It’s increasingly very difficult to stand out in the highly competitive world of upscale hotel and resort brands. That’s why Club Med took my by complete surprise – in a great way.
Refreshing, distinct and driven by an amazing brand culture, Club Med’s employees have a relentless passion to create valuable and memorable brand experiences, it’s just a shame the brand identity may be limiting it’s true potential.
Recently, I returned from a much-needed family holiday in Singapore and Indonesia. While the kids loved Resorts World and all the theme parks and attractions on Sentosa Island, the unexpected delight was a week at Club Med, Bintan Island, Indonesia.
Over the years, I have tried many of the leading five star hotel chains and while they have their own unique charms, most tend to blur with the others. There is often a bigger differential between properties within the same chain than between the brands. Delivering a distinctive and valued brand experience from one location to another, building true guest loyalty to one brand, is still the biggest challenge for most of hotel chains.
I have never really been attracted to the Club Med brand previously. For me, I had a perception of the brand that was built around twenty-something’s letting loose, playing stupid games, getting drunk, picking up and generally completely out of control. I put them in the same basket as Hedonism Resorts.
Perhaps this was due to out-dated brand stories but the brand identity with its iconic trident (which has dubious mythological symbolism and reminds me of a devil fork) also continues to project confuse or project the wrong image – potentially creating a barrier for the uninitiated.
So when my wife suggested we spend a week at Club Med, I was more than hesitant, despite the long list of ‘evidence’ by the way of Trip Advisor reviews she gave me to support her cause.
My opinion of the brand rapidly changed from the moment we arrived at the resort.
If what I witnessed at Bintan Island was a true representation of the Club Med brand (regulars to Club Med assure me it is) this is truly a standout brand that truly understands the importance of how their people can deliver real brand differentiation.
Everyone from the management through to the cleaning staff all lived the Club Med brand experience, far beyond providing great hospitality.
A French concept, Club Med has a rich history dating back to the 1950s with villages of simple straw huts on beachfronts in Europe. The facilities were pretty basic but the focus was always on making holidays memorable and fun for the whole family.
The brand has come along way since then. After several attempts to shift their positioning, including a period where they did focus on singles (perhaps where some of negative perception comes from), they launched a massive upgrade of their resorts globally and adopted their current focus as upscale family-oriented resorts in 2008.
The brand’s positioning is now built around “where happiness means the world”.
The statement alone is not really compelling or distinct – but it the fact that employees believe, understand and personally live this, that really makes the brand special.
It is so inspiring to see true brand-led behaviour in action and the difference it can make. The energy, talent, creativity, generosity, adaptability and humour I witnessed, all bring to life a unique brand spirit that is all focussed on delivering a holiday of a lifetime for guests.
Club Med redefine guests and staff with their own brand language that you can’t help but be swept up by. As a guest you are known as a GMs (Gentils Membres; Gracious Members), staff that run the activities and manage the resort are called GOs (Gentils Organisateurs; Gracious Organisers). Locally recruited support staff, such as cleaners and cooks, are known as GEs (Gentils Employés; Gracious Employees).
But it is more than just clever brand language. At Club Med, GOs and GMs play, dine, drink, and dance together every day and night – this creates a unique bond between staff, guests and the brand.
GOs who had worked for other five star chains told me this made a fundamental difference for the brand. “With other brands, fraternising with the guests is actually discouraged. There is a kind of barrier between you and the guests and you seek to maintain that. A lot of classically hospitality trained employees struggle with the Club Med approach. I had to completely retrain myself in the Club Med way,” said Karen.
The connection between GOs and GMs is evident across all levels of management. Michael Clarke (Mike), Bintan Island’s Chief of the Village, also dined and actively interacted with the guests. Mike was nearly always there to greet new guests, participated in most of the games and activities during the day and led the evening entertainment most nights. I also witnessed first hand his genuine interest and concern for guests at the resort.
