Journey to the Center of the World
When I announced that I was taking team Londonlaunch to Center Parcs for a day (and night) of fun-fuelled and action-packed adventure, the excitement was instantly palpable. In fact, so much so that it's safe to say we couldn't have been more up for it if we'd have been off to Jurassic World...
Set deep in a dense forest, seemingly miles from anywhere, yet just off the M1 and almost as close to London as some 'London' airports, the brand spanking new and suitably sparkling Center Parcs Woburn is a world class destination, away from it all but a lot closer than you think...The perfect corporate group get-away.
From the minute you arrive, you get the feeling you're somewhere different, somewhere special. The American style and quality of the helpful, 'bending over backwards' approach to service is immediately apparent as the team at the front gate extend a warm and enthusiastic welcome before sending us on our way with a resort map and an enormous sense of excitement, which is especially impressive early on a Monday morning. But, of course, there are no Monday mornings here because you're in a magic forest where Mondays just aren't a thing (although the super fast omni-present broadband means you're always in touch with the outside world when you need to be, which is essential from a corporate (or teenage!) perspective - particularly when the rest of the world is suffering from what is commonly known as a 'Monday').
Center Parcs Woburn is a beautifully landscaped and manicured resort, despite only having been open for a year. A common misconception is that this large-scale six hundred and twenty five lodge resort with over a hundred activities would tear a gigantic four hundred acre hole in this former commercial Bedfordshire forest, urbanising and commercialising an undulating outpost of the Duke of Bedfordshire's magnificent estate. Well, nothing could be further from the truth! In fact, what preceded the 'build' stage of Center Parcs Woburn was a meticulous two year conservation program in which 20,000 weak and ailing trees were cut down and two hundred thousand were re-planted. It reminded me of my Grandfather's simple mantra during the original restoration of the Alton Towers estate - "chop down one, plant two"...times ten! What's more, an over-crowded and moribund forest has been brought back to life and now thrives with fern, bracken and a myriad of beautifully wild meadow plants such as Foxgloves and lots of others that I don't know the name of! Not to mention the ten rare species of lizards and the abundant wildlife which has moved back in as a result of the development. It seems that everyone's a winner in Woburn Forest! There's even a sacred Buddhist tree to seek out...(not gonna tell you where it is though!)
The lodges themselves are substantially and aesthetically constructed in stone and timber and are beautifully appointed. There's no feeling of crowding or being too close to your neighbour and many of the views are stunning. Even the vast roof of 'the Venue' event and conference space (I'll come on to that later) looks like a pretty meadowy field, as it's flat roof is cleverly sunk into the undulating landscape and covered in a rare wild grass. Yes, absolutely everything has been thought of and back-of-house is exactly where it should be...err....back of house!
Our Executive four bedroom Lodge was nothing short of palatial. With four en-suite bathrooms, an expansive, Uber-modern open plan living room, dining room and kitchen as well as a separate games room and sauna, five of us comfortably co-existed without any feeling of being on top of each other (in a good way). The Executive lodges are light and airy, with balconies overlooking the lake and, because of the rolling topography, you get the impression that you're nestled amongst the treetops in a luxurious treehouse...
In case you don't already know, you generally get around Center Parcs on a bike. And they literally have thousands to choose from. Singles, tandems, bikes with bucket seats, bikes with trailers, hell, they even have mobility scooters - take your pick! There's nothing more liberating that razzing round with your gang on a bike either - literally like the Goonies (Hey you guys!)
After a lovely relaxed Al-fresco lunch at Cafe Rouge in the village (there are several restaurants to choose from, ranging from Gastro pub to gourmet Oriental as well as coffee shops, designer clothes stores, a multi-faceted take-away restaurant (kind of like Deliverance) and even a toy shop) we hopped on our bikes and raced (no really, we actually raced - just try and resist it) past the lake, past the sandy beach and, tantalisingly, past the Pancake House (after a quick pit-stop as it was Jayde's feeding time) to our first organised activity - the Aerial Adventure.
The Aerial Adventure is nothing short of awe-inspiring! Confronted with what can best be described as a new-build Ewok Village with multiple platforms, ledges, rope ladders, tight-ropes, and spectacular zip wires - we really did feel like we'd arrived on Endor! It's important to note that, although the aerial obstacle course is undeniably leg-wobblingly high, the cable-car-esque safety mechanism is flawless. At all times you're attached to a sort of sliding safety harness which you automatically drag around the course with you and at one point, as if just to tempt fate, I leaned back over a high precipice and let the harness take my (considerable) weight. Yup, it really works. If I had to single out a highlight though, it would have to be the final zip wire which rises from the highest point at the top of the tower and traverses the lake into the forest beyond. And it's fast. Really fast!
We then hopped back on our bikes and rode on down to the sensational Subtropical Swimming Paradise - a giant pleasure dome filled with a million pounds worth of tropical plants, a giant wave pool, a lazy river, four huge water slides, a crazy fun fast-flowing rapids river (which goes out of the building and has been known to eat Olivia's bikini top!) and even a poolside Starbucks. Literally hours of fun and a superb all-weather complex.
The evenings at Center Parcs are really fun too. We had dinner at one of almost twenty on site restaurants or bars, Huck's American Bar and Grill which was big, brash and 'boothy' (everything tastes better in a booth!), followed by late night ten pin bowling at the luminescent Leisure Bowl, complete with the obligatory funny names and one team member who really needed the bumpers up (yes, it was Jayde again but, of course, this is illegal so we didn't allow it). In another scare, I came dangerously close to coming second, but that's also illegal and we didn't allow that either.
Endless fun aside, what was instantly apparent at Center Parcs Woburn was its corporate credentials. A world class and state of the art events venue, conveniently called 'The Venue' which can comfortably house up to 600 delegates theatre style (with an abundance of excellent audio-visual capabilities), over 100 team building activities from Segway riding to archery and just about everything else in between (tennis, badminton, orienteering, climbing etc etc) and nearly seven hundred woodland lodges to accommodate everyone in style.
But above all, it all comes back to the impeccable and highly attentive service. The whole experience was punctuated by Ryan Gray and his excellent team - popping up sporadically throughout our stay to ensure we were being looked after (we really were!). Ryan even oversaw a covert operation after we had left because, yes you've guessed it, Jayde left something behind. Not only did he find the missing item but he also discovered another missing item that we didn't even know was missing! Now that's service!
So, for the ultimate corporate experience - from conferencing to team-building, you'll have to go a long way to find anything half as good (or fun) as Center Parcs' new flagship resort in Woburn. And running at over 97% occupancy, year round, it seems that lots of people agree! If you do decide to check it out, then you can be safe in the knowledge that many of the world's top brands are regularly bringing their teams and clients here - from PWC to Virgin Atlantic, even Theo Paphitis is in on the act, so you're in great company.
Oh, and remember. What happens in Center Parcs, stays....on facebook - so come here, have fun, and let your team tell the world how great your company really is! It'll go a long way, guaranteed.
To find out more about a short corporate break and staging an event of any size at Center Parcs, click here and speak to Ryan Gray. (...and Mr Gray will see you now...)