All-inclusive holidays are changing to appeal to independent travellers

I swore off package holidays after my first visit to Cancun eight years ago. The plastic cups, the all-you-can eat shrimp, guac and enchiladas, at a resort so unremarkable I can’t even recall its name, lost their appeal after day two.

But I recently decided to give them another chance with a visit to Club Med Yucatan Cancun. I’ll admit I was prompted, in large part, by cold, blustery weather I was suffering through at home, and four days in 25 C sunshine, with three white-sand beaches opposite the world’s second-largest coral reef, certainly helped me see things in a new way. But what this visit also showed me is that the success of the all-inclusive resort, and, in particular, Club Med, comes down to three things.

Personal Touch
Since its inception in 1950, Club Med has promoted its own terminology across its 70 resorts in 26 countries, which encourages a sense of familiarity and personal approach from the get-go. “We are the GOs,” explains Claire Nichols, the bubbly meetings and events manager I am introduced to moments after arriving at the 22-acre resort. “It stands for Gentil Organizateurs, and the guests are the GMs — Gentil Membres.” There are approximately 100 GOs at Club Med Yucatan Cancun, doing all sorts of jobs from managing social media to performing in nightly shows. The titles seem a little lost in translation (“nice organizers” and “nice members”) and are a little over the top, but it seems to work: The terms are consistently used by staff and guests throughout the property and encourage visitors to interact with staff.

Deanna Ting, hospitality editor at travel intelligence company Skift, explains that consistent interactions and engagement are priority for all-inclusive brands. “They realize the importance of the guest experience and that it’s not limited to just the room, the bar, the pool, or the buffet,” she says. At Club Med locations, wherever you are on the premises, the same staff appear every day and night — whether it’s at the breakfast buffet or teaching trapeze. Optional nightly dress codes, ranging from black-and-white to Mexican themes, further the opportunity for inclusivity. Case in point: Within five hours of arriving at the resort, I find myself wearing a yellow dress and dancing between a grandmother and a group of millennials on a tiny man-made beach. A handful of GOs danced on a nearby table. Whether it is the lingo, the team’s cheerleading ethos or shots of cheap tequila being passed around, I was struck by a camp-like vibe, where everyone seems to want to know each other.

Trapeze at Club Med Canucun Yucatan. • Courtesy Club Med

Trapeze at Club Med Canucun Yucatan. • Courtesy Club Med

Active Ingredients
Another element that adds to a successful all-inclusive experience is the range of activities available. Club Med has long placed priority on its activity offering, having opened its first resort in 1956. From snorkelling to dance classes, there are ubiquitous options. But the trapeze was, by far, the most unusual and terrifying activity I encountered. After climbing a 30-foot ladder a GO clips the safety ropes to my harness and instructs me to reach for the bar. A few deep breaths later I hear him yell, “Hep,” which means it’s time to jump. I fly through the air, pulling my legs up and over the bar, swinging back and forth upside down. On a second attempt, I do it again and even manage to let go and grab the hands of the “catcher.” It’s hardly Cirque du Soleil, but it’s certainly exhilarating. Another morning, I join a mother and preteen daughter, as well as a middle-aged man called John, from Chicago, for a windsurfing lesson. “So far I’m really enjoying it,” he says of his first Club Med experience while we clicked into our life jackets. “I’m here with my girlfriend, she’s a beach person and still sleeping. This way I can get out and do things in the morning.”

Offering activities targeted to each location means the company is well suited to benefit from the rise of millennials in search of unique experiences, and appeal to those looking for health and wellness on their holiday. I, too, enjoyed adding something distinct to each day, rather than looking back on a blur of beaches and cocktails.

Typical room in Jade 5-trident space at Yucatan Cancun Club Med resort. * Courtesy Club Med

Typical room in Jade 5-trident space at Yucatan Cancun Club Med resort. * Courtesy Club Med

Look of Luxe
To be competitive in the travel industry, high-end VIP offerings are a must. Club Med avoids comparisons with star ratings by using its own trident system, which is based on the resort, size of rooms, number of activities and restaurants offered. Though Club Med Yucatan Cancun is four-trident resort, the property boasts a recently renovated 48-room five-trident space, which requires a wristband to enter to the private pool, cafe bar and beach. It does not have the bells and whistles I would expect from a five-star room (not much of a view and no tub) but the area is peaceful, and while children are permitted, there aren’t many. For some, exclusive access alone is luxurious. Beside the bar I encounter Trevor, a father of two from Florida who has been coming to this location for five years. “I left my house at 9 this morning and by 1 p.m. I’m beside the pool, and there’s hardly anyone here,” he says. “You can’t beat that.”

New five-trident accommodations are being constructed at Club Med Yucatan Cancun in the form of Aquamarina family suites. “The image of the all-inclusive resort being a relatively value-driven type of product, or a product that was more about excess than quality, is a hard one to shake, but newer resorts are upending those perceptions,” says Ting. Other new offerings to position this brand and location as a luxury destination are smaller in scale: For US$30, tequila tastings can be arranged and international wines purchased by the bottle at a new Bodega opened last fall.

Around the world, the company’s commitment to luxury is increasing as more high-end resorts are in the works, including Club Med Cefalù in Sicily, Italy, which reopens in Summer 2018 as the first five-trident resort in Europe. Meanwhile, 2020 will see Canada’s first location open in Le Massif de Charlevoix, offering skiing and sports with the option of staying in a five-trident luxury space. A welcome reminder to never say never. 

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