Stephen Wood: Expect a warmer welcome on the mountainsides

Something to declare

Hospitality is high on the winter-sports agenda right now. Hospitality on the slopes, that is, not in hotels and restaurants. Nobody suggests that skiers will choose a resort just for its friendly welcome; but everybody knows – especially now that the science of "service design" exists to help companies schmooze customers – that the sense of being cared for is important. Warmth counts in a cold climate; and the atmosphere in the French Alps is already frosty.

You may well have read about how in March last year an employee of Yorkshire-based Le Ski was informed by a gendarme that he was committing an offence by taking a group of the company's guests on a tour of the slopes in Méribel. French law says that only qualified ski guides can receive payment for teaching, leading or guiding skiers on a mountain. In January, a court in Albertville found that Le Ski had broken it. The company's appeal was expected to be heard last week; but by agreement between the parties involved it was postponed until May 2014. The effect is that in the coming season, tour operators cannot offer ski-hosting (or "social skiing") trips to introduce guests to the French slopes.

Even though only 10 per cent of guests take its ski-hosting tours, the tour operator, Crystal, has reacted to the ban by hiring qualified guides from the Annecy-based ski school, Evolution 2, to provide Sunday-morning familiarisation tours in Crystal's main 11 French resorts. Other tour operators are expected to take the easier option of posting staff members as hosts at lift bases, restaurants and other key points on the slopes.

In the US, however, it is the resorts themselves which do the hosting; and the more upmarket ones do it assiduously. At Deer Valley in Utah, which regularly wins awards for its snow-grooming, there are free mountain tours every morning and afternoon, two for intermediates (two hours) and two for experts (two-and-a-half hours). The hospitality extends from valets positioned at the lift base to help skiers with their equipment to a team of some 40 uniformed, mostly part-time "Mountain Hosts" on the slopes, giving directions, checking skiers' speed at "Slow" signs and helping anyone who might, say, have put a ski on backwards (true story: "How she jammed her boot into the binding was beyond me," said host Michael O'Malley).

The equally posh Beaver Creek, in Colorado has a similar prog-ramme, but it hires a dedicated staff of "Ambassadors" to host and help skiers.

What those two resorts do is more appropriate in the US, where resorts often own the ski school and other businesses, than in Europe's fragmented resort set-up. But Davos in Switzerland plans something along US lines for this season, with "Insiders" guiding visiting skiers around the slopes and offering advice on restaurants and bars. There are still some issues to be resolved, but that sort of hospitality is to be welcomed in the Alps.

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