Part 1 of the Center Parcs experience: Booking

Long term and patient readers will recall that I have been closely evaluating a Center Parcs break. I think it’s taken me a year to get comfortable with the concept.

Center Parcs UK, according to the Wikipedia entry, is a network of four holiday villages offering a range of family friendly activities.

And it’s the family bit that appeals to me. We have two young children (an almost 3 year old and a newly 1 year old). Friends and work colleagues have described the best part of the Center Parcs experience being that you can “chuck everything in the car,” and then once you’ve arrived, “dump the car for the week.”

We’ve opted for a New Executive Lodge. We made the decision based on the 6 or 7 pictures displayed along with a stupidly small badly scanned floor-plan layout. I simply cannot stand this approach used by so many travel companies. Why can’t they show full size images? And MORE than 6 or 7? And why can’t they show huge full resolution ones so my wife and I can umm and ahh properly? Instead we had to squint and then buy it the Apple way — i.e. look down the list to the most expensive one and make a base assumption that we a) wanted to spend that amount of money and b) that this offered the best range of facilities. For the dates we were booking there wasn’t much cost difference between the different styles.

I realise that elsewhere it’s possible to find bigger images. I don’t expect to have to go hunting for them though. However, I recognise why. The Center Parcs online presence hasn’t been overhauled for years. Or, if it has, it’s been done excruciatingly badly. It’s fundamentally a bolt-on to (I imagine?) the physical brochures that I’ve never ever seen. The assumption, I suppose, is that you’ve phoned up and asked for a brochure. The website appears to be a transaction engine — a flipping rubbish one, by the way — rather than the portal for managing your vacation experience in the run-up to the event.

Registering an account
The first thing I did when we sat down to “book” was to hunt around for the “create an account” or “register now” button. I thought it would be useful to establish a record of business with the company. You know, get the account sorted with the name, address, children’s details and whatnot so that it would make things easy for the actual booking. I also thought they’d probably want to take my credit card then so that I don’t need to type it in during the booking. I am, you see, intending booking multiple Center Parcs experiences.

There’s no account facility. None that I could see.

Fine, fine.

We began the booking process. That was fairly pedestrian to begin with. Select the party size, desired location, holiday type (weekend, mid-week, etc) and finally the dates.

The different types of lodges are then displayed along with pricing and relevant notes (“Just 1 left!”). Again this is all good.

Having selected the lodge we then needed to choose our desired locations from the available FOUR choices. Heh. We had a choice of four specific villas, each helpfully numbered. However in order to make a decision, we had to download a huge PDF file that took — I kid ye not — about 3 minutes to download. (We’ve a pretty fast internet connection!)

My wife and I just stared into space. I sat cursing the Director of IT / Commerce — whoever he or she is — at Center Parcs. Who decided this was a brilliant fix? Why not pop-up a simple screen showing the locations in context and… oh I can’t be bothered to even write it out.

So this was a rubbish experience. We arsed about trying to find the various numbers on the plan. As folk new to the whole thing, we didn’t have a clue.

I wanted a choice though. You can just turn up and be allocated somewhere. I felt we should at least have some degree of control. So we paid the extra cash — £39 — and selected one of the villas.

Or, more accurately, I selected a drop down villa number from a list. How experiential.

Adding Extras
I felt a little more at home at the extras screen where we were given a long list of additional things we could add to our package. I selected two bikes. Friends have told me it’s wise to get them booked ahead of time. I then read the small print and found you’d have to order the other bits — like a seat/hats for the children and whatnot — when you’d done your main transaction. Stupid. But acceptable, given we’ve got this far into the process.

I impulse bought some fire logs. That appealed to the caveman inside me. We evaluated whether to buy some discount meal vouchers (25% off) and decided that this wasn’t a big enough incentive.

We scanned the rest of the list then, content, proceeded to the next step.

Paying
I openly cursed the utter idiots who designed the pay screen: What sensible right minded person puts the credit card EXPIRY date ahead of the start date? I had to do some double-takes.

That seriously annoyed me. It indicates someone wasn’t really paying attention. On every credit card I have, the sequence is start date then expiry date. Gahhh.

We hit purchase.

And the credit card transaction failed. The Center Parcs system unhelpfully told us there had been a problem with our card and, thank you very much, please start again.

I stared open-mouthed at the screen, unable — for a few moments — to deal with the user experience.

You what?

We have to start again? The 20 minutes we’d invested was erased in a second. Remember all that time we had to spend waiting for the PDF to download to determine what villa to buy? Not good.

My wife wasn’t impressed. I was flipping furious.

Quickly we realised I’d got the expiry date wrong on the card. Idiot. But goodness me where was the error checking? Or the “oops, that didn’t work, try again?” screen?

To just terminate the process is utterly ridiculous.

We started again.

And I had a sneaky suspicion that the villa we’d spent ages selecting would no longer be available. It wasn’t. Of course not. I suspected that it was probably locked in the Center Parcs booking system pending my other transaction.

So we ended up booking another one.

I did give serious consideration to not bothering. But I relaxed. I thought of the children. 😉

Post-Purchase
The transaction complete screen was a big relief. We were then presented with a huge amount of other options that we could add to our package in the run up to the commencement of the break.

I immediately hunted for the cycle seat things. Our boys can’t ride bikes yet but we’re relatively sure they will enjoy riding on the backs of ours. So I found the “Bike Seat” option and added two of them.

Nothing.

Nothing happened. The basket just said “empty”. I tried clicking to check out and confirmed the basket was empty. Arrrrrgh.

I tried again and again.

I wondered if the session had expired. Probably. Something wasn’t working.

I thought it would be worth trying again. Although I’ve no idea how to login yet. I suspect there must be a reference number and email combination to get you back into your booking. I shall try this later.

My wife and I then spent a little while browsing the huge list of activities on offer. It’s true that almost everything at Center Parcs costs extra — but I don’t have a problem with that as long as there’s value.

For example, we were pretty excited at the possibility of getting a meal delivered from the Center Parcs restaurants in the evening. That should work nicely. I didn’t know this was possible or offered.

We had a look at the menus which, alas, took nearly as long as the villa map to download. That really needs a fix Center Parcs. Either make it lower resolution or convert it to HTML or JPG. There is absolutely no need to publish print-ready resolutions for your customers. That’s a sign of a really lazy webmaster or a silly ineffectual system.

Conclusion
I was significantly irritated by the whole transaction process. But I recognise that the system is probably sitting on about 10 other systems, most of them built in COBOL or something back in the 1980s. Whilst it was very annoying I don’t think it’s going to impact our on-site experience.

At least I hope not.

I have to point out that I’m pretty impressed at the idea of receiving a physical letter of confirmation of my booking. How old-skool.

Still. I am looking forward to the whole experience. Standby for Part 2.

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