Customer Centric Camping

As my family and I travel throughout Europe, We’re staying in all different sorts of locations. The diversity of our accommodations is sometimes a little shocking. One thing we’ve learned, it’s completely possible to fit eight people in remarkably small square footage (with relative ease, I might add). Recently, we had the privilege of staying at a campsite in the South of France. This magical place is called domaine de Massereau.

The experience was better than you can imagine but, first, I feel I need to help give context to the sort of camping we’re experiencing in Europe.

Camping is serious business, with a five-star rating system, and a highly competitive industry. While you’ll see some people pitch a tent, most people either show up in their caravan or they’ll rent a cabin/mobile home readily available on most campsites. Most campsites (four or five-star) also have pre-setup tents with up to seven spots for sleeping. In our current campsite, some of these tents have four-poster beds along with bunk-beds for the kids. In North America, we might call this “glamping”, although this isn’t quite that. There’s often a restaurant and almost always a pool along with some degree of kids programming (during the high season).

Not all camps are equal though, as we’ve discovered. We’ve also learned that there is good, and then there is Massereau good.

The pools are incredible; a warm one for the cooler days in spring and a more family/kid oriented pool with slides and water fountains!

So, what made Massereau so good? There were many things — the restaurant was incredible, the site was beautiful and spacious, the pools were super fun, the guests were fantastic — I could go on and on, but what made it so special were the staff and the way they served their guests. We were there for two months, and there are so many stories we could all share, but here’s one story that I think highlights the way this staff doesn’t shy away from making it personal.

My wife and kids arrived at the camp over a month before me. They spent that month getting to know the staff by name and even, eventually, helping stock the shop and bake the bread in the morning. They had become like family to us! They all knew that I was away and when I’d be joining them. On the day that I arrived, I pulled up to the camp gate and introduced myself saying, “I think I’m at the right place, my family has been here for several weeks, last name is Sawatzky…”. Gilles, the camp manager, immediately knew who I was, welcomed me with the warmest embrace I’ve ever received from a stranger, announced my arrival to his staff and proceeded to direct me with the most helpful directions to where my family was at that moment. As I drove through the forested path that led to our cabin, the staff met me at the various turns to ensure I found my way back to my family with ease and as quickly as possible. From each one of them, I felt a warm welcome that goes far beyond what I would expect from even a great customer service practitioner. This warm welcome NEVER left. I saw this warm embrace authentically extended time and time again.

You can tell a lot about a manager from the way their staff talk about them. Clearly, Gilles is the sort of leader more of us should take notes from. When I would speak to his staff about him in the evenings, as the late crew would get off shift and have a drink at the camp bar, they would speak freely about how much they loved their job and the support they received from Gilles; many of them returning year after year as this camp felt like family to them. They enjoyed each others company and would freely show their affection for each other but, this didn’t slow down their work nor take away from their professionalism. The condition of the campsite was nothing short of clean and orderly and the operations were run with German like efficiency.

Massereau’s vineyard, they make their own wine!

I wanted to speak with Gilles while I was there but the opportunity to sit down and do a face to face interview never happened. However, I sent Gilles an email and asked if he’d mind answering some questions. Below are my questions, and his gracious answers. He responded in French (his native language) and I did my best to translate and interpret into English. You can find his answers en français below.

You can find a bit more information about domaine de Massereau below the interview.

Enjoy!


Gilles, you run a fantastic business that seems to cross some lines of what you’d expect to see in a campsite. In your words, could you tell me what Massereau is to you?

Massereau is, for me, the antithesis of what I have discovered in my previous trades. It is a family story, pure and sincere. Massereau changed my life and changed my way of thinking. I discovered an exciting craft, totally unknown when I arrived. Massereau is also history, because on its lands, for more than two centuries, people have been able to bring their knowledge and experience. The property survives, and we live on.

How long have you been leading this campsite?

I arrived in September 2009 at the request of my Uncle Jean Freychet, creator of the campsite (in 2006). Previously, I had worked at Virgin Stores in Bordeaux. I had to say goodbye to my Bordeaux friends and sell the house I’d just finished building.

When you think about the experience, you’re working to craft or create, how would you describe what you’re aiming for?

My only goal is to stay happy every morning when I get up. And of course, making each of my clients’ stays unique, so that it is and remains an experience. I wish to see each member of my team accept and understand that it is possible to get up and whistle while you work.

What’s the most important piece of creating this? For example, if you were to strip away everything else, what’s the single most important element for building the experience you’re working to build?

Nothing would be possible without the tolerance of my wife, Céline. I spend too much time at the campsite, and I know it is to the detriment of my wife and children. I build Massereau every day because my wife Céline accepts my way of working, and the investment into the way we live.

Outside of work, what are you interested in? Why?

Outside work, I like to challenge my ideas while driving. I like the planes, and I like to fly above the Camargue. When I put on my helmet, and the engine of the plane starts, I have to concentrate. I am cut off from the world. No more phone, no walkie talkie — this allows me to cut myself off from the world a few hours. I love to fly above and around Mont Blanc, and also to the Atlantic coast when I’m able to bring my wife and children.

