Mon dieu! French giant Club Med soon to become either Chinese, Italian, or Brazilian!!! How can this be? Why is this happening? In the news this week, a transfer was in question, leading to think the majority of the famed company would change hands in a majority take-over by a foreign entity. Gasp.
The beloved institution started with a man who put camping tents on beaches in exotic locales, so that French workers on minimum wages or slightly higher could wet their feet on far-away beaches, or countryside spots, while enjoying their many weeks of annual paid vacations per the French regulated system.
My parents were never camping-style people, my mother would never sleep on a floor, so tents and fire camps were not a vacation option for our family. We would stay in rented flats, swapped houses, family places, or hotels, but we never camped. To this day, I never have, maybe I should try someday. I slept on dirt floors, in hammocks, in all sorts of hotels/motels and luxurious resorts, but never slept at a campground.
Frenchmen Gérard Blitz began the Club Mediterranée in 1950, a few years after the end of WWII, when France was still damaged and traumatized, and when the work force of the recovering country was looking to have a good time with their family, in the elation caused by freedom and the memories of happier times.
The first vacation village was opened on the beach in Mallorca, a Spanish island. In those days, it was a tradition for French people to go on vacation in Spain, It was much cheaper than France, it was an easy drive from anywhere in France, had the most exotic cuisine, culture, souvenirs, the weather was assured to always be better than in France.
The setting was made easy by the fact that the village was on an island, for a castaway experience full of water sports, beach games, sea fare cuisine and tropical fruits. It was easy to watch the kids, who already had a club of sort with games and other enticement to have fun, while their parents relaxed or play some water activity. Ping-pong was also big then.
The revelation of the system was that all was paid in advance: tents, food, sports, and transportation - a communal life that allowed people to spend their time off without having to carry any cash with them. No money was ever exchanged at the beach. They were the first savages, the pre-LOST generation, without a plane crash, and without a smoke monster. Life was good.
The system still exist, no money changes hands in the club life. The all-inclusive concept was born, and with it, the future of millions will be forever changed. French was always the main language in all the clubs, with French staff members hired to do it all, from entertaining to cooking, from organizing to branding the identity of a very French experience for middle class patrons. It was considered un-chic for some snobs to go sleep under a tent or stay in a hut in a community of fun participants.
Many thought the first club was some sort of commune for indecent characters, or a place where loud children were running wild. But enough people thought it was a new way to spend their precious vacation and the concept took off in a large scale, still going strong after all these years.
So much so that in 1961, the number of villages greatly increased with the leadership of tent-maker Gilbert Trigano, who was the major influence and decision-taker for the Club from 1963 to 1993. He added winter villages to the expanding catalog of vacation spots, offering skiing and winter sports experience, opening the first winter resort of Leysin in Switzerland.
Many clubs sprouted around the Mediterranean basin, and the first club outside of that ring was in Tahiti, a French territory. The rest is history, with clubs all over the world, including in Florida. French is always spoken at every location, and French cuisine is one of the highlights of a stay at one of the Club Med, as they have been known for some years now.
I visited the club of Sandpiper in Florida when my kids were little, and I have to say, as a French person, that the food was divine, and the revelation of the endless buffet style was for us an amazing concept we had never experienced before. My kids adored the circus school, where they could fly off trapezes and land in giant nets, where they could learn to juggle multiple balls and do all sorts of eccentric and fun things. The best part for us adults was that we never had to organize, supervise, nor regiment any of their activities, it was part of the experience for parents to let go of their kids and enjoy themselves. I have to admit this was a great vacation for me.
A few years ago a beautiful tall-mast cruise ship was added to the destinations. The French-speaking staff members organizing all events are called GO (Gentils Organisateurs), and the customers are named GM (Gentils Membres). This was one of the reasons the reputation of the club at its beginning was suspected to be a variant of a sect, with the infantile titles given to everybody onboard, so to speak.
"The reason people become infatuated with Club Med," says Jean-Baptiste Bacheron, the founder of Club Med fan website, macase.net, "is the sense of belonging. Everyone is welcomed like one of the family, and you share the experience with people from all over the world."
Some villages have come and gone, due to weather incidents, such as hurricanes, or detrimental political environment; some poorly functioning locations were also eliminated, but the overall success of the company cannot be denied, with 70 operations active in Europe, Africa, Middle East, North America, Mexico, the Caribbean, South America, Asia, Australia, China, Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean.
French magazine Paris-Match explained in 1965: "In these villages, money has no value. We are all billionaires! We live in a perfectly socialist economy, where everything is free for everyone". Where free is not really the truth here, as the vacations are of course pre-paid, the socialist aspect to the venture is undeniable, with a three-musketeers halo of all-for-one-and one-for-all kind of sharing and gratitude underlying.
"The Club Med Vacation... The Antidote to Civilization" was one of the famous advertising slogans used for the worldwide campaigns.
So when the quintessential French experience showed up in the news last week again, after 18 intense months of bidding between several parties to take over the company, and be sold to the highest bidder, the approaching resolution of the bidding war sent my interest rising.
Selling the Club Méditerranée to an Italian, a Brazilian, or a Chinese investor seems to defeat the purpose of the company itself. The Chinese company Fosun already has a 10 percent participation in the club, since 2010. The Italian Agnelli family (owners of FIAT) also have interests in the company since 1974. But the core remains French, and I can only hope it will stay that way. Will we sell the Eiffel Tower too?
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