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On a Budget

Club Med Copycats Help Cut Prices

April 05, 1998|ARTHUR FROMMER | This new column from Frommer, a longtime budget-travel expert, will appear weekly in the Travel section

On a recent Saturday night at the Club Med in Agadir, Morocco, I watched stupefied as a crowd of newly arrived Parisians stood three-deep at the bar, their voices shrill with excitement. A loudspeaker blared the theme music from "2001: A Space Odyssey." At a large amphitheater outside, viewed through picture windows in the lobby, horsemen on Arabian ponies charged onto the stage to illustrate the equestrian privileges to which guests are entitled. They were followed by golf instructors standing silhouetted behind flood-lighted white sheets, displaying the swings and putts of their sport.

If you've never been to a Club Med catering to a European clientele--the ones in the Balearics and North Africa, especially--you've never seen organized fun carried to such an extent. Nobody knows how to party like the French. The Club Med tradition ("perkiness in paradise," it's been called) still attracts large numbers.

Why then is Club Med in trouble? Why four recent years of losses, widely discussed in the financial press? Why has the founding family of the chain, the Triganos, been gently pushed from their directors' positions? Why has Philippe Bourguignon, formerly of EuroDisney, succeeded to the top position, amid talk of major changes?

It may be that the original idea succeeded too well. So compelling have the all-inclusive price policies of Club Med proven to be (you pay one price for lodging, food, unlimited drinks with meals, most sports, lots of shows and games) that copycats are encircling the French chain, drawing away business from both the lower and upper end of the price scale.

In the Caribbean, a new and growing chain of 19 all-inclusive, low-cost resorts called Caribbean Villages charges as little as $80 and $90 a night in off-season for everything. These resorts are popping up in the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic, in Mexico and in Costa Rica. Operated by Allegro Resorts (telephone [800] 858-2258), they charge much less than all but one or two of the Caribbean-area Club Meds.

In Italy and Morocco, the Italian knockoff of the Club Med formula known as Club Valtur (22 resorts) continues to thrive, charging a bit more than the Club Meds to a slightly older clientele. Club Valtur announced last month that it was moving into the Caribbean and Mexico with multiple projects. It recently opened the moderately priced, all-inclusive Coccoloba Club Valtur on the elegant island of Anguilla, where about $1,700 now brings you a week's all-inclusive arrangements and round-trip air from the West Coast in off-season, generally summer to mid-December (reserve through its booking agent; tel. [800] 935-5000).

The earliest imitation of Club Med was by the Jamaican chain of all-inclusives called SuperClubs (tel. [800] GO-SUPER). It generally charges more than most Club Meds (an average, off-season per diem at most SuperClubs of $180 per person for everything except air fare), but boasts that its policies are "super-inclusive": You not only receive unlimited beverages with your meals, but also at any time throughout the day. SuperClubs now operates seven major properties in Jamaica and is developing more.

SuperClubs was quickly challenged by Butch Stewart's all-inclusive and somewhat similarly priced Sandals chain (a dozen properties in Jamaica, Antigua, St. Lucia and the Bahamas; tel. [800] 726-3357). Both SuperClubs and Sandals have now launched lower-cost, family-oriented chains called "Breezes" and "Beaches" in scattered Caribbean locations, and are rapidly expanding the latter lines, at prices competitive in season with most Caribbean Club Meds. The success of the Jamaican Club-Med lookalikes has more recently set off an eruption of all-inclusive resorts on still other Caribbean islands and in Mexican resorts, easily quadrupling the number of all-inclusives that existed as recently as seven years ago.

So how will Club Med strike back? A month ago, it announced the deepest price reductions of its history, ranging from 10% to 24% below the levels of summer 1997. In that tropical downtime starting mid-April, it will be charging a remarkable $899 for a full seven-night stay at the Sonora Bay Club Med, in Mexico (near Guaymas), including round-trip air from Los Angeles or San Francisco. To the big Club Med Huatulco on the Pacific Coast of Mexico, it will charge an air-included price of $1,099 from Los Angeles for a seven-night, off-season stay. Club Med Eleuthera in the Bahamas, for which it charged as much as $1,621 last year (air and land for a week), will be charging $1,399 from Los Angeles. (For information, call [800] CLUB-MED.)

More dramatically, off-season guests staying for a second week at any Club Med in the Caribbean or Mexico will receive a 50% reduction off the discount price for that second week. Will it work? As an admirer of the feisty French firm--an enthusiast for its spirit, energy and unique ways of encouraging guests to mingle and make friends--I've felt for years that there was nothing wrong with Club Med other than cost. Now "perkiness in paradise" is available at a low price.

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