Clever marketing? Price bickering? Media bashing? Here's why Center Parcs Longford Forest, Ireland’s newest holiday park, was trending all weekend long.
We roll up to the welcome window of the entrance lodge in the car and a tiny wasp greets me on the nose. It is a kerfuffle that involves the wasp-avoidance dance that continues throughout the weekend. We are told it is due to the recent construction work and the problem is under control, but these little stingers were a tiny price to pay for the beauty of Ireland’s newest holiday park, Center Parcs Longford Forest.
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Think acres of spindly woodland and winding paths through alpine lodges and you are on the right track. Our high-spec, three-bedroom lodge was nestled among them with a patio, bike park rack and yellow brick path leading up to the front door. The site itself includes a man-made lake around which many of the 100 plus activities take place, with a beach-like shore, activity centre and the show-stopping subtropical swimming paradise – a futuristic waterpark heated to over 29 degrees, 365 days a year.
Sting in the tail
Far from the yellow brick road and on the online world, conversation around Center Parcs kept coming back to the price. That and a few barbed comments about those who'd been selected to go on the 'freebie' weekend.
The social media wasps were out in force, stinging over the unfairness of it all. “Will any of the media getting freebies this weekend mention the exorbitant prices for all the activities? Dublin prices come to Longford,” wrote one person on Twitter.
“I’m beginning to think the #centerparksireland launch has spectacularly backfired on them. They’ve actually summed up bloggers. Tweet nice sh*t for anyone who’ll give you sh*t for free,” declared another Twitter commenter waspishly.
The criticism continued online throughout the weekend.
“Sort of surprised not to see the #ad or #sp in any posts when it was quite clearly a 'celeb family' weekend to promote the place. No doubt that whoever is in charge of advertising standards might be sending a few letters next week that will be ignored!!” wrote Anthony, buzzing with the injustice of it all.
Welcome to Marketing 2019 where online exposure is king and those with platforms to springboard a company's message are favoured for press trips such as this.
But how different is it really from the travel reviews in any of the Sunday papers? PR companies engage (usually) journalists to visit a destination and hope they will share their experience with readers, viewers or listeners so they can get the gist of what it is really like.
As long as it includes useful (honest) information that makes interesting content for readers, everyone is happy. The PR gets exposure for their client and the reader gets details, entertainment and engaging content. The journalist might get lucky with a visit to somewhere nice but believe me, those trips are few and far between and not without personal associated costs.
Perhaps the issue, in this case, was the merging of bloggers and journalists. Do bloggers have the same level of training and integrity as journalists?
Have the lines been blurred a little too much?
"I have a responsibility to be completely honest when it comes to letting my readers know what something is really like."
For me, I was invited to the launch. The brand had no input into what content I chose to post. I didn’t have to get approval from them when it came to posting anything. This means it doesn’t count as an advert nor does it need to be disclosed as such.
As a journalist for over 15 years, I understand that while also feeling very grateful, I have a responsibility to be completely honest when it comes to letting my readers know what something is really like – my reputation as a credible journalist relies on this and it is one of the first things I learnt in my training.
There is no doubt that this is an expensive holiday destination which also attracted some of the snippy conversations online. Center Parcs is priced like any hotel room or flight, in that when demand is low it is cheaper. For a three-day weekend, the cheapest price available for a two-bedroom lodge is €299. The same cost during the October mid-term break is around €1,199. (For comparison, a three day weekend in Fota Island in Cork is €465 for a two-bedroom self-catering lodge and €1,020 for the same type of accommodation during the mid-term break.)
A four-bedroom lodge, which includes hot-tub and snooker table), is around €4,000 for the same period.
The activities are extra and bike rental is €35 per adult for three days and about €25 for a child. You can, of course, bring your own bikes to the car-free park.
It is €37 for a three-hour spa session in the thermal suite which includes a pretty outdoor pool (I’d highly recommend this). Tree-trekking is from €26 per person, Teddy-bear making is €27.50 per child, 45 mins bowling is €24 per lane and a three-hour stint in the creche (3-36 months) is €28.
There are restaurants, sweet shops, a sports bar, a pancake house, supermarket and a take-away. There are playgrounds, safe cycle tracks, kayaks, archery, laser combat, pottery painting, wall-climbing, den building, wizard school, tennis and aerial tree-trecking that ends in a dazzling zip line dash across the lake.
"This is a well-oiled machine, staff are highly trained, the spec is high."
In short, there is plenty do to, it is done to a high quality - the company spent €233 million and four years completing the project - and there is a great emphasis on family togetherness.
This is a well-oiled machine, staff are highly trained, the spec is high, it is spotless with good wheelchair accessibility and every small detail has been thought of to make this a seamlessly fun weekend.
“A weekend there is the price of a weeks holiday abroad, why would you bother?” wrote one Twitter user.
I'd argue there is a lot to be said for saving on flights, packing up the car and bringing your own bikes, boots and a big food shop, which can make a trip like this more affordable.
"Posh Mosney in Longford. No thanks. " wrote another, ignoring perhaps how beautiful this part of the country really is.
The overall vibe throughout the launch weekend was positive and optimistic. This is a place that has created jobs and hopefully will encourage more people into the Midlands region. To mark its opening there was a big celebration. There were fireworks and magicians and welcome packs.
"I'm sure it might have grated to have your feed bombarded with pictures of happy families zip-lining and enjoying the fireworks but the company set out to create an impact."
Center Parcs was out to impress a tough crowd who they knew would be all over social media about their experiences. Generous, certainly. Brave, definitely.
I'm sure it might have grated to have your feed bombarded with pictures of happy families zip-lining and enjoying the fireworks but the company set out to create an impact - this is new marketing 101.
Most of this weekend’s guests felt lucky to be there. But they were also free to post pictures of the actual wasps, any cracks in the pavement or to shout about slow service or whatever else they wanted. The overall picture might have been sickeningly sweet, but this is a company that has invested a lot on this holiday destination being as successful as possible - including €3 million on marketing and advertising in Ireland.
You could tell there was a huge effort to make sure all guests - this weekend and beyond - were going to enjoy themselves.
My family and I had a lovely time. I particularly enjoyed the spa, but the service in the restaurants was somewhat slow. It is a stunning setting but there is the distinct feeling that you are in a UK-focused chain, cruise-style joviality. The place is really clean and the quality of the finishes in the lodges and the pool area are of a high standard.
"Overall, it is a place where it is easy to have fun while also enjoying some intergenerational togetherness."
The cycle tracks are really safe (and great fun!). The activities are expensive, but seeing your partner or mother or little one balancing among the trees or shooting a bow and arrow is worth it for many. There are no kids clubs or entertainment in the evenings which could lead to a deficit in personality, but then again, I’m someone who enjoys the crazy signs in Club Med, so each to their own.
Overall, it is a place where it is easy to have fun while also enjoying some intergenerational togetherness - it is rare to find somewhere that caters for that type of family break. You can self-cater and bring your own bikes if you are concerned about the prices of the activities.
However, to sum up my Center Parc's experience, my favourite part was watching the slightly less filtered versions of Ireland's best-known TV and radio personalities lose their sh*t with their kids in the playground.
If you are heading to Longford any time soon, my tips are to wear flats, bring blackout blinds if you have young children (the curtains are light). And, crucially, manage your children’s expectations before you get there because ours wanted to do EVERYTHING.
Set aside plenty of time for the spa and bring spray for the wasps.
Unfortunately, there'll always be some wasps you can just never get rid of.
Images via Center Parcs
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