I have a friend who uses the
examples of a Chevy Corvette and a Ford Thunderbird to demonstrate
the difference between enterprises that have strong vs. weak
"If someone says they
drive a Corvette, you instantly know something about their car and
perhaps even speculate a bit about the owner," he said. "But if
they say they drive a Thunderbird, you have to ask, 'Which year?'
He's right. As the
Thunderbird went from sports car to mock-Cadillac and back down to
roadster over the decades, the Corvette stayed substantially true
to its form.
But in reality, who
could blame Ford for trying to keep apace with consumers who prefer
small cars one year and then like 'em big the next? Tastes shift,
demand changes over time, and the companies that don't make
concessions to changing preferences risk stagnation and
The difficulty, of
course, is trying to sort out which values your business should
retain and which to cast off.
I recently met a CEO
whose company found itself at this crossroads and whose customers
seemed to have left him behind. But he did not frame the resultant
self-examination of his business in clinical terms like "brand
integrity" or "corporate identity." He talked about struggling to
change his business while yet retaining its "soul."
CEO of Club Med Americas, said that in the process of repositioning
his properties, he discovered how difficult it could be to pinpoint
the soul of his business and win back his clientele, which went
from budget-minded, fun-loving singles to upscale parents traveling
"We're still fighting
our own shadow," he said. "We were promoted for years as 'the
antidote to civilization.' People are still asking, 'Can we lock
the door? Is there a TV?' "
Club Med has been
tinkering with its model for several years now, opening
family-centric locations while maintaining others with a more adult
focus. Ultimately, deciding to jump into the upscale family market
wholeheartedly, the company has invested $140 million over the last
two years to convert properties to deliver on that
"Is it possible to do
this without losing your soul?" Gobilliard asked. "To offer suites
and room service in a Club Med?"
eventually identified as the company's "soul" -- that which needed
to be retained -- was a sense of discovery, adventure and human
connections, as personified by the "G.O.s" (gentil organisateur),
the staff activity directors.
"Everyone has more
luxury in their day-to-day life," he said. "But compare our Cancun
property with the Ritz-Carlton in Cancun. We're upscale, but we're
not uptight. You can stay at the Ritz and feel lonely. But not at
By chance, the next
day I ran into Simon Cooper, CEO of Ritz-Carlton, and asked what he
thought about the comparison.
side-stepping the upscale/uptight description, his analysis of Club
Med was not so different from Gobilliard's.
"They've got a great
brand and, in many places, they got there first and got the best,
prime locations," he said. "But they didn't realize their customer
was changing, and they caught that late."
Cooper didn't see
conflict between their core identity and their move toward the high
end. "They're right to go upscale," he said. "There's no
differentiation at the lower end. And they do need to rekindle that
sort of edginess that Club Med had originally."
To that point,
Gobilliard had reflected that while Cancun has its appeal, "going
to Cancun is not an adventure." So the company is planning on
opening new destinations and doing things no one else is
"A Club Med in
Vietnam. And a family safari in South Africa. We're still working
on that, but we want to create a safari that's a safe environment
To get the word out
about what has changed for Club Med -- as well as what has been
retained -- Gobilliard is reaching out to travel agents.
"We did a lot of
surveys," he said. "The relationship between consumers and agents
is amazing, and for us, third-party validation is key. What
consumers are saying to agents is, 'I trust you. Don't disappoint
Based on the human
connections that Gobilliard identified as a core value for Club
Med, travel agents may indeed be a complementary distribution
channel. They, too, have stood at the crossroads. And most who
survived were among the group that concluded that the human
connection was the soul of their businesses, too.