Bourg St M Town Hall, Dec 2017. Has "Architecture of XX Century" status, alongside cinema & Arc 2000 cable car station. Click on photo for more

Saturday, 23 February 2013

NOT QUITE THE ENTENTE CORDIALE: Ski Hosting in the French Alps

Updated 21 September 2013:

Crystal have teamed up with ski school Evolution 2 to offer social skiing on Sundays in 11 French resorts - more here via Where To Ski And Snowboard.  The Telegraph points out that the ban is still in place (these outings will be led by qualified instructors), and that Le Ski still plan to appeal.  Meanwhile, We Love To Ski say that this appeal will take place in November, but also note that this marks a broader shift away from the ESF, widely seen as having instigated/supported the ban in the first place.  These social skiing excursions sit alongside a broader agreement, with Crystal having now made Evolution 2 their preferred ski school partner.

Updated 10 March 2013:

Here's a perspective from the Good Ski Guide asking people taking a "this is outrageous" view on the subject to think again.

And here is an update from the Telegraph - the British tour operators plan to respond, but are waiting until they have seen the written judgement.

This week saw the Albertville court rule that "ski hosting" - as practised by against British tour operator Le Ski (alongside many larger operators) - is not allowed under French law. This is the practice where guests are shown around the slopes by an employee of the holiday company.

Le Ski, backed by the big tour companies, argues that this practice is complementary to the service offered by the ski schools.  Guests are only taken on blues and reds, and no instruction is given.

The ruling appears to have fallen short of the French law saying  that it is "illegal to teach, lead, guide or animate without an appropriate professional qualification".

Here is a summary of the background to the case, and here, via @hautealtitude, is the ESF's full statement (NB made by a different Simon Atkinson - he is Director of ESF in La Rosiere).

It does feel like the ESF is distancing itself slightly from the affair over the last week - they had certainly been seen as "the instigators" of the court action previously.  This is a pretty unconvincing line, I have to say.  Le Dauphiné, for example, is pretty clear that the case was brought by the Meribel ESF.  Indeed, the France3 Alpes TV station finds the press release "astonishing": "Is the ESF worried about losing its British clients?".  The ski schools have a lot to lose, it says.

Today's Telegraph picks up on the story with  why France is wrong to ban ski hosts, authored by BASI-qualified Julian Sambles.  He underlines the role the ski hosts can play in boosting local trade and building loyalty towards the resorts.

This is not a new issue, it seems.  This week @skigrimentz shared a link to a Peter Hardy Telegraph article from 2001, with Le Ski in the spotlight again.  The Hardy article tracks the issue back to the 1970s.

All in all, it's pretty depressing.  The whole debate might be more "fun" if the ESF were a proper villain, with wealthy instructors swanning around in their 4X4s, without needing to work for the rest of year.  It's not long since the ESF in Les Arcs was taken to court (in Albertville...) for age discrimination.  This case was all about the rights and wrongs of not allowing older instructors to work during certain weeks in the low season, with the subtext being there is simply not enough work to go round.  The latest (November 2012) development saw a landslide vote, from 95% of ski instructors, to "reduce the activities of moniteurs aged over 62" to ensure that young people are able to come into the profession, as opposed to keeping their skis "on their shoulders".

Hire a mountain guide for the off-piste
runs straight ahead...
In a similar vein, this week's Le Dauphiné article about the €8m turnover, 270-instructor-strong ESF at Les Menuires is all very well.  But le big boss of the school also says that the market is pretty flat and that relatively few instructors stick at it through their working lives.

What to make of it all?  There are clearly two sides, and there are some very real issues about safety in the mountains that do need to be emphasised.  But...it's hard to see this as anything other than an own goal by the ESF.  Reports (spotted by @skigrimentz) of les pulls rouges in Morzine offering "a tour of the piste, no teaching, 34€) are unlikely to improve matters.  Anyone who reads the "ski press" in the UK (aka the Saturday travel supplements) will see endless stories about which (English speaking) ski school is best in Val d'Isere, which holiday company offers the best child-care deals etc etc.  This just adds to the sense that the ESF are remote, dinosaurs, leave your children up the mountain, stop for fag breaks.  And so on.

In my experience, the reality is rather different.  The ESF's teaching of kids (a brutal exam every Friday...) may well be up Michael Gove's street, but is perhaps not everyone's cup of tea.  But the ESF instructors all speak excellent English, are often locals who can tell you lots about the area and - of course - are always skiers par excellence who love what they do.  It just feels like such a shame.  And something which could have been avoided.

So, I'm finding it hard to disagree with the excellent @adepierrefeu, who says:

"It's difficult not to see in the actions of the ESF a protectionism and a real sense of being out of touch with client demands.  It's the whole of the French ski industry which is going to be affected by this.  We should remember that our Austrian friends - who tolerate ski hosting - are still growing their market share.  This is not something which can be fixed by a flashmob!"*

*For more on the ill-fated ESF "flashmob", click here.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

BEHIND THE SCENES: Les pisteurs des Arcs

The Les Arcs and Peisey-Vallandry lift companies recently combined to form the not-very-inspiringly-named ADS organisation.  In any case, they are owned by the mega Compagnie des Alpes organisation, who oversee many of France's biggest ski areas.

You can extend your day on their slopes by buying a "First Tracks" ticket.  This gives you the right to get up the mountain before everyone else, ski with the pisteurs, and have a jolly breakfast.

