Last Sunday, Gavin Crosby and his partner, Melanie Kerslake, left their home in Penryn, Cornwall, to catch a 9.30am cross-Channel ferry. They were travelling in a van filled with all the clothes and clobber needed for a winter in the mountains. Their destination was the resort of Serre Chevalier, in France's southern Alps.
It is by now something of a routine for Crosby to put down his carpenter's tools in the late autumn and take up his winter trade, as a ski instructor. But this season's departure is a new one. Instead of finding employment with a ski school, 31-year-old Crosby is starting his own, from an apartment in the village of Chantemerle. EurekaSKI, as it is called, will be open for business by Christmas week.
Having already introduced himself to the independent tour operators who sell holidays in Serre Chevalier, among them Handmade Holidays and Ski Miquel, Crosby is cautiously optimistic about EurekaSKI's chances of success. Working for the British Alpine Ski School for the last two seasons, in Les Gets and Morzine, he "watched and learned". And when his ski-instructor qualifications were accepted by the French authorities in January, he was able to set up on his own. He chose Serre Chevalier – not a well-known resort among British skiers – "because it is relatively undeveloped, not nearly so commercialised or crowded as the resorts in the northern Alps. It has great potential, thanks to investment in new lifts. And it's such a lovely area".
This season is a watershed not just for Crosby but also for all British ski instruction in the French Alps. The long-running and often heated dispute between the French authorities and the British Association of Snowsport Instructors (Basi) over the right of British-qualified instructors to teach in France was finally resolved last year. Now, those with the Basi Grade One qualification are no longer required to take a test de capacité in France to prove – in a timed run on a slalom course – that their skills are equivalent to those of a French-trained instructor. Instead, the Basi Grade One syllabus has been amended to include a speed test on a less technical "giant slalom" course.
The first such test was held in late March at the Scottish resort of Nevis Range. Those who fulfilled the other requirements of the Grade One qualification and skied the course within 18 per cent of the set target time became immediately entitled to teach in France, by far the most popular destination for British skiers. Under the terms of a transition agreement, the French authorities also agreed that long-standing Basi Grade One instructors could apply to bypass the speed test; among those who did so successfully, gaining the so-called attestation d'équivalence, was Gavin Crosby.
The new entente cordiale has, says Basi chief executive Frank McInnes, resulted in "an ever-greater air of optimism in our organisation: it's very difficult to find anything negative in the current situation". He believes that the French resorts can easily soak up an influx of British instructors. "There is more business out there than the existing ski schools can handle: they are finding it harder to get new instructors than new customers."
Certainly, the number of British ski schools opening in the French Alps this season suggests that there is a pent-up demand for British instructors. The highly rated New Generation school in Courchevel is extending its operations to a new base in Méribel, where the Ski Cuisine chalet company is also setting up Parallel Lines with four permanent instructors. A specialist snowboarding school, RTM Snowboarding, is opening in Courchevel. And the British Alpine Ski School (Bass), which was established in Les Gets more than a decade ago, is following up last year's new franchise in Morzine with another in the resort of Courchevel.
Les Ward, who was previously with another local British school, Supreme, is now running Bass in Courchevel. "We have had no problems setting it up, because we've worked here and we know the system," he says. "You have to do it properly: the gendarmerie runs a lot of checks, so your paperwork all has to be in order and up to date. Our relationship with the ski-school directors is good; but some French instructors do feel that we're taking their jobs away. I can understand that – and the situation isn't helped by some British instructors. They don't make an effort to speak French, and they're not willing to get on with the French instructors." But Ward admits that despite the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Courchevel and the amount of revenue that British skiers bring to the resort, mountain-village sensibilities remain a formidable barrier. "I think it's true to say that we'll never be fully accepted because we didn't grow up here."
Operating as a franchise, the Courchevel school will follow the normal Bass style (and pay it a percentage of the turnover), with small classes of, normally, only six participants. "The idea is that we'll attract people who have skied with Bass in Les Gets and want to try another resort," says Ward. He adds that with the small class size "we don't compete on price: we're more expensive than the French schools, and the other British ones. But the bookings already look good, so far". The school will start with three full-time staff, but hopes to build up from that. (By comparison, Ward reckons that the official Ecole du Ski Francais probably has 300 instructors for Courchevel and nearby La Tania.)
Understandably, British skiers prefer to be taught by instructors whose first language is English: skiing is becoming easier – thanks to carving skis – but the knack still takes some explaining. Of course, Courchevel already has a huge British presence; Serre Chevalier doesn't offer Gavin Crosby that advantage. So in fulfilling his "lifelong ambition to run a ski school", he's starting small. EurekaSKI is the only British ski school in the resort, and he will be its sole instructor this season – unless, he says, "demand goes through the roof".
EurekaSKI (01326 375710 or 00 33 6 89 31 66 56; www.eurekaski.com). New Generation (00 33 4 79 01 03 18; www.skinewgen.com). Ski Cuisine/Parallel Lines (01702 589543). RTM Snowboarding (00 33 6 66 69 24 07; www.rtmsnowboarding.com). Bass (01485 572596 or 00 33 4 50 79 85 42; www.britishskischool.com)Reuse content