Within a day or so, many of the GOs knew us by name, especially the kids. There was none of the usual how are you Mr Hughes or yes sir – it was informal and very genuine. This made it almost difficult to differentiate between guests (GMs) that we met and staff (GOs) – as they all felt like new friends.
We had the pleasure of dining with everyone from the doctor, to those running the bar, the trapeze, water sports and various activities around the resort. Every mealtime, my son sussed out that if we got a large table we had a greater chance of the GOs joining our table!
This was also a perfect opportunity to talk to the GOs and get a real sense of the Club Med brand. I was impressed how they all passionately talked about the Club Med brand, effortlessly demonstrating their brand culture with personal and rich brand stories and cleverly selling me on the other resorts.
The GOs were all incredibly honest as well. They told me how they work from 8am to midnight, six days a week, with one day off inevitably spend sleeping, but all stressed that although they feel exhausted at times it doesn’t really feel like work.
One of GOs was on her second day at the resort. She was still adjusting to the new lifestyle but, for her, this was a dream come true. From a small town in New Zealand, Hannah told us that as a child she had holidayed at Club Med with her family. She loved her holidays so much; she wanted to join Club Med.
My wife and I met several other couples with children, who were also new to the Club Med brand. They were mostly from the UK, NZ and Australia and their perceptions were similar to us. While we generally agreed that we could give or take some of the group activities and nightly sing-alongs (we were probably in the minority on this), they all echoed my surprise at how amazing the Club Med experience had been and were all planning their next Club Med trip.
However, the French and most of the Chinese and Koreans I met seemed to be familiar with the brand and in particular loved the shows, singing and group activities.
One of the other areas that I was completely impressed with was the fact that all-inclusive means all-inclusive. Unlike other resorts that seem to take every opportunity possible to find a way to charge you for everything from water to extra towels, there were no surprise bills at Club Med. All food and drink, kids’ club sporting activities – even lessons and water sports were included in the original package price.
All in all, Club Med did so much right that it is hard to even point out any areas for improvement. However, the overall resort, especially the rooms, looked fairly dated and a bit tired. The television in the room was an LCD, but it was ridiculously small, the size of a small computer monitor – you couldn’t watch it from the bed. I guess the attitude is you don’t come to Club Med to spend your time watching TV in the room – but they might as well not bother having a TV at all, you can’t watch it! While there were some niggling little things that could be improved on but none of this is related to the staff or the magical experience they created.
Every opportunity to deliver a memorial brand experience was taken. From creating a sense of arrival to the final goodbye, the GOs were actively involved in making the moment feel special.
While the stunning location, weather, activities and all helped created a great family holiday, it was the GOs that really made it special and memorable. Not only did we have a great time, the children felt like it was designed just for them. In fact, they both spent their days at the kid’s club, trying new sports and making new friends. They haven’t stopped asking when we are going back to Club Med – even Universal Studios didn’t compare.
Club Med’s brand image needs a bit of work. The negative perception I had of the brand before experiencing had been echoed by a large amount of people I’ve spoken to, particularly in Australia, NZ and the UK. There seems to be a lack of understanding and quite a bit of misinformation that is adding to brand confusion. In particular, the trident icon, while iconic and part of the brand’s heritage seems could be a barrier in attracting new guests and certainly doesn’t convey an upscale family focussed resort brand. Trying to book through the website proved to be just about impossible – we ended up booking through a travel agent.
If you finally get to a resort, the Club Med’s team are great at delivering the brand experience and building brand loyalty. The real opportunity is to harness and reflect the great brand culture in their external image. To grow, there needs to be a focus on attracting new members as much of their guest information assumes you understand the Club Med brand and experience. In particular, refreshing their brand identity and focussing their marketing and communication to better leverage their brand stories needs to be explored.
What is your perception of the Club Med brand? Have you stayed at a Club Med before? How was your brand experience? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Director of Brand Strategy