Interview

Dominique Cocquet

The sky’s the limit for Villages Nature. It’s a next-generation approach to theme park accommodation with wider appeal, diverse recreational options and leading eco credentials. Resort manager Dominique Cocquet has been involved since the start


It’s been talked about for a decade, but finally the development of Euro Disney’s ecotourism destination is gathering speed, with opening scheduled for 2016. The vision for the €700m ($871m, £554m) Villages Nature project is ambitious, and it’s a departure from typical theme park accommodation offerings.

Villages Nature – a collaboration between Euro Disney and Pierre & Vacances-Center Parcs – is a sustainable tourism destination for the family market, located in Marne-la-Vallée, 32km (20 miles) east of Paris, France. The concept revolves around short and medium-stay vacations in cottages and apartments surrounded by forests, lakes and gardens.

“It’s about relaxation and discovery and having a responsible attitude towards the environment,” says Villages Nature general manager Dominique Cocquet.

The 259-hectare (640-acre) total site will be developed in stages. The first phase of 180 hectares (445 acres) consists of 1,730 cottages and apartments, with a capacity of approximately 8,000, and is expected to be completed between 2020 and 2022. Villages Nature’s official figures forecast an estimated 900,000 guests per year, generating local tax revenues of €7m ($8.7m, £5.5m) annually and creating around 1,600 direct jobs.

Phase one will open in two stages, with phase 1A opening in two parts in 2016 and in 2017/2018, and phase 1B open by 2022.

Phase one includes 16 hectares (40 acres) of recreational facilities and attractions. The flagship attraction is the AquaLagoon, a large indoor waterpark and open-air geothermal lagoon. There’ll also be an interactive working farm that teaches visitors about agriculture and animals, two forest adventure areas with activities such as rope courses, tree climbing trails and bungee jumping. There’ll also be play areas, a library, a bowling alley, hanging gardens, a spa with saunas and Turkish baths, and 10,500sqm (113,000sq ft) of retail and dining.

The first part of phase 1A opens in Q3 2016, comprising 916 cottages and apartments and two-thirds of the recreational facilities, including the AquaLagoon. Phase 1A has a budget of €500m ($623, £398m). The rest of the €700m is for the further 241 cottages opening by 2018.

JOINT VENTURE
Les Villages Nature de Val d’Europe SAS is a joint subsidiary formed as a 50/50 venture between parent company Euro Disney SCA and Pierre & Vacances-Center Parcs. The entire project, from property planning to design to construction, is being managed by Villages Natures SAS, which will form an operations arm of the company in 2016 to manage the resort.

Villages Nature is the project owner for the design, development, construction and operational planning. The cottages and apartments will be sold to individual investors according to Pierre & Vacances-Center Parcs’ property financing model – a leaseback scheme where investors own the units, which are then managed and maintained by Villages Nature. Institutional investors will take ownership of the central shared facilities.

Villages Nature is supported by the French government, which recognises it as a project of national and public importance. The Sector IV Marne-la-Vallée 30-year framework established in a 1987 Agreement between Disney and the French state was amended and renewed in 2010 to allow for the Villages Nature development. The Amendment to the Main Agreement of March 24, 1987 forecasts Villages Nature could generate investment of €1.8bn ($2bn, £1.3bn) by 2030.

GREEN DESTINATION
Cocquet says the resort’s sustainability credentials, extensive recreation facilities and proximity to Disneyland Paris and Paris give it the ammunition to become an innovative green destination of the future.

“Villages Nature started 13 years ago as a research project,” says Cocquet. “Market research showed the attractiveness of the concept and also the way it complemented the Disney parks.”

The research reported high interest among European tourists in the nature-oriented, recreational vacation concept, particularly from key Euro Disney markets such as France, Belgium, the UK, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Germany.

“With the high-speed rail and air travel connections, an international clientele can come here to enjoy the recreational facilities,” says Cocquet. “Villages Nature is also for French people who want to combine a visit to Disneyland Paris or Paris. For those who live in the metropolitan area of Île-de-France – a population of 11 million – it’s an escape, a long weekend without travelling far.”

The new-generation tourist destination ticks a lot of boxes. Villages Nature is following a sustainable development plan inspired by WWF International’s One Planet Living Framework, making it one of just 10 endorsed One Planet Communities in the world. The framework tracks 10 criteria, including zero waste, sustainable water and a zero carbon footprint.

With its own aquifer, enough geothermal energy will be harnessed to heat not only the resort complex but also the local area of Seine-et-Marne and Disneyland Paris in the long term.

