Group skiing: Friends in high places

Daniel Elkan does his bit to get more Brits skiing by taking a group of 21 to Alpe d'Huez

The prosecco on the 11am Eurostar may have gone to my head, but I can still do the maths: five million people in the UK consider themselves skiers, yet each season, only one million go on a ski holiday. That's four million who don't go each year. Why? Conventional wisdom says it is the cost. Throw the travel, accommodation, food and lift pass together – plus ski hire and lessons if you need them – and it's a challenge to get change out of £1,000.

Money, then, is a huge concern. But could it also be that most skiers simply don't know enough other skiers to go on holiday with, or don't know someone who is prepared to take on the challenge of organising a trip? Many a potential ski holiday never makes it from pub conversation to the slopes and, in consequence, a high proportion of skiers miss out each year.

This time around, I'm doing my bit to change this. On the Eurostar with me are 21 friends (including friends of friends) that I've invited to a chalet in the French resort of Alpe d'Huez, which I've chosen because – on paper at least – it ticks some important boxes: a large ski area, a variety of slopes for all levels of skier, chalet accommodation, some lively bars and convenient access by train from the UK.

We switch station in Paris, have lunch at a restaurant opposite Gare de Lyon and board a TGV train to Grenoble. Most people in our group only know a few other people, so the relaxed journey is a great chance for them to start getting to know each other. The dynamic is working, fuelled by the rising excitement as our train speeds towards the Alps. Secretly, however, I'm still apprehensive. Will they like the resort, accommodation and slopes – and will our group continue to bond?

It's dark when we arrive in the village. We crunch our way to the chalet on fresh snow – always a good thing to be greeted by. I'd prepared a room plan in advance, so there would be no ambiguity once we arrived. Inevitably, a couple of people question the room that they've ended up with. My riposte is a smiling: "OK, you organise the ski holiday next time!"

There are an impressive 250km of runs here, spread across five sectors: Vaujany, Oz en Oisans, Villard Reculas, Alpe d'Huez and Auris en Oisans, each with its own unique and inviting topography. Because it is central and is the site for most of the accommodation, Alpe d'Huez is the busiest sector, and also has the Sarenne – the longest black run in Europe, something that clearly quite a few skiers have on their bucket list. Villard Reculas, with its accessible off-piste, is wonderful on a powder day. And, remarkably, Auris en Oisans is so quiet that it feels like the unused "east wing" of a huge mansion.

With a big group, the only practical way to really make the most of the slopes is to split into smaller units at the start of the day, based on ability. The wisdom of this quickly becomes obvious, because eager skiers waiting for others get twitchy, especially when there is a snowfall and fresh powder tracks to be carved. Each morning, however, we nominate one of the many mountain restaurants as that day's lunch spot for each unit to home in on after a morning exploring the slopes. The mere fact of eating together on the slopes gives those of differing abilities a sense of having skied together, even if they haven't actually spent much time on the same runs. With a large group, you increase the likelihood that each person will have at least a few other people of a similar level to ski with. And you can take sole occupancy of a chalet, which becomes a home from home.

The Big Six: French ski retreats

"Everyone comes back to the chalet to swap stories from the slopes," said Nancy Mcdonnell, one of our group. "The energy is great, because it is so relaxed and people are bonding over an activity they love."

Each night feels like an animated dinner gathering at the least – and often becomes far more of a party, with dancing on sofas becoming a common occurrence in our case, without the risk of inconveniencing other guests. At the end of the week, it's clear that everyone is pining for more. Six days' skiing for 22 people in Alpe d'Huez is clearly not enough. That's simple maths too.

The writer travelled to Alpe d'Huez with Zenith Holidays (0203 137 7678; zenithholidays.co.uk) which offers a seven-night break with trains from London St Pancras and catered board at the Chalet Hermione from £575pp, based on a minimum of eight sharing. Lift passes are also bookable through Zenith Holidays from £190 per adult, and ski/board hire from £69.

More information: www.alpedhuez.com

How to keep it together

1. You can't please everyone

There's no such thing as the perfect ski holiday – everyone's ideal is different. Choose a holiday that appeals to the majority of your friends.

2. Consult in advance

Group emails that say: "Hey, where shall we go and when?" will only lead to indecision. Consult just a few friends, privately, before choosing a holiday to suggest to everyone.

3. Present the trip as a fait accompli

Once you've chosen a holiday, send it to your friends with the date of travel, location, chosen accommodation and price. Since people need a week or more to decide, or get permission for time off, make sure the price will be stable. Overestimate the price, so you don't have to say it's gone up later.

4. The details can wait

Give essential information, with a few photos, so people can assess whether they're up for it. Details will only distract at this stage. Sending emails bcc is vital – otherwise everyone will get swamped with inevitable "reply all" emails. This also means that questions or suggestions go through you first, rather than be raised to the whole group.

5. Over-invite

Even friends who say they're definitely coming may unexpectedly have to pull out, so over-invite to make sure you get the numbers. Encourage them to ask their friends too, both to get the numbers and to make the social dynamic more interesting. You'll be together for a week, so don't invite friends who could prove to be too intense on holiday.

6. Set deadlines

Give clear dates by which they need to commit. Make the holiday deposit refundable only if someone can be found to take their place. And don't allow people to dither.

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