Many senior living executives today have hospitality backgrounds, but few can say they worked with the original owners of Club Med — except for Agemark CEO Richard Westin.
Westin joined the legendary resort company in 1962 after meeting co-owners Gilbert Trigano and Gerard Blitz the previous year. In fact, he was the very first American citizen to work full-time for the French company, which was founded in 1950 as a low-cost vacation and destination brand.
Off and on for seven years, Westin lived in Europe and taught skiing in the winter and sailing in the summer to tourists and sightseers from across the world. He also considered Trigano a father figure and a mentor.
“I was really dedicated, emotionally, to Club Med,” Westin told Senior Housing News. “I loved the concept and I loved the people, both the ones I was working for and the guests.”
While Westin’s time with Club Med was decades ago, it informs the way he leads Agemark today. The Orinda, California-based company currently has 22 communities open or in the works, each with an emphasis on hospitality and lifestyle.
While Westin didn’t know it at the time, working at Club Med laid the foundation for his career in the senior living industry.
“I thought I was teaching people how to ski and sail,” Westin said of his time at Club Med. “And I didn’t realize that I was really learning the hospitality business.”
Club Med to senior living
Westin’s first experience with Club Med was not as a worker, but as a guest at one of the company’s resort villages in Engelberg, Switzerland. When his time staying at the Swiss resort village had run out, Westin asked the owners if he could extend his stay, provided he pitched in as a worker.
The owners said yes, so Westin’s first job with the organization was to watch guests’ children as they took skiing lessons.
“I didn’t get paid very much … and I actually felt that I should have been paying them because it was such an incredible opportunity,” Westin recalled. “I was having so much fun, I was staying in good shape and they were endlessly kind to me.”
After a short time watching kids, Club Med’s owners asked if he wanted to stay on for the upcoming summer in Greece. Westin immediately jumped at the chance, and over the next few months, he spent his days teaching sailing and learning French on the Greek island of Corfu.
In the years that followed, Westin — a native of Queens in New York City — worked for Club Med in a variety of destinations. And after Westin graduated law school, the company’s owners gave him the opportunity of a lifetime.
“Gilbert [Trigano] said, we’re thinking about coming to the U.S., how would you like to run our U.S. office?” Westin recalled. “I’m a very entrepreneurial soul … so I went back to Gilbert literally with tears in my eyes and said, you are so kind, but I don’t think I can do this.”
And so, Westin left the hospitality industry and co-founded a law firm. It wasn’t long after that he got into the real estate business in Berkeley, California. And over the years, that pursuit led him into the senior living industry.
It wasn’t until Westin founded Agemark in 1987 that he realized his Club Med background would once again prove useful.
When Westin founded Agemark, the modern senior living industry was still in its formative days. Back then, many providers stood out in their markets by providing a more hospitality-oriented alternative to nursing homes.
Today, even as senior living providers are emphasizing their health care capabilities, hospitality remains a guiding principle for many of the leading companies in the sector. And Agemark is an example of a company that brings an over-the-top Club Med version of hospitality to the industry.
“I was steeped in the Club Med world, and it opened my eyes as to how you treat people, whether they’re 22 or 92,” he said. “The culture in our company is that you just don’t settle for an experience, you make it a miraculous, memorable experience.”
That attitude lives on in Agemark’s resident programming. The company routinely helps residents fulfill “bucket list” experiences, like visiting the famous Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia or riding in a bi-plane.
One such instance was when the company learned one of its residents — a 102-year-old woman named Mildred — had always wished to go to a Baltimore Orioles game. Instead of simply buying her good seats and wishing her well, Agemark went above and beyond.
“She threw out the first pitch with her grandchildren, then she got to hang out in the locker room. It was a memorable experience,” Westin said. “At 4 p.m. when she got back at our property, there was a red carpet there for her with staff and residents lined up … and at the end of that carpet was the five o’clock news.”
It’s experiences like Mildred’s which exemplify how Westin’s time at Club Med helped prepare him for working in the senior living industry.
“Club Med’s whole philosophy was: enjoy life, have a great time and we’ll help you if you need us,” Westin said. “And, to laugh as much as you can. And we did. We laughed our heads off.”