How a pioneering Frenchman brought skiing holidays to the masses

Black and white photo of skiers lined up on the snow – Club Med

In the mid-20th century, when ski vacations were in their infancy, enjoying a week on the slopes involved a good deal of hard work, questionable cuisine and outdated hotels. Imagine a vacation where food and drink are unlimited, the sport you love unlimited and the accommodation options endless.

All-inclusive ski vacations are a phenomenon loved by many for their hassle-free approach to spending time in the mountains, and Club Med has been leading the trend for more than half a century. The operator turned 70 in 2020 and is celebrating its 65th anniversary in the mountains this year.

In the 1950s, in post-war Europe, the Club’s founder, French businessman Gerard Blitz, thought the public was eager to spend more time together. Alongside business partner Gilbert Trigano, Blitz has created a pioneering all-inclusive model, offering mass buffets and endless sporting activities at the first Club Méditerranée, a tent village in a pine forest near Alcudia, a small port in Mallorca fishing. By 1953 the company was hosting 7,000 guests at several similar venues and in 1956 was about to open its first ski village in the Swiss town of Leysin. The objective was to “open skiing to everyone” at a time when the slopes were reserved for those with the biggest budgets.

Skiers in red outfits stood on top of the mountain looking

Skiers in red outfits stood on top of the mountain looking

The Leysin resort has taken over a large disused sanatorium called Les Chamois. From there, for 46 years, Club Med occupied several resort properties. Early advertisements show hillside accommodations and schedules of activities, including hockey, bobsleigh, curling and, of course, skiing – available to all guests. The cashless bar system was revolutionary and the food buffet sprawling. There was a shop, kids club, shows, library and ski lift on the doorstep. “It is a phenomenon that it would be absurd to ignore”, write the journalists of New Observer. The rise of all-inclusive ski holidays has proven irresistible.

Now covering 20 winter destinations, Club Med has in recent years opened its first base in Canada, expanded into China (although these options are not currently available to skiers) and offered a range of properties more more luxurious. This winter, bookings are up a third from last season and it has more than 145,000 guests on its books.

However, the company’s democratic roots have not been forgotten. One of his newest properties opened earlier this month in Val Claret, the highest satellite village of the French resort of Tignes. Built over what was previously a parking lot, the building is – in true Club Med style – gigantic, accommodating 1,100 people at full capacity in 430 rooms. There are indoor and outdoor pools, a spa, two restaurants, an expansive locker room, kids’ club, fully equipped gym, rental shop, yoga studio, and bar capable of putting on shows in style. theater.

A completely different hotel has just opened in the neighboring resort of Val d’Isère: the operator’s first Exclusive Collection ski area, comprising 216 high-end rooms and suites, and costing 50 million euros . Another new opening this season is at Kiroro Peak in Japan, a resort expansion in Pragelato, Italy is planned, and plans are underway for the first Club Med in the United States.

A colorful room at the new Club Med - maud delaflotte

A colorful room at the new Club Med – maud delaflotte

Carefree skiing

What about the all-inclusive model, long synonymous with boozy beach vacations, which also appeals to skiers and snowboarders? It is first and foremost the absence of hassle, or as the Club’s CEO, Henri Giscard d’Estaing describes it: “the zero friction experience”.

Ski holidays can be a huge logistical undertaking, involving travel, transfers, accommodation, lift passes, lessons and equipment hire. It’s no wonder so many people want to settle everything with one reservation and one price. Not only does your Club Med wristband unlock your room and ski locker (where the pre-ordered kit will be waiting for you), but it’s your pass to unlimited drinks, meals, and instructor assistance in daily lessons free for all levels.

“Any skier can see the value of three restaurant meals a day and all your refreshments included,” says Angus Kinloch, director of SkiLine, one of the main agents for Club Med in the UK. Book wisely – peak weeks see prices skyrocket – and there are savings to be had. A comparison (below) of a week-long stay at Club Med La Plagne 2100 with a four-star half-board hotel stay in March shows the all-inclusive model saves skiers over £600 .

The operator also prides itself on convenience. “All of our resorts are ski-in, ski-out,” Bresch explains. “You can hit the slopes whenever you’re ready.” Arrivals and departures are also Sunday to Sunday, unlike the majority of companies in the Alps which have changeover days on Saturdays – an attempt to avoid traffic and give customers the best possible start to their break .

Family ties

Over the decades, Club Med has become cult. After focusing on the mass market in its early years, the brand has changed direction, with a strong focus on families and luxury travelers since 2004. “We are constantly changing, because our customers’ expectations are changing” , explains Bresch.

“We invented the all-inclusive resort. We were copied a lot, of course, so it was a way of differentiating ourselves from our competitors,” he says.

The model lends itself well to family ski holidays: 65% of Club Med customers come with their family. “What’s appealing is the assurance of having a broad portfolio of experiences, to ensure that everyone in the family will have a great vacation,” says Bresch.

family in the snow

family in the snow

Inspire a generation

While Club Med dominates the all-inclusive ski model, others offer their own variations. Action Outdoors markets the non-profit French holiday company UCPA to British skiers. “The company was created in 1965 by the French government to enable young people from all walks of life to have access to skiing,” explains David Robertson of Action Outdoors.

Skiers between the ages of 18 and 45 are the main market, with an emphasis on meeting like-minded skiers in hostel-style accommodation. Prices for a four-day beginner’s package cost from £440 this season – a fraction of Club Med’s price – including all essentials but no travel.

indoor swimming pool with view of the snow-capped mountains - MAUD DELAFLOTTE

indoor swimming pool with view of the snow-capped mountains – MAUD DELAFLOTTE

Damian Owen is due to make his tenth trip to the UCPA this winter. “I usually prefer them to vacation rentals or cabins,” he says. “It’s a single price, including kit, tuition, guidance and lift pass. In terms of cost, it just doesn’t compare to the expense of sorting it all out separately. »

Elsewhere, competitors such as Crystal Ski have dipped their toe into the all-inclusive world this season by launching a beginners-only package which includes accommodation, flight, meals, lift pass, equipment and lessons on a dedicated winter week. The likes of Sunweb, Inghams and Skiworld often offer deals to mimic the appeal too, including lift passes, equipment or point-of-sale lessons.

Growing pains

While loved by many, the all-inclusive model draws some criticism. Some argue that spending a week at a Club Med resort, where there’s no need to leave, is detrimental to exploring the resort and supporting seasonal small businesses. Club Med replies by asserting that, over 10 years, a Club Med property in the Alps generates 123 million euros for the local economy; 23,000 people are employed across its portfolio, spanning 120 nationalities.

It’s fair to say that the buildings are sprawling, the entertainment choreographed, and the buffet table unwieldy, but the rooms are well-designed and practical and the service always friendly. Most important for many is the price, which is increasingly becoming one of the most competitive, in a world where every penny and every moment on the mountain counts.

Have you ever done an all-inclusive ski holiday? Share your opinion in the comments below.

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