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China 2.0

In China, Club Med Is A Brand New Idea 65 Years After Its Founding

Rich families from Guangzhou or Beijing are flocking to the new Asian "villages" of the famous French vacation brand. Activities include mahjong and karaoke but the beloved GOs (Genteel Organizers) are still here.

A Chinese GO giving a tai-chi class in Guilin
A Chinese GO giving a tai-chi class in Guilin
Ursula Gauthier

GUILIN — As soon as you step foot in the huge lobby of Guilin's Club Med, you're transported to a magical world. On the other side of the glass wall stretches a breathtaking panorama, far from the sunny beaches and the coconut trees that we tend to find in so many holiday pictures. Here, as far as you can see, there are only rock hills with strange shapes, surrounded by mist, dotted with thickets of trees, intertwined by ponds and streams.

Foreign visitors are astounded by this fabulous scenery. The Chinese, though, aren't moved in quite the same way. Guilin is a world-renowned location that has been glorified for centuries in numerous poems, paintings, pictures and tourism leaflets. Its splendor is no longer surprising to them.

No, what arouses the curiosity of Chinese guests here is the Club Med concept itself, and its bizarre French lifestyle. For example, there are many foreigners on staff, from all over the globe, who don't speak a word of Chinese. Also on offer are a plethora of activity choices still unknown in China: from rock climbing to mountain biking, golf and water aerobics and also cooking lessons, sculpture and yoga.

To Chinese visitors, the strangest thing is the omnipresence of the Club Med employees — known the world over as GOs, or "genteel organizers" — who welcome clients with open arms, watch the sports activities, dine with guests, and do their best to have conversations with clients even though they don't speak a common language.

"What does GO mean?"

A Chinese GO struggles to explain the subtleties of the Club Med system to a group of newcomers, while driving them in an electric car to visit the buildings spread all over the 113-acre "village" — hotels, restaurants, workshops, pools, golf. "I didn't get it," a woman whispers to her daughter. "What does GO mean?"

In China, Club Med is known only in the narrow ranks of the ultra rich who can afford to pay for "village" holidays in Malaysia, Thailand or the Maldives. The hundreds of millions working-class Chinese have never heard of it.

So far, there are three Club Med villages in China. Vincent Grandsire, who was its director until very recently, was able to measure the general ignorance. "When they arrive, Chinese don't know a thing about the concept of the Club Med," he says. "They think that they bought a simple stay in a five-star hotel. They don't understand that everything is included in the price, not just the meals."

Enjoying the supervision

This situation will be changing soon. After a business proposal that took 18 months to be accepted — the longest one in the history of the Parisian Stock Exchange — Club Med, the jewel of French tourism, was bought by Fosun, the most powerful private conglomerate in China, worth $51 billion. Its boss, Guo Guangchang, a 48-year-old billionaire who wants to take care of the Chinese elite, is convinced that "Club Med is really well suited for the current way of life of the Chinese society."

Indeed, the upper classes are eager for new experiences and discoveries. Luxurious hotels are multiplying, but in China there's no other place that offers a privileged setting, unparalleled service and a range of activities to satisfy this hyperactive generation.

In a curious way, the GO system also satisfies a more secret need, inherited from the dictatorship: the need to be supervised by a "team leader" who manages the group activities. One of the GOs confirms, laughing, "Despite all our efforts to help our Chinese friends feel comfortable, they tend to see us as authority figures and thus behave with discipline. If we tell them that it's time for archery, they will go to the archery class. If we say it's time to dance, they will dance."

The preference for group activities is so strong that Club Med, which had originally planned a singe karaoke room and mahjong table — a Chinese favorite hobby — had to create six times the karaoke rooms and 20 times the mahjong tables it had first envisioned. But though 400 deck chairs were ordered, only 100 have been set around the swimming pool.

The guests in all their splendor

For Raphaël Erez, who has been director of the Giulin village for four months, China is a breath of fresh air compared to the "blasé" atmosphere of the European villages. "Here, everything is new for the vacationers," he says. "Chinese people are delighted, full of enthusiasm. They want to try everything and have new experiences. It's just like in the original Club Med, in 1950, when France welcomed, amazed, this new concept of holidays."

Still, there are a few significant differences, especially concerning the way the Chinese approach the day. No matter whether they are overtired or on holiday, Chinese people invariably wake up early and go to bed early. Having a lie-in is not their cup of tea. The Club then has to adapt to this rhythm, offering a very early breakfast, lunch at noon sharp and dinner at 6.30 p.m. And if the GOs want to have people attending their dance nights, they better start them at 8 p.m. because at 10 p.m., it's lights out for Chinese guests.

Providing that this special timetable is followed, the after-dinner shows animated by the GOs are a great success.

Family holidays

Another big difference between European and Chinese guests is that Chinese vacationers don't dream of solitary holidays. Instead, they are meant to be spent with the family and, preferably, the whole family. Mrs. Xiao, a stylish forty-something, explains in perfect English: "This place is exactly what we needed. My husband and I are diplomats, working in North Korea, and we take this opportunity to spend time with our son and with my in-laws."

The Xiaos move as a family here, the old ones watching the achievements of the young ones. Even when the precious child participates in activities reserved for young people, the whole family follows him to immortalize every moment, snapping dozens of pictures. They eat together, dance together at night and sing karaoke together.

Fosun, Club Med's new owner, has already made some major investments. Three villages are set to be opened before 2016. In the meantime, the group is launching a new formula, Joyview, which offers short stays in very chic and comfortable places, near big cities, made for the new young "bourgeois."

For the moment, Fosun doesn't seem to want to change the company's French style, which has attracted waves of Chinese guests. The challenge must seem exciting for Club Med's directors, but what it has in store for China is ultimately very different than the course it charted during the company's more than half-century history.

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