Club Med rolls out the red carpet

Associate editor Paul Felt attended a "Super Fam" at Club Med Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic. His report follows:

uper fam, super fans. Club Med created both recently when it invited about 300 travel agents and me for the first such gathering at its resort at Punta Cana.

The agents were completing the familiarization portion of Club Med's specialist program. As a newcomer to a Club Med anywhere, I was there just for the familiarization part.

The occasion gave resort officials the opportunity to unveil some initiatives that seemed to please the agents. It gave me a chance to unwind and pick up some new skills.

As for the initiatives, Club Med announced it was raising its base commission for specialist agencies from 10% to 12%, giving one complimentary night for every booking of three nights or longer, and making the open-bar bracelet program available at nearly all North American villages.

The agents liked that.

"Our ability to be there for [Club Med] depends on our ability to continue to make a living," said Dennis Groat, co-owner of J. Fire Travel, Manhattan Beach, Calif. "It makes it much easier to work hard for a company that is going to support you."

That's good, I thought. By now, I was contemplating Rollerblading.

"They're keeping up with the times, and they understand what people want," inserted Groat's wife, Denise, who shares ownership of the agency with her husband. "Now Club Med has something for everybody. It used to be [mainly] for the swinging singles."

I'm single, but, hey, this was work, right? Accommodations, food, recreation -- that's what I needed to focus on.

At Club Med Punta Cana, palm trees provide shade; adjustable chairs and a beach bar provide the comfort Having never been to a Club Med before, I enlisted the help of Gulcin Brunson, an agent with Valerie Wilson Travel, New York, who has sold Club Med since 1971 and has been to eight villages over the years.

Brunson said she saw a marked improvement in the quality of the rooms compared with those of other village locations she'd visited in the past.

Brunson was especially impressed by Punta Cana's children's programs, broken up into Mini, Junior and Petit Club Meds.

"The staff was attentive and the kids were well taken care of, entertained, taught and directed," she said.

Although she liked the kids' entertainment, Brunson said the shows for adults weren't up to the quality of other Club Meds and the ventilation in the theater could have been better.

But with 300 people with so much in common together in one place, most agents made their own entertainment.

"We were just letting everything hang loose," said Frank Kelley, president and owner of Cyberspace Travel Tours, Hempstead, N.Y., for whom this was a first-time stay at a Club Med.

Indeed, no one seemed self-conscious about anything. One patriotic agent even turned up in a Speedo with an American flag motif.

Kelley continued: "The group we had was so happy and joyful ... the food was a plus ... and the employees they have there love their job and love working with people. It was like these people would almost do it for nothing."

The employees Kelley was referring to are Club Med's Gracious Organizers (called G.O.'s) -- a staff of mostly 20-something, multilingual social butterflies from all over the world. A nice quirk about Club Med culture is that it's often difficult to tell the staff's G.O.'s and its guests, or Gracious Members (called G.M.'s), apart. The ratio of G.M.'s to G.O.'s is 10-to-1. The overall guest-to-staff ratio is 1-to-3.

Am I losing you with discussions of G.M.'s, G.O.'s and ratios? OK, let's talk about sailboating. The Punta Cana resort is especially conducive to all types of water sports. Protected by a reef, the Caribbean is clear and calm and ideal for sailing and windsurfing.

I took a group lesson and tried my hand with a sailboat. (I would have gotten my feet wet with windsurfing if I had had a few more days.) After a lesson explaining the theory behind sailboating, instructors took their students out on the water one by one.

With my coach on board, I was able to sail away from shore and turn around. That may not sound like much of an accomplishment, but take it from me, it's not easy to remember how and when to do what. Once on my own, I found my tacking and turning skills eluded me, landing me in the water pretty quickly.

Nevertheless, I'd jump at the chance to return to Punta Cana to improve my sailing and to continue my familiarization with Club Med, where all things combine to make for a gentle learning curve.

Room key: Club Med Punta Cana
Address: Apartado Postale 106 Higuey, La Altagracia, Dominican Republic
Phone: (809) 686-5500
Fax: (809) 687-5287
Web:www.clubmed.com
Reservations: (800) CLUB MED (258-2633)
Chief of village: Youssef Dahri
Rooms: 543 air-conditioned rooms.
History: Built in 1980. Renovated and expanded in 2000.
Rates: From $1,010 per person, double, for seven nights, air-inclusive from New York (Kennedy).
Location: Set on a half-mile strip of white sand beach on the easternmost tip of the Dominican Republic, a short drive from Punta Cana's airport.
Raves: Overall buffet meal selections are terrific, especially at dinner. Charter flight food is surprisingly good. Fun, playful atmosphere. Great location for swimming, sailing and windsurfing. Newly built, neatly appointed rooms. Well-staffed Children's Club program. Exceptional value.
Rants: Village is huge, and it is a long walk from the activities and restaurants to guest rooms at the edge of the resort. It can get hot there. Booking excursions should be made more seamless and clear for guests.

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