Tailor-made for the slopes

Whatever your age, faith or dietary requirements, there's a ski company for you, says Stephen Wood

Saturday 18 December 2010 01:00

You know what sort of skier you are. If you didn't, how would the rental shop be able to choose the right skis for your ability level? In addition to the basic characterisation of "beginner", "intermediate" or "expert", boarders must also know their stance: "regular" or "goofy".

Does that exhaust the descriptive possibilities? Of course not. You might be an elderly skier, a Jewish boarder, even a vegan tobogganist. That's your own business, you probably think; but there are a number of winter-sports specialists who'd like to make it their business, too.

Trawl the net, and you'll find that the religious faith of a skier or boarder has implications. True, a Google search for "Muslim ski holidays" didn't turn up much. The heading on the first item, on snowheads.com, sounded like a joke: "Gays ski through district of Oslo to protest against 'Muslim Sharia police'". But it wasn't funny. The only tour operator offering ski holidays specifically for Muslims was London-based Islamic Travel, which organises trips to Bjelasnica in Bosnia, where the men's downhill race took place in the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics.

Christian skiing is a bigger niche. There is a number of specialist UK tour operators offering holidays for Christians, and some of them – notably Gold Hill Holidays and Richmond Holidays – have substantial winter-sports programmes. Most interesting, though, is the arena of Jewish skiing. A major preoccupation for Jewish skiers, obviously, is finding accommodation with Kosher catering; but at a higher level is the pastoral work some rabbis are doing. The "Adventure Rabbi" programme in Colorado includes winter retreats in the Copper Mountain ski area; and in the East Coast US, Rabbi Joshua Segal has "A course offering skiing using terminology of Jewish mysticism", described at skikabbalah.com. To any sceptics, I should point out that Segal was included in an article in 2006 in US Ski magazine on "10 great ski instructors to bring out your best".

It is easy to get sidetracked by the internet. Religious faith is not a big issue in the ski business; age, however, is. A preoccupation with young skiers permeates the entire winter-sports culture because – at least in Europe and North America – the number of participants is fairly static. As some skiers and boarders depart, often because of their age, others have to be recruited; and it is best to get them young, when they potentially have many winter-sports seasons ahead of them.

Working at the other end of the spectrum is the tour operator Classic Ski, based in the New Forest: its objective is – to quote the old slogan for Pal dog food – to "prolong active life" for skiers. Its founder and managing director, David Griffiths, skied in Flaine 15 years ago with friends who had previously travelled there with a tour operator which catered specifically for mature skiers, the delightfully named Over the Hill; and on the trip they met Guy Pezet, the ski instructor who looked after its French operations. Unfortunately the tour operator had itself gone over the hill, and died. Both Griffiths, a chartered accountant by profession, and Pezet felt there was a niche for a small, specialist company; and Classic Ski was born. It currently offers holidays in Flaine, Les Saisies, La Clusaz, Les Contamines and Morzine.

Its clients are mostly aged between their late 50s and 70s, though the youngest guests have been in their mid-40s and the oldest is 86. "The essence of what we do is to look after guests for the whole holiday, not just with the flights, transfers and so on but also on the slopes," Griffiths says. "It is the ski instruction which is the key to the company. Guests ski for five hours each day in small groups: the average is four members, the maximum six. They feel safe, and their technique improves quickly – which makes skiing easier. That's essential for older skiers: they don't have the energy or stamina with which younger people can compensate for a lack of technique."

The social aspect is important, too. "People who come on our holidays want to be with a like-minded group, because it puts them at their ease," says Griffiths, who – now that he is 57 years old and semi-retired from accountancy – keeps a close watch on things by spending seven or eight weeks in the Alps. Which is good for guests as well as him: "If someone has a problem they can go straight to the boss." The last two years have been tough for Classic Ski, as they have been for almost everyone in the UK business; but the company has very loyal clients. The return rate for this season is about 75 per cent.

Classic Ski could do even better, were it not for the fact that some of the older clients – in Griffiths' words – "do drop off the end". This is not a factor for the family skiing specialists, of which Esprit Ski is the market leader. It is these tour operators which are, de facto, on the front line of the effort to bring new blood into winter sports.

For Moira Clarke, head of marketing at Esprit, it's obvious why those wanting a family-skiing trip should book with a specialist company such as hers. "Childcare is the core of what we do," she says. "It isn't a 'bolt-on' to an ordinary ski holiday. So there are none of the tensions that arise with mixed groups in a chalet where, for example, a party of hard-skiing dental students might find themselves seated at breakfast alongside a fractious child who had a bad night and keeps spilling his milk. If you try to please everyone you end up pleasing no one. Esprit only takes families.

"We follow all the correct procedures: consent forms, signing children in and out, and so on. And of course that gives confidence to parents. Plus we train the staff – 1,000 people per season, across all our parent company's brands – specifically for the job. With big tour operators, the reps may have no appropriate skills for family skiing, but they still have to look after family groups."

Children holidaying with Esprit have tuition from the company's own instructors. "With non-specialist tour operators children will go for lessons in groups with the normal French ski-school instructors," Clarke says. "Our lessons are exclusive to Esprit guests. The three- and four-year-olds go out in groups of up to six, with an instructor plus one of the childcare team; children over four have lessons in groups of no more than eight."

Esprit Ski has been operating for 28 years, and it has never had a season when the number of guests declined. Each year the programme is refreshed with new chalets and new resorts. This season sees the addition of Courchevel 1850, still the most fashionable up-market resort in the Alps. It lies in the huge Trois Vallées ski area, and is far from what would commonly be referred to as a "family-friendly" resort, a term which in the Alps often means little more than "cheap". Clarke is scornful about companies which "get away with sending families to destinations such as Bulgaria and Andorra. Our clients were generally skiers before they had kids, and they know which are the good places to ski."

What about those vegans? Who's looking after them? The answer is Flexiski, a short-break tour operator which is part of the giant Tui group. For this season it has opened a flagship property in Courchevel 1850 called Hotel Saint-Louis; and its restaurant menu will include both vegan and vegetarian dishes designed for the chefs by the Redwood Wholefood Company.

Flexiski director Natalie Batchelor is responsible for this innovation. She explains that the company "has a lot of corporate clients – the likes of Credit Suisse and Citibank – and their staff are used to the London lifestyle and being able to get exactly what they want to eat". Although Flexiski could always produce special dishes, "we couldn't keep the service up to our normal standards".

Hence what Batchelor calls her "pre-emptive strategy: we are now set up to provide vegan and vegetarian meals whenever clients want them". When I spoke to her, she was in the hotel for its "soft opening". Had she tried the new dishes? "No I haven't actually, but I've heard good reports from everyone who has."

Classic Ski

01590 623400; classicski.co.uk

Esprit Ski

01252 618300; espritski.com


020-8939 0862; flexiski.com

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