Voulez-vous Club Med avec moi?

The Club Méditerranée is 50 years old this year, and just about recovering from a mid-life crisis. But with the opening of the new Club Med World in Paris, things are looking up

Someone really ought to have thought of this idea before. The world has long needed a place where you can eat, practise on the trapeze, record a CD and book your holiday, all in one lunchtime. The place in question has three restaurants, several bars, a one-minute masseur, a circus school, a magician, a show stage, a big screen, a travel agency, a reading library, an amateur's video/CD recording studio, a lot of gratuitous bamboo, and, most surprisingly of all for Paris, a friendly, clubbable atmosphere.

Someone really ought to have thought of this idea before. The world has long needed a place where you can eat, practise on the trapeze, record a CD and book your holiday, all in one lunchtime. The place in question has three restaurants, several bars, a one-minute masseur, a circus school, a magician, a show stage, a big screen, a travel agency, a reading library, an amateur's video/CD recording studio, a lot of gratuitous bamboo, and, most surprisingly of all for Paris, a friendly, clubbable atmosphere.

Club Med has come to town. The French holiday company, synonymous with exotic, faraway beaches - and sea, sand, sex, sport and elaborate buffets - has opened an ambitious new urban leisure centre (without accommodation) in the trendy eastern fringes of Paris, called Club Med World. Other big-city locations are to follow: Montreal, Miami, possibly New York, but not, for the time being, London.

This summer, British visitors to the French capital will be able to get a taste of the Gallic alternative to Butlin's, Thomson and Abercrombie & Kent. Fifty years ago, when foreign travel was the preserve of few Europeans, Club Méditerranée introduced the concept of holidays as exotique but économique, not to mention risqué.

Club Med began with a tent village on a Majorcan beach in 1950. The idea was that the " Gentils Membres" ("nice members") were taking part in a permanent festivity with no social barriers, in which all the burdens of life and fun were carried by the multiskilled Gentils Organisateurs ("nice organisers"). Sumptuous meals were taken at tables of eight to break down family groups, and sport and evening entertainments were organised by the GOs. Everyone - a significant feature in France - called each other by the familiar " tu", not the formal " vous". Even when tents gave way to huts, and then hotels, the doors were never locked (adding to the Club's early reputation as a happy hunting-ground for the sexually adventurous).

The past half-century for Club Med has, at times, been considerably more rocky than the tropical beaches that feature in its latest brochure. The organisation is only now recovering from a mid-life crisis. The birthday and the urban experiment are directly connected. Club Med World is meant to reintroduce a young, urban, relatively well-heeled clientele to the Club Med concept, as somewhat re-engineered for the 21st century. It is also meant to keep regular Club Med-goers in touch with the Club, and each other, between holidays.

If you are tempted by the latest alternative to the Louvre or Disneyland Paris, you will find prices at Club Med World relatively low. Membership is free to anyone who has been on a Club Med holiday in the last two years. Otherwise, it is Fr120 (£12) for a family for a year, or Fr20 (£2) for a day. Unlike the 120 Club Med Villages around the world, however, you pay in cash or plastic for what you buy. There are none of the famous barter shells and beads, which have, in any case, been virtually driven from the holiday villages by a Club Med charge card.

You will benefit from a subsidy: Club Med World is, self-confessedly, a loss-leader. It is intended as a permanent, living commercial for Club Med rather than, initially anyway, a profit-making enterprise in its own right. All the same, it would not be surprising if Club Med World found itself with a free-standing success on its hands. For all its chic, Paris is starved of family-friendly places for the weekends, and unusual, relaxed lunch and evening venues.

But what of Club Med itself? How is the leading French travel company (number six in Europe, being heavily outgunned by the German and British giants) recovering from the institutional share-holders' revolt which deposed the founding Trigano family in 1997? Is the Club Med concept - "The best idea since happiness was invented", according to co-founder, Gilbert Trigano - past its shell-by date?

Frankly, the whole idea - a kind of one-party holiday - has always filled me with horror. For me, the proto-Club Med is the ethereal village in Patrick McGoohan's cult TV series, The Prisoner, in which bright young things waft around, mindlessly compelled to be happy.

I once briefly visited friends at a golf-oriented Club Med in County Kerry (since sold). It was raining. The GMs had been dragooned into the bar by the GOs, where everyone played a mass quiz game. The whole thing had a feeling of East Germany, with smiles and good food. If I had been there for longer, I would have founded an escape committee.

This, I freely admit, may be a minority view. I turned to a French friend, who has been an annual Club Med-goer for 25 years. Ginette Berber, a television producer, said that Club Med attracted her - and tens of thousands of others - because it provided, at a reasonable all-in price, instant friends, instant entertainment, terrific beaches, excellent and endless food, security and (she happily confesses) plenty of opportunities for sex.

"Frankly, everything is changed now. You still have the terrific beaches. You still have great entertainment in the evening. But the rule about calling people ' tu' was dropped years ago. You no longer have to sit at a table of eight, although you can if you want to. People lock their doors.

