by Liz Rowlinson, The Daily Telegraph, January 12, 2017
For some people, skiing once or twice a season just isn’t enough. If you’ve recently returned from an exhilarating Christmas trip to the Alps and are filled with dread at the thought of your nine-to-five desk job, why not make your holiday last forever ?
There is a strong tradition of alpinist Britons moving to Chamonix, Méribel or Wengen, or “gappies” doing a season in a chalet to live the dream for a winter. But in recent years, the slope set has grown to include entrepreneurial types desperate to escape the corporate world. In the French resort of Morzine, for example, the tourist office reports that Britons running businesses now make up 30 per cent of the population.
“There have always been keen skiers who have moved to the Alps to turn their hobby into something more full time, but increasingly individuals or families have been making a conscious decision to seek a more balanced, active way of life,” says Francois Marchand, director of Erna Low Property.
“Remote working has helped this, but there are also opportunities such as running a catered chalet, ski guiding, private chef services, mountain biking businesses, running restaurants and bars and even interior design services.”
Ruth and James Downey, from Richmond upon Thames, took the leap four years ago. They gave up their jobs as corporate lawyers and moved to the picturesque French resort of St Martin de Belleville to set up a ski chalet business.
“Skiing is our big passion and it was during one of our numerous chalet holidays that we realised that there was an opportunity for us to offer a super-luxurious experience, ” says Ruth, 33. “We wanted exceptional service, remarkable food and top-notch wine in a beautiful chalet.”
While working in Méribel for a season, they met a British couple who were looking to buy a chalet in the Three Valleys ski area. Ruth and James found them a five-bedroom property in nearby St Martin, and arranged to lease the chalet for the winter season every year. White Mountain Chalets launched for the winter of 2013-14 and now includes five properties in the area, from £650 per adult for a seven-night stay (whitemountain-chalets.com).
Every May, the Downeys return to their home in South Hams, Devon, where James becomes a lawyer for the summer.
“After working as lawyers on the same team, we knew we could work together, although I am the more entrepreneurial one and James is risk-averse,” says Ruth. “I manage all the bookings, while James loves dealing with the chefs on the menus and picking the wine.” Each chalet comes with its own Michelin-trained chef, resort driver and chalet host, who helps with the children each morning and has the champagne ready for the adults’ return from the slopes.
“Most of our guests are British families,” says Ruth. “Hard-working mums love the fact that they get a totally relaxing holiday.”
After four seasons of building the business – and the arrival of baby Oliver 18 months ago – Ruth is hoping to step back from the business a little. The couple are also looking for a property to buy and renovate for themselves.
“I love the authentic village feel of St Martin, which has no nightclubs, yet is only a few minutes from the lively après-ski of Val Thorens,” says Ruth. “When Oliver reaches school age, we will probably move here full time, but for now we love our split-year life. I never had the passion for being a lawyer as I do doing this.”
A five-bedroom guesthouse in Zell Am See, Austria, by the piste with an owners’ flat is €2.95 million at Mark Warner (markwarner property.com)
Although the Downeys spend only the winter on the slopes, keen skiers can make the season last all year. Joey Byecroft has done so for the past decade, sharing his time as a ski instructor between Austria and Australia. However, the 30-year-old from Reading and his photographer girlfriend, Egle, are now putting down roots in Bramberg, a resort in Salzburg, Austria.
“British skiers can get lazy and stick in the same resort, but I want to open their eyes to exploring the rest of the region,” says Byecroft, who has recently set up Your Alpine Tours, a trip planning service (youralpinetours.com). “I also work for ski schools, training instructors, and I am teaching our 18-month-old son to ski – he already has three pairs of skis.”
In the Swiss resort of Wengen, it is a family affair for the Willmotts, who run the ski hire shop Skiset (skiset.co.uk). Colin and Tracy moved into their holiday home full time in 2009, putting Hannah and Oliver, then 11 and eight, into the local school.
“My UK property development business suffered during the financial crisis and we loved the idea of having winter sports on our doorstep,” says Colin, 46, a qualified ski instructor from Worcestershire. “Wengen is beautiful and it offers great activities for children. We decided within six months we loved living here.”
After three years of growth in the ski shop, Willmott is hoping that the strong Swiss franc won’t deter visitors this winter. Three rental apartments have boosted their income while they renovate another chalet for themselves.
“It’s a great balance of work and life; weekends are our busiest time, but we try to get on to the slopes two days a week or lunchtimes if we can,” says Willmott.
Hannah, now 19, has recently climbed Mönch mountain, the 13,474ft peak between the Jungfrau and Eiger. Life in the UK would feel pretty tame after that.
This article was written by Liz Rowlinson from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.