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CEO for East and South Asia and Pacific markets Rachael Harding speaks about the reopening of Club Med Phuket

audrey simon
audrey simon • 11 min read
CEO for East and South Asia and Pacific markets Rachael Harding speaks about the reopening of Club Med Phuket
CEO for East and South Asia and Pacific markets Rachael Harding speaks about the reopening of Club Med Phuket
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Founded 70 years ago, Club Med is all about family reconnection, being exposed to new cultures and making new friends. With that in mind, CEO for East and South Asia and Pacific markets Rachael Harding speaks about the future of Club Med and the long-awaited reopening of Club Med Phuket

Rachael Harding greets us at the door with a warm hug at the Club Med office in Singapore and hands out lollies from her home country Syd- ney, Australia. She is the CEO for East and South Asia and Pacific markets at the popular all-inclusive holiday club concept. Her effervescent personality is part of Club Med’s DNA where you shed your inhibitions and plunge into a few days of unadulterated fun. This is a concept that never changed in the last 70 years.
Even so, Harding notes that consumer tastes have changed and “we continue to evolve with what the consumer needs are. Some key trends in the last 10 years have been around wellness, sustainability and how the company can include that within the brand, plus bring in local culture.” Incidentally, she had her first experience at Club Med in New Caledonia when she was six years old on a family holiday.

Club Med encourages people to try new things, be happy and reconnect with themselves or their families. Harding says, “I’m not saying this because I work for Club Med but what I love about it is when I travel with my family ... While my husband and I love each other, we don’t want to be with each other all the time. It’s this combination of being able to have ‘me’ time, but also having ‘we’ time.” She cites an example on her recent trip to Club Med Maldives where her husband would go diving, while she enjoyed her morning Pilates and her son was at the Kids Club. But at every lunch time, they regrouped and shared the morning they had.

This was probably what Gérard Blitz had in mind when he founded Club Med in 1950. He wanted to provide an all-inclusive holiday club concept, adding in activities, especially for children with the creation of the Mini Club in 1967. Today, Club Med operates nearly 70 resorts, of which 85% are rated Premium and Exclusive Collection. They are present in 30 countries around the world with more than 23,000 staff representing 110 nationalities.

Harding’s role as CEO is to lead the Asia Pacific markets (excluding mainland China), to navigate the current market dynamics, prepare for an aggressive rebound, deliver a compelling customer and brand promise and advance a profitable growth strategy laser-focused on nurturing matured markets and elevating emerging markets.

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Sounds like quite a list, but Harding is the person to take this on. She has had 20 years of experience in multiple sectors of the tourism industry spanning retail, corporate and wholesale in the Australian, New Zealand, UK and European markets. In 2018, Harding joined Club Med as the general manager for Club Med Australia and New Zealand. In this role, she led to the successful growth of the Pacific market by 26% over her three years there.

Before joining Club Med, Harding spent 15 years in various travel companies, even winning an award for the Sales Woman of the Year in 2018 and named one of the top 10 most influential names at the Women In Travel Awards in 2019. She was in Singapore recently to catch up with the team, her first since she became CEO last year. Options caught up with her at the Club Med office to ask her more about the reopening of Club Med in Thailand plus her take on the future of travel.

There have been a few false starts when it comes to opening Thailand to visitors. How confident are you that the re-opening Club Med Phuket will take place?
I’m super confident. First of all, Thailand has been one of the pioneering regions to open in Asia, especially with the sandbox programme, it has been operating since July last year. There are a couple of reasons why we’re confi- dent that’s the right time to open. If you look at the tour- ism numbers that have been arriving, it’s been about a 5% increase month on month. The occupancy rates are starting to reach a really good level at hotels. But more importantly, when we saw the announce- ment being made out of Singa- pore, that Thailand was going to open, web traffic overnight increased by five times. When the announcement was made in Malaysia, it was 30 times the web traffic. The desire is there.

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What are some of the precautions put in place?
Number one, the safety of our guests and our staff have al- ways been important. We embarked upon what we call our Safe Together programme, remembering that even though we’re having a very conservative opening here in Asia, we’ve been open around the world pretty much the whole time. We’ve been able to really refine our safety and hygiene practices.
Our Safe Together programme was a way that we could audit every touchpoint in our resort, to make sure that we heightened all of the sanitisation and the safety and hygiene. We did it in conjunction with Ecolab, who is the global leader in safety, hygiene and water. They helped us make sure that we have the right protocols in place and the right level of safety.
Secondly, we have all of our staff vaccinated and in fact just starting to get boosted now. We abide completely by the local rules when it comes to vaccination, polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing or proof of immunity. For Phuket, you have to be vaccinated 14 days before travel and a negative PCR test.
The interesting thing about Club Med is we’re not a highrise hotel. We’re on big pieces of land. We have the ability to have lovely open spaces. It almost allows you to feel free but in a controlled environment.
During the pandemic, we opened five resorts and we renovated quite a few of them. We opened in Seychelles, Club Med Quebec-Charlevoix and Lavoisier and another ski village in France and two in China. We also renovated quite a few, Phuket being one. It’s a stunning village, we were the first actually on Kata beach.

