Chalet holidays: A snow place like home

British skiers' love for Alpine chalets is as strong as ever, says Stephen Wood

The identity of the inventor of the ski-chalet holiday is a matter of some dispute. According to one school of thought, it was a British-based Austrian woman named Erna Low, who in 1932 placed an advertisement in the Morning Post (or possibly the New Statesman – accounts vary) that announced "Viennese undergraduette taking party to Austria, fortnight £15". The cost of the holiday in Sölden included the return train fare from London, full-board in a guest house, ski hire and tuition and German lessons.

The revisionist view is that Colin Murison-Small created the chalet holiday. The ad for his first trip, inserted in The Daily Telegraph (or possibly The Times) in 1958, opened just as tersely as Low's. "I have hired a chalet in Grindelwald," it said, promising that "an English girl, Lovedy, who will be living in the chalet for the whole season, will feed you and do all she can to make you comfortable and keep you happy". Three meals a day would be provided; but potential clients were warned that "you will have to buy your own cakes".

Getting a 26-year start on her rival makes Low seem more like the pioneer. But, say the Murison-Small acolytes, hers was not a true chalet holiday since the premises were a guest house, and were booked for only a short period (rather than the season-long lease that became the standard for chalets). Ah yes, says the defence, but Low brought her own staff rather than using guest-house employees. And so on. Credit for some associated innovations can, however, be assigned: Murison-Small's Lovedy and the "Muribirds" who followed gave life to what became the chalet girl.

Though we may never conclusively identify the creator of this unique and curiously British phenomenon (Low was at least a committed Anglophile), we do know the identity of the man seemingly threatening its existence. He is now referred to as "Mr 40 per cent" for his drastic reduction in the number of chalet holidays offered this season by the giant TUI holiday group. His name is Mathew Prior, and he is the boss of that company's UK ski division. He is adamant that the cut he made was necessary, but he admits that he got into trouble with his wife over it.

It was Oskar Hinteregger, the departing head of the Austrian National Tourist Office in London, who pointed out to me that the British do skiing holidays differently. We are unique in Europe, he said, in treating skiing as a group activity. Other nationalities ski as families, couples or individuals; only we do it mob-handed, frequently as a two-family group.

This has a lot to do with how far away snow-sure mountains are. Few of us ski on impulse; long-term planning is the norm, especially for chalets (because everyone knows the best properties go first), which makes enlisting other skiers in a holiday a practical proposition. But clearly there is also a cause-and-effect relationship between the chalet holiday and group skiing.

When both Low and Murison-Small started running their "chalet parties", the format reflected the need to keep costs to a minimum. In 1932, the number of Britons who could afford to travel to the Alps was minimal; even in 1958 skiers were a select few. Chalet holidays were not a response to customer demand for group trips with shared bathrooms and washing-up duties, just a means of achieving economies.

Among other European nationalities, the idea that it is the British who go on communal holidays must raise an eyebrow or two. We are supposed to be polite but reserved; compared with Italians and the French, we wouldn't, characteristically, be expected to bring much to the chalet party. But Murison-Small recalls that, "because at the time only the middle- and upper-class travelled abroad, the parties were always sociable: these were people on the same wavelength".

In the latter part of the era – from 1958 until the late Eighties – in which he ran the ski operator Small World, Murison-Small witnessed the broadening of skiing's appeal. "We did get a better mix of people, but it was a slow process," he says. "The marketplace broadened, too, with the advent of companies such as Supertravel – going for the snooty types – and Silver Ski, going in the opposite direction."

For Ian Coleby, a relative newcomer to the ski business (his company Skiworld has been in operation only since 1982), the social dynamic of chalet holidays reflects a common interest rather than shared backgrounds. The holidays work, he says, "because of the friendly, dinner-party atmosphere in the evenings, and because every guest enjoys being up in the mountains. They all have a story to tell at the end of the day". Instances of groups not getting along are, he says, "surprisingly infrequent".

In its first season, Coleby's company was actually called Ski Tignes, since that was where it operated. In the next, a second resort added to the portfolio necessitated a new name: "We chose Skiworld so that we wouldn't have to keep changing it." In the early days, Coleby admits, the operation was fairly amateur, but clients' expectations were low, too. And the holidays were cheap? "Very much so."

At that time, as I recall from my first experience of them, chalets had tepid water at the end of the queue for the bathrooms, paper-thin walls in the bedrooms, and crashing bores in the dining room (maybe I was just unlucky). A lot has changed since then, and in many French resorts the most glamorous accommodation is to be found in chalets. "But in the main, they are still very good value," says Coleby. "And because the whole cost of the holiday – bar a few drinks and lunches on the mountain – is paid in advance and in sterling, guests can budget properly, unaffected by fluctuations in currency values."

That makes the chalet holiday a sensible proposition in times of economic uncertainty. Unfortunately, the impact on sales of last year's uncertainty has made the chalet holiday much less available this season. Actually, says Prior, there were two reasons for the drastic cut in TUI UK's chalet-holiday availability. "First, competition between tour operators had been intense for a number of years, and the cost of leasing charter properties had increased to the point where the first £400 of the holiday cost was going to the chalet owner. Then, last season, demand reduced sharply and that forced us to be more prudent."

A repetition of last year's experience – when many chalets were contracted and paid for, but only rarely occupied – could not be contemplated. The ski business had to be realistic.

When a tour operator signs a contract with a chalet owner, it is committed to pay for the lease irrespective of occupancy. Deals with hotels are much more flexible, with contracted rooms often being returnable if not needed. In the wake of 2008/9, flexibility was essential. Many chalets had to go.

Is the future of the chalet holiday threatened? Prior says not, and Coleby agrees. Indeed, Prior expects TUI's chalet portfolio to grow for 2010/11. And having spent his family ski holiday in a chalet last season and booked another for this winter, he is personally committed to their future. He says the 40 per cent cut was "exactly right"; but he may have regretted not saving a couple of chalets from the chop. His wife had an eye on them for this season's trip.

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