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Interview with Christophe Alaux Chairman of the management board & CEO, Vacanceselect Group "What is happening in hospitality and retail is also happening in camping."

Graduate of Sciences Po Paris and Harvard Business School, Christophe Alaux joined the Groupe Vacanselect in April 2016 after 8 years at AccorHotels and 5 years at Carrefour. A look at the changes made and projects to come.

Vacanceselect changed its name recently, what is the brand strategy behind this? What messages do you wish to convey?

After the acquisition of Selectcamp in June 2018 and the acquisition of AMAC in December, we decided to change the group's name. Our group consisted of 7 or 8 brands and none of them corresponded to the name of our company. It was important to find a strong and unifying brand given the high stakes we face in distribution.

We conducted a study that showed that Vacalians is not a trademark. We have therefore decided to make Vacanceselect our commercial brand for distribution and our loyalty program My Club Vacanceselect as well as the marketplace Vacanceselect.com for independent properties. It made no sense to have 8 brands in each of our markets.

Until now, with each acquisition it was not clear where to categorize the accommodations, now we have a clear vision. For the very high-end segment, we have AMAC for example, and the other types of offers are also clearly reflected in our brand portfolio.

Portefeuille marques Vacanselect

This allows us to consider the consolidation of the acquisitions of our campsites by unit, small, or large groups.

We are the only European platform organised like this. They are either monobrand, or they keep a multi-brand showcase that broadens their internet visibility. Vacanceselect offers a distribution platform and focuses its resources and investments on this unique tool.

You have significantly developed the supply over the last 18 months, quels sont vos objectifs en termes de volume ?

When I arrived two years ago 2 as the head of the group, I made a triple observation:

We needed to strengthen our distribution in Northern Europe. We were too French with Tohapi and too English with Canvas. The acquisition of Vacances Select and Canvas offers us new markets. We are now walking on both legs, namely our source and destination countries.

For the Tohapi product, upscaling created a lot of value. As everywhere, premiumisation and the development of services are where the demand is and where natural growth is most important. The market is moving upwards (+5% growth while growth is 2/3% in the other ranges). What happens in the hotel and retail sector is also happening with respect to camping.
Canvas allows us to occupy the market that opened up when Club Med moved upmarket. It is a club product with accommodations, aquatic areas, entertainment, children's clubs...

"Canvas allows us to occupy the market left behind by Club Med when it climbed in range." 

We also acquired eight AMAC sites, which gave us access to the club segment. These accommodations have swimming pools, entertainment, kiddie clubs…. With the quality of resorts.

Vacanceselect

We have pursued our acquisition strategy, which allows us to have inventory and avoid being disrupted by platforms. We must control our inventory by having our own campsites, partners and by developing the franchise. The Vacanceselect platform allows us to control our distribution, in less than two years, we have gone from less than 50% direct distribution to more than 70%.

I do not want to repeat the mistakes made by supermarkets, the hotel industry missed the mark of online distribution fifteen years ago, the story could have been different. I also witnessed Amazon's arrival when I was working in mass retail. I've seen it happen twice, I don't want to see the same scenario for camping products.

"I don't want to repeat the mistakes made by mass distribution."

What are the destinations you wish to prioritize for growth and why?

For our product, the receiving markets are France, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Croatia. Our development priorities are therefore there. We are very happy to have launched the franchise in Spain, I am really in the process of building a European platform. 

Even if we move up upmarket, we sell holidays for everyone. We have different levels of service and different prices. I want to keep this popular hobby affordable. 50% of French people do not go on holiday, 25% go to second homes with their families. Of the remaining 25% of holidaymakers, camping is the leading holiday accommodation product in France.

Vacanceselect

Whether in Spain, Portugal or France, we offer both top-of-the-range and mid-range products. The product makes it possible to come with a tent and stay for a few euros. Cohabitation of holiday goers from different socio-professional categories is not a problem. Campers choose this type of accommodation because they like to stay at a campsite. Going on a camping holiday is a positive choice and not by default. At a campsite, there is no judgement, you disconnect, you spend time with your family. One of our challenges is to grow awareness of this type of accommodation.

Our guests increasingly take advantage of their stays to discover the environs. When you stay at the Dune du Pila for example, you can also visit the Bassin d'Arcachon, or even the Châteaux du Haut Médoc.

9 months ago you launched franchise contrasts, could you explain the development of this type of partnership?

