Resort group goes upscale with new look

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 June, 2008, 12:00am

Club Med offers guests 'interior' luxury - the rare commodities of time and space and the opportunity to reconnect with their inner selves

Club Med has set itself no small challenge: to reinvent the upscale holiday. Instead of external displays of grandeur, the global travel company aims to offer guests 'interior' luxury - the rare commodities of time and space - and the opportunity to reconnect with their inner selves, others and nature.

'We are maintaining Club Med's historical spirit of conviviality, but we have gone upscale,' said Caroline Puechoultres, president and chief executive of Club Med Asia-Pacific. 'We want to give our guests an upmarket yet friendly, open, emotional and human experience.'

Club Med is a well-known name and has 82 per cent awareness in Hong Kong, 90 per cent in New Zealand, 95 per cent in Singapore and 65 per cent in Shanghai. Club Med opened its Shanghai sales office in 2003. In France, a survey revealed that more than one-third of the population had stayed at a Club Med resort.

The chain, which started operating in France in 1950, has big plans for Asia. The company already has nine resorts in Asia-Pacific, including a ski resort in Japan, a family village in Phuket and a golf and spa resort on Bintan Island in Indonesia. With no competitors offering the kind of all-inclusive escapes that Club Med specialises in, Ms Puechoultres is confident that the business will grow quickly.

Within five years the company expects to have an eco-resort in Vietnam, a ski resort near Beijing, a second resort in the Maldives, and a resort in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, that will be Club Med's first Asian resort with a five-trident rating, the chain's in-house equivalent to star rating. The Philippines is another possible location on the radar, as is a second ski resort in Japan and further developments in Thailand and Indonesia.

The group has opened 20 resorts since 2000, mainly in Europe. A key factor in any new development is choosing the site, and Club Med's strategy is to settle for nothing less than exceptional. Older sites that did not meet this criteria have been closed.

'We got rid of 40 properties that were not on exceptional sites, and we have renovated many of our existing resorts. All renovations should be complete by 2009,' said Ms Puechoultres. 'We have spent more than US$1 billion so far on renovations, with Euro15 million [HK$181.74 million] spent on upgrading our Maldives resort from a three-trident to a four-trident destination. It is a wonderful resort made up of a collection of suites on stilts connected by wooden walkways beside 2km of pristine beach where sea turtles come to lay their eggs.'

Ms Puechoultres, a marketing expert who joined the chain in 2003 as strategic worldwide marketing director, began her career at consumer goods manufacturing corporation Proctor & Gamble before joining French TV group M6. She then moved into online business, working for European internet provider Tiscali France, before joining Disney Television France to help launch a new TV channel.

Her first contact with Club Med on a business level came 20 years ago when she was in her second year of her business degree. She won a competition in which students had to relaunch the singles huts in a Club Med village. Her prize was a trip to the Club Med village in Corfu, Greece.

Fifteen years later, Ms Puechoultres was recruited by present chairman and managing director of Club Med, Henri Giscard d'Estaing, who is the son of a former French president, to relaunch the chain's global advertising strategy.

Her first step was to formulate two large international studies to assess the needs of Club Med customers and the brand's perception among the public. The nine-month studies provided the information from which Ms Puechoultres devised the global advertising campaign.

'What we learned was that for most people a vacation is a high-budget priority and it comes with a high psychological investment - people want to be treated like a prince or a princess on holiday,' she said. 'We also found there was a trend of individualism or 'chosen togetherness'. People fear others but simultaneously need others as they are afraid of being alone. So we revised and refined our business model to integrate these concerns.'

The group improved its resorts' rooms and the design of its facilities and it 'harmonised' its clientele by targeting people with the same values and social status.

'We have three key elements to the experience we offer. Firstly, we still aim to deliver happiness to our guests, and offer a range of choices but, unlike in the old days, when we would set up vast buffets, for example, we now offer smaller buffets with only the best items. We also tailor the activities on offer - some of the villages specialise in certain sports or activities. While the Club Med strategy used to tend towards volume, we now offer quality,' she said.

'Secondly, the chain retains its original flavour of 'togetherness' but there is now much more freedom to choose what you want to do and when. There are tables for two, four, six or any number of people in our restaurants, there are different pools for children and adults, there are rooms of different comfort levels and we have playgrounds and gardens with areas for classical music and so on.

'The third element we have incorporated is creativity. We have invented new offers and activities, such as kite surfing, bungee jumping, garden parties with foie gras and fine wines, and archery. Then there's our Passworld strictly for teens with things like Baobab tree climbing and windsurfing parties. We also have Baby Club Med where parents can leave their baby with expert minders and have a real break from normal life. Then there's Petit and Mini Club Med with activities specifically arranged for toddlers and pre-teens.'

Another aspect of the Club Med experience that Ms Puechoultres highlights is the multicultural diversity of the guests as people from all over the world visit the resorts.

Club Med staff, referred to as GOs, have the role of bridging the gap between guests and creating a friendly atmosphere. GOs often come from varied backgrounds, with staff from 15 to 20 different countries being the norm at any village. 'GOs are trained to be emotionally intelligent so that guests don't feel forced into taking part in activities, as perhaps they sometimes were in the past,' said Ms Puechoultres.

Club Med's new business strategy is complemented by an advertising campaign that promotes a feeling of human experience and emotion and gives the impression of intimacy. The latest campaign was launched at the end of last year in Europe and in April this year in Hong Kong. There was also a soft launch at the Bintan resort in March, but the relaunch of the renovated Ria Bintan resort will take place next year with a prominent international golf tournament.