Interview with CEO, Club Med, ESAP

Rachael Harding, CEO, Club Med ESAP, is unfazed by the challenges the travel and tourism sector is facing caused by the pandemic. If anything, it has taught her the importance of staying nimble and ever-ready to pivot and adapt. In this interview with Lester Tan, she shares:

  • Why she leads with the belief: “If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything.”;
  • How Club Med never forgets to support the local community through initiatives such as job creations, and
  • How she works hand-in-hand with HR on driving employee engagement, training, and more.

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Previously, a GM at Club Med for three years, Rachael Harding was appointed CEO of Club Med ESAP in July 2021, where she is currently responsible for leading the brand across Asia-Pacific markets, as well as emerging ones with a profitable growth strategy.

In this interview, she tells Lester Tan all about why she brings her team on to every part of the journey, how she drives employee engagement with HR, and ways Club Med is giving back to the local community through employment.

Q Rachael, congratulations on your new position leading the ESAP region! It’s been about six months now. How has the journey been since you first joined Club Med in Aug 2018? Share with us the mantra that inspired you to be where you are today.

Thank you! A well-defined vision and an inclusive team have been imperative to my journey so far. Although we had strong momentum and a solid business model leading into the pandemic, a clear vision and focused approach has always been my first practical step. This has been more apparent in the past two years through the pandemic where every team needs to be mentally ready to anticipate the constant challenges.

In parallel, I bring the team on to every part of the journey. Every person is an important cog in the wheel that turns the business. By being transparent and inclusive, the job becomes so much more than making money, and gives the team a strong purpose. In turn, I would hope they trust me to do what is right and fair for them as I guide them to strive and reach our collective goals.

There is a quote I love and stand by, it goes: “If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything.” This applies to your core values—both personal and professional.

Q Starting a new role mid-pandemic must’ve been tough as well, especially in the hard-hit travel and tourism sector. What were some of the challenges you faced as a leader, and how did you manage them?

One of the challenges was the many uncertainties that were brought on due to the pandemic. This crisis has definitely exemplified the importance of staying nimble and ever-ready to pivot, especially in light of the ever-changing circumstances brought on by COVID-19. The stop-start nature of the pandemic has also brought along disruption to plans and the constant need to readjust our strategies to fit the current climate.

The biggest challenge I faced as a leader was keeping the team engaged and connected in an industry that was uncertain. We needed to preserve the right talent, not just to get us through the crisis, but to also accelerate our progress beyond it.

Q The travel industry forms a big part of your career. The dynamics of travel have changed today, credits to the pandemic. How did you then develop that sense of clarity in you and your leadership to steer the workforce in the right direction?

I have worked across several global markets, and this certainly is not the first crisis we have weathered in the travel and tourism sector. Although the pandemic poses a challenge on a larger scale, learnings can be applied from past crises as well.

When such disruptions happen, you need to remain relevant, and this can be achieved by tapping into new distribution opportunities, reinventing your offerings, as well as updating your consequence strategy.

However, every market approach will also differ depending on your location. The key factor for Club Med is that we are a brand that is adaptable for a rebound.

In directing my team, I draw on my strengths to identify the best opportunity to capitalise upon, whilst being mindful and adaptable to external threats. Most of my career has also been in the Pacific market, a region that has a very high appetite for travel. This trait drives a competitive and complex landscape that I can apply learnings from.

Q With the pandemic, travel won’t ever be the same again. What trends do you see staying and which do you see going?

Leisure travel will bounce back faster than business travel. First, international travellers will be driven by the heart – many have missed weddings, honeymoons, family reunions, and birthday celebrations. A recent travel survey that we conducted in Australia showed that 63% of consumers had missed a trip they had booked to meet their families because of the pandemic, while another Southeast Asian travel survey we did showed that the top priority for 73% of respondents is reconnecting with their families based overseas.

We also expect the trend of ‘workations’ to rise. The widespread adoption of remote work arrangements since the start of the pandemic has increasingly blurred the lines between work and leisure. New innovations by Club Med include ‘worktainment’, where we offer companies the option to mix corporate events and conferences with a leisure trip for their employees, and Work Hub, which involves offering private workstations within the resort to allow guests easy transit between work and play.

The trend of ‘anywhere travel’ is currently on the rise as well, with travel-starved consumers choosing destinations based on loosened travel restrictions. The idea of ‘bucket list travel’ is thus less prevalent in today’s context—it is no longer about just going to a popular tourist point of interest. We also see people staying longer in one location to immerse themselves in the culture of that destination.

