Holiday business in the Pyrenees
Mountain guides Emma and Rob Mason reveal to Paul Lamarra how they have developed a successful activity holiday business since moving from western England to the Pyrenees
Sunday lunch on the terrace of Chez Louisette, one of the most popular restaurants in the Grand Tourmalet ski area, is just how Emma and Rob Mason imagined life would be when they turned their back on well paid careers in geotechnical engineering.
It was precious time off with their family and friends that had been hard won and came at the end of a month when their newly refurbished hotel finally opened for business.
Unlike most expats who long for years to relocate to France, Emma and Rob aimed to get their lifestyle right from the start. Within a few years of graduating, Emma, with a PhD in quantum geochemistry, and Rob with his masters in geotechnical engineering, were successfully running their own chalet and activity holiday business from the Pyr�n�an village of Bar�ges, close to the foot of the towering Pic du Midi in Haute-Pyr�n�es.
Back in 2002, when they were both in their early twenties, neither Emma nor Rob had any experience of the outdoors or of running a chalet but they had time and as Rob puts it: “had nothing to lose”.
While undertaking the gruelling GR10 long distance walking route that follows the crest of the Pyr�n�es from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, Emma and Rob spotted a gap in the market. In the Pyr�n�es no one was offering serviced chalet-style accommodation, so common in the Alps, where skiers and walkers could stay in comfortable surroundings enjoying good food and intimate company.
“The concept of the chalet didn’t really exist in the Pyr�n�es because it is a British thing and there aren’t many British to be found here,” says Emma. “It turns out it is exactly what people want.”
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Learning the ropes
Inspired by their walk the length of the Pyr�n�es Emma and Ron set out to create a business where they would provide everything from transport and accommodation to guided explorations of the wild Pyrenean valleys and peaks.
To test the water they signed up for a season working as chalet hosts in the Alpine ski resort of Courcheval. “Until then we had never skied and we had to know if we could put up with cleaning toilets and preparing food.”
Knowing that they could, the couple spent the next three years gaining their International Mountain Leader (IML) award so that they could legally accompany groups of walkers into the mountains in summer and winter.
Having worked with adventure travel firm Exodus for the very hot summer of 2003, they set out to find the property that would fulfil their ambitions and the following April they took possession of a ruined property, Les Cailloux.
Abandoned for 25 years and a convenient place to dump snow ploughed from the road, the renovation took 18 months. Rob and Emma undertook much of the work themselves: Emma did the plastering and tiling while Rob dug out and laid a concrete floor. They were however careful to seek approval from the French authorities where necessary.
By the summer of 2005 they were accepting a limited number of guests for B&B and on 30 December 2005 – the day before their first guests were due to arrive – the chalet was completed and ready to accept their full complement of 12 guests.
“About one year in I was ready to give up,” Emma remembers, “but we already had bookings so we had to finish otherwise I would have just packed up and gone home.”
Mountainbug was born and flagging spirits were boosted by the very snowy winter of 2005-6. “Initially we thought most people would come to walk and snowshoe but the skiing has been a real boon and that year more than two metres of snow fell in 48 hours,” Rob enthuses.
Bar�ges turned out to be the ideal place to start their adventure company and although they found it more by accident than design Rob believes there are few places that tick so many boxes.
An old spa town frequented by Napoleon III and his wife Eugenie Bar�ges, unlike many ski resorts it has an authentic village atmosphere. There are two distinct seasons: a walking season from mid-May to mid-October and a surprisingly long ski season from the start of December through to Easter.
There is also the cachet of being located within a national park and it is a short drive to the impressive rock amphitheatre five times the height of the Eiffel Tower known as the Cirque de Gavarnie, a Unesco World Heritage site.
The icing on the cake is that the nearby Col de Tourmalet is a fixture of the tour de France and very popular with amateur cyclists.
For the next two seasons the Mason’s worked flat out. Every day Rob led guided walks into the mountains while Emma stayed behind and cleaned. When the group returned in the evening Rob started preparing dinner while the clients showered. It was always late to bed and, with only one vehicle, their day off was spent shopping for food.
By 2009 the Masons were old hands. At this point they were able to approach the bank and obtain a mortgage on the chalet and this allowed them to repay Rob’s parents who had loaned them the money in the meantime.
“The bank was really surprised that a chalet could make money in two years and so they were happy to give us a 100% mortgage,” explains Rob.
That year, however, new challenges presented themselves. In October their daughter Jenny was born and in the same month they were informed that they had bought a hotel.
Jenny quickly became part of the routine. She was happy to be passed between guests and sit in her rocker on the worktop. The unexpected news they had bought a hotel in the village however added sudden new pressures.
A new project
“We put in a sealed offer on a hotel in the village that had gone into liquidation and at the time we didn’t realise the offer was binding,” explains Emma.
“Six months passed and we had forgotten all about it and then suddenly they wanted the money and we had decisions to make and architects to consult and do it all under pressure,” she adds.
Rob’s parent’s David, a retired boat builder, and Christine are partners in the venture and the original plan was to convert the hotel, which dates in parts, to the 17th century and once hosted Madame de Maintenon, mistress to Louis XIV, to flats.
Advice from local estate agents was that the flats were unlikely to realise a profit and local enthusiasm for a new 3-star hotel made the decision to change tack easier.
“The plan for the ski resort is that Bar�ges should be pushed as a traditional village with a familial feel and one that offers a bit more in the way of quality,” says Emma. “A 3-star hotel was the missing element so many local people have been very supportive.”
True to his word the mayor helped them obtain the maximum grants available however a paperwork glitch at the town hall delayed the project for six months.
Rob has found that in order to make efficient progress you need to find out who is responsible for what among the local bureaucrats and turn up in person to discuss exactly what is needed.
“Some of them are definitely unnerved when you turn up and even shocked that you have found them but it gets things moving,” smiles Rob.
Their son Alex was timed to arrive just after the opening of the 19-room hotel and restaurant at the start of the winter season in 2011 however he would be four months old before the hotel would open. Clearly their hands are full and Emma and Rob have persuaded their Bristol university buddies Martin and Kara Stanford to take a share in Mountainbug and to help expand the business.
Martin who gave up a job in IT is working towards his IML. Kara, who worked in marketing, cares for their baby daughter Beth and has the task of effectively promoting the business. Both have taken over the duties of entertaining and feeding guests staying at the chalet.
Reluctant hoteliers, the plan for the hotel is to hand it over to managers to free Rob and Emma to return to their initial ambition of escorting clients on ski-touring and hiking expeditions into the wilder corners of the Pyr�n�es.
Rob, who has retained a passion for geology and will explain with enthusiasm how the Cirque de Gavarnie was formed, has new passions for wild flowers and the history of the Pyr�n�es including the Saracens, the Spanish Civil War, Second World War escape routes and the Cathars. They both would like to build these into new holiday offerings, break out from the immediate area around Bar�ges and be considered as true Pyrenean specialists. The increased numbers of guests would be housed in the new hotel.
“We have a lot of potential here,” Emma states.
And Rob adds, “The Pyr�n�es may occupy a relatively small area but moving from north to south or east to west means dramatic changes and in each valley such as the Aspe or the Bigorre you will find people who have kept their own way of life, language and identity.”
Rob and Emma both agree that the Pyr�n�es are a very special place, much wilder than many people perceive and as Rob points out, “There are three thousand varieties of wild flower and the last wild bears in France still roam free because in the Pyr�n�es they have a place to hide.”