The accommodation and built facilities are inspired by organic and green architecture. Plants play a major role in the building designs. The grounds will be covered by forest, landscaped gardens and two lakes totalling 15 hectares (37 acres). The built environment accounts for just 10 per cent of the total site.

Star attractions
Storytelling leads the artistic direction, which is steered by Joe Rohde, Walt Disney Imagineering senior vice president. Rohde, who’s worked on the Fantasyland refurbishment at Disneyland Anaheim, Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World Florida and with James Cameron on the upcoming Avatar-inspired attraction, is creating a story for Villages Nature about the human relationship with nature.

The AquaLagoon is the star attraction. Designed by top architect Jacques Ferrier, the 9,000sqm (97,000sq ft) waterpark is set in a towering, tiered pyramid covered with aquatic hanging gardens. Wave pools, slides and waterfalls feature inside, while outdoors there’s a geothermal lagoon for year-round swimming.

Architect Lionel de Segonzac designed the farm and Jean de Gastines designed the accommodation, Cocquet says.

Acclaimed landscape artist Thierry Huau, who designed the amusement and botanical park Terra Botanica in Angers, France, worked with Rohde to imagine how this organic city should come to life.

“We’ve taken several potent visual metaphors,” Rohde says of the project. “First is the garden, which gives a sense of nature and mankind working in harmony. A second metaphor is the geothermal energy, embodied in the AquaLagoon.”

“It’s a great story and a genuine approach in the way it’s iterated,” Cocquet says. “Rohde and Huau designed the story and then we went to architects like Ferrier, de Segonzac and de Gastines and asked them to contribute their signature to the story. The hanging gardens and the AquaLagoon are going to be incredible pieces of architecture in their own right.”

New clientele
Disneyland Paris, which received 14.2 million visitors in 2014, has high hotel occupancy rates – and that’s a major contributing factor in the Villages Nature investment. The parks’ hotels registered occupancy rates of 84 per cent, 79 per cent and 75 per cent from 2012 to 2014 respectively – the fall this year, Euro Disney says, is explained by the renovation works at the Newport Bay Club hotel.

Disneyland Paris remains Europe’s most visited tourist attraction and, the argument goes that a strong new offering in 2016 will attract both returning and new customers. In the business model, a four-day stay at Villages Nature is expected to yield at least one day at the theme parks.

Euro Disney is eyeing a new customer base. It hopes to attract a different type of visitor to Disneyland Paris: one who might not normally plan to visit a theme park, families who want to be close to nature and enjoy the outdoors, who like to self-cater on their holidays. They’re likely to build their own itineraries, ones that include a wide range of activities. Cocquet, who’s been with Euro Disney since 1989, is confident Villages Nature provides the perfect base.

“In the Île-de-France region, there’s so far no way of combining the cultural aspect of Paris and the imagination aspect of Disneyland Paris. You can stay in a hotel or an urban residence, but you can’t combine that with relaxation and discovery. Villages Nature will change that,” he says. “Those who want to be immersed in Disney will continue to stay in the on-site hotels because there’s a seamless experience between the hotels and parks.

“But those who want an extended stay and a bit of diversity will stay at Villages Nature. The market research shows Villages Nature presents an opportunity for people who would probably not have come for Disneyland Paris alone, especially from the UK and Germany. However, because of the vacation component of Villages Nature, they will come: it will attract a new clientele.”

One Planet principles

1. Zero Carbon
Strive for a zero-carbon footprint for building emissions; use deep geothermal energy

2. Zero Waste
Reduce waste sent to landfill by recycling; limit overall production of waste

3. Sustainable Transport
Guests use public transit for local excursions; prioritise bikes, walking paths, horseback riding trails

4. Sustainable Water
Manage rainwater sustainably and reduce water use; install water-saving systems in accommodations

5. Sustainable Materials
Select lower-impact construction materials; promote sustainable goods; reuse 100 per cent of excavated material from the site

6. Natural Habitats and Wildlife
Develop the site’s biodiversity; raise guest awareness about conservation; minimise impact on existing species

7. Local and Sustainable Food
Offer healthy food with products prepared on-site or sourced locally or organically; create a working farm

8. Economic Development
Support the local economy by maximising positive impacts of the project; involve local community

9. Quality of Life
Emphasise the human dimension of sustainable development; make communal facilities accessible

10. Culture and Heritage
Promote local culture and heritage; involve local artists in the creation of land art at the resort

Key figures

900,000 visitors predicted per year

8,000 maximum guest capacity

32 kilometres from Paris

100 per cent geothermal energy

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