The French family behind Club Med, the ubiquitous all-inclusive vacation resorts, has a growing hospitality venture that doesn’t involve ski slopes or seashores, but rather cityscapes and skylines.
Welcome to Mama Shelter, a chain of budget boutique hotels that borrows some of what worked on snow and sand and applied it to hipster havens in eight cities—four in France, Los Angeles, Rio de Janeiro, and, most recently, Belgrade and Prague.
To understand Mama Shelter is to first know the French family behind it—the Triganos, whose late patriarch, Gilbert, cofounded Club Méditerranée with Gerard Blitz in the 1950s. The inaugural tents on the beach eventually became Polynesian-inspired villages complete with buffet meals, open bars, organized activities, and nightly entertainment. Then there were the teams of Gentils Organisateurs (think Julie McCoy, your cruise director) eager to teach sports to children or dancing to adults.
“My father understood very early that happy staff make happy customers,” says Serge Trigano. The truly innovative angle, though, was the price. Once in the resort, no money changed hands—the cost of the stay was paid in one everything-included charge. So, once in, there were no class differences. It was all quite revolutionary.
Beyond a family vacation choice, Club Med really took off in the swinging ’60s with fashionable singles in search of what French pop icon Serge Gainsbourg dubbed “sea, sex, and sun” in his soundtrack for Patrice Leconte’s Club Med-inspired farce, Les Bronzés, in 1978.
As Club Med spread its vacation villages around the world, Trigano found himself in meetings with presidents, kings, and even the pope. He eventually handed the reins to Serge, who kept the company afloat even as new competitors jumped on the all-inclusive vacation club bandwagon.
Combining one family business with another, Fiat’s founding family, the Agnellis, bought a 21.2% stake in Club Med in 1995. It turned out to be a bad match. While the Triganos and the Agnellis weren’t exactly the Hatfields and McCoys, Serge was eventually ousted from the company his father created.
The Mama comeback
But hospitality is very much in the Trigano blood. Serge’s sons, Jérémie and Benjamin, grew up in the family business, and that hospitality know-how came in handy when the family noticed a distinct gap in the growing design-centered boutique hotel boom.
“Everyone was selling something cool–cool design, cool food, cool staff,” says Jérémie. “They forget that it is the hospitality industry, and we’re here to host people.”
So, they teamed up with designer Philippe Starck to create a hotel brand built around “the values of Club Med, but adapted to the 21st century,” says Serge. Those values included expert hospitality (they hired from the Dorchester Collection’s five-star Plaza Athenée in Paris), good vibes, good food, technology, innovation, and most importantly, good people.
In 2008, the 172-room Mama Shelter hotel opened in the decidedly working-class Paris neighborhood, Bagnolet. The hotel is undeniably chic, with Starck’s high-style yet witty designs and a relaxed vibe.
“We really tried to focus on creating a fun environment for guests,” says Jérémie. Mama Shelter, like Club Med, pushes the idea of shared fun, extending from oversized foosball tables for eight players, live music in the restaurants, yoga classes, rooftop bars, and a low-key party vibe.
There’s private fun, too—cartoon masks in the rooms (which guests just might post on social media) and, perhaps in a hat tip to their French roots, free streaming porn. “People were going to watch anyway,” says Jérémie, blithely.
The porn has perhaps led to one of the hotel’s more unconventional retail partnerships: Mama Shelter-branded Durex condoms. Those condoms are just another sign that while the vibe is carefree, the attention to detail is precise.
The hoteliers have thought about the smallest detail, including the scents of each hotel, working with candle maker Lola James Harper to create bespoke scents for each outpost (Los Angeles smells like tuberose and wood).
Lest you think that a hotel with free porn isn’t family-friendly, it truly is—they have changing tables, family suites, child activity packs, and a laid-back attitude toward children enjoying the group foosball and laughing uproariously in the restaurants that any exhausted parent will appreciate. (Plus, the free porn can be turned off by the staff.)
Like at Club Med, whose all-inclusive meals made it so people didn’t want to leave the resort grounds to pay out of pocket for dinner, Mama Shelter has made food and beverage a centerpiece of its hotels. It’s a carefully thought out plan to convince guests to stay (and spend) on the premises, and hopefully get the locals to come, too.
“Hotel operators have always seen food and beverage as a necessary evil,” says Jérémie, noting that Mama Shelter has proven that hotel restaurants can be profitable enterprises. “Hotels are now fighting hard to open up their restaurants and bar to the locals. We’ve done that from inception.”
Mama expands her reach
In 2014, Accor Hotels bought a 35% stake in the company. While bringing in a corporate partner cost them something—Starck cashed out—the company is growing quickly.
“We just opened a 125-room Mama in Belgrade,” says Jérémie. In addition to the largest Mama yet (the 238-room hotel in Prague), they have plans to open hotels in London, São Paolo, Lisbon, Dubai, and Santiago, with “negotiations to open properties in key cities elsewhere in Europe, Africa, Australia, and Asia.”
No matter where they open, the aim is to be accessible and affordable. “Affordability attracts a different cool,” says Benjamin, who hopes the hotels will attract a cross-section of demographics from “Jay Z and Beyoncé to grandmas with their grandchildren.”
As they expand, they are also hiring staff reminiscent of those famed Club Med’s Gentils Organisateurs—“truly magical people who really want to be there and serve other people,” says Jérémie.
They recruit at onsite hiring events, or via Skype interviews where viable candidates fly to the location to meet the team. New hires will frequently stay for a month to make sure they truly absorb what the Triganos call the “Mama DNA.”
That is a feeling that is “happy, warm, and welcoming,” according to Jérémie, and perhaps most importantly, fun. If that sounds a little like Club Med, that’s on purpose. After all, it runs in the family.