Not native to the mountains

A TV 'docu-soap' on the extracurricular antics of chalet staff led to the creation of a website offering the real lowdown on ski-season work. Stephen Wood logs on to Natives.co.uk
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The Independent Travel

You may remember War and Piste, the six-part BBC TV series about ski-resort staff shown in 1998. If not, the description of the episode "It's our last night, Pooh", to be shown at 12.30pm on 30 November on cable-channel UK Horizons, will give you something of its flavour. In this part of the documentary on "the exploits of British chalet staff in the fashionable French ski resort... the winter season draws to a close; chalet girl Katrina falls out with her assistant Camilla; Scott and Fraser are caught short; and Emma is back with a new man in tow", the television channel promises.

The success of the series when first broadcast was such that in a news report on a fatal avalanche in February 1999 it served as a reference point for TV viewers: the avalanche was said to have occurred "near the French resort of Val d'Isère, setting of the BBC fly-on-the-wall documentary War and Piste". Despite its popularity, however, the TV series did no favours to the tour operator featured, nor - at least as far as skiers were concerned - to the chalet staff. As you may have surmised from the programme synopsis above, the programmes focused on the staff's extra-curricular activities, not the discharge of their duties towards the paying guests. But War and Piste did have a spin-off benefit for staff in ski resorts. It indirectly led to the creation of www.natives.co.uk, "The season workers' website".

At the end of 1998, Iain Martin was made redundant from a travel company. With time on his hands, he decided to pursue an idea that had developed during his six winter seasons in the Alps: to create a club for season workers. "I had been thinking about the set-up costs when my brother said, 'Why don't you do it on the internet?' My mum gave me a computer; I went to the library and taught myself how to create web pages, something of which I'm very proud; and the site went live in April 1999."

Martin was concerned that documentaries such as War and Piste - it wasn't the only one then, and summer-holiday reps have since become a staple of popular TV programming - "misrepresented what season work was like, because it just seemed to involve partying and dossing". So one purpose of Natives was "to help would-be staff to understand what's really involved"; the second was "to draw together those who had done a season. In that respect it was like the Friends Reunited site - but seasonworkersreunited was too long for a domain name."

For potential season workers, the Natives site offers practical information on resorts; advice on job-interview techniques and the coolest winter sports brands (Burton and Salomon, apparently); survival tips; recipes (Toblerone mousse, for example, whose ingredients are a large Toblerone and a carton of cream); and the "Best of Times, Worst of Times" pages; tales from the coal face of winter-season work, "which give visitors to the site a better idea of what it's like than anything else," says Martin. Much of this material (though not the complexities of whipping, melting and stirring involved in making Toblerone mousse) also appears in the book The Natives Guide to Working in Ski Resorts (£8.99). Finally, Natives conducts five-day courses in running a chalet and cookery.

For members of the club (for which registration is required, but no fee) there are events, discounts with the new "club card", the first Natives holiday and several branded products sold from the site, including an apron.

Martin watches site visits closely. "We now have 70-80,000 different computers accessing the site per month, 30 per cent up on last year - which is very good for a five-year-old company," he says. "Natives has become quite a robust business, with a six-figure turnover and three full-time and two part-time staff at this time of year." It was when studying "hits" in the early days that he noticed how many users were going to the ski jobs page. "So I offered free listings to employers - until I thought to myself, 'Why am I doing this for nothing?' Charges for job ads were the first source of revenue, and since then we've added income from clothing and the book, and from affiliates such as an insurance company."

Since he operates the major forum for seasonal ski workers, Martin obviously knows what preoccupies them. Although some may receive as little as £50 per week he doesn't think they are underpaid - and neither do they, according to a recent Natives survey in which only about one-third of respondents said they felt exploited. "The disposable income of chalet staff is probably more than they would have in London. It's expensive to live in London. But in the Alps your accommodation and food is paid for; there is usually chalet wine, and free drinks in the bars; and if you're good you get tips. Chalet staff and reps can often save a significant amount of money during a season. And a couple who run a chalet properly, in a guest-focused way, can do so well with tips that they may not need to work between one season and the next."

Last week, ostensibly looking for a chalet job in France's Tarentaise area, I found 15 vacancies on the Natives site. Several were placed by well-known companies; only one specified a salary (of about £100 per week). But running a staff-search site and hosting chat rooms used by mountain people can provoke conflicts. One ski company to which I spoke became rather less enamoured of advertising on Natives after an anonymous - and inaccurate - complaint about its personnel department was posted on one of the chat pages, of which there were 41 last week.

A businesslike 37-year-old, Martin is uneasy with the site's "Billy Bunter" page. Guests became known as "Billies" after tour operators banned staff from referring to them as punters. Using the principle of Cockney rhyming slang, a new nickname was generated; and on the Billy Bunter page the defining characteristics of a Billy are revealed, such as asking: "If I don't eat breakfast, will I be hungry by lunchtime?"

"When I was a resort manager I wouldn't allow that sort of thing. It's disrespectful; and if staff start thinking like that they can't be customer-focused," Martin says. He also has another, more personal objection to the Billy's characterisation. "Unfortunately, I do find myself asking those stupid questions. 'Will it be cold at the top of the mountain?' Only when I've said it do I realise what I've done."

Natives (08700 463355: www.natives.co.uk). The company also has a summer-season site at www.resortjobs.co.uk

EVERY SKIER SHOULD HAVE ONE

A copy of 'Heat' magazine

By Stephen Wood

"I probably go out to the Alps six times a season, and I always buy several copies of Heat at the airport," says Iain Martin, the managing director of Natives. "In the airport shop I'm often asked: 'Do you know that you've got three copies of the same magazine?' The thing is, they're so valuable. I often have to travel around, and end up trying to persuade someone to give me a place to crash for the night. And Heat does help then."

Martin may be uneasy about the Billy Bunter page on his Natives website; but he does balance things out by appending to it a list of things a chalet guest can do to qualify as "Peter the perfect punter".

Obviously chalet guests should carry copies of magazines - not just Heat but also Marie Claire, Martin adds. "And ideally you should get in touch with the chalet before you travel to find out if there is anything else that the staff want: Butterkist toffee popcorn, Marmite, Hobnobs, HP sauce - that sort of thing."

The other instructions for the perfect punter listed on the Natives site are: keep the staff topped up with generous gin-and-tonics; help with the washing up; make your own bed; agree that breakfast need not be served before 9am, and then be out of the chalet by 9.30am; and tip in cash.

And, finally: don't steal food from the fridge. That is something a Billy does, along with asking the chalet staff: "What's for dinner?" and asking them: "When are you going to get a real job?"

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