Hot Flashback

by Martha Chapman

Remembering “the good old days” in the Canadian travel industry

Ooh-la-la! Club Med!

Pareos and bar beads, guest rooms with no locks and men in lipstick: just a few of the memories of Club Med that Brenda Kyllo – now V.P. Strategic Alliances for AmaWaterways – has of her 27 year career with “The Club”.

It’s a company with a fascinating story; you could say it was formed as part social experiment, part resort chain. Belgian founder Gérard Blitz started with a colony of tents on the Mediterranean island of Majorca (hence “Club Med”). The concept was to remove class barriers: the staff sat with the guests at meals, bathrooms were shared and everyone, guests and staff alike, used the French familiar “tu” with each other – it was pretty shocking stuff at the time.

Obviously Blitz had hit paydirt: the concept was a success and eventually expanded to include winter villages and resorts in the Pacific, Caribbean, Mexico and Florida. Though things became a little more “civilized”- private bathrooms, chambermaid service – for many years there were still no locks on the doors, all rooms had twin beds only and there were no TVs, radios or phones in the rooms (a hard sell to Americans, Kyllo recalls). The concept, she says, was that the money was invested in the food and topnotch sporting facilities and that “You’d never be spending time in your room anyway.”

Kyllo started her career with the organization at the Club in Eleuthera, the Bahamas, teaching computer skills – to adults. “Back then no one had home computers and I’d spend time helping people to figure out, for example, how to use the shift key on our Atari computers.”

Brenda went on to work in management positions in Malaysia, Australia, Singapore, France and Canada where she was ultimately President & General Manager for Canada.

“Club Med was a natural for Francophone Canadians who didn’t have too many French-language sun vacation options back then,” she recalls. One cultural divider was the topless beaches: “You could tell the women who were from France because they arrived only with bikini bottoms. A couple of days later the French Canadians were topless, then the English Canadians, and finally the Americans who would spend the last day of their vacation burning their fronts severely.” Definitely a handicap on the dance floor!

Since Club Med was supposed to be “cashless” but included only wine with lunch and dinner, bar bills were paid with pop-beads you purchased at the front desk. They came in various colours (denominations) which you could fashion into bracelets or necklaces. “Guys wanting to look the flashiest had ropes of orange beads – the most expensive - around their necks.”

Speaking of guys, the dressing-up-as-women thing has a long tradition in Europe, but North Americans would be perplexed by swarthy guy GOs (“gentils organisateurs” or nice organizers, i.e. the staff) happily piling on the lipstick, wigs, and shoving a pair of balloons down their fronts for the evening shows. “In Malaysia we even had a cross-dressing night for the GMs [“gentils members” or nice members, i.e. the guests]. A lot of our Australian and Japanese guests embraced the concept – many of the guys said it was the most fun thing they’d ever done!”

I also worked at Club Med in the 80s, in direct sales at the Club’s “Boutique” (travel agency) in Toronto’s  Yorkville. Of course everyone knows that French people are sexier than the rest of us, and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that – certainly for English Canada – a lot of the Club’s appeal was its, shall we say, sizzle.

I remember wearing a Club T-shirt on the subway one day and a gangly young man came up to me and said, awestruck, “You’ve been to Club Med?”  “I work at Club Med,” I purred in reply.

 “I think he almost fainted.”

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