Center Parcs, a household name across the UK, operates six picturesque holiday villages: Whinfell Forest in Cumbria, Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire, Longleat Forest in Wiltshire, Woburn Forest in Bedfordshire, Elveden Forest in Suffolk, and Longford Forest in Ireland.

With approximately 11,000 employees, Center Parcs warmly hosts more than two million guests annually across its villages, boasting an average occupancy rate of 96%.

Unsung operations

With a fleet comprising over 13,500 bicycles, around 2,500 of which are used by its housekeeping department, and 413 vehicles, the holiday company relies heavily on its transportation assets for daily village operations. 

Overseeing the management of this diverse fleet is Chris Bland, the group fleet and transport manager. Assuming the role in June 2021 amid the challenges of the pandemic, Bland navigates the complexities of fleet management with expertise.

Prior to his tenure at Center Parcs Woburn Forest, Bland gained valuable experience in the public and third sectors, providing him with a comprehensive understanding of village operations before assuming his current role.

“Our fleet at Center Parcs is unique, with bicycles constituting the majority, making up approximately 85% of our company fleet,” Bland shares. While he oversees the motorised fleet, bicycle maintenance falls under the purview of village teams.

When joining the group, Bland’s main priorities were to standardise, simplify and modernise the fleet and its fleet management.

To achieve this, he knew behavioural and attitude changes would be needed.

Bland notes, “I started by improving working relationships and communication with our fleet management companies to ensure the basics were being done well.”

He explains that the significance of the vehicle fleet at Center Parcs often goes unnoticed. “This is partly because we prioritise ensuring our day-to-day operations seamlessly integrate with our guests’ experiences.”

But the vehicle fleet is an essential part of the business operation, ranging from delivering bed linen to the lodges through to collecting colleagues from nearby towns.

Bland speaks of his fantastic team, based across our villages, helping to implement and champion positive behaviours as well as running and constantly improving the day-to-day operations.  

He tells us, “There is a fleet and transport co-ordinator at each village – a crucial role, coordinating the day-to-day operation and helping improve and develop ownership and accountability towards the fleet. They provide a point of contact at the village for continuity and rapid decision making.”

Although the vehicle fleet has an important role at Center Parcs, Bland explains that the company has made efforts to reduce the need for a fleet wherever possible, including funding local bus services for colleagues.

While he actively tries to avoid ‘fleet creep’, as in, the motorised fleet growing in size, he notes that the number of vehicles is increasing to support the company’s operation as it looks to continually improve its service levels. Therefore, where the fleet can’t be reduced, making it clean is a priority. 

A sustainable way to travel 

At the heart of Center Parcs’ operations lies its commitment to sustainable travel.

When he started working as fleet manager, therefore, Bland also concentrated on a rapid transition towards electrification. 

Situated within environmentally sensitive woodlands teeming with biodiversity, Bland knew the fleet must prioritise nature conservation and sustainability efforts, reflecting the company’s commitment to combating climate change.

As a business, Center Parcs has a target to cut its emissions by 30% between 2020 and 2030, with a commitment to achieve net zero by 2050. 

Bland explains that electric vehicles are essential to meet these targets, and are not a new concept at Center Parcs. “We invested in Renault Kangoo vans for our Technical Services department back in 2012. This has in some ways made the more recent push to switch to electric far easier,” he says.

The cars within the village fleet include VW ID3 pool cars used by colleagues for off-village travel, mainly between villages. The fleet of company cars is diverse, ranging from Tesla to Jaguar Land Rover, the majority of which are assigned to colleagues based at the company’s head office for travelling to its five UK villages.

Other Center Parcs departments range from Technical Services, including plumbers and electricians, through to its Aqua Sana Spa, and every department has different operational vehicle requirements, which is reflected in the fleet’s make-up. “

As we purchase all our fleet outright, via fleet management companies CLM and ALD, we can set vehicle specifications to match operational needs and replacement schedules to ensure that we get the most out of our fleet.”

Currently, a total of 48% of the fleet’s motorised vehicles are electric or hybrid, and the company is converting its vehicle fleet as quickly as vehicle replacement cycles will allow. 

