On the 4th of January 2010, I woke up in a garage surrounded by skis. It was the beginning of ‘Season 1’, to use the American nomenclature, my first full skiing season in the Alps. ‘The Après Aliens’, as I’d started to call them, had not really started their abduction campaign at that point so the location of the garage, and how I’d ended up sleeping there, were not mysteries to me.
The term ‘gap year’ hadn’t been invented when I left university but, at the age of forty-seven, I thought mine was well overdue. At least, that’s what I thought the first time I found myself without a job. Actually I hadn’t had a ‘proper’ job in years; I don’t think anyone who works in marketing actually has a proper job. I’d recently held the disembodied job title ‘Head of Digital’ and more latterly that of ‘Social Media Consultant’ – clearly these were not proper jobs.
I’d started my working life in a proper job, working as a software engineer, but thanks to the rise of the World Wide Web I’d somehow ended up working for an advertising agency. During the halcyon dotcom era, I’d set up a website development company and then sold it, along with my soul, to the agency for a bag full of cash and a lot of unfulfilled promises. Most expats in Morzine have a how-I-escaped-the-rat-race story to tell, about how they decided to ‘live the dream’ and move to the Alps.
The seminal moment in my story happened in an office in Sutton Coldfield, the most nondescript of suburban commuter towns, a place that was as random to me then as it probably is to you now, but it seems to crop up a lot in the story. The headquarters of the agency I’d sold out too was in Sutton and I’d agreed to work there for three years. Late one evening, while sitting in a brainstorming session or ‘thought shower’ as the agency’s creative director cringingly liked to call them, I had an epiphany. We were trying to think of ways to make a brand of pre-washed lettuce stand out on the supermarket shelf.
The main thoughts going through my mind were: how had I ended up in this room with these vacuous people and who actually cared about how their pre-washed lettuce was packaged? Not me. I concluded that I was having a midlife crisis. I recognised the symptoms – because I’d had several before.
I had my first crisis in my thirties when I moved to the Middle East, only to return three months later due to an unfortunate misunderstanding with a sheikh. I returned with a fatwa and the Python lyric ‘never be rude to an Arab’ ringing in my ears.
Since my Arabic odyssey, I’d tried less radical cures for subsequent midlife crises. I’d bought a sports car, toured Europe on a Harley Davison, ran with the bulls in Pamplona, been to Glastonbury, got married in Vegas, but mostly I just got drunk a lot. My long-suffering friends will probably point out that these crises have actually been a continuum rather than a series of discrete events and that most middle-aged people are dissatisfied with their lives. I then like to point out that this is largely thanks to people who work in marketing.
Marketing is the process of finding, or better still creating, dissatisfaction amongst consumers then presenting a product as the solution. It is the art of making people want things they previously never knew they needed. I’m willing to admit that I might be bitter and twisted, but that’s what working in an agency does to you!
This midlife crisis was different. I was now actually middle-aged – so this was the real thing. This time I wasn’t going to just treat the symptoms; I was going to cure the problem and start a completely new career; I’d had enough of helping companies promote products I wouldn’t buy myself. Furthermore, I swore I’d never take a job that required me to wear a suit or use Microsoft Power Point ever again. I was going to find something I loved doing and work out how to get paid for it. Advice someone should have given me when I left school.
The Careers Officer at my school neglected to mention that you needed to like your job, because you’d probably be doing it for a long time. Since he helped me choose mine, I’ve discovered that there are lots of really interesting careers he failed to mention: arctic explorer, pyro technician, rollercoaster engineer, marine biologist and, of course, ski instructor. Frankly, why I took careers advice from a man who had settled on ‘Career Adviser’ for himself, I don’t know.
The truth is, like most people, I’d never really had a vocation. I’d basically made career decisions based on which jobs would provide me with the most money in the shortest space of time. Once caught in that particular gravitational field, you’re naturally pulled towards sales and marketing and slowly become just another whore for capitalism.
But thanks to the sale of my company, I’d paid off my mortgage and my new career was not going to be determined by salary expectations, pensions, company cars, health insurance and all those unimportant considerations. This time I was going to do something I loved. So what did I love doing and how could I get paid to do it?
