Q&A with Club Med’s Patrick Mitchell, Vice President of U.S. Sales

written by | Posted on June 5th, 2013

Club Med Guilin in China.

Club Med Guilin in China.

According to its new global branding campaign, “And What’s Your Idea Of Happiness?” Club Med, with 78 destination resorts around the world, wants your clients to define their own happiness when on vacation. Perhaps it’s skiing in the Alps, or soaring through the air during a trapeze class with a view of the ocean in Punta Cana; maybe it’s taking a tai chi class in Guilin, or taking a culinary class with a Mexican chef in Ixtapa. Whatever your client’s “idea of happiness,” Club Med, with its breadth of product around the world, aims to deliver “happiness” on a silver platter for everyone in the family.

We recently had the opportunity to attend a trade event in Miami Beach that was hosted by Club Med and included an audience of local travel agents. During the event, Patrick Mitchell, v.p. of U.S. sales for Club Med, spoke to the audience about the brand’s family-centric offerings, its evolution through the years from 1950s to today, and the aforementioned branding campaign, as well as its newest properties, including Club Med Guilin in China, Club Med Pragelato Vialattea in Italy, and Club Med Valmorel in France.

Our editor-in-chief, Paloma Villaverde de Rico, sat down with Mitchell after the presentation and he spoke in-depth about what’s at the core of the Club Med brand, what role travel agents play in sales for Club Med, and how important it is for travel agents to truly understand that Club Med has evolved to become a top global, all-inclusive, family destination vacation.

Paloma Villaverde de Rico: First off, can you tell me a little bit about Club Med’s new global branding campaign: “And What’s Your Idea Of Happiness?” What’s the primary goal behind that branding campaign?

Patrick Mitchell: The previous campaign had been in place for about five years, so it was time to refresh the look and feel of the campaign, and a lot has changed in the last five years, particularly with respect to social media. The campaign is designed to invite people to sort of have their dream or definition of happiness. So rather than allow a marketing or advertising executive come up with an idea of what happiness is, it allows the recipient to be the primary actor in defining what happiness is. So for somebody, happiness is skiing in the Alps, for somebody else it might be a spa experience in Bali. It’s a very personalized experience that I think has progressed with society and especially social media, where it’s a much more participative environment. People chat, talk and share ideas on various social media platforms and this campaign allows folks, via ideaofhappiness.com, to share their own idea of happiness.

PVR: I guess it goes along the same lines with the catchword, “experiential,” which is so popular in travel today, because nowadays people no longer want to just sit by the beach and have a drink in hand. You want to seek out new experiences.

PM: What’s really powerful with this campaign is that it’s a complete change with how you attempt to have a conversation with a customer. It’s not about, “We’re this, do this, because it’s going to be good for you and you’re going to enjoy it.” There’s a lot of ways Club Med can demonstrate the breadth of experiences that might personally define happiness.

PVR: How is Club Med unique among other hotel brands that focus on families? There are so many now, because multigenerational family travel is so huge.

PM: You are right. Everyone is talking about multigenerational family travel and it’s certainly an area that we play very well in. We think we have a great product for that. I think there are two things that really make us different from other hotel brands. One is that we are all-inclusive. For me, it’s the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, so it’s the combination of being all-inclusive, being global, being family. Sure, there are global brands, but they might not be all-inclusives. There are all-inclusives that might be family, but they are not global. So you take Beaches, for example, here’s a family brand, but you can only experience it today in the Caribbean. You’ve got many of the major hotel chains, the Starwood brands, Hyatt, Hilton, Disney, and they’ve got a global footprint, but they are not all-inclusive, so for us, it’s the sum of all of those components.

PVR: How do you incorporate the immediate surroundings into the Club Med experience?

PM: Incorporating the destination into the resort is something Club Med does very well. There are no cookie-cutter resorts at Club Med. You know when you are in a Club Med resort; you can identify the location you are in. The surrounding area, the architecture, the food, and the ambiance are very present. I will give you an example. When you are at the Marrakech resort, you know you are in Marrakech, there is no doubt about it. There are elements of 11th century architecture that are evident in how we built Club Med nine years ago. The lighting, the food, everything about the resort, you know where you are at. With a Club Med resort, the stay is very authentic, with that multicultural experience that I think is unique. What we look for in a property is to make sure that the footprint of the property is going to be big enough so that we can create that ambiance. As you know, Club Med resorts, except in the Alps, are two and three stories high only. So you need this very expansive plot of land to create that experience. At Marrakech it’s 68 acres; it’s huge. In Punta Cana, it’s about 70 or 80 acres.