What can visitors expect besides authentic Thai experiences at Club Med Phuket? Tell us more about the Tropical Nomad Lifestyle concept.
We always try to immerse the local culture in our resorts. That’s one of the evolving trends that we’ve definitely seen. We offer over 20 different activities, so you can be as active as you want, or you may choose just to really relax. That’s the beauty of it, I suppose. Each day is different. The Tropical Nomad Lifestyle concept is a way of immersing the Thai culture and vibe into our resort. Let’s just say the whole day is dedicated to Thai Life. We have a tropical pool party, cooking workshops, Thai arts and crafts classes. At night, we bring it all home with a jungle party after a whole day of immersion.

What kind of travellers does Club Med attract?
Our core target is families and active couples. Pandemic has allowed us to spend a lot of time with our family, but not quality time. What we’re seeing now is the three generation families holidaying together. Defi- nitely families, active couples in three-generational families. People are also using the resort as a base and doing some work as well. For the meetings and events, businesses and companies now are going to look for not just full-time room learning, but really about team bonding and immersive experiences and connection.

How has the Covid-19 pandemic made you rethink some of your strategies? How would you assure guests of their safety at Club Med?
First of all, people want safety, we’ve never talked about that so much before, now that’s a real priority. People are looking for destinations that will give them peace of mind before they travel and make a commitment.
We had to tweak some things such as the Safe Together programme. We have wide-open spaces, which allows us to be able to have social distance. We’ve reduced the capacity that we take in because we want to be able to have that space. We’ve had to redefine some of our food offerings too; so rather than getting up to grab a piece of bread, we now have our chef there serving it to you. We had to make some clear operational changes.

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How can hospitality and tourism brands rethink their offerings to better equip themselves in the new way people travel?
So many trends are coming out of this. First of all, last-minute travel, booking patterns have gone. We have to think about people wanting to commit at the last minute and what can we do to make them feel safe in being able to do that. Longer lengths of stay because people have built up their holidays, they’ve built up their savings, and they want to make a dif- ference when they go away.
If you think about what we missed out on in the last couple of years, companies will have to think about giving people longer holidays. I think the first things that will come back are passion. Peo- ple haven’t gone skiing, they haven’t gone diving or they haven’t gone hiking. What is that passion point that people have missed out on? So many missed celebrations, weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, I don’t know one person who didn’t miss something.
People are celebrating again together, so how can we help provide a really nice platform for them to be able to enjoy this kind of catching up with this reconnection to family. I think there are definitely a few trends that have emerged where we have to really think about as a brand, what we offer.
For us, we use the time to renovate. We knew there were some areas that we had to get back up to speed again after the pandemic and being closed for a while. We’ve personally taken the time to continue to develop and renovate our products.

You have had 20 years in the travel industry. Do you think travel will ever hit post-pandemic level again?
We don’t even have to guess that we’re seeing it. Even when we had resorts that were only open to our domestic markets, like our Malaysian markets being able to travel to Cherating in Malaysia and Japan, we’ve had two resorts open over this time and we’ve exceeded 2019 results. If you look at our business units in Europe and in North America, the same thing, revenge travel and rebound travel is real.
In Asia, it is going to be a much more cautious approach to opening and that’s because of the restrictions and the quotas. Whether you’re here in Singapore, or in Australia, we’ve all got different road maps out of this. I think we’ll come through slower and more cautiously. But I have no doubt that we’ll catch up at some point.

What from your past experience in the travel industry will you bring to your role as CEO?
If you’ve been in the industry for that long, it’s not the first storm we’ve had to weather but I think this is the biggest one. When you go through a crisis, it’s about making quick decisions, being agile and making sure that you work to- wards the needs of each market, whilst being laser-focused on your overall objectives. For me, I’ve always been on that team. In a crisis, sometimes if you’re leading, you’re very stuck in the details. I bring in my team, being transparent with my team, bringing them on the journey, allowing them to make the decisions as well and really supporting them, who in turn, support the brand. We can then support our cus- tomers. The leadership of the CEO through this has been, I think, number one through it and will be what is the difference between brands moving forward, but coming out as well.

You were awarded Sales Woman of the Year in 2018 and was named one of the top 10 most influential people at the Women In Travel Awards in 2019. What do these awards mean to you?
Any award is a great validation that you’re on the right path. It is always encouraging and lovely to be recognised. It’s not a reward for me, there are a lot of people behind what you do. It’s really a recognition for the team as well. These awards re- mind me of the passion and excitement that I have for the industry in my job. What kept me motivated and going over the last couple of years is loving what I do.

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