"You hardly see the GOs in the daytime. The food is still very good but there is much less of it and the prices, even if you consider it is all-in, are now very expensive. To me, the original Club Med spirit has died, and it isn't because of the change of management. It goes back several years."

Gilbert Trigano was not, technically speaking, a founder of the Club. He simply provided the tents for the first Club from his family tent business. He entered the business proper after four years. The enterprise was started by a man called Gérard Blitz, who got the idea after he was asked by the Belgian government to provide transit camps for conscript-workers returning home after the Second World War.

Both men had been in the Resistance in France. Both had left-wing opinions and ran the Club in the early years as a non-profit- making venture, with political, almost Messianic, notions of promoting social change through cheap, sunshine holidays.

All of that began to change in the 1960s and 1970s. The Club which began with a few tents on a beach grew to 129 villages on five continents, with 8,000 GOs, 30,000 employees and a turnover of £13bn. The Club grew older and richer with its membership but also stuffier and less idealistic (hence the decision to reinstate " vous" instead of " tu", to match the more middle-aged profile of the GMs). Fewer and fewer young people were attracted to Club Med holidays. The organisation grew by opening new villages all over the world and selling itself to new markets in the US and Japan (Britain has always been a poor market for Club Med).

By the 1990s, the Club was a multibillion-pound industry, still run as a kind of one-family glee club, without proper budgets or marketing or renewal of villages. Centralisation of decision-taking was such that village staff were given pay rises based on French inflation even in countries where there was no inflation. In some countries, the salaries had become two or three times higher than those in competing resorts.

The low points were the 1991 crash of a plane from a Club Med airline in which 30 GMs died, and the terrorist shelling of a Club Med village in Israel in 1995. The village was closed soon afterwards.

In 1997, the Trigano family was ousted by large corporate shareholders, and Philippe Bourguignon, the man who had rescued the failing Euro Disney, was installed as President.

Bourguignon decided that the Club must recapture its youthful origins, without irritating the older clientele which was no longer so keen on shell necklaces and communal living. It seemed that the Club had two choices, to go down-market again or upgrade its villages to match their high prices. Bourguignon decided, in effect, to do both.

In the last three years, prices have been lowered; simpler, cheaper villages have been developed, closer to the original concept; other villages have been refurbished. The various categories of Club Meds have been more clearly differentiated and steered towards the youth and family markets. Older GOs have been paid off.

Bourguignon complains that Club Med is one of the world's best-known holiday brands but has allowed its image to become fuzzy. "The problem is that we no longer have a core identity. The Club today wants to reach everyone and therefore touches no one. It built itself on the 20-35 market and then drifted away from them. The Club must, at all costs, reconquer its historic clientele and concentrate once again on young people and families..."

That is where Club Med World comes in. The urban leisure centres (up to 20 are planned) are all part of a drive to reposition the Club as something dynamic, young, appealing to sophisticated urban tastes; and yet still friendly, still clubbable.

I confess I went along to Club Med World fearing the worst but I was agreeably impressed (bamboo apart). My only complaint is that I face a moral dilemma. I know that my children, aged 10, six and nearly three, would adore to go to a magical, CD-making, circus-training brunch. But dare I take them? What if they insist on going on a sun-and-fun guaranteed Club Med holiday next year instead of dodging the showers in my beloved little house in Normandy?

Club Med World is at 39 Cour Saint Emilion, Bercy Village, Paris (00 33 1 44 68 7000)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Baroness Lane-Fox warned that large companies such as have become so powerful that governments and regulators are left behind
techTech giants have left governments and regulators behind
News
Keith Fraser says we should give Isis sympathises free flights to join Isis (AFP)
news
Life and Style
'Prison Architect' players decide the fate of inmates
tech
Life and Style
A picture taken on February 11, 2014 at people walking at sunrise on the Trocadero Esplanade, also known as the Parvis des droits de l'homme (Parvis of Human Rights), in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
techGoogle celebrates Paris's iconic landmark, which opened to the public 126 years ago today
News
Cleopatra the tortoise suffers from a painful disease that causes her shell to disintegrate; her new prosthetic one has been custom-made for her using 3D printing technology
newsCleopatra had been suffering from 'pyramiding'
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Coachella and Lollapalooza festivals have both listed the selfie stick devices as “prohibited items”
music
Sport
Nigel Owens was targeted on Twitter because of his sexuality during the Six Nations finale between England and France earlier this month
rugbyReferee Nigel Owens on coming out, and homophobic Twitter abuse
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    SFL Group: Video Project Manager

    £24,000 pa, plus benefits: SFL Group: Looking for a hard-working and self-moti...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Reservations Assistant - French Speaking

    £16000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This rapidly expanding travel c...

    Recruitment Genius: Duty Manager - World-Famous London Museum

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you have a strong record of ...

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Assistant

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will have demonstrable unde...

    Day In a Page

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor