GB Ski Businesses Adapt to Survive in the Face of Coronavirus

British-owned ski companies in the Alps are re-inventing themselves to provide a lifeline in these difficult times. Two business owners in France tell PlanetSKI how they’ve been forced to adapt to survive. 

This winter could well be disastrous for many in the ski industry, particularly for those in the Alps who cater largely for British skiers and snowboarders. 

It’s possible the whole season will be lost for those of us in the UK, thanks to a combination of Covid-19 and Brexit.

Two businesses that have had to completely re-think their model are Reach4TheAlps and More Mountain, both based in the French Alps resort of Morzine in the Portes du Soleil. 

We touch on what they and others in Morzine had done to keep going over the Christmas holidays in this earlier article:

We thought it would be interesting to hear more, so here is their story in their own words…..

Reach4TheAlps –  run by Gina and Marcus Ewart 

Until now we have had almost an exclusive British client base with around 70% guests who come back year after year.

We run 15 properties, 3 apartments and 11 chalets and 7 of those chalets are normally run on a fully catered basis.

When it all went wrong last winter none of us imagined it would go on so long and we would be facing the prospect of not having a winter business this year.

Things have gone from bad to worse.

So in the summer we made big changes to how we would operate this winter to be able to survive.

In the first lock down in March I took lessons to improve my French. I translated the main pages of our website and  all our email templates in order to be able to respond to any French enquiries.

We started putting all our social media posts in both French and English, doing specific Google Adwords in French and French Facebook adverts.

In the summer we had  half a normal season, the last 2 weeks of the season being cut short when the British introduced quarantine measures.

This proved the importance of attracting French guests: taking British bookings was now just a gamble with us taking all the risk as the British wanted (understandably) Covid clauses so they would get a full refund guarantee.

While we initially changed our Terms and Conditions to offer people 100% refunds, it soon became apparent that while this gave the consumer confidence it wasn’t a viable business plan for us to be able to survive.

We changed to offering fully transferable monies in the case of cancellation due to Covid, which meant some of our regulars went ahead and booked so they had something to look forward to.

Of course, these bookings have now had to be moved to summer 2021 or winter 2022 bookings.

In the autumn it was clear that winter was going to be very different: how could we plan under such uncertainty?

It was blooming difficult. Every week there were developments.  We, ourselves, were put in lockdown in France.

We put all the chalets up as both catered or self-catered on several big platforms, such as Airbnb  and booking.com and ran a campaign to attract the French to the resort for the October ‘Toussaint’ holidays.

We had some success with 8 bookings over this period. There is really very little going on here at that time but it is beautiful in October, the autumn colours are amazing, there are lots of hikes, stunning scenery.

When they announced that the ski lifts would not open for Christmas and New Year we had another flurry of cancellations.

We were gutted but once again picked ourselves up (not much choice) and halved our prices.

We ran a new campaign targeting the French and marketing the mountains on the basis that it’s still a beautiful place to come with lots to do: snow shoeing, cross country skiing, ski touring, paragliding, walks, great scenery and relaxing in front of the fire playing Scrabble.

It was all very last minute but it went crazy with reservations from the 15th  December onwards when France came out of lockdown.

In the end we sold all but 3 properties for Christmas week and were 100% full for New Year. We had also made our minimum stay 5 nights instead of the normal 7 nights and were flexible with arrival and departure days.

The income compared to a normal season for these two weeks is hugely diminished but it all helps us pay some of the rent and the bills which don’t stop coming.

The lovely thing was that the French guests were so delighted to be away from home after lockdown.

I was able to put some of them in touch with local guides and many tried cross country skiing, snow shoeing and ski touring for the first time.

We bumped into our guests walking round Lake Montriond and saw some of them enjoying themselves on the outdoor ice rink. There was a really nice atmosphere in resort.

Gina and Marcus Ewart and family on Christmas Day

Many guests were new to Morzine and fell in love with the town.  I’m sure they’ll be back.

We have also tried to keep in touch with our regular British guests to remind them that we very much look forward to welcoming them back when they are able to travel.

So many people are suffering through this period that it is important not to say everything is OK as it isn’t but it will be again, some day soon!

Like everyone we are just learning to adapt and get through this.

I think it has made people realise how important holidays are and that encourages us to do our very best so our guests take away only good memories.

We are now hoping the ski lifts will open and we can have French guests for the February holidays and that by summer we are “back to normal”.

Going forward we will be in a stronger position having both a French and British client base.

More Mountain – run by Sam & Jon Dredge

Sam & Jon Dredge

More Mountain has 4 catered luxury ski chalets and 38 self catered apartments in the centre of Morzine.

Since the onset of Covid back in March 2020, and throughout the period of preparation for this winter since August 2020, it has been very evident that the traditional format we have always worked towards with fully catered chalets and serviced apartments, mainly going out to the Brits would be challenged.

Our usual British customers simply would not be able to come to stay with us in the same capacity as usual.

We have had to send half our chalet staff home and those that remain are waiting for clients.

We have been pushed to the limit in terms of being creative, thinking up ways to keep going and more importantly maintaining demand by adapting and changing substantially to try different markets and attract different customers, mainly the French and Benelux Market.

We quickly realised in October that we needed to start advertising our brand on French sites and also became more French aligned on AirBNB. Our website was also made available in French.

Since full catered chalets are very much a British concept of ski holiday, we quickly transformed our chalets into self catering properties with concierge services.

We also ensured we had French TV installed in every property, raclette machines and fondue kits.

We slashed our prices by 50% for the Christmas and New Year period as soon as Macron announced people were able to travel inter-regionally in France.

Bearing in mind the ski resort had no lifts running, we needed to reflect the lack of facilities in the resort in comparison to the usual.

Although restaurants and bars were closed there were many ‘click and collect’ delivery services available and we have always offered meal deliveries.

We were pretty much fully booked for the whole Christmas and New Year period and the majority of our guests were French or Swiss, many coming from Paris, Strasbourg and Lyon.

All were just looking to escape the city or town environment and get up the hill to the fresh air of the mountains.

The fact that there was no skiing available didn’t matter. People just wanted a change of scenery.

So, out of the bad, has come some good!  It’s been a really exciting time for us – having always had a portfolio of self catered properties, we now have a new French market to indulge!

Even though we are nowhere near the level of occupancy we usually are, and January is completely dead bar a few weeks here and there, we are hopeful of another busy holiday period in February where we can hope to welcome French guests again with open arms, subject to government restrictions.

We have had so many recommendations already from the people that stayed with us at Christmas – word is spreading which is more than we could have asked for, in what have been the most turbulent and worrying times for all of us in the ski industry.

As for our British guests, we do miss them terribly, especially our regulars, and hope they can come once travel bans are lifted and Covid subsides.

We still live in hope that March may give people the opportunity to get here but until then it’s a waiting game.

We still have no set date for lift openings – only rumours.

Our staff remain in resort, ready for guests.

We all just have to be patient and hope we can cling on to the climbing wall, albeit with our fingernails, for just that bit longer!