I loved skiing and, more importantly, I loved being in the Alps. After a dodgy start in my twenties, I’d taken up skiing properly at the late age of thirty-four. By the time I was forty, I was well and truly hooked and went skiing at least three times a year to get a fix. Each year, I would have one week doing what I call ‘girlfriend skiing’ with my wife and mutual friends and at least one ‘boys’ trip’ with my single mates, some of whom were technically female but I digress.
However, at my age, training to be a ski instructor seemed a little unrealistic and it overlooked the more obvious barrier – my skiing ability. So what else could I do for a living in the Alps? Maybe, I could get a management job with a ski company? But I had no experience in tourism and I didn’t speak a foreign language which most of the resort managers and ski-reps’ job ads seemed to mandate. Maybe I could be a chalet host? But I didn’t know anything about catering or housekeeping either. I certainly didn’t fancy being a chalet girl; for starters I was the wrong sex, besides which, I’d stayed in many luxury chalets and knew that working as a ‘seasonaire’ for a tour operator was akin to slavery. I was also too old to share grotty accommodation with immature youths or have a simpleton as a boss. During my so-called ‘career’ I’d spent enough time with both.
Even though I would rather clean toilets in the Alps than work in marketing, I had to be realistic. At my age, no tour operator would give me a job at either end of the employment ladder. No, to get a job in the Alps I would have to be self-employed. I’d have to do the one thing I did have experience of – setting up and running a business. The trouble was, I was devoid of business ideas.
It was on a lad’s trip to Morzine that my entrepreneurial light bulb finally came back on, while talking to a bartender in The Farmhouse, one of Morzine’s more up-market chalet hotels. James, who’d left a proper job in financial services to be a ski bum, offered some information around which an epic ‘thought shower’ precipitated. It seems obvious now, but he told us that most tour operators don’t own the chalets they sell holidays in – they rent them.
My companions that trip, fellow entrepreneurs Jon and Andy, found this fact interesting too. We’d all been on ski holidays run by some pretty amateur outfits and if they could make money, so could we. We ignored the fact that most of them probably didn’t make a success of it, let alone make any money, and quickly went bust. However, to amuse ourselves, we set about the academic exercise of creating a business plan for the ‘best skiing holiday company – ever’. Unhampered by reality our entrepreneurial spirits flowed along with the whisky and Guinness. If only this collection of similarly stimulated minds could have been unleashed on the problems of marketing pre-washed lettuce, we would have easily quadrupled my former client’s sales, I thought.
The problem with having fantastic ideas when drunk is they almost always seem ludicrous the following morning. Ernest Hemingway advised to ‘always do sober what you said you’d do when drunk, to teach you to keep your mouth shut’. I’d taken the so-called ‘Hemingway Oath’, many years back, to avoid letting down people who took my drunken promises seriously but, even when sober, I still thought the ‘best skiing holiday company – ever’ was a good idea!
When I got home, I created a more considered business plan and fiddled with my spread sheets until I convinced myself that, ‘The Chalet Project’ as I renamed it, would actually work.The business plan was relatively simple: I needed to find a luxury chalet, get a large discount for renting it for an entire season, then persuade around one hundred people to come skiing with me.
I had to get the proposition, as we marketing types called it, right too: what were people looking for in a skiing holiday that (more importantly) was hard to find elsewhere? I needed a unique selling point (USP) as we call it.
The best market research is done on a sample set of one – yourself. So what did I look for when choosing a skiing holiday? I liked staying in luxury chalets near the slopes. I wanted an en-suite room – surprisingly difficult to find in old French chalets – and I wanted a cooked breakfast, preferably one involving proper bacon (equally scarce in France) with some form of eggs.
More important: what did I not want? I hated having to eat with the same potentially boring strangers every night and I didn’t want a three-course evening meal included. I wasn’t fussed about having an afternoon cake either, albeit a chalet tradition. I also didn’t want to be forced to arrive on a Saturday and have to stay for a full week – a week is far too long to survive a boys’ ski trip! Chalet-based short ski-breaks were almost unheard off – so there was my USP.