But also, there are friends! My friends are my source of life, for more than 20 years, I have had the same friends. I grew up with them and partied with them. Now they are the friends that are also good for my family.

Can you point to one or two people who influenced you? If so, how did they influence you?

I’ve always had tremendous respect for Richard Branson, founder of Virgin. He made me understand that you need to take care of your teams before even taking care of your customers.

But, the person who influences me every day and every night remains my Father. He left too early when I was 28. I turn to him every moment, regretting not having his advice and his opinions.

If you weren’t running Massereau, what would you be doing?

I do not know. I have always done what I wanted to do!

When you’re hiring your staff, what’s the most important thing you’re looking for?

Managing a team is not simple, especially when it is necessary to renew it each year. I expect them to believe that they can be fulfilled in their work. I expect from them a real energy to put at the service of our customers. I expect from them a permanent smile!

What sort of behaviour or failure is intolerable to you and to what you’re working to build?

I cannot stand disrespect. The history of Massereau demands respect! Humanly, historically, and economically, everything here demands respect.

Our customers deserve respect, and they’ll not tolerate a lack of it.

When my family returns next year, what do you hope will be different about Massereau? When we return in 10 years, what do you hope will be true of Massereau?

Next year, when your family comes back, I hope that NOTHING will be different. My projects are based on customer feedback, but Massereau must remain Massereau. There will probably be work, improvements, but Massereau must not change. And in 10 years, I just hope that this soul will always be present and that your children will have a wonderful memory!

Any great stories (funny, terrible, dramatic, moving…) you’d like to share about your experience as you’ve helped lead Massereau into what it now is?

I learn every day a little more, thanks to my team. I spend a lot of time recruiting and interviewing. Jade, one of our workers, has particularly understood my goal, her story is fantastic. When she started, she was quite junior. Today, she would be able to take my place. It is the story of the passionate success.

Every year, late August or early September, I invite my whole team to a surprise party. I tell the customers because I have to close all the services sooner. This evening has become a “signature” and a must in the writing of a season. On this occasion, I take everyone to a festive and musical evening, to thank them. Meanwhile, I give the keys to the campsite to a good customer. Because it is necessary to be able to ensure the security and the assistance on the site. For some years, it is an Irishman named Kieran that has taken on this responsibility. It works perfectly, and it is for me a “key” moment in the season.

What’s next? Any plans to do something similar to Massereau somewhere else? Or, something completely different?

It is impossible to build another Massereau. 200 years of history cannot be copied. But Massereau can clearly be copied under a more subjective aspect: the management. As far as I am concerned, I still have a lot of projects in Massereau: a third pool, an extension with “premium” neighbourhoods, etc.. I will try to achieve these goals with all the support of the family.

And, with regards to exporting the model, this is not so complicated. Just demonstrate that customer satisfaction is the basis. Promoting an experience and then sharing it with each client is key. Let us never forget the signature of Massereau: “Let us take the time to live …”


Massereau campsite is located near the charming French village of Sommières. We booked our charming cabin through Eurocamp but you can also book directly with them through their website. There is so much within an hour of this campsite; the Mediterranean, Names, Pont du Gard… if you’ve any questions about the campsite or the surrounding area — or, if you have any questions or thoughts about this post — please send me a message!


en français

1. Gilles, you run a fantastic business that seems to cross some lines of what you’d expect to see in a campsite. In your words, could you tell me what Massereau is to you?

Massereau est pour moi l’antithèse de ce que j’ai pu découvrir dans mes précédents métiers. C’est une histoire de famille, pure et sincère. Massereau a changé ma vie, et a changé ma façon de voir les choses. J’y ai découvert un métier passionnant, totalement inconnu lorsque je suis arrivé … Massereau, c’est aussi l’Histoire, car sur ses terres, depuis plus de deux siècles, chacun a pu et a su apporter son savoir et son expérience pour que la propriété survive, puis vive ….

2. How long have you been leading this campsite?

Je suis arrivé en septembre 2009, à la demande de mon Oncle Jean Freychet, créateur du camping (en 2006). Je travaillais chez Virgin Stores, à Bordeaux. Il a fallu que je vende une maison que je venais tout juste de terminer, me séparer de mes amis bordelais….

3. When you think about the experience you’re working to craft or create, how would you describe what you’re aiming for?

Mon unique objectif est de rester épanoui chaque matin lorsque je me lève. Et bien sur, en rendant chacun des séjours de mes clients plus différents, pour que cela soit et reste une Expérience. Je souhaite que chacun des membres de mon équipe participe en comprenant et en acceptant qu’il est possible de se lever en siffoltant pour aller travailler.

4. What’s the most important piece of creating this? For example, if you were to strip away everything else, what’s the single most important element for building the experience you’re working to build?