TheVagere lift, 7.45am
The Arc 1800 version includes taking in the view at the top of the Arpette lift, followed by coffee and croissants in the Arpette.  At €10, it is good value, and well worth the early start.  It's on Thursday mornings this season, but isn't well advertised; call in at the tourist office and get a copy of the weekly schedule.

Arc 1800 and the Tarentaise
It's also the opportunity to pick up some useless facts...

The 200km of the Les Arcs ski area are groomed by 26 piste bullies (les dameuses)

There are 7 avalanche dogs (all male) who also come in handy for retrieving stray piste markers (les jalons)

"It's just a game to him"
The dogs live with their owner - as opposed to their husky colleagues, who live in a communal kennel.

The first task in the morning is to check there are no nasty surprises on any of the pistes: bare patches, stray lumps of ice left by the piste bullies.  Etc.  If there has been snow, the dynamite is wheeled out through a complex pulley ("CATEX") system - a vast improvement on the previous method which involved the pisteurs lobbing the explosives into the affected areas.

Then they check all the piste markings.

And then it's "surveillance time" - ie hanging around waiting for accidents to happen.  Bringing you back to resort in their blood wagon will cost you at least €600, by the way.

Tools of the trade...
Other ways to extend your ski day in Les Arcs:

1.  Wednesday night "Soirée Savoyarde" at the Arpette.  It starts after the lifts have closed, and ends in a chaotic torchlit descent....
2.  Night skiing - at Arc 1800 this uses the Chantel lift, so you will spend rather more time going up than going down....

Saturday, 9 February 2013

THE TOP 50: According to L'Equipe

L'Equipe magazine published its league table of the Top 50 resorts in France on 24 November.  Scroll through the pictures of the Top 25 resorts to see the full classement.

In a way it's not that controversial, as it covers just about all the resorts, although a number of the smaller ones, like Géradmer in the Vosges, have found it useful for their PR efforts.

Ste-Foy (in the background) doesn't make the Top 50
Villaroger (foreground) is part of 9th-placed Les Arcs
Once the scores on quite a wide range of criteria are added up, the winner is.....
La Plagne.  

It only seems to fall down on two things: cross-country skiing and fancy restaurants.

And it beats local rival Les Arcs for having a halfpipe, facilities for families, sports facilities and having "villages de charme".

The other resorts in the top ten are Val d'Isere, Chamonix, Les Menuires, Megeve, Méribel, Tignes, Val Thorens and Les Arcs.

So, no surprises there, but it seems slightly odd to see Flaine at No 26, La Rosiere at No 30 and Valmorel at No 44.

Of course these league tables are most certainly an art rather than a science.  For example, Alpes magazine places Serre Chevalier as No 1 in its "well-being and relaxation" league table and Alpe d'Huez as No 1 for "Le Grand Ski" and "Extreme Glisse".

Sunday, 3 February 2013

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION: Property Prices in the Alps

Although the season has started well, the ski industry has most certainly not been immune from the financial crisis.  Last year was just about OK for France and Austria, with Switzerland faring badly - more here.

This week Les Echos published a survey of the latest property market trends across the northern French Alps.

Bargain basement? Arc 1800

The headlines include:

  • A slowdown in sales.  Prices aren't tumbling, but buyers should be able to negotiate.  Recent tax changes haven't helped
  • The resorts in good locations with the right accommodation are doing OK
  • Big differences, even within a relatively small area.  The price per m2, for example ranges from 1,911€ in an Arc 2000 studio, to €13.108 in a larger pad up the road in Val d'Isere
  • The old 1970s flats are not in vogue - indeed there is a movement among some proprietères to join two apartments together to form one larger, more attractive space. "Those with the money are looking for big apartments or chalets for 10-20 people", says M. Le Notaire.  He also notes that prices in Morzine, Avoriaz and Les Gets have been rising, although they remain cheaper than the 3 Vallées and Chamonix 
  • The other tip is to invest in areas close to the ski areas - for example in the attractive villages of St-Jean-de-Sixt or Manigod rather than Le Grand Bornand or La Clusaz
  • Year-on-year prices are quoted (see below), but don't seem to tally with the overall story, and look on the volatile side.  For example, why would prices be rising in Morzine and falling in Les Gets?

The league table (in € per m2) is as follows (% change in the year to 31 Aug 2012 in brackets):

  • Courchevel 1850: 11,170 (-5)
  • Val d'Isère village: 7,357 (+2)
  • Méribel village: 8,327 (n/a)
  • Megeve: 7,262 (+9)
  • Méribel Mottaret: 6,667 (+10)
  • La Clusaz: 5,333 (+3)
  • Courchevel 1650: 5,293 (n/a)
  • Chamonix: 5,049 (+1)
  • Les Gets: 4,816 (-7)
  • Morzine: 4,711 (+13)
  • Tignes Val Claret: 4,447 (+2)
  • Avoriaz: 4,356 (-1)
  • Tignes Le Lac: 4,333 (-7)
  • Le Grand Bornand: 4,249 (-5)
  • Valloire: 4,028 (no change)
  • Arc 1800: 3,333 (+13)
  • La Plagne: 3,280 (-7)
  • Arc 1600: 3.169 (+9)
  • Arc 2000: 2,046 (-13)

For a good guide to what's out there, follow @FrenchSkiHomes: website here.