But which resort was best? I’d skied in many of the famous alpine resorts, each had their own attraction, but I’d been to Morzine more often than anywhere else. My friends kept organising trips to the place and, much as I liked exploring new mountains, it was more important I had people to ski with so I went with the flow. Morzine and its ski area were already familiar to me and I knew it was popular with my target audience – the Brits. So I didn’t really choose Morzine, it chose me.
Morzine sits near the Swiss border in a small nook of France below Lake Geneva. It is part of the Portes du Soleil, arguably the largest skiing area in Europe. Being just over an hour from Geneva Airport, it’s ideal for short-stay ski trips so it suited my proposition.
More importantly, I knew Morzine’s biggest fan, Siobhan (Shiv), a fellow skiing enthusiast, we’d been on many boy’s skiing trips together. Although technically not a boy, she was a fellow hedonist and a hardcore après-skier. She knew lots of other Morzine regulars, mostly from her hometown Liverpool, along with many expats who owned chalets there and even a few Morzinenois.
Being of a similarly adventurous disposition to me, Shiv thought the Chalet Project was a fantastic idea and wanted to be my partner in the project. My years in marketing had made me very good at selling ideas – especially bad ones. Her enthusiasm gave me the courage to go for it. I knew that a risk shared was a risk halved and that her Morzine contacts would be invaluable. Her wide circle of skiing friends would swell the ranks of potential guests too – which they did in large numbers.
Frustratingly, before saying yes, Shiv sought consent from my wife before joining the project – which she got. I’m not sure why she asked for it; she was being offered a partnership in a serious business venture – or so I kidded myself. Previous business associates hadn’t felt the need to check it was okay with my wife to work with me. I wasn’t running away with Shiv or, indeed, running away at all. She intended to keep her proper job in Brussels and to visit Morzine as often as possible. I was going to be there all season but intended keeping my proper life in the UK too; honouring my domestic and financial commitments. I rather hoped my wife would be a frequent visitor as well.
Shiv found a suitable chalet via her Liverpool connections, more importantly the owner was interested in off-loading a lot of hassle by renting it to one person for the entire season. I visited the imaginatively named ‘Chalet Neige’ (Chalet Snow) the following summer. It was perfect for our requirements. It wasn’t next to a piste but that made the rent all the more affordable; it also meant we would need to ferry guests to and from the lifts. My BMW Six Series, left over from a previous midlife crisis, wasn’t really going to cut it.
I had to procure a more suitable vehicle. While deciding what to buy, I became over-nostalgic about Defenders. I’d owned a matchbox model of one as a child and they symbolised intrepid exploration and adventure in my adolescent psyche. Many of my early skiing experiences involved being carted around in one too. So I fulfilled a schoolboy dream and bought one (Landie) knowing little about their true nature and nothing about their maintenance.
After a good deal of haggling, the chalet was secured and I set about finding guests for the forthcoming season. I spent the rest of that summer badgering anyone I’d ever met or seen on a pair of skis to book a few days at the chalet. Finally, I was using my marketing skill for a product I believed in. By December, we’d taken a reasonable amount of bookings and on the 3rd of January 2010 I found myself heading to Dover in Landie on the inaugural ‘Bacon Run’, as my winter migration became known.
In order to maximise guest occupancy, I’d decided to sleep in the chalet’s garage. It had an entrance from the chalet and a heated floor, which kept it cosy as long as no-one opened the garage door itself. I turned it into a bachelor pad, adding a TV, sofa bed, microwave, toaster, kettle, minibar and ski repair bench – what else did a man need? I even had an iPod docking station so I could listen to ‘garage music’.
On that first night, while lying in the garage, I did wonder if I’d made a very big mistake. I kept repeated the words ‘living the dream’, ‘living the dream’, ‘living the dream’ to reassure myself that I hadn’t. It was a mantra that I would utter more often in sarcasm than sincerity over the next three months and indeed the next four seasons.