbed the classification from two to four stars with an offer based on Sports. The two properties are part of the Original Camping signature, begun by Alain Dominique Perrin. Finally, two other campgrounds have completed this offer: Camping de la Bosse, on the Ile de Noirmoutier (2 stars) and Camping La Franqui, in Leucate (2 stars).

Can you describe the Original Camping concept?

When we created Original Camping six years ago, the concept was totally new: we had decided to replace the traditional mobile homes with high quality large tents, able to accommodate couples and families. For the launch of this new product, we wanted to do a pretty strong marketing operation, which is why we chose to reproduce Native American teepees. This had yet to be done as a commercial product, we met with enormous success in the media throughout Europe, and in English our concept was called “glamping”. Over the years we enriched our range of tents, with increasingly luxurious and sophisticated models using wood and canvas. We also introduced more upscale services.

Six years after the launch of the concept, what are your conclusions about this activity?

To me, the Original Camping adventure is twofold. On the one hand, the concept has met with great success since its creation and we are making progress each year. Nonetheless, we had a difficult year due to deserved negative criticism about or service, but we responded quickly by doing what needed to be done, and we have pulled things back in order since then. Nonetheless, there continues to be a negative aspect to our relationship with towns. Some try to take a very high additional commission on the rent we pay to the Office National des Forêts (which owns the land) although they provide no services or interventions in exchange. 


What do you think are the essential things that need to be respected for an upscale camping operation?

I think that the word camping is not correct for this activity and that we must refer to “outdoor hotels”. While we provide accommodations that may sometimes look like big tents and chalets with a canvas roof, we are not really in the camping business because of the services we provide. We offer spas, swimming pools, massages, bars, restaurants, mini-golf, as well as childcare and entertainment every night. We are not very different from what ClubMed was a few years ago. The quality of our services is thus the key to the upscale outdoor hotel business. We have kept between 15% to 20% of the traditional lots at our locations, but the rates are high due to the quality of available services.


As upscale camping develops in the sector, and services get stronger, what are you doing to stand out among the competition?

The competition does not worry me, I even consider it to be healthy. In order to face it, we are simply banking on our assets such as the location of our mobile homes on the beach, our six years of experience in the upscale outdoor hotel business, and our good e-reputation thanks to positive comments left by guests on the Internet. Naturally we maintain the quality of our equipment, with regular renovation programs, and each year we launch a new product at our properties. In 2014, we thus built 27 Infinity Lodges, a new type of chalet on two levels with a room and a big terrace on the first floor, a kitchen, a living room and two children’s rooms on the ground floor. This new product was very successful with clients that year. The level of luxury we offer is still quite rare at campgrounds. Moreover, one of our primary assets is that we went to look for foreign clientele who now represent an important share of our total clientele mix.


What is your customer profile?

I will answer this question by starting with an anecdote: the parking lots at our campgrounds are pretty representative with what looks like a competition for who has the nicest car. I would thus say that our customer profile is fairly Bobo with an unexpected and strong buying power. They are often well to do thanks to their profession, as well as independent, and are aged 25 to 45 years.

Thanks to our major efforts at important foreign trade fairs dedicated to the sector and to our web site (available in English and German), our clients came from all over Europe. Today, 65% of our clientele is foreign, with, in order of importance, many Dutch, Germans, British, and a few Italians. Attracting international arrivals is very important to us and we are using the means to do it, with a sizeable commercial and marketing dynamic.

How do you manage your distribution on the different channels, especially on Internet?

The distribution channels we use are essentially through Internet and fairs. We also go through some specialized websites but as little as possible, and it remains rare. We also do one or two operations each year through Vente-privé, particularly during off-peak seasons, which has been successful. Vente-privé is not a discount platform, but rather a site that makes good deals available to clientele through very strong marketing.


After opening four properties in France, do you plan to develop your concept further in the years to come?

We had planned to develop the concept with the opening of new properties, but considering the current fiscal, legal and political situation in France, we preferred to slow down a bit and wait. The tax burden is growing and increasingly instable with regular implementation new taxes or elimination of old ones. For now, we have four campgrounds and we continue to invest each year to improve our existing infrastructures, but we are not going to develop new projects. I remain wary and prefer to wait and see how the context evolves before entering into any other adventures.


More generally, what kind of potential is there for the luxury outdoor hotel business in France?

I believe that the upscale outdoor hotel business has a good future wherein the quality of midscale hotels at holiday destinations has dropped considerably in recent years. While this is not true for all properties, most of the supply has not been sufficiently renovated and has aged quite a bit. We have thus made a very important foray into this sector of mid-to-high priced holiday accommodations by offering very comfortable bungalows with real services.


With an axis that is more upscale and luxury, a broader diversity of services and equipment at properties, does the outdoor hotel supply tend to resemble traditional accommodations?

I believe that the outdoor hotel business now surpasses the traditional vacation hotel supply. While the quality of the material is the same, and sometimes better at our campgrounds, we also offer a level of relaxation and conviviality that are inexistent at hotels.

For me the vacation hotel supply at the seaside, in the countryside, on a lake or elsewhere now has other concerns, whereas quality campgrounds that are sprouting up on the market are increasingly taking home the pot thanks to the charm that the others lack.


What do you expect for this season of summer 2014 that is just beginning?

The summer season is set and we have no vacancies for July and August. Now we need to fill September, which currently has an occupancy rate of only 40%, but that already isn’t bad.

The great weakness we run into each year is more the period from June 24 to July 6, and we nonetheless had more guests in 2014 than previously. 

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