“Here too, everything is possible,” wrote socialist Marceau Pivert in a 1936 opinion piece as a workers’ revolution was cresting in France. Overwrought with classism, unchecked capitalism, and hurtling toward plutocracy, the French Popular Front Movement, led by Pivert and others, ushered in workers’ rights and benefits. Pivert’s op-ed, much like his movement, sought to liberate the French from undignified overwork, earning scraps while the bourgeois class alone enjoyed the rewards of a healthy economy. Among the demands was a full two weeks of paid vacation, which was met, much to the delight of working class people. But where to go?
All these social gains were halted temporarily but harshly in 1940 during the invasion and subsequent occupation of Paris by Germany during World War II. Four years later, after Paris was freed from the Nazis, the country, like much of the world, was fundamentally changed. Gérard Blitz, a Belgian living in France and future founder of Club Med, was among those whose philosophical core had been permanently altered.
Born in Antwerp, Blitz had joined the French Resistance against the invading Nazi Party and like his comrades, saw and read about unimaginable atrocities. At age 36, Blitz, who was a celebrated athlete and water polo star, began dreaming up a seaside utopia where men and women of all creeds, religions, and nationalities, including victims of concentration camps, would come come together to enjoy sun and leisure, practice sport, and heal from the ravages of the war.
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Settling on a sandy strip of beach in Alcudia, on the northern tip of Mallorca, Club Méditerranée was established in 1950. Blitz’s mission would be embraced almost instantly by droves of people seeking to escape and unwind in the wake of a towering tragedy. The simple idea was summarized in rudimentary marketing leaflets emblazoned with Blitz’s simple, poignant credo and passed out by hand: “The aim in life is to be happy. The place to be happy is here. And the time to be happy is now.”
Club Méditerranée was a far cry from what the global resort brand has become over the last seven decades. The original not-for-profit compound housed guests in simple tents, leftover from the war, on a beach with no running water and very few amenities. Club Med was certainly more Swiss Family Robinson than St. Regis at the time, but it didn’t change the fact that Blitz had tapped into something. The energy at Club Méditerranée was new and exciting and proved highly attractive to young singles concerned less with social and economic status and more with enjoying the thrill of sport, relaxation, community, and other earthly pleasures.
Key to Blitz’s proposition were the energetic social directors or GOs (“gracious organizers”) who, in addition to teaching scuba, surfing, and water skiing, fostered a highly communal atmosphere ensuring guests connected both with the club’s beautiful surroundings and vibrant staff, but also each other. The club was an instant hit and Blitz was forced to reject thousands of prospective guests that first year due to lack of space and resources. What started as a small summer beach commune, quickly manifested into a movement laced with a distinctly hedonistic undercurrent.
By the second summer the tents had been replaced with villas and Blitz and his growing team began opening for-profit clubs all around the Mediterranean to meet demand. By the summer of 1957, Club Med had registered 10,000 guests. By 1959 there were over 20 clubs, mostly in Europe but some as far as Tahiti.
Another industry “first” propagated by Club Med was known simply as the “bar necklace,” and came about in 1955. Just as it sounds, the beaded necklaces were purchased and worn by Club Med guests replacing money as currency for food and drink. Guests would pop a bead off to pay for victuals, solving for logistics but also signaling a sort of rejection of mainstream society and old financial structures, even if just illusory. The necklace was a precursor to another one of Club Med’s impactful industry innovations—the all-inclusive model, which would be fully realized in the 1980s and replicated many times over.
1956 brought the first slopeside club in the mountain village of Leysin, Switzerland as Blitz and his team capitalized on opportunities away from the sand and surf. The 1960s and 1970s brought a blossoming sexual revolution coupled with relatively affordable air travel which catapulted the brand, earning it hordes of patrons and widespread recognition as the purveyor of hot parties, attracting the same young, wistful singles seeking adventure and pleasures of mind, body, and soul. Eventually, Club Med reached nearly every corner of the globe, including ski and beach clubs in Asia, Africa, and the Americas, even building an airport in Punta Cana to service their own resort. As the business grew, so did its legend and during the 70s and 80s, Club Med was not only wildly popular but as synonymous with carnal pleasures as the Playboy Mansion.
At 69, Club Med has gone through several ownership teams, phases, and identity shifts. Still, its growth has continued and much of Blitz’s spirit lives on. With well over seventy destinations worldwide, many now cater to the wealthy or family audiences, and there are plans to open several more clubs in the next couple years. Club Med Miches in the Dominican Republic is in the process of being built and a recently opened ski resort in the French Alps is thriving.
Each Club Med is curated to offer its own energy, activities, and even architectural aesthetic. And the food and beverage program has likewise evolved over the years. Largely credited with popularizing the all-you-can-eat buffet in the 1960s and underscoring the brand’s insistence on indulgence, Club Med has more recently refined their offerings with signature a la carte restaurants, highlighting local ingredients and its Michelin level talent in the kitchen.
About a decade ago, I stayed one sunny week at Club Med in Cancun, Mexico. Like clockwork each night, a dance party would form, led by those convivial GOs pouring cocktails and pulling men and women out to dance as a deep drum and bass pulsed through the dense Caribbean air. By the third evening, I realized nothing about these parties was spontaneous and for a moment felt duped at how orchestrated it was to make me feel like I was having the time of my life. A second thought quickly replaced it, however. “I was having the time of my life and why shouldn’t someone orchestrate that for me?!” There is much to be said for true spontaneity in travel, but another argument can be made for the guarantee of a good time during those most precious of vacation days.
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Header image courtesy of Club Med.