PVR: What are you hearing from travel agents who do sell Club Med regarding the family angle? During the presentation you gave earlier, there were some travel agents who hadn’t completely grasped that Club Med is a family product.

PM: It’s an interesting question, because I hear two things. I hear absolute glee with the vacation experiences that we provide to families. There is nothing better for a travel agent to sell an experience to a family, and for the family to come back and say, “My best vacation ever.” On TripAdvisor, Club Med Ixtapa is the number one family hotel in Mexico. If you think about the hospitality industry in Mexico, to be the number one family property in Mexico, I think it says a lot about what we do in terms of experience. So that’s one thing that we hear—absolute pleasure with the quality of the experience. The challenge is that there are too few travel agents who know that story. I refer to myself as a chief storyteller, because agents and consumers have this perception built on 60 years of history that is very difficult to address, so we do it one story at a time.

When travel agents experience a Club Med resort they’re sold. I was with eight travel agents at Club Med Sandpiper Bay last week. They all came expecting they were going to stay, at best, in a Holiday Inn. They’ve all been in the business for 20 to 30 years, very successful owners of travel agencies, so they had somewhere in their history experienced Club Med in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and when they came to Club Med, they said, “Oh my god, this is not at all what we expected. We can’t wait to start selling it.” We had a group of 35 Protravel Virtuoso agents a year ago at Sandpiper Bay. We did a FAM just for Protravel, and they said we can sell this to our Four Seasons customers, without a doubt. The challenge is travel agents presume they know what Club Med is, and they say, “I don’t have any customers for you.” Then when you share what the Club Med experience is, they have tons of customers.

PVR: Do you offer a lot of FAMs?

PM: We did a number of FAMs last year in January and February at Sandpiper Bay. Sales teams are empowered to do FAMs…to Sandpiper Bay, Cancun, Ixtapa. We think it’s the best way to demonstrate to travel agents what the brand has become. We are willing to invest the time and the money, the challenge for a lot of travel agents is the air, so convincing them to spend $500 in the air, when we are investing in them is a real solid partnership. We’ll run programs such as bonus commissions if they do a booking within 30 to 60 days, depending how the FAM is set up. We realize it’s a bit of an investment on their part, as it is on our end, but we think that once they experience Club Med, they’ll be able to sell it, and they’ll recoup that airline ticket.

PVR: What is the role of travel agents in terms of selling Club Med?

PM: For me, the role of the travel agent is critical and that’s why we do these events. I mentioned that I don’t know of any brand in travel today that has aspirations to grow and think that they can do it without travel agents. We know that we can’t access through our own marketing efforts, the customers that many home-based travel agents touch in their own community, in their churches and synagogues, so we work closely with a number of the home-based networks so that we can reach those agents. We have a new partnership with Cruise Planners, for example.

The most important role that travel agents play for us is that any time you have a customer who is looking at an international destination, it can be complicated. When passports are involved, when you have family traveling, when air is involved, these quickly become high-ticket, complicated transactions, and we think that consumers want somebody they can trust to educate them and help them understand what to expect, and help them understand the value of one brand over another. And so in particular, given the level of affluence that our customers have, I think that most of those customers find value in their own time, and so they are willing to go to a travel professional to help them identify the best option for them and their family, and that’s not something anyone does well on the web, on the Internet. Customers might be somewhat educated, but they really are depending on travel agents and that’s why we really are engaging travel agents. I really believe that agents add value and we believe that they are going to be a core part of our message going forward.

Bonus Commission

And to help you sell Club Med vacations, the hotel company has launched Discover the World: Every time you book a client this summer to any Club Med global resort (outside of North America, Mexico or the Caribbean)—think Bali, Provence, Phuket or Brazil—you will receive an additional $100 bonus by gift card and automatically be entered to win an all-inclusive 7-night stay at any Club Med resort in North America, the Caribbean or Mexico.

The bonus program requires no tracking forms. To qualify for the additional incentive, the agent simply confirms a booking to any Club Med global resort through Aug. 16, 2013 for travel through Nov. 2, 2013.

For more information on Discover the World and other agent incentives, including FAMs, visit clubmedta.com. For an Eye on the World on Club Med Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic, click here.