15 April 2024

Reviewing Center Parcs Crisis Communications over its closure decision for the Queen’s Funeral

The background to the Center Parcs Crisis Communications situation

Center Parcs is a high-end, all enclosed, holiday park group that has a presence in the UK and Europe. The brand has historically been criticised for capitalising on the narrow holiday options for parents in the UK around school holidays, by charging high prices for bookings. The brand charges for accommodation at its woodland based parks and this also comes with free access to swimming facilities but the majority of further activities such as tree ropes, sporting facilities and wildlife sessions are charged on top.

The majority of visitors to Center Parcs (in my own experience) is middle-class to high-earning families.

Center Parcs approach to the Queen’s funeral brought on its Crisis

When Queen Elizabeth died on Thursday 8th September 2022 the UK went in to 10 days of mourning. A number of brands (quite rightly) shut down their pro-active marketing and communications campaigns and some issued statements passing on condolences to the surviving members of the Royal Family. A number of companies were criticised for the tone and approach taken in their messaging.

From 10 Yetis crisis communications perspective we advised all clients that they should only consider issuing or making a statement if they had a Royal Warrant or had a direct connection or relationship with the Royal Family (for instance, some clients hold The Queen’s Award and may wish to reflect on their meeting her and make a comment accordingly).

When the Royal Family announced that the funeral would be held on Monday 19th September, it was also announced that companies did not have to close but it would be classed as a Bank Holiday. A number of supermarkets and high profile UK retailers made the decision to close their stores as a mark of respect and also so that their staff could watch or attend the funeral.

Center Parcs announced that it too would be closing its holiday parks on the day of the funeral and that guests would be asked to leave and then return the day after. The company outlined that it was doing this for its staff. Center Parcs would have no financial gain from making this decision and the reality is that Monday is its usually its quietest footfall day because it is when the majority of its customers leave and or arrive. The company also made it clear that they would reimburse consumers for the day that they would lose.

The public and media reaction to the Center Parcs funeral decision

As soon as the company made the announcement, and in line with modern society trends, the outraged reaction was trending on social media platforms such as Twitter. In my opnion, the company had failed to take into account a few different factors.

1. Many families were paying substantial amounts of money to get together for the first time since the pandemic and they could not easily re-book to find dates that everyone could do.

2. The company had been tone deaf to the thoughts of its own workforce, many of who were also taking to social platforms to explain that they wanted to work on that day.

3. The audience that most uses Center Parcs is the very same audience that the mainstream media is trying to grab the attention of. The story presented the perfect opportunity for media to drag back lost audiences by really going big on the situation.

4. Prior to the announcement there was already a growing feeling of rage across the UK caused by the loss of an iconic leader. The rage had slowly bubbled to the surface through brands getting their Royal condolence messaging and tone slightly wrong along with the general sadness and confusion of “what happens next”.

In my mind, these four points led to the Center Parcs story getting escalated to a far greater level than the company could have ever expected.

The Communications and Public Relations perspective

It is very clear that the C-Suite members who made this decision did not consult with its communications team, or worse still, did consult with the comms people but chose to ignore their advice. The PR team would have known that this was the wrong decision.

Within moments of the announcement being made, the crisis communications playbook will have had to be opened. What happened next followed the tried and tested route of successful crisis communications. The company reversed its decision and communicated it as widely as possible.

I personally feel that the company could have acted quicker in announcing its reversal and there were a few further hiccoughs along the way where visitors were initially told that they should stay in their accommodation during the funeral, but again, this was reversed and is now being attributed to a mix up via its social media channels.

From a comms perspective, there should have been one clear message announcing the reversal of the decision and then no further update other than the logistics of what will happen during the service.

We have reviewed our position regarding the very small number of guests who are not due to depart on Monday and we will be allowing them to stay on our villages rather than having to leave and return on Tuesday.”

It is interesting to note that the company never officially (that I have seen) apologised and nor did it update its website with any official statement that contained an apology. I would speculate that the reason they didn’t apologise was because it could be seen to be admitting liability and have a legal consequence around refund requests.

The reason for not putting the official media statement on its website could (and this is pure speculation) be for search engine optimisation reasons and not wanting something so negative floating around the Google Search Engine Results Pages (SERPS) for year to come. As is often the case in modern crisis communications situations, the actual crisis itself can be over relatively quickly, but the online ramifications can last for years (moving the negative articles off page one of Google).

It is very much my opinion that this was not a public relations led crisis communications issue, it was very much a corporate failure.

The results of the Center Parcs Crisis Communications situation

I believe that the crisis communications situation will only damage Center Parcs in the very short term and only from a reputation point of view rather than having a financial consequence. Center Parcs is owned by a Canadian investment company called Brookfield properties so there will be no, immediate, impact on any share price (as they are not listed on any stock market).

The very nature of the Center Parcs offering means it is always going to be in demand by families and this demand is very unlikely to have been dented by the Queen’s funeral miscommunication.

The negativity floating around Google for brand searches will always be there to see but I think we can expect some fairly meaty public relations campaigns over the next six months, aimed at drowning out any negative stories and pushing them down the SERPS. Briliant news for for the PR industry.

Crisis Comms Brand Risk Score: 9/10

Crisis Communications Management Score: 8/10

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