Monday, 4 July 2011

I didn’t get where I am today by …

Recently I have met a lot of people who seem to find it quite odd when they discover that I run a skiing company. I either don’t look the part or it never occurred to them that somebody somewhere must be doing it (I suppose I once met a biscuit designer and thought that a bit strange).

I decided it might be worth a quick blog post to show how I ended up at Ski Famille towers. A lot of senior managers and business owners in travel started on the front line in Rep type positions and I am no exception.

My first paid employment in travel was sitting behind a desk at Battle Tourist Information Office being sarcastic to American Tourists. Sarcasm wasn’t required in the job description but it was pretty much inevitable given that the opening question was invariably “Where is Battle Abbey?”. This was a tricky question to answer without an element of rudeness; it was physically impossible to get to the door of that office without walking past the Abbey.

After 3 months of wearing a standard issue tourist board tie, sending Americans off in the wrong direction and endlessly rearranging leaflets for nearby attractions a change was needed. The initial escape was two months of taking down tents (or demontage as it’s known in the trade) in all corners of France for Eurocamp. We drove rented Renault Traffic vans badly, counted colanders, drank some beer and earned a pittance. I was hooked.

Having skied a bit in the past, developed a taste for French beer and got the roof of my mouth accustomed to even the toughest baguette a ski season was probably inevitable. I duly set off to one of Britain’s flattest counties to be interviewed for a job as a ski guide. Whilst sitting in an office in Cambridge I was able to quickly convince Ski Famille founder Steve Sharp that I would guide his valued guests around the Portes du Soleil area without a problem.

I spent my first five weeks “leading from the back” so I could try and get my skiing to a vaguely acceptable level, kept up the intake of French beer, ate yet more baguette and utterly fell in love with the mountains. I unquestionably had the best job in the world despite having managed to stumble across an option that made my meager demontage pay the stuff of distant dreams.

Unfortunately it’s a rare person who manages to find a way of skiing all year, so some summer employment was required. In that I was now capable of taking down a tent I guessed I would be able to live in one and figure out how to look after the people paying to holiday in them.

I managed to get a job with Carisma Holidays and after a training course that further honed my beer and baguette skills (as well as introducing the additional knowledge required to make near criminal margins out of a cheese and wine party) I set off for my site in Biscarrosse in the South West of France.

Biscarosse was very beautiful but mind numbingly boring. Looking back I find it staggering that I managed to stay there for 6 months doing nothing but reading trash novels that guests left behind, smoking Peter Stuyvesant Legere and rocking gently backwards and forwards. However, I knew it could be worse, I could be at home with all of my friends working in an office. A sobering thought.

Another winter of skiing followed and then another summer of camping (in a far livelier location thankfully) and then … I hit a problem. I asked Steve at Ski Famille if I could work another ski season and he said no. He felt it was time for me to break the cycle and go and do something else. I was stumped.

After much head scratching I decided to give working in the UK a shot. Numerous interviews came and went, I accidentally turned down an opportunity that would have made me more money that I could possibly have known what to do with and then I got a job with a large tour operator.

After the excitement of front line tour operating I became a “Client Relations and Quality Control Executive” at Crystal Holidays. The job title made my Granny very proud – everybody else knew with little insider info that this meant “Complaint letter cut and paste reply monkey.”. My position in the food chain was made very clear on Day 1 when my order for a ruler was deemed unnecessary and cancelled.

Five years on Crystal had been bought by Thomson who had in turn been bought by Tui. There were more restructures than anyone who was a part of it can remember, but I prospered despite the corporate carnage. I suspect it was because I was young, I was cheap, I was single (so worked far too hard as I had nothing better to do) and I was tall so people remembered having seen me at some point and thought I might have been doing something worthwhile.

As restructure number 286 (approximately) approached I decided it was time for a move. By this point I was no longer single and my wife to be and I had decided we wanted to run off and live in Spain. This plan had all the makings of a disastrous Channel 4 series until Tui intervened and pointed out that they did rather a lot of stuff in Spain and I didn’t have to run a mountain biker doss house in the Alpujarras to earn a crust. Instead I ran the Simply Spain, Magic of Spain, Something Special and OSL villa holiday operations across the Balearic Islands. I should point out that the death of three of those brands and the comprehensive hobbling of the only survivor is in no way my fault!

After a couple of years of living in Palma (a great city everyone should visit it at least once) we decided that a return to the UK was on the cards. Career options are limited on an island, we would never become locals and the ex pat community was transient, gin soaked or both. We didn’t have a notion what to do … and then I got an e-mail from Steve at Ski Famille saying he was planning to retire …



Katie Brudenell said...

Great blog, Chris!

Richard O-H said...

I never even thought of asking for a ruler... Doh!

Anonymous said...

Delighted to hear of your success. I remember what a great ski guide, chauffeur (Land Rover to Avoriaz and sometimes airport) and more you were when we stayed at chalet La Turche when our kids were tiny.Ski Famille clearly had a winning formula and we returned 3 times I think. David is now 17 and Jennifer nearly 20 and both still love their skiing.
Paul & Sue