Sri Lanka’s diversified LOLC group recently inked an agreement with the French premium hospitality brand, Club Méditerranée, which is popularly known around the world as Club Med, to transform the Riverina resort facility in Beruwela, which now combines hotel Riverina, Tropical Villas and Club Palm Garden, as Sri Lanka’s first Club Med resort with 367 keys.
According to LOLC Group Managing Director Kapila Jayawardena, their wait for the most fitting partner in the last couple of years for Riverina is well worth it. A top LOLC official said over 12 well-known international hospitality brands were knocking on LOLC’s door for this property.
Club Med wasn’t also shy about its ambitious plans for Riverina. Club Med President/CEO Henri Giscard D’Estaing, who was in Colombo to ink the deal, said their objective is to transform the property in the Golden Mile of Beruwela to the most sought-after family holiday resort in the Indian Ocean.
Following are the excerpts of a brief exclusive interview Mirror Business had with D’Estaing on the day of the inking of the partnership with the LOLC group, in Colombo.
How excited are you about this partnership with LOLC and bringing in the Club Med brand to Sri Lanka?
Very excited I must say. We are looking forward to creating a Club Med in Sri Lanka because I strongly believe Sri Lanka is a promising tourist destination with its unique combination of culture, history, nature and people. Obviously we had to find the right location, which is of the right size that allows us to introduce a lot of activities to create a true family resort. We looked for some time for the right opportunity and we are very happy to partner with LOLC to transform the Riverina property to the first Club Med in Sri Lanka.
Will Club Med be putting equity as well for the Riverina project?
No. Club Med will take the economic risk of running the resort and selling it and contributing to the owner. That is how Club Med operates everywhere. Our role is not to invest in real estate because it is not what makes our clients come.
So, it is just a branding exercise—rebranding Riverina as Club Med?
Definitely it’s much more than just branding. Of course, branding is one aspect of it. As I said, selling the property is our responsibility. Club Med has marketing offices in all the large tourism markets of the world—Paris, New York, Shanghai, San Paolo, etc. Apart from that, we have 27 Internet sites in 14 languages. And all these sites are linked to our global booking engine so people can book at their convenience. More than 60 percent of our distribution is direct. So that means we have the ability of making guests come to our places. In other words, Club Med has its own clientele.
The second element is we have this special team of people who we call G.Os (Gentil Organisateur). G.Os are young people who will look after our guests in terms of activities—they will help them to sail, water ski, play tennis, etc., and they will also help our guests by looking after the kids. Our Club Med resorts have special facilities for kids. The G.Os are travelling in order to bring in multicultural experience to the resorts because we welcome many nationalities in our resorts. For example, in our Maldivian resort, our G.O team has 20 nationalities. We have Maldivians, French, Chinese, Taiwanese, Koreans, Americans, you name it! So, our role is marketing, selling and managing the experience for the guests.
Do you plan to hire locals for the Club Med in Sri Lanka?
Of course, and they will be trained. What is marvellous about Sri Lanka is two things—the culture of service and an English-speaking workforce. So, I believe that Sri Lanka can become a source of talent for Club Med around the world. We have done that for Mauritius. We have two properties there. Now we have Mauritius colleagues all around the world. We have even done that in the Maldives. A certain number of managers in our resort in Japan are Maldivians. So we intend to do that here in Sri Lanka as well.
So when are you planning to open Sri Lanka’s first Club Med?
Let’s say we are targeting end of 2017 or early 2018.
Does Club Med operate charter flights also to promote its resorts?
We do when it is necessary. But I believe Colombo has sufficient air connectivity. But we would like to see SriLankan Airlines reinforcing certain destinations, for instance SriLankan could reopen its line to Paris. Our customers prefer to fly on regular airlines as it gives them more choice in terms of dates of arrival.
Also, I hope to convince SriLankan Airlines in one year or one-and-a-half years when we open the resort to reopen the line. The airport in Colombo can become a hub from Paris to South India, Maldives, etc. We would be very happy to have a global partnership with SriLankan.
Riverina is going to be your first Club Med. How many Club Med resorts are you looking at in Sri Lanka?
Obviously one day we will be in the eastern part of the country.
Have you already earmarked certain properties?
Well, we are always looking at resort properties. But we will wait until the motorway (expressway) to the country’s eastern part is completed. When you are in the family holiday business, accessibility is key. People want more and more easy travel. They want it simple and straight. For a family it’s understandable. When you have flown a long-haul flight of eight to 10 hours or more, you don’t want to spend three, four hours in a bus or car.
Your partner in the first Club Med resort, LOLC, is a very aggressive player in the local hospitality scene as well as in the Maldives, where plans are now afoot to come up with five star-class resorts. Club Med is also present in the Maldives. Will this partnership be extended to the archipelago also?
We only set up in exceptional locations with the right partners. Yes, our partnership with LOLC could extend into other markets as well. Selecting a location and a partner is a very strategic decision for us. Why, because we have loyal customers who are accustomed going to the best places in the world. We can’t disappoint them. I personally came here to look at the Riverina property and walked the entire property before taking a decision.
Several international hospitality brands are operating at the moment in Sri Lanka and many more will soon set up shop. How does Club Med’s offer differ from them?
The unique activity and know-how of Club Med is on premium family and active couple holidays. We offer something very different. When you operate a true family resort, you need something very different. You need to have special facilities for kids. You need to have sport activities. You need to have entertainment. You will need a nightclub where people will enjoy their evenings. You need to have activities on the beach. So, it’s in that respect that Club Med offers a very different product.
Everybody says Sri Lanka’s tourism industry has a lot of potential. As you see, what should the county do to harness this potential?
I think to have a few top international companies partnering with the very best Sri Lankan companies to create landmark properties in Sri Lanka, which will become the benchmark for the hotel industry in the country, is probably what is needed now. You need to have hotels recognized internationally as top-class. That’s exactly what Club Med intends to do in Sri Lanka.