Q We understand you and Club Med are passionate about ESG initiatives. In your opinion, how important is it for 21st-century leaders and businesses to be invested in this, and actually walk the talk? What are some projects you’re spearheading in this space?

Responsibility has been one of Club Med’s core values from our inception 71 years ago, and remains at the core of everything we put into practice.

As part of our goal of paving the way towards more sustainable and desirable tourism, we have worked on several initiatives such as: treating 100% of water waste, sourcing food locally to support the local community, protecting the local biodiversity with turtle conservation, and launching our "Bye-Bye Plastic" programme in 2018—boycotting single-use plastic products from resorts. We have also partnered with Winnow, known for their intelligent connected waste bins, to reduce food waste from 30 to 60%, and 100% of Club Med resorts in APAC are Green Globe certified.

We used the travel downtime during the pandemic to further develop our efforts on biodiversity, to educate our guests while they stay with us. As a result of these efforts, you will see pedagogical panels in our resorts educating children about the local area that they are in, as well as organised awareness efforts. These include celebrating Green Week in our resorts to raise awareness on key environmental issues and partnering with organisations to support the local community, such as through food and mask donations to local charities and frontline workers.

Club Med is also conscious of our impact on the environment when we launch new resorts. For example, we are ensuring that Club Med Borneo Kota Kinabalu will be Club Med’s first large-scale sustainably built BREEAM-certified beach resort in APAC.

This 400-room resort that we are building will create approximately 400 job opportunities for the community of Kuala Penyu, contributing to the local economy, while simultaneously showcasing Sabah’s beautiful surroundings by unveiling this hidden gem to the world.

Club Med’s focus on eco-sustainability thus seeks to ensure that the location’s natural beauty is preserved while increasing its positive impact on the community.

Q How much have the concepts of ‘talent’ and ‘recruitment’ changed as a result of the post-pandemic era? What are some of the talent challenges plaguing this sector, and how do you plan to tackle them?

One of the talent challenges that have been observed in the sector is that hospitality workers who stood down due to COVID-19 last year are now showing resistance in resuming their positions in this industry as recovery comes about, leading to a labour shortage. However, at Club Med, we are positive that we will not see much of a labour crunch as we always prospect hires in advance, and have built a strong pipeline of potential employees. At the same time, Club Med has retained staff in our resorts to gear up for recovery. We also provide flexibility in work arrangements - a key essential to employee needs in this new climate.

We also run a key talent programme that grooms our employees in preparation for the next step in their careers.

These individuals will lead key projects in the company, give them the opportunity to develop their leadership skills, engage with more of their peers and grow in their knowledge on various parts of the business.

This has been a successful programme providing mobility and opportunities to retain talent at Club Med.

Q As CEO, what kind of support do you provide for your employees, and what are some ways that you work with HR to offer that support?

As a leader, I believe in getting down in the trenches with my team.

With all the uncertainties and challenges brought on by the pandemic, it is more important than ever that we tackle our responsibilities as a united front. During the downtime, we also organised engagement activities amongst the teams to keep up the morale. These included ongoing development and training with external stakeholders, as well as internal best practice sessions which allowed employees to learn more about each department. We also maintained consistent checks to ensure employees are well-taken care of, such as by ramping up review and development discussions.

In addition to the above, I also have weekly work-in-progress (WIP) calls with our human resources team, and ensure to always have HR represented in executive calls and meetings to underpin all that we do. We also conduct employee surveys and use this data to ensure we tailor each country’s needs, desires, and solutions to fit their environment and the individual. In 2022, for example, we are even moving our office in Singapore to give our employees a fresh space to begin the year 'post-pandemic'.

Q When we can travel freely around the world again, where will be the first place and country you’d go to, and why?

I have been stuck in Australia for over 18 months, and my first trip will be for business, to meet face-to-face with our teams in Southeast Asia. Whilst Zoom is fit for its purpose, nothing will replace connecting physically with our teams. Club Med is a culturally-rich brand that leverages the power of collaboration and relationship-building to develop opportunities, and I, for one, cannot wait to experience this again.

On a personal note, my family and I will be enjoying a festive break at our beautiful Club Med Kani in the Maldives. To reconnect again with my family in a space that allows the same connection back to my brand is a luxury I cannot wait for!

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