Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and DailyXtra.ca. Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.
It’s Sunday night at Club Med Punta Cana and a dance party is unfolding.
“I haven’t danced with anyone since March,” I think to myself as the song “Titanium” by DJ David Guetta featuring singer Sia booms over a speaker system, filling an outdoor rendezvous space with bopping pop-house beats.
Dance parties are so pre-pandemic, I ponder, cautiously. But here we are anyways, some 30 of us, jumping up and down – jazz hands and all – gleefully line dancing, hand clapping and hollering into a night sky of palm trees and constellations.
We look like a synchronized flash mob, but in the world of Club Med, this is called “Crazy Signs” – a choreographed dance ritual that happens in the “village” (Club Med speak for property), twice daily, where “GOs” (“Gracious Organizers,” Club Med’s term for staff) bust a move with “GMs” (“Gentile Members,” Club Med’s term for guests).
It’s a merry (and very popular) Club Med tradition that, on this night in the Dominican Republic, is happening, come hell or high water, even if guest occupancy is lower than usual.
As electric-purple lights pour over life-sized letters that spell “PUNTA CANA,” a smartly-dressed Assistant Chef du Village (Chief of Village), Arturo Del Angel, struts across a stage, mic in hand, pumping up the crowd with energetic wave-your-hands-in-the-air-like-you-just-don’t-care directions.
The thing here, though, is that people do care.
The fact that we’re still living in a global pandemic isn’t lost as nearly 20 mask-wearing GOs insert themselves into the mix to not only dance alongside guests, as per usual, but to also fill out the space, on purpose, to promote physical distancing.
Sure, some guests are gathering in small groups, but people – visitors mostly from France, Switzerland, Quebec and the United States – seem to be sticking to their own bubbles.
We’re outdoors, remember. In fact, almost everything that happens at this Club Med happens outdoors. This dance party doesn’t feel constricted at all.
The sprawling, 41-acre oceanfront property, which can accommodate nearly 2,000 guests, is hovering at roughly 30 per cent occupancy this week. If you need space, there’s lots.
As the boogie continues, a GO carrying a bottle of hand sanitizer weaves in and out of the spaced-out crowd, squirting globs of disinfectant on fingers and palms everywhere.
Welcome to Crazy Signs: the pandemic edition.
If we’re gonna sing hands up, baby hands up – to borrow a line from the iconic Ottawan song that became synonymous with Club Med commercials in the 1980s – then these are cleanest hands I’ve ever seen.
Keeping the “Club Med spirit” alive
In a world where social distancing directs our every move, the idea of gathering for an activity like Crazy Signs sounds crazy.
But at Club Med, it’s part of a greater strategy (400 pages worth, I’m told) that speaks to how the 70-year-strong brand – one that was built on all-inclusive activities and togetherness – is interpreting the guest experience during COVID-19 with health and safety in mind.
Since Club Med Punta Cana reopened on Oct. 14 after a six-month-long shutdown, the attitude has been this: if you want to get holidaymakers to enjoy your resort and follow rules like mask wearing, social distancing and hand sanitizing, the GOs (staff), must, must, must lead by example.
Temperature checks, sanitizing stations (both adult and kid-sized) and signage promoting healthy hygiene must be accessible and conspicuous.
And, above all, vacations must still be fun and offer all-inclusive activities for everyone.
In other words, for this to work, it’s still gotta be Club Med.
“Club Med is about human dimension,” says Abdel Osmani, the dynamic Chief of Village at Club Med Punta Cana, where PAX stayed from Nov. 15-21 as part of a 24-day tour of the Dominican Republic.
“When we reopened, our main priority was to offer a Safe Together environment with all our protocols and, at same time, to keep our DNA – the Club Med spirit.”
Safe Together is the name of Club Med’s enhanced hygiene and safety program, which you can view here, and the “Club Med spirit,” as Osmani says, represents the “true connections” guests make with each other and with staff.
That spirit, he says, is also linked to the freedom guests have in choosing their own ambience.
“Club Med brings people together, from different places, around happiness,” Osmani says.
Avoiding lockdown back home
As one who has worked for Club Med since the early ’70s, Osmani knows what he’s talking about.
Club Med first surfaced in 1950, not long after the Second World War, as a small commune on the Spanish island of Mallorca in the Mediterranean, with original accommodations consisting of straw huts on a beach
The idea was to create a utopian bubble where vacationers could socialize, share meals together, play sports outdoors and forget about the war.
Seventy years of innovation later, which included pioneering the all-inclusive format, repositioning the brand for families, launching a collection of ski resorts, and opening 70-plus properties in more than 30 countries, Club Med is still all about promoting happiness and togetherness.
Except now, in 2020, people aren’t going to Club Med to forget about the war.
They’re going to forget about the pandemic.
“We don’t want to deal with the lockdown back home,” a middle-aged couple from France, tells me, in passing at an outdoor bar.
They're not alone. After getting a taste of paradise in the Caribbean (and lower-than-usual rates), several European and Canadian guests are extending their stays, week by week.
One guest was even looking at staying until January, Osmani told me in November.
“It’s nice to see that. It’s a good reward,” Osmani says. “It means clients trust what we are doing.”
It’s a wonderfully diverse clientele, too, at that. At any given point during a stay at Club Med, you may hear English, French, Spanish and even some German, bouncing back and forth between guests.
Club Med aims to connect the world.
