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Billy Butlin and his impact on the tourism industry

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(Last updated on: 29/05/2020)

Although you might not know exactly who Billy Butlin is, you will no doubt have experienced some of his impact on the travel industry.

Billy Butlin, of course, synonymous with the British holiday resort company: Butlins. He turned holiday camps into a multimillion-pound industry. Billy was and still is an incredibly important aspect of British culture and travel as a whole – let’s have a look at why…

Billy Butlin

Who was Billy Butlin?

William Heygate Edmund Colborne Butlin was born in the Cape Colony (part of modern-day South Africa) in September 1899. His parents were British but their marriage had not been considered socially acceptable, so they emigrated. His father was the son of a clergyman while his mother was from a family of travelling showmen. A few years later their marriage was in decline, and Billy Butlin returned to England with his mother and brother, Binkie.

Billy’s mother remarried and moved to Canada. Billy went with her, and left school at 14. He was mocked for his British accent and just generally unhappy – his mind was elsewhere. Billy got a job at Eaton’s, a department store in Toronto. He visited their summer camp as part of his employment. This was his first taste of a holiday, and clearly stuck in his mind.

Billy Butlin served for the Canadian Army in World War I. He then returned to England to stay with his uncle in Somerset; Billy purchased and successfully ran a hoopla stall. He turned a great profit, and moved to London to set up a stall there. His luck continued to grow and he was able to afford to bring his now-widowed mother home from Canada.

Billy Butlin was, clearly, very entrepreneurial as well as being a family man.

How Billy Butlin created his empire

The story goes that Billy was sat in a bus stop on a rainy afternoon in the summer, in the late 1920s. He overheard some disgruntled holidaymakers complaining about the lack of things to do in Skegness. It sparked an idea…

Billy Butlin established an amusement park – hoopla stalls, of course, alongside a haunted house, scenic railway and a tower slide. He also secured himself an exclusive license to sell dodgem cars.

His park in Skegness was the first place where dodgems were available in Britain. He sold them to other showmen, more proof of his business mind. Billy Butlin continued to grow his Skegness park; by 1930 there was even a zoo.

“Our true intent is all for your delight” – this quote, from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, was the slogan for Butlin’s first Skegness cam.

He opened a similar park in Bognor Regis in 1932. His empire continued to expand: Billy Butlin had amusement parks in Littlehampton, Mablethorpe, Felixstowe, the Isle of Man, Southsea and Hayling Island. He also had winter fairs in Edinburgh and Glasgow. These parks provided multiple income streams for Butlin.

Butlin’s holiday camps

The first camp, at Ingoldmells near Skegness, opened in April 1936.

It was advertised in the Daily Express, which cost Butlin £500 – the equivalent of over £28,000 today.

His own experience of staying in small hotels and boarding houses in seaside locations had convinced him that the market absolutely needed something like what he was offering: a week’s stay including three meals a day and free entertainment for a cost of 35 shillings – £3, dependant on the time of year.

Another Butlin’s camp opened in Clacton in 1938, but plans to open a third (in Filey) were halted due to WWII. But not one to be put out, business-minded Billy Butlin used the war to his advantage.

He was able to persuade the MoD to complete his holiday camp in Filey and construct two more camps in Ayr and Pwllheli. These were used as training camps, and Billy reclaimed the sites when the war was over.

Thanks to the post-war boom, Butlin was able to open four more camps in Mosney, Bognor Regis, Minehead and Barry Island.

He also bought various hotels in Blackpool, Saltdean, and Cliftonville. Incredibly, Billy Butlin’s empire thrived.

Billy Butlin introduced us to entirely new type of tourism and he revolutionised the post-war UK domestic tourism industry.

What is a Butlin’s Redcoat?

When the first camp opened 1936, Billy Butlin saw that it wasn’t quite going as planned. Were his guests bored? Many didn’t seem to be engaging in the planned activities, at least.