It's just the beginning. I favor quality over quantity. We are launching a new offer that we want to secure. It is necessary to have owners who understand what franchising is all about. It's a kind of branded co-ownership. Most of them have already had 2/3 of their franchises in hotels or in distribution. A third party knows the camping product but not about franchising. When we have conventions, it brings a added value to our exchanges with this panel of different profiles.

I remain very vigilant about the development of the franchise, we must preserve the quality of the service, the product and our brand image.

Can you give us a progress report on Cap 2020 ?

I launched this action plan when I arrived in 2017; we have made very good progress as by 2019 we will have reached our Cap 2020 plan in terms of turnover, results and growth in supply. We are currently preparing a new version of the plan for the following 3 years.
All these milestones have been reached, thanks to the teams and the support of our shareholders, including the founding families Vacanceselect and Vacalians, who sit on the group's board. We have undertaken the renovation of the website, changes in terms of human resources, an IT plan.

We are the most beautiful European camping platform, not only the first but also the most beautiful. We have managed to become campground operators, franchisor, marketplace, distributor. Our recent acquisitions allow us to have very little exposure to Brexit.

What is your customer profile?

Our source markets are France and Germany. Then England and the Netherlands. We are also targeting niche clientele from Denmark, who are significant spenders drawn to sunny climes. Poland is another target market as it is a major source country due to the size of its population .

"Our core target is still families with children seeking conviviality that is reasonably priced and wish to control their spending."

In our accommodations, everything is included except food. There is a wide range of services available: location, accommodations, aquatic centre, spas, beaches, sports activities, restaurants, children's clubs, games. A good way to control spending.

We have seen an internationalisation of our customers on a European level. We now welcome 30% Dutch, compared to less than 5% two years ago.

Although I do not want to develop a product that excludes, I want to maintain our core range for our historical customers, I have noticed a change in our customer mix. We welcome more and more executive families, which corresponds to the upgrading of our offers.

Vacanceselect

We are also seeing more and more seniors during the off-season. They have more time and can access a cheaper product. This allows them to come more often. They are also accompanied by their grandchildren, because let's not forget that the camping product is ideal for children.

More and more "tribes" of reconstituted families are also being welcomed.

We have noticed that our customers leave the campsite more and more often, they still spend two thirds of their time on site, but tend to make more and more excursions. We are able to offer environments that are rich in discoveries, which is increasingly important for our guests.

Another trend observed is that our customers are increasingly using services that are closer to those of the hotel industry, such as cleaning when they arrive and leave, for example.

Jobs requiring direct contact with the public are demanding at campgrounds and very seasonal. How do you recruit? Do you develop the loyalty of your employees to provide customer service that meets up to your standards?

That is probably our biggest challenge. Our business is very seasonal, the season begins in April and ends at the end of September. 25 to 30% of our seasonal workers stay for more than one season.

"I believe recruiting criteria must convey good values."

Upgrading, premiumisation, development of services all require personnel to deliver services. It is important to recruit the right people. Servuction exists in campsites.

For me, recruitment criteria must convey the right values. We want a jovial, easy going staff, with know-how, and a passion. We sell leisure time, so customer contact is crucial.

Know-how is important to satisfy customer expectations, for example, in housekeeping. We have created the Vacanceselect Academy in which we offer training courses either very technical or on services and the digitalisation of services. We have created this academy to ensure harmonised service and to make brand identifiers known.

It's a long-term job, and it must be developed for the history of the brand and so that customers understand what we want to do.

Overall, customer satisfaction is good, and we pay close attention to customer feedback.

What are your primary goals for 2019?

Integrate the exceptional acquisitions of 2018 well. We are in a very strong growth period. We must consolidate our foundations and simplify our organization. We have one more office in the Netherlands. It includes IT integration, organizational processes, finance, purchasing, etc., but also the harmonization of our customer acquisition strategy and the implementation of our loyalty platform.

I will relaunch the planning of our 3-year objectives for the group since we will have achieved the objectives set for 2020 by 2019.

Finally, I would like to continue to look at growth opportunities.

The world of camping is close to that of retail and hotels. We encounter issues of brand, distribution, pricing, revenue management, recruitment. We also sold our real estate in order to better redeploy ourselves in operations.

Our tourism product is like any other. We are fortunate to have a growing market that allows us to take calculated risks. We nurture our core customer base, which is the European middle class, to develop our market share.

I think it is imperative that we be more agile in digitizing. Our holiday campsite brands are not yet strong enough, but we can rely on a good Vacanceselect distribution brand.

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