The main restricting factor is the need for new technology for some specialist vehicles, highlights Bland. “For example, we still need a practical BEV equivalent to our diesel pick-up trucks.”

Although all vehicles are purchased outright, Bland notes that company car drivers can still choose their car with the stipulation that it must be a battery electric vehicle (BEV) or plug-in hybrid (PHEV). 

“All of our village-based pool cars are being converted to BEV and these provide an excellent opportunity for staff to try out driving an electric car,” says Bland. 

He proudly mentions that the progress the fleet has made so far when it comes to decarbonisation equates to a total of 390 tonnes of CO2 saved every year, with the current emissions from the fleet standing at around 890 tCO2e per year.

Some of this carbon reduction comes from the fact that the fleet’s EVs are powered by 100% renewable zero-carbon electricity. To put this in context, the entire business carbon footprint in 2023 was just over 42,000 tCO2e. 

Empowering green mobility 

The company is committed to continuing to  purchase zero carbon electricity to power its villages and vehicles until the national grid itself is zero carbon. At Sherwood Forest, for example, Center Parcs generates around 80% of the village’s electricity use onsite, from a biogas combined heat and power plant. The zero-carbon biogas itself is generated nearby at an anaerobic digestor plant.

“All of the energy supplying these chargers is 100% renewable and zero-carbon, meaning that all of the vehicles charged in the villages are truly zero emissions, and will continue to be,” states Bland.

To cater for the ever-increasing number of electric vehicles at Center Parcs, the fleet is not only increasing the number of back-of-house chargers for its vehicle fleet, but it has also installed around 100 charging points at each UK village for its guests.

“With over two million guests each year, we have an important role and responsibility to support and encourage sustainability beyond our village footprint. A total of 10,665 guest vehicles were booked on to charge during a stay in 2023,” says Bland.

The company’s target is to have 100% of its fleet made up of either BEV or PHEV vehicles by 2030. Bland notes, “Since our baseline year (FY20) we have increased the percentage of BEV and PHEV vehicles in our fleet by 30% (from 18.6% to 47.9%), and these improvements continue to grow.”

Bland says the transition to electric vehicles is a fantastic fit for Center Parcs: “They are quiet and carbon-free, helping to maintain a tranquil environment and clean air in our forest for both guests and nature, they are also ideal for our usage patterns.”

“I am constantly looking for practical BEV equivalents to our current diesel fleet and looking at ways to implement the change with as little impact on the operation as possible. I am also continuously upgrading the fleet to benefit from improvements in the range of BEVs.” 

Two further key benefits to a clean fleet for Center Parcs is removing the need to manage diesel particulate filters, which present challenges with its 10mph speed limit, as well as the additional speed control that an EV offers compared to diesel vans.

A slight challenge remains that a few vehicles are currently very difficult to convert to electric, such as tractors, but Bland underscores that the fleet is always looking to make progress. “The land train at Longleat Forest is a long-term project, however, we are also switching to zero carbon and quieter electric ground equipment such as chainsaws and strimmers,” he says.

A vital asset

As for other challenges the fleet manager expects to face, Bland suggests it could be argued that many of the fleet industry issues seem to have evolved rather than been resolved. “For example, while lead times for new vehicles have improved, we have experienced increasing insurance costs, delays in parts supply, a decreasing network of traditional garages and limited service and repair workshops for EVs.” 

Alongside this, Bland believes there is a growing awareness that the fleet industry has changed. “The time has long passed when you could expect to have a vehicle back up and running within a few days after an accident or a mechanical issue. I am therefore communicating across the business that vehicles are an ever-increasing precious asset, not only because of their inherent financial value but also their importance to the operation.”

Center Parcs is fortunate to have the support of fleet management partners CLM and ALD, and Bland says they have been essential in securing stock vehicles and developing sustainable relationships with local dealerships and suppliers.

Regarding future opportunities for the fleet, Bland expresses optimism, stating, “I believe the electrification of our vehicle fleet has a bright future. I am looking forward to 2030 when we can truly say that our whole fleet is fossil-free, helping to ensure clean air and a quiet environment in our forests, protecting the biodiversity of the beautiful natural environments that we work within and in keeping with the fantastic sustainable holiday experience our guests have come to expect.”