Club Med challenges U.S. ski resorts — and it's not sorry

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Club Med Samoens is one of four ski resorts the company has in the works.
Club Med Samoens is one of four ski resorts the company has in the works.

NEW YORK — Club Med is mounting a not-so-subtle challenge to Rocky Mountain ski resorts.

The French company, long associated with its pioneering all-inclusive tropical vacation concept, is now the largest ski lodge operator in Europe, with more than 20 resorts. Aggressive expansion plans include opening one to two new mountain/ski resorts worldwide every year for the next three years, as part of an overall plan to build 15 resorts by 2020.

Club Med has four ski resorts in the works, with two set to open next month: Samoens will open in the French Alps in December along with a second Japan resort, Tomamu Hokkaido. Arc 1600, also in France, is scheduled to open in late 2018.

Its first North American ski resort is planned for a 2020 opening in Quebec.

"Sorry, Rockies. We're skiing someone else," trumpets Club Med's all-inclusive ski vacations landing page on its website. "We're leaving you for an Alpine Adventure at Club Med's all-inclusive ski resort."

A video titled "Sorry, Rockies" explains that the Club Med packages include ski lessons, child care and flights, along with French accents and fondue.

According to Club Med, the U.S. market is catching on. The company said that since 2012, it has seen a 400% growth in North American visitors to Club Med ski resorts in the Alps and Japan, with 57% of those visitors coming from the U.S. and the rest from Canada. Club Med did not share actual visitor numbers.

Still, Club Med executives understand that in many ways they need to reintroduce the brand to the U.S. market.

Henri Giscard D’Estaing
Henri Giscard D’Estaing

At a recent lunch here with U.S.-based travel agents and media, CEO Henri Giscard D'Estaing acknowledged that the image of Club Med in the U.S. market is dated and very different from how the company positions itself today.

"The whole strategy of Club Med has changed very significantly," he said. "From mostly beach-oriented when we speak about the U.S. market, to very important in ski and mountain activity."

Giscard D'Estaing, who has been CEO since 2003, touted Club Med's position as the only all-inclusive ski resort chain, saying that, especially for families, the inclusion of lift tickets, equipment rentals, lessons, child care and nonskiing activities in addition to food, drinks and lodging, makes its product, even in Europe, more affordable than most western U.S. and Canadian ski experiences.

Families have become a prime focus for the company, which for years appealed mostly to couples and singles. Under Giscard D'Estaing's leadership, the family portion of Club Med's market has grown to two-thirds. When he took over, that share was only one-third.

While much has been made of millennials' apparent reluctance to embrace ski vacations, Club Med is gambling that young families will appreciate the ease and affordability of its ski vacation.

"Ski holidays are expensive and complicated," he said. "So our role at Club Med is to make them the best value for the money, and easy."

A rendering of guestroom at Club Med Samoens, set to open in December in the French Alps.
A rendering of guestroom at Club Med Samoens, set to open in December in the French Alps.

Lee McCarthy, a ski specialist and owner of MAD Travel, a Travel Leaders agency in Naples, Fla., said that while Club Med is not known in the U.S. for its ski vacations, it could provide an affordable alternative for American families, especially since it offers the only truly all-inclusive ski experience.

"Some areas will get aggressive when business is down and offer food and beverage plans but nothing like Club Med with everything included," he said.

McCarthy said that for the right client, Club Med is a great fit.

"Even with the strong dollar, in Europe food and drink is extremely expensive," he said. "Club Med is a good fit for a client who might not want to spend $200 for every meal or has a ceiling on their budget."

Considering how low airfares to Europe can be in the winter, he said, "you could argue that, per diem, it's less there than anywhere in the U.S."

He added that the inclusive activities and entertainment are especially appealing for families, and that for those taking the plunge into a first-time Europe ski vacation the packages remove a lot of the intimidation.

Both McCarthy and Pete Kovacevic, an agent with Fort Lauderdale-based Alpine Adventures, said interest in European ski vacations has grown over the past few years in parallel with the dollar's strength over the euro, especially with groups.

"We've seen more and more ski clubs going to Europe, and they are very price conscious," Kovacevic said.

"When the exchange rate is good, everyone wants to go to France or Italy."

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