Club Med's gentle organisers

BY APRIL FONTI
Last updated 15:25 26/03/2009
QUALIFIED: Club Med's Bintan Island resort in Indonesia is bathed in that indefinably lovely quality.

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I'm sitting on a bus outside a five star resort on an Indonesian island.

I've travelled by car, plane, ferry and bus to get here.

I can peek at the South China Sea through the window and the heady scent of lush tropical foliage entices me.

Yet, for the slightest of moments, I'm too scared to leave.

It's because of our welcome party. There are around a dozen of them, with nut-brown bodies and wearing matching pastel blue shirts - all taut and clean.

They're waving madly. Some of them bound up and down, arms flailing in the air as though we're pop stars and they're our most ardent fans.

Finally I climb out and into their pastel-clad arms. Baring their blindingly white teeth, they introduce themselves and offer us iced teas.

They're effusive, warm, and they smile at us like we're long-lost friends – except we're strangers. Welcome to Club Med Bintan Island.

I'd been lured to this place by talk of massages, beaches, five star rooms and pristine views. Only now do I discover Club Med is no ordinary resort.

At Club Med, the staff are a huge part of your experience. They are known as gentle organisers, or GOs.

They are multilingual, relentlessly upbeat, and their mission is "to serve with pleasure". This involves eating, playing and partying with the guests.

It's a unique concept that has attracted people for over 50 years. On Bintan Island in Indonesia, the man at the helm of all this, is Ryan Leach, a Californian who has worked at Club Med for 20 years.

I speak to Leach, hoping to find out what attracted him to life in Club Med. Firstly, it was the opportunity for travel. Leach was working in the finance sector and feeling like a change, when some friends suggested he apply for a job at Club Med. He was offered one within the week.

"They said you have to be somewhere in a week and that was it, I traded my business suits for bathing suits," he says.

Twenty years later, Leach now trilingual, has visited or lived in at least 30 countries. He's got the pecs of a secret service agent and the coolest job title in the world, "Chief of Village".

"Oooo," he cries, making a warcry. He's pure Club Med and as with the Club Med welcome, I find his constant cheeriness a little too much at first.

Our conversation is liberally sprinkled with talk about American-style management and team building. He's got Tom Cruise-like manic positivity.

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"I love my job", he barks into my tape recorder several times throughout the interview.

As a pensive, pale-faced writer, I find his biceps and tan a little unsettling; he's the youngest and healthiest 50-year-old I've seen in a long while.

But by the end of the interview I'm as charmed by Leach as I am by this place. In just two days, Club Med has massaged my trepidation away.

Each morning we wake with the sea pounding outside our windows as the sun streams in. We eat dragonfruit for breakfast then laze on the private beach where the sand is velvety and white. We have massages, sip champagne and lift our faces to the sun, happy as children.

Sometimes we wander barefoot over to the various open bars or watch the various activities taking place. We are invited to learn archery, yoga, snorkelling, acrobatics, kayaking and sailing. We are also welcome to play on one of the best golf courses in Asia.

At night, sun-soaked and massaged, we watch the staff perform skits for adults and children. I watch one of the children's performances, complete with a large Asian man wearing a nappy and a young woman imitating a donkey. It's tacky, but the room is filled with the deep-throaty giggles of children in complete rapture.

Later on, the staff perform the "crazy dance", a Club Med favourite that reminds me of the Macarena.

The staff are deeply tanned and seem to smile constantly. They also wear matching white outfits that glow in the light. Sometimes the bar staff spontaneously break into synchronised dance moves.

For anyone who cringes at audience participation, it sounds a little hellish. But nobody harasses you to participate and everyone seems to enjoy themselves.

But as the days pass, what really permeates is not the dorkiness of synchronised dancing, but the atmosphere of the place. The resort is bathed in that indefinably lovely quality that comes when people live communally in a positive atmosphere.

You never get the sense that the staff would rather be somewhere else. They're mostly young college graduates earning $US450 ($NZ810.51) a month, so they're here for the party, not the money. And their smiles are more friendly than professional.

"It's a very unusual lifestyle," Leach says, "At first it takes a little getting used to but a lot of people find it addictive."

It's a lifestyle that keeps Leach young. Like many of Leach's homes over the past 20 years, Bintan Island is among the most beautiful islands in the world.

Staff live in five-star accommodation, eat food prepared by award-winning chefs, have access to a well-equipped gym overlooking the sea, and are rarely lacking in company that shares their positive outlook.

And although I never will bring myself to take part in the synchronised dancing, after two days in this place, I get the feeling that I'd find this far more enjoyable than being in a resort with reserved professionals, where everyone's so polite, cool and restrained, you feel guilty for the division between waiter and waited upon.

And perhaps this is why Club Med has endured for so many years.

Leach believes that he can lead by example.

"If I, the manager has fun, then the staff have fun and this will filter down to the guests."

But then, it's easy to have fun because, as Leach says, "we get to live where everybody else vacations in paradise".

IF YOU GO

Club Med Bintan Island can be booked at clubmed.com.

Bintan Island is a one-hour ferry ride from Singapore's Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal, which is a 20-minute bus ride from Changi Airport.

* The writer was a guest of Club Med.

- AAP

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