The end of this ski season will be the beginning of an exciting time for the French resort of Les Arcs. Not because its summer promises to be particularly good – although Les Arcs is, by the standards of most purpose-built resorts, a vibrant place between ski seasons. Rather, what is set to make the earth move is the arrival, in early May, of a construction crew on a 55,000 square-metre site just below the existing Arc 2000 buildings.
On 16 November last year – as reported on these pages – the giant Vancouver-based resort developer Intrawest announced that it would create a new village on the site, the first fruit of its partnership with the Compagnie des Alpes, which operates the ski area at Les Arcs (and many others). To be called Arc 1950 Le Village, it will have 800 residential units, with a total of 3,500 beds, plus all the facilities of a ski resort: a hotel, spa and swimming pool, shops and restaurants, all set in a pedestrian village designed by the world's leading mountain-resort planner, Eldon Beck. One of the few large-scale mountain developments in France since the country's skiing boom a quarter of a century ago, it could also be the last, because of the dearth of substantial sites available in the French Alps.
The excitement the new village is generating was already evident last Saturday, hundreds of miles from Les Arcs in the centre of Paris. At the city's poshest hotel, the Four Seasons George V, potential purchasers of the 102 apartments in the development's first phase gathered in a suite, at Intrawest's invitation. All of them – plus those present only electronically, communicating with the sales team by fax – had signalled their serious intent by putting down a returnable deposit of £500 (or, for continental Europeans, the higher sum of €1,000).
In a sequence which gave priority to those who had placed their deposits earliest, the buyers were given timed appointments with sales staff to close a purchase – with the help, if necessary, of the bankers and lawyers present, plus the architects and managers of the Hameau du Glacier building which will house the first 102 apartments, to be completed in summer 2003.
The event was not an auction: purchase prices had been set a couple of weeks earlier, at €120,000-€200,000 (£74,000-£123,000) for single-room studios to €290,000-€560,000 (£178,000-£344,000) for three-bedroom apartments. The would-be buyers had already been sent a thick specification book, with a floor-plan of each apartment.
Standard furniture and soft furnishings had also been specified, since most of the apartments were to be sold on 11-year "lease-back" arrangements, under which the properties are used as holiday accommodation except for the few weeks when the owners are entitled to occupy them. This arrangement gives a valuable tax break to the buyer, who is exempted from the VAT which would be payable on an outright purchase. The French government offers this incentive as a way of boosting the nation's stock of tourist beds.
What was the idea behind the "one-day only" sale? First, says Robert Jérôme, Intrawest vice-president in charge of the development, it was "a way of achieving our goal, which is to please everyone". The ski-in, ski-out apartments offer 70 different permutations of price, size, layout, aspect and other features; for anyone not at the top of the priority list, the chances of being able to buy a particular apartment chosen in advance were low. But on the day, when their appointment came, they could make a choice from what was still available. One couple from the Lake District had earmarked 16 apartments beforehand; but at their mid-morning appointment they discovered that all of them had been sold. When I spoke to them soon afterwards they were trying to make a 17th choice.
The second virtue of the sale was that it promised to raise Intrawest's profile – the company is not well known in continental Europe, although it owns 10 mountain resorts in North America – and to make the drawing-board development "more concrete", as Jérôme put it. Anyway, its one-day sale technique is already such a success in North America that Intrawest's marketing division, Playground, is now hired by rival developers: in a recent such sale it sold all the rooms in a Four Seasons hotel development in the Canadian resort of Whistler to investors.
Starting at 8am, the Paris sale immediately did brisk business: by 9.30am, 32 of the 102 apartment plans on the big "inventory" board already had stickers showing they were sold. But only at 11.15am (60 sold) did the atmosphere begin to hot up. The value of properties in Intrawest's apartments at Tremblant, in Quebec, increased by 300 per cent in six years; and nobody wanted to miss out on this investment opportunity.
Calculators and mobile phones were being used (sometimes both at once) with greater intensity in the crowded suite by midday (70 sold), when I had a word with Charles Weston-Baker of up-market estate agents FPDSavills. The agency's view of Arc 1950 Le Village, expressed in its double-page advertisement in this week's Country Life magazine, is that it is "a unique property investment opportunity in the French Alps". Weston-Baker backed that up with figures showing that the development's prices, averaging about £3,300 per square metre, compare favourably with those of equivalent, five-star properties in Val d'Isère (£5,000) and Courchevel (£6,000).
Toying with the idea of capturing the atmosphere with a board-game called Free Market ("for fast-moving property players of all ages"), I wandered over to the reception desk to enquire about the time of the last appointment. The answer was 6.30pm. That buyer was, I reckoned, already out of the game. But I was wrong.
At 3pm, every property on the inventory board had a sticker on it. The €30m-worth of property had been sold in seven hours. How did the Intrawest sales team react? They peeled the top off the board, to reveal plans of the second-phase apartments – and started selling them.
For information on Arc 1950 Le Village contact its UK representative, Erna Low (020-7584 2841). Stephen Wood returns as skiing correspondent in September