With the skiing season upon us and obstacles such as Brexit to negotiate, Tom Parry catches up with Estelle Giraudeau, managing director for Club Med UK and Scandinavia, to hear her growth plans.
With the value of sterling having plummeted off a cliff with as much gusto as a champion skier after the Brexit vote, you’d be forgiven for assuming the only powdery substance covering most people’s ski and snowboarding equipment this winter would be attic dust.
Thankfully for would-be Winter Olympians, and indeed their travel agents, this is not the forecast of Estelle Giraudeau, managing director for Club Med UK and Scandinavia who, within minutes of discussing Brexit’s impact on the ski market, melts away any broadsheet horror stories of cash-crippled Brits abandoning the slopes.
Brexit, she says, has instead played a positive part in Club Med’s “absolutely outstanding” start to the winter season.
“Year-on-year to date for winter 2018, we are up 30% and have sold more than 70% of the season, which is something that hasn’t been seen for years in the UK,” she grins excitedly, before going on to proudly reference the company’s overall “double-digit growth” in the UK during 2017.
According to Giraudeau, who has led the French resort specialist’s British operations since June 2015, experiencing currency fluctuations as challenging as a black ski run has helped showcase the “value” of Club Med’s trademark all-inclusive offering.
“Here [in the UK], you have no idea where the pound might be in a year or six months, and the fluctuation is absolutely dramatic. You can really increase your holiday spend by 20-30%, so when you are talking about a family of four it’s a significant part of the budget that you might only be able to afford,” she says.
“The travel trade in the UK is so fast-paced; the key players are really shifting and evolving... That’s why I find the UK such an inspiring market.”
“[Currency uncertainty] plays in our favour because our product and formula is completely in line with what clients need in this environment.”
Recent booking figures released by Club Med would appear to support this apparent Brexit-fuelled business boom, with the brand – which currently operates 20 resorts across the Alps – reporting UK sales for the forthcoming winter to Val d’Isere up by 62%, Avoriaz up by 47%, an increase in Tignes of 41% and growth in Cervinia of 40%.
Club Med’s newest addition, Grand Massif Samoens Morillon, in France, will open next month as part of the operator’s intention to open one new ski resort in the Alps each year for the next five years. It also unveiled plans last week to open its first ski resort in Canada by 2020.
Encouraging signs for agents then, who account for close to 45% of the operator’s UK business, with Giraudeau keen on raising that figure through Club Med’s four-strong UK trade sales team, led by trade sales manager Yann Richard.
“We are a brand that will always need the trade,” Giraudeau enthuses. “They are fast-moving and have the right approach to finding the right niches for customers.
“To expand, we need the right trade partners. We are very happy with what we have now but we can surely always grow more.”
That growth, Giraudeau says, could well come from further afield than the French ski slopes, with long-haul business an important prong of the Club Med Trident.
With new additions in the Maldives and Brazil opening in the past two years, among others, it is an expansion journey Giraudeau is keen to bring the UK trade along on.
“With [long-haul], we have to recruit more trade partners as we know there are lots of agents investing in the long-haul luxury market and we’ve identified many potential partners we’d like to work with,” she explains.
Club Med’s need to cast its net wider, Giraudeau admits, arises in part from its operations in Turkey which, despite the company seeing “a great bounce-back” since late summer, are still recovering from the destination’s period of unrest.
“It’s too early to say it [Turkey] is completely back on track, and we’re not talking about the same volumes we had two or three years ago, but at least it’s here and it’s an opportunity for us,” she says. “We don’t rely on Turkey to succeed in summer 2018, whereas I think in the past we were more dependent on a few destinations where if something happened you had no backup plans. And that was true for other operators too.”
A region that could entice customers and agents alike is Asia, where Club Med, owned by Chinese conglomerate Fosun, has a burgeoning programme. By January, the operator will have three resorts in Japan alongside its ongoing partnership with escorted touring specialist Wendy Wu Tours, which offers “tour and stay” packages to China featuring Club Med accommodation – a proposition Giraudeau believes combines “the best of both” for culture lovers and resort regulars.
She teases that agents may be able to add Club Med China stays when booking through Wendy Wu Tours’ new trade site in the future, while agent fam trips may also be on the cards.
“We know that [China] is a very specific product and it needs a lot of education and training… unlike the French Alps, the product is not very well known,” she explains.
This focus towards Asia is a demonstration of Club Med’s desire to put its “pioneering concept into pioneering destinations”, according to Giraudeau.
Closer to home, next summer the operator will relaunch Club Med Cefalu in Sicily – its first five-Trident resort in Europe.
She sees the “Italian cinema-inspired” property with its “Ibiza-style” feel and catering by a Michelin-starred chef as a flagship for the operator’s luxury focus.
According to Giraudeau, those booking Club Med’s four and five-Trident resorts along with its Exclusive Collection range comprise around 80% of its clientele.
“[Concentrating on luxury] completely matches with the expectations of clients we have and goes with the audience that we want to target: those families and couples who really want good value, good standards and an international environment… their expectations are very high.”
Giraudeau believes that guest convenience is what differentiates Club Med from First Choice, its all-inclusive rival in the UK, and the resort specialist’s recent technological developments are intended to deliver a seamless stay.
Following the launch of its in-resort app and Easy Arrival system, offering guests the option to complete ski hire and activity enrolment pre-arrival, Club Med has continued to innovate.
This year has seen the introduction of WhatsApp messaging to inform customers about new openings and promotions, as well as the gradual roll-out of digital bracelets allowing guests to unlock their room doors and make cardless purchases around resorts.
“[The bracelet] does completely change the experience because you just feel so free… which could be dangerous if you’re not careful with the money,” Giraudeau laughs.
“With long-haul, we have to recruit more trade partners as we know there are lots of agents investing in the long-haul luxury market”
Estelle Giraudeau, managing director UK and Scandinavia, Club Med
And this digital drive, she makes clear, is not just for customers: ski specialists including Ski Solutions and Iglu Ski are working with Club Med on co-branded landing pages and online campaigns.
Giraudeau says the operator is seeing a stronger appetite for such collaborations – “which was not always the case”.
She adds: “The travel trade in the UK is so fast-paced; the key players are really shifting and evolving. In most other countries, it’s the other way around – agents are not pioneers; they are waiting for things to happen. That’s why I find the UK such an inspiring market.”
And it seems with such ambitious growth plans, both in terms of product expansion and sales, Club Med’s forecast for UK success looks promising, and its snowball effect is one that savvy and agile agents would do very well to build upon.