Billy asked one of his engineers, Norman Bradford, to entertain the holidaymakers. His jokes completely changed the atmosphere of the camp, and the spirit of Butlin’s came alive.

Billy realised that he would need more than one person to take on the role of entertainer – thus, the role of the Redcoat was born. 

Billy told Norman to go and buy a blazer, and to make it distinctive. Norman brought back a variety of blazers – one blue, one yellow and one white to match the camp’s colour scheme. But this wasn’t quite what Billy had in mind. He wanted a colour that evoked the cheerful holiday atmosphere that he yearned to create; he eventually chose a bright red blazer inspired by the Mounties he’d seen while living in Canada as a child.

“A few more people like Norman around would work wonders” – Billy Butlin, 1936

Hotels across the globe now have entertainment teams, just like this. Common especially in all-inclusive resort style hotels, entertainment teams are responsible for ensuring guests have as much fun as possible on their holiday, day and night.

During the day, hotel entertainment teams round up guests for archery, aqua aerobics, volleyball and more. And at night, teams perform musical numbers, circus tricks, elaborate dances and so on. They are keen to involve holidaymakers in the fun.

It can be said that Billy Butlin’s Redcoats provided the blueprint for hotel entertainment teams around the world!

Why did Billy Butlin have such a big impact on travel?

There is no denying that Butlin had an incredible impact on the travel industry.

He didn’t have specific training that led him to understand tourism, and his experience was mostly in entertainment rather than specifically ‘holidays’. Nonetheless, he managed to understand and work with the mood of the country in the 30s, and design the luxury holiday camps that went on to be so popular.

From paper to production, everything was Billy Butlin’s vision. His determination and ability to problem-solve was absolutely revolutionary at the time, and has continued to inspire hoteliers and other tour operators throughout the years.

Others have adapted his successful business model. Pontins, for example, is a similar type of holiday camp. Parkdean, Haven and Center Parcs are too – all-inclusive UK resorts that offer entertainment and activities for guests. Of course, the concepts are ever-changing; they have to be, to keep up with the times, but one thing remains. The basic concept of a holiday where everything can be found on site is still there!

See how Butlin’s itself has changed

It has been argued that Billy Butlin was the first person to apply Henry Ford’s mass production techniques to holidaying in Britain. And that may be so.

Warner had holiday camps before Butlin did, sure. But his were more old-fashioned. They were rudimentary, founded in socialism: shared catering, a lack of entertainment, space for trade unionists to gather.

Butlin made his camps bigger and better. He wanted luxury: fashionable and modern (at the time) art deco buildings, based on the designs of ocean liners and grand hotels. They had a wow factor – Butlin’s holiday camps left a mark on the memories of those who visited, right from the beginning.

Modern parallels with Billy Butlin’s techniques

Butlin was a master marketer. From that one Daily Express advert the response was phenomenal, and it gave Billy the confidence to continue with what he was doing and grow his empire. His whole game was focused on C2B marketing – customer to business, without the middle man.

Thanks to his days as a travelling showman, face-to-face contact with potential customers was in Butlin’s nature. This meant that he knew what people wanted, at an almost-instinctive level.

Hotels today are often marketed in a similar way – while they can be booked through external sites, many hotels continue to advertise themselves to potential customers. Whether that’s through influencer marketing, full page adverts in glossy magazines or even TV ads, many hotel companies market directly to their target audience today.

It is clear to see that what Billy Butlin created has lived on in terms of product. All-inclusive holidays (whether that’s on a cruise ship, at a Caribbean resort or at a holiday park in the UK) are as popular as ever. Butlin’s camps offered three meals a day, copious entertainment, swimming pools, tennis courts and everything else a family could want. It was a one of a kind holiday experience in the 1930s, and something that continues to be emulated today.

It is clear that Billy Butlin had a huge impact on the travel industry. Offering affordable family-friendly seaside breaks, he changed the way people looked at leisure time and it could be said that it is thanks to the popularity of Butlin’s camps that we are able to enjoy these types of holiday today!

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