First things first, I’m not the all-inclusive type. I’m more of the same-shirt-for-a-week, $3-dorm-bed kind of traveller. So when I found out I was going to the Club Med on Indonesia’s Bintan Island, I borrowed a pair of flowing pants and a carry-on with wheels and set off to try and fit in.
Club Med is the original all-inclusive. In 1950, Belgian water polo player Gerard Blitz founded the first club on the island of Majorca. It was just a handful of young travellers in beach huts then. In 1961, Baron Edmond de Rothschild had a lovely stay at a Club Med and decided to buy the company.
Funded by the Rothschild family’s wealth (the largest private fortune in the 19th century), the company expanded, opening ski resorts in Switzerland and beach destinations in the Caribbean. Today, Club Med has 71 villages all over the world, and even a cruise ship.
In the early 2000s, the company adapted to market changes, shifting their focus to the upscale market and family-oriented holidays. After a two-year bidding war, Club Med was bought out by Chinese company Fosun International in 2015 for a cool $1.07 billion, and are now looking to tap into Asia’s growing tourism market.
The Art of Happiness
The concept here is simply; happiness. And it’s hard not to be happy when everyone around you is smiling. This is the strategy at Club Med, where you can’t walk a metre without encountering sparkling eyes and a full spread of shiny white teeth.
It’s downright infectious, from the moment you exit the giant Club Med coach bus (to the tune of Pharrell’s song, Happy, of course), the resort’s Gentils Organisateurs (GOs) greet you with smiles, wine glasses and lavender-scented towels.
“Check into your room, relax. Have some lunch!” they said, so I made my way to the first of many buffets. At Club Med, there’s one around every corner. An open-air beachside buffet, a barbecue in the sand buffet, a massive food hall dinner buffet… all fully-stocked with international fare, from tikka masala to beef wellington.
I guess all that food is necessary energy for the long list of activities available. Our itinerary for the next day read; sailing, aqua fitness, archery and yoga, in that order. Unfortunately I only made it to the fifth activity, which was “cocktails”.
What makes the Club Med experience unique are the GOs. They’re essentially summer camp counsellors, and their job is to mingle with guests, entertain the kids, and create a fun ambience. If you sit down to eat alone here, it will only be a minute before a smiling GO approaches, asking if they can join you for lunch.
At our first dinner, we were joined by Pym, a 31-year-old from Thailand who has worked in Club Med resorts for eight years, and Maho, from Japan, who was a guest in many of the club’s resorts before finally getting a job at reception.
“How do you not get fat here?” I asked Pym incredulously, bewildered by all the choices at the enormous dinner buffet. She laughs.
“We dance! Dancing is part of the life.”
Dance For Life
After dinner, I found out what she meant. Every night at the bar, the GOs lead guests through a series of group line dances, all with easy-to-follow moves and very high energy. It’s sort of like your cousin’s wedding reception, except much more organised.
This is all aimed at the kids, of course. Keep the kids happy, and the parents can relax. GOs often form long-term relationships with their return guests; Pym told me that one family in particular has been coming back for so long, she’s watched their kids grow from toddlers into teenagers.
After everyone is thoroughly warmed up, this family-friendly dance party ultimately segues down the hall into their theatre, where the GOs put on a choreographed dance show every night. Every GO has three to four shows in their repertoire, and they rotate throughout the week, so guests always have fresh entertainment.
Everyone participates in the shows, even the Chef de Village (Club Med-speak for resort manager), Jessie. At 33 years old, she is one of the only female chefs in the entire company. When I asked her why she’s worked with Club Med for almost a decade, she replied simply: “I love people!”
And of course, the opportunity to travel can’t hurt, either. Pym has now worked at Club Meds in Malaysia, China, Japan, the Maldives, Thailand and Indonesia. It’s not a bad business plan, really — move your employees around every six months so they can tell guests first-hand about the unique features that other locations offer.
Golf, Circus and Missiles
In Bintan, a huge draw is the “Best Golf Course in Asia”, Ria Bintan, 27 holes with ocean views, just a short drive outside Club Med. The resort has its own in-house golf shop, and can arrange trips for guests. I’m not much of a golf enthusiast, but I did get to drive the golf cart, and it was a lovely jaunt through serene forests and lush greenery.
This Club Med also features a trapeze and a trained circus team. Every day they teach kids and adults alike how to swing through the air and bounce down onto the net below. And once a week, the team puts on a special circus show, featuring aerial silks and juggling tricks. There’s also the Mini Club, where GOs entertain the kids with activities like tie-dye workshops and soccer games, while mom and dad lounge by the pool.
In truth, I didn’t do very well blending in. I should have probably brought a couple of kids. But I did find friends in the staff, who were more than happy to have a drink with me whenever I asked. On my last night at Club Med, I sat by the pool with Jasper, the Club’s assistant restaurant manager. After several tours in Iraq with the US Army, he was led to reassess his career.
“I asked, what am I doing with my life? Am I making people happy?” he said. He may only get one day off a week, and he may work early mornings and late nights, but now, instead of firing missiles, he’s in the business of making people smile.
Photos by Jesse Meadows