Can Rich Chinese Beach Bums Save Club Med?

A private equity firm wants to transform the flagging resort chain into a luxury destination for Chinese tourists.
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A man sits with his grand daughter on a beach in Weihai, Shandong province on June 13, 2011. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

The decline in European fortunes has kept the continent's tourists pinching pennies. That's made it hard for Club Méditerranée, a French resort company known originally for its cheap and cheerful beach vacations, to boost profits by turning its beach hut clusters into luxury resorts. To offset the fall in European spending, Club Med has been courting upscale Chinese tourists. A takeover bid from AXA Private Equity and Fosun International Ltd (paywall), a massive Chinese conglomerate, looks like a vote of confidence in that strategy.

Club Med, which operates around 70 resorts around the world, said that current management would stay if the bid goes through. Its shift in strategy has seen it upgrade existing resorts and closing others, as well as opening luxury shops in its resort hubs. It has also opened more resorts in Asia.

That's geared in part toward Chinese tourists, who spent $102 billion in 2012--much more than the nearly $84 billion each spent by Germany and the US, and an increase of 40% on the previous year, according to the UN World Tourism Organization. German and US spending increased only 6%. Southeast Asian countries are particularly popular with the Chinese , who are also avid and discerning shoppers.

Besides marking the rise of the Chinese tourist, the bid also signals the gathering momentum of Chinese private equity overseas. While much has been made of the "going out" strategies of China's state-owned enterprises, sovereign wealth funds and, more recently, real-estate companies , Fosun--along with Hony Capital, CDH Investments and Citic Capital Partners--has been quietly at the vanguard of taking PE beyond China's borders.

As it happens, the 7.1% stake in Club Med Fosun bought in 2010, which made it one of the resort company's biggest strategic investors at the time, was its first big European play. At the time, Club Med announced that it would open five resorts in China within five years--with three now open, it's on track to hit that target--as well as a ski resort in Heilongjiang province.

Since then, Fosun has also taken a 10% stake in Greek jewelry retailer Folli Follie, and bought Israeli laser maker Alma Lasers earlier this year.

The bid for Club Med hints that we should expect more aggressive, high-profile deals to come. Fosun is raising a $1 billion dollar-denominated fund--its second dollar fund--to invest overseas, particularly in Europe. It will focus on companies like Club Med: struggling European businesses that want to expand in China.

Gwynn Guilford is a reporter and editor for Quartz.

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