Travel: Skiing - Break into snow business

Setting up a specialist ski company is far from child's play, as Stephen Wood finds out
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An old friend has been banging on to me about the resort of Gressoney for almost two years. Why haven't I been there? Don't I know how good the off-piste skiing is in the Monte Rosa area, particularly in the huge bowl of the Alagna valley? Wouldn't I enjoy staying in an Italian village with great food and friendly locals? I haven't made it to Gressoney yet, but now I have no excuse. Because my friend - his name is John Kavanagh - has set up a holiday company with a business partner to organise bespoke trips to the resort. He reckons that if he likes it, other skiers will, too.

Taking a friendly interest in John's venture, called Gressonly, I spoke to a handful of small, specialist ski operators to discover the potential and the pitfalls of launching such a company. Jim Thorpe's views on the subject were not encouraging. His Snowman company organises trips to the 24-bedroom hotel he has owned for a dozen years in St Gervais, near (and linked with) the Megeve ski area in France. "It is not easy to make a profit out of skiing," he says, adding that "there are a number of businesses that are bedevilled by enthusiasts, and skiing is definitely one of them."

Yet surprisingly few of my sample companies were born out of sheer enthusiasm, nor inspired by the notion that what we want, other skiers will also want; one was even started by a man who had never skied. But Ski Famille, which for eight years has provided packages to Les Gets for skiers with young children, proved an exception. Steve Sharp and his wife, who run the company, were keen skiers; but "then the kids came along, and we went through the routine of trying to combine skiing with small children - one year we took the mother-in-law, the next we tried using a local creche".

A better solution, they figured, would be a ski operator offering well- equipped chalets, day-care for smaller children and skiing tuition for the four- and five-year-olds: hence Ski Famille. Sharp started the company with the confidence that "we knew what parents wanted. For example, rather than lugging packs of nappies and a steriliser with them, they just wanted to take a couple of feeding bottles along."

The fact that he and his business partner run a news agency in Cambridge enabled him to survive. "The first two years were difficult. But then we started to make headway, and ultimately to have the luxury of letting demand push us along." Ski Famille now has four full-time members of staff, and will take 1,500 people skiing this year; but 90 per cent of its capacity is already sold.

For a specialist operator, finding a niche is essential to success. Ski Famille did that; Classic Ski was lucky enough to have a ready-made market. Classic Ski took over a market from the more explicitly named Over The Hill, which ceased operating four years ago, and it offers "skiing holidays for the mature adventurer": the clients it takes to Flaine and three other French resorts are, on average, in their late 50s, "although we had a 79-year-old last year, and we've had several beginners in their 70s," says the company's owner, David Griffiths.

Employing the same instructor as Over The Hill - and thus forming a bridge with the defunct company's clients - Griffiths set up a programme designed for older skiers, using quiet resorts in quiet periods (Classic Ski does not operate in February, when the slopes and the ski instructors are particularly busy), offering small-group tuition, and booking clients on to hassle- free midweek scheduled flights. After three years, the programme now attracts 180 skiers per season, having started from a very low base.

If spotting a market is essential, getting through the first season is critical. Louis Fernandes knows this better than most: the up-market JL Catered Chalets company which he launched last year - with a stunning brochure - ceased trading even before the season began. Despite a year of planning (and three years' experience in the ski business), Fernandes' company folded in November when his bank withdrew a pounds 58,000 overdraft facility. JL's business plan had proved to be inaccurate - by a factor of 0.25 per cent. "We were pounds 77 out," says Fernandes, "and the bank decided that consumer confidence did not warrant their investing in the company."

In the light of his experience, Fernandes offered the following advice for anyone wanting to start a specialist ski company. "Make sure you have enough backing to cover the first year's turnover, then plan, plan and plan - down to every last detail. Be wary of advertising salesmen: just because they're offering their best deal doesn't mean that it's a good deal. And you've got to understand your market, because the fact that "you think something's a good idea doesn't mean that everyone else will agree."

Did MasterSki, the most successful of all the companies to which I spoke, abide by such rules? Hardly: it was started by a man who could not ski and did not know the market (though he had the wit to take advice from an expert); and almost the first thing the company did was to advertise. For 15 years, MasterSki has been running skiing packages for Christians, and it consistently sells 1,500 or more holidays a year. Its origins lie in a reader offer placed in the Christian magazines published by Bob Fleming, who runs MasterSki and MasterSun with his wife, Jill, plus a full-time staff of 25. "We quite quickly realised that the holidays were a much better business than publishing the magazines," he says.

MasterSki's holidays include a daily meeting, for worship and Bible study: unlike the company's summer holidays, which (in Fleming's words) attract everyone "from raging charismatics to high Anglicans", the skiing groups are more homogenous, in age and spiritual outlook. Nevertheless, Fleming advises the Christian leaders on each holiday not to be controversial, "and don't ask them to dance".

All the holidays are based in the same hotel (in Tignes) and chalet (in Meribel), but Fleming believes that the resorts are big enough to provide continuing interest for his company's very loyal clientele.

The specialist companies do not seem to share the big operators' pre- occupation with offering customers new destinations. For Jim Thorpe of Snowman, having a single resort is like having a holiday home: "It doesn't suit everyone, but some people like returning to favourite bars or runs, and being with people who remember them from last year." That's good news for my friend, John - as is the market analysis of a consultant used by MasterSki, who reckons that of all specialist ski companies, one-third make a profit, one-third want to enjoy it and don't worry too much about profits, while one-third merely make a loss. If Gressonly can get into the "enjoyment" band, John will be more than happy.

Gressonly 0181-287 6394;; Snowman 01989 770766; Ski Famille 01223 363777/568224;; Classic Ski 01590 623400; MasterSki 0181-942 9442