Rien ne serait possible sans la tolérance de ma Femme Céline. Je passe beaucoup trop de temps au Camping, et je sais que c’est au détriment de ma femme et de mes enfants… Quoi que l’on dise, je construit Massereau chaque jour parceque ma Femme Céline accepte ma façon de travailler, de m’investir, de vivre ….

5. Outside of work, what are you interested in? Why?

En dehors du travail, j’aime me changer les idées en pilotant. J’aime les avions, et j’aime partir voler au dessus de la Camargue … Lorsque je mets mon casque et que le moteur de l’avion démarre, il faut que je sois concentré, et je suis alors coupé du monde…. Plus de téléphone, plus de talkie walkie…. Ces vols, très égoistes, me permettent de me couper du monde quelques heures…. J’adore aller voler au dessus et autour du Mont Blanc, et aussi partir sur la cote Atlantique lorsque j’y retrouve ma femme et mes enfants …

Mais aussi, il y a les amis… Mes amis sont ma source de vie, depuis plus de 20 ans, je retrouve les mêmes amis, ceux avec qui j’ai grandi, ceux avec qui je fais la fête, ceux avec qui ma famille se sent bien….

6. Can you point to one or two people who influenced you? If so, how did they influence you?

J’ai toujours eu un immense respect pour Richard Branson, fondateur de Virgin. Il m’a fait comprendre l’essentiel : prendre soin de ses équipes avant même de prendre soin de ses clients.

Mais, la personne qui m’influence chaque jour, chaque nuit, reste mon Père… Parti beaucoup trop tôt, quand j’avais 28 ans …. Je me tourne vers lui chaque instant, en regrettant de ne pas avoir ses conseils, ses avis ….

7. If you weren’t running Massereau, what would you be doing?

Je ne sais pas…. Car j’ai toujours fait ce que je voulais faire !!!!

8. When you’re hiring your staff, what’s the most important thing you’re looking for?

Manager une équipe n’est pas simple, surtout quand il faut la renouveler chaque année, chaque saison…. J’attends de chacun d’entre eux qu’ils comprennent que l’on peut être épanoui au travail…. J’attends d’eux une véritable énergie à mettre au service de nos clients. J’attends d’eux un sourire permanent …..

9. What sort of behaviour or failure is intolerable to you and to what you’re working to build?

Je ne supporte pas le non respect. L’histoire de Massereau impose le respect. Humainement, historiquement, et économiquement, tout ici impose le respect.

Nos clients méritent le respect, et souvent, nos clients savent si bien nous le rendre…..

10. When my family returns next year, what do you hope will be different about Massereau? When we return in 10 years, what do you hope will be true of Massereau?

L’année prochaine, lorsque votre famille reviendra, j’espère que RIEN ne sera différent. Mes projets sont basés sur les remarques des clients, mais Massereau doit rester Massereau. Il y aura probablement des travaux, des améliorations, mais Massereau ne doit pas changer. Et dans 10 ans, j’espère simplement que cette âme sera toujours présente, et que vos enfants en auront gardé un merveilleux souvenir !!!!

11. Any great stories (funny, terrible, dramatic, moving…) you’d like to share about your experience as you’ve helped lead Massereau into what it now is?

J’apprends chaque jour un peu plus grâce à mon équipe. Je fais beaucoup de rencontres, de recrutement… Je dois avouer que Jade a particulièrement bien compris mon objectif, elle s’est désormais approprié l’histoire. Elle a commencé en bas de l’échelon, gamine…. Aujourd’hui, elle serait capable de prendre ma place… C’est l’histoire de la réussite passionnée d’une saisonnière ….

L’histoire que je peux évoquer en parallèle est simple : il s’agit de « la soirée du perso » : chaque année, fin aout ou début septembre, j’invite toute mon équipe à une soirée surprise. J’en informe les clients, car je dois fermer plus tôt tous les services. Cette soirée est devenue une « signature » et un incontournable dans l’écriture d’une saison… A cette occasion, j’emmène tout le monde dans une soirée festive et musicale, pour les remercier … Pendant ce temps, je donne les clés du camping à un bon client !!! Car il faut pouvoir assurer la sécurité et l’assistance sur le site… Depuis quelques années, c’est un Irlandais, Kieran, qui a cette responsabilité !! Cela fonctionne parfaitement, et c’est pour moi un moment « clé » dans la saison….

12. What’s next? Any plans to do something similar to Massereau somewhere else? Or, something completely different?

Il est impossible de construire un autre Massereau. 200 ans d’histoire ne peuvent être copiées. Mais Massereau peut clairement être copiée sous un aspect plus subjectif : le management !!! En ce qui me concerne, j’ai encore beaucoup de projets à Massereau : une troisième piscine, un agrandissement avec des quartiers « premium » etc … J’essaierai d’atteindre ces objectifs avec tout le soutien de la famille….

Et, en ce qui concerne l’exportation du modèle ?! Ce n’est pas si compliqué : il suffit de démontrer que la satisfaction du client est la source, la base. Promettre une expérience puis la partager avec chaque client, c’est la clé …. N’oublions jamais la signature de Massereau : « Prenons le temps de vivre … »