Club Med: Swinging into the future

The year my family vacationed on the French-Caribbean island of Martinique, Jimmy Carter was president, the state of Utah executed Gary Gilmore and John Travolta starred in the movie "Saturday Night Fever. " Our hotel was in St. Anne, near the Club Med Buccaneer's Creek, so my brother and I were on the lookout for swinging singles frolicking, nearly naked, on the beach. We were barely old enough to vote and hopelessly unsophisticated.

It was 1977, when Club Med, the French resort chain with the spicy "antidote-to-civilization" slogan, symbolized everything about sex our mother didn't want us to know because it had nothing to do with procreation.

"In the '70s, there was that whole hedonistic thing," said Mark Wiser, Club Med marketing vice president for the Americas. "That's when Club Med became a sensation for the sea, sex and sun vacation. We didn't create it. It just happened at that time in the culture. "

Ten years later, Carter was back in Georgia, "Saturday Night Fever" had cooled and twentysomethings were working 60-hour weeks on Wall Street instead of swinging with a different partner every night at Buccaneer's Creek.

That would have been bad news for Club Med, except that like almost everything else, it has changed with the times.

Partly in response to the heightened expectations and increased affluence of its largely baby-boomer clientele, the French resort chain has gone up-market, pouring a billion dollars into its resort properties and services in the last seven years.

Buccaneer's Creek on Martinique, which reopened last month after a $60-million reconstruction and remodeling, is set to be the company's new upscale flagship, featuring an oceanfront infinity pool, spa and 293 rooms with CD players, flat-screen TVs and plush bedding.

Clearly, the company has come a long way from its humble beginnings as a post-World War II semi-socialist holiday commune.

Its history tells a fascinating story about the evolution of how we vacation.

Club Med was founded in 1950 by Gerard Blitz, a Belgian water polo champion who had refused to go to the 1936 Olympics in Nazi-controlled Berlin and fought for the French Resistance. It began as a not-for-profit association providing wholesome, modestly priced R&R to war-weary Europeans.

Alcudia, its first village, was on the Spanish island of Majorca, where Blitz and company dug a well and pit toilets, placed electrical lines and erected a bar hut with a coffee machine.

In those days, the price for a Club Med vacation could be paid on an 18-month installment plan. It included transportation (by train at the time); hearty, family-style meals, with guests pitching in at cleanup; lodging in U.S. Army surplus tents, equipped with hard cots; and activities, especially swimming, waterskiing and sailing, overseen by staff members, known then and now as G.O.s, for "gracious organizers. "

There were calisthenics on the beach, sing-alongs, pretty girls in pareos, parties with conga lines -- but no distinction between G.O.s and G.M.s, Club Med shorthand, then as now, for "gracious members. "

Blitz, a big, bear-like father figure, had the same socialist leanings that brought the left-wing Front Populaire to power in France in 1936.

"In these villages, money is superfluous. We live in a perfectly socialist economy. This is a natural state that everyone can aspire to," Paris Match, the French magazine, said of Club Med.

"The idea was that if you could get nice people to come together in a pretty place, good things would happen," Wiser said. "And that's still the idea. "

In other ways, though, Club Med has had more lives than a cat and more identities than a check forger.

In the '60s, it abandoned its not-for-profit status and went public, funding expansion with the help of an infusion of cash from French millionaire Edmond de Rothschild. New villages opened around the world, from Israel to French Polynesia, bringing the Club Med total to 34 resorts by the end of the decade.

Its first in the Western Hemisphere was on the French-Caribbean island of Guadeloupe in 1968, followed by Buccaneer's Creek a year later.

My goggle-eyed brother and I, not to mention thousands of other American baby boomers, got to know Club Med in the '70s, when windsurfing was added to the water sports agenda and a rustic hut village on the Bay of Kotor in then-Yugoslavia went nudist. Club Med evening entertainment featured matchmaking games. Some of those couples lasted a lifetime, others only one night.

The resort chain waited until 1980 to expand into the U.S. by opening a ski village at Copper Mountain, Colo. By then, Western popular culture was more obsessed with vanity than with hedonism and Club Med began to concentrate on fitness.

Then, too, the sexual revolution was running out of steam and swinging singles were settling down, so villages catering to families opened.

In those years, a friend who is a single mom spent three vacations at Club Meds in Mexico. Her daughter joined the teen club while she worked on a tan, went on excursions and did a little salsa dancing.

When tourism tanked during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Club Med resolutely kept its Mediterranean and Middle Eastern villages open. Despite an economic rough patch for the travel business in general after Sept. 11, damage to two villages by the Southeast Asian tsunami in 2004 and Hurricane Wilma's destructive passage across clubs in Florida and the Mexican Yucatan this year, the company has managed to windsurf through changing times.

These days, the resort company, which has its headquarters in Paris and is headed up by Henri Giscard d'Estaing, the son of former French President Valery, welcomes about 1.4 million guests a year to more than 100 Club Med villages in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe and the Americas.

The club ranks the villages using tridents, with four-trident properties at the top of the luxury and price range. Weekly rates at Buccaneer's Creek, one of the high-end villages, start at $1,775 per person, all-inclusive, which covers airfare, lodging, activities, meals and even alcoholic beverages.

Over a third of guests are French, followed by Americans, Belgians and Japanese. But Club Med doesn't play up its French guest base and roots. "We don't market it as a French product," Wiser said. "The average American doesn't know it's a French company. "

Caroline Puechoultres, a Club Med marketing vice president in France, said the expectations of its French and American clients were similar. But there are also subtle differences, stemming largely from the fact that French people have more vacation time than Americans. As Club Med sees it, Americans are willing to invest more in their one- or two-week vacations and expect a high level of service.

It's no coincidence that the company's billion-dollar up-scaling program broke ground at a village in the Caribbean, a favored destination for American visitors.

Clubs in Europe and North Africa that are popular with Europeans are more for the mass market, Puechoultres said. Still, she thinks French vacationers are starting to want more sophistication and amenities, following the American lead. The number of Club Med resorts in the Eastern Hemisphere bearing the company's three- and four-trident ratings is growing. Today, only three single-trident hut villages remain.

And so the Club Med story goes, from socialist tent camp to sex haven to high-thread-count sheets.

"But we would never try to out Ritz-Carlton Ritz-Carlton," Wiser said. "Our regulars appreciate flat-screen television, but at the bar some have admitted they kind of miss the outdoor showers. "

Susan Spano is a writer for The Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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