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)

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