“We need human dimension,” says Osmani, repeating that phrase once more. “More than ever, people want to be connected, together.”
An invitation to connect
It’s a warm sentiment that resonates in a world that’s become so cold, both figuratively and literally (winter is coming, after all). But how do we connect, safely, in an idyllic resort environment, during a global pandemic?
Club Med has the connection part covered. Not just covered – perfected.
Every activity on site – whether it be sailing, kayaking, kitesurfing, snorkeling, tennis or archery (yes, it offers all of these things, and more) – is an opportunity to meet somebody new and likeminded.
There are three room levels at Punta Cana: standard rooms, the “Zen Oasis” (a chic, adults-only, lagoon-like section with modern accommodations that have terraces and front lawns) and the Exclusive Collection (Club Med’s highest level of service) – 5-Trident, “Tiara” oceanfront suites that have a private pool and amenities.
All sections exist within their own unique neighbourhoods and the entire set-up is conducive to meeting others around you.
There’s a “Creactive” circus-inspired playground, a Cirque du Soleil partnership, where kids and adults can learn acrobatic activities from skilled instructors. (The Cirque-like entertainment continues on into the night).
Fitness lovers gather, at a safe distance, for yoga and step classes in pavilions facing a Windex-blue ocean, which roars into a far-off coral reef, resulting in calm waters by the beach, which sits in front of a jungle-like backdrop of palm trees.
The elaborate Children’s Club faces the tropical ocean, reminding kids and parents that they’re in the Caribbean and not just in some ordinary play space.
Every amenity and outdoor element is an invitation to connect with people or nature.
Then there’s the GOs, who aren’t just there to escort you to your room.
They check in with you at various points throughout your day: by the pool, at lunch, on the beach. They dine with you, they drink with you, they dance with you, they work out with you. They Instagram with you.
They learn (and remember) your name.
As Arturo Del Angel (the star MC from Sunday night’s Crazy Signs dance) tells me: “You’re a member of our family. You’re not just one more bed. You’re a name to us.”
Protocols start with staff
In a natural and non-weird way, the GOs, who are of various nationalities, become your besties at Club Med, very quickly, and it’s this genuine connection that lends itself to achieving health and safety compliance among guests.
In other words, when GOs are taking COVID protocols seriously (which they do), you’re inclined to do so as well. (Remember rule number one about staff leading by example).
This is something Del Angel, who spends his days conversing with guests, witnesses often.
“Enforcing protocols starts with staff,” he tells me. “Once they have it, [guests] follow like a reflex.”
Health and safety is everyone’s responsibility, yes. But here, there’s a part of you that doesn’t want to let your GO down. You’ll find yourself double, triple-checking to make sure you have your mask with you each time you leave your room.
This is not to suggest that guests at Club Med have a problem with following COVID-19 protocols.
At the buffet, one male guest, also from France, remarked how he wears his mask when walking to and from stations “out of respect for the staff” (who have to wear masks all day).
In fact, most visitors at Club Med Punta Cana seemed fine with wearing masks when, for example, passing through dining areas. (Masks can, of course, be removed when it’s time to eat or drink).
“If someone isn’t using mask, we gently ask if they can use one,” says Del Angel.
Anyways, it’s not like anyone can pretend they’re new to the pandemic. There’s signs and stickers everywhere – on the walls, at the bar, on screens, on the floor – reminding guests to wear masks, wash their hands and keep a safe distance.
Keeping things outdoors
One strategy that guests may not realize, initially, is the aforementioned fact that almost everything at Club Med Punta Cana happens outside – a move that reduces the risk of possible COVID-19 transmission.
“If you want to spend one, two weeks outdoors, it is possible,” Osmani says, noting how vast the property is. “Even with 1,700 guests, this place never feels crowded.”
Two (fabulous) restaurants that were open during our stay were Indigo (an ocean-facing, beachfront eatery that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner) and Hispaniola (the main buffet restaurant, also by the beach).
Both are filled with free-flowing fresh air as they're (partially) outdoors.
The property’s main indoor restaurant, Samana, was closed.
At this point, one of the few activities left that was truly indoors was weight-lifting in the gym.
A reimagined buffet
The buffet at Hispaniola (the name of the island that Dominican Republic belongs to) features a worldly variety of food stations where staff, behind clear barriers, plate food and serve it to you.
Hispaniola doesn’t feel like a traditional buffet either. It’s like a high-end marketplace, serving beautifully-presented dishes, like baby squid with coconut milk and lamb with mint caviar, and magical desserts (there's a chocolate fondue fountain, ps).
And, oh, you haven’t lived until you try Club Med’s signature white chocolate bread.
Temperature checks and hand sanitizing stations greet guests at every venue. And if, by chance, a guest has symptoms and/or tests positive for COVID-19, there’s protocols for that too (such as isolating guests in rooms).
Club Med Punta Cana has a 24-7 doctor on site and a local hospital, says Osmani, is 10 minutes away, if one is required.
“The health of our clients is the main priority,” he says.
Carefulness costs you nothing, as the saying goes.
If you’re conscious of your surroundings while respecting the layers of protection that are in place, then yes, it is possible to enjoy a holiday at Club Med, where the power of human connections, despite everything that's happening in the world, remains intact.
“If people are happy and enjoying life, and feel safe in this crazy world, then they will come,” Del Angel says. “This is a bubble of joy and happiness.”
A bubble where safety, happiness, and a future Crazy Signs dance, lies in your own hands.
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