Pip Watkins headed to the Alps, where she fell in love with a man and the mountains. She tells Paul Lamarra about her exciting new life running activity holidays in this stunning location
For many people, a new life in France is the culmination of years of careful planning and longing. In the case of 38-year-old Pip Watkins it was love at first sight and impulse followed impulse so that within months she had a new life, a new love, a new home and a new business in the Alps.
When Pip decided in January 2010 to take a last-minute ski holiday at her uncle’s apartment in Valmorel in the Savoie’s Tarentaise valley it was the first time in 10 years that she had skied in France. In the intervening years she had preferred to ski at Whistler on Canada’s west coast and she confesses her expectations of the French Alps were low.
Yet when she tapped a ski instructor on the shoulder at a presentation in the Valmorel mairie promoting other activities such as cross-country skiing and paragliding she suddenly looked upon the Alps in an entirely new light.
“I had no romantic inclinations whatsoever,” recalls Pip, “but when this man turned round he had the brightest, bluest eyes I had ever seen. The instant attraction was so strong that even my friend could sense it and left us to it.”
Christian Taphorel, a ski and paragliding instructor, persuaded Pip to go paragliding with him and their fate was sealed.
Pip, originally from Welwyn in Hertfordshire, returned to her adopted city of Cardiff, wound up her sports marketing consultancy where she acted as an agent for professional athletes retiring from competitive sport and gave up the lease on her home.
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By July of the same year Pip was living in Christian’s flat near Moûtiers. Not only had Pip fallen in love in the Alps but she had fallen in love with the Alps and, in particular, the spectacular mountains around Lake Annecy.
Moving to the Alps prompted her finally to put in motion her dream to start a sports holiday company offering breaks where clients would be coached and advised by professional cyclists and athletes in spectacular surroundings.
“Originally I had planned to do it in Wales but, after we met, Christian persuaded me that it would be much better to do it in the Alps,” explains Pip.
“I had never been to the Alps in the summer before and that first summer by Lake Annecy I was just blown away by the beauty of the place and how much there was to do – it was just the most incredible place in every respect,” she enthuses.
By the summer of 2011, Adventures in the Alps was up and running and offering fitness holidays, or training camps as Pip calls them.
Initially Pip proposed: a family fitness camp hosted by Sally Gunnell, the Olympic gold medallist, and her trainer husband Jonathan Bigg; a triathlon camp hosted by Christine Hemphill, an Australian world champion triathlete; and a running camp hosted by Liz Yelling, a British Olympic marathon runner.
The training camps, however, do not involve tents. Pip’s real brainchild was to exploit the hundreds of luxury ski chalets that lay dormant over the summer months.
“The chalets are stunning,” beams Pip, “and for much of the summer they were completely unused. Many of them have pools, saunas and hammans and are just ideal for hosting a training camp. However,” she adds, “the biggest challenge is finding the staff to run and cater for them in the summer months.”
Despite such big sporting names and luxury chalets, Adventures in the Alps was a slow burner.
“You think when you first get started that it will turn into the best thing since sliced bread immediately and of course it takes time to get known, develop the brand and understand that the client really needs to trust the holiday company in which they are investing their money and their precious annual holiday,” says Pip.
At times, Pip has found it massively challenging being a one-woman band who deals with the daily bureaucracy of running a business in France, keeping the website up to date, overseeing training camps and even cleaning the client bathrooms on a daily basis. She says, “I seriously questioned my mental state a couple of times and asked myself what the hell I was doing.
“But then I remind myself that I am doing what I love, which is creating fantastic holiday experiences that make people happy – it is the most incredible job in the world,” she adds, laughing.
Family helped out financially when the banks did not want to know and she has received a great deal of support from Liz Yelling and her husband Martin, a British Olympic steeplechaser.
“Liz, who hosted my first training camp, and Martin have been instrumental in growing the business and they do a great deal to promote their running camps,” says Pip.
Running Adventures in the Alps single-handed has put pressure on Pip’s fledgling relationship with Christian and there have been a few break-ups and make-ups along the way. Although he does not get involved directly, Christian’s contacts in the tight-knit Tarentaise business community have been invaluable to Adventures in the Alps and his guidance has helped Pip understand the Alpine way of doing things.
“The existing French businesses in the Alps tend to be family businesses,” explains Pip. “Their business code is morally and ethically strict and you have to understand that your behaviour has to fit with that.
“Business in the French Alps is not as hard-nosed as it is in Britain and you have to do a lot of listening and people will appreciate you taking the time to build relationships.”
Once established, Pip found the French authorities to be very supportive and although her numbers were low at first the local tourist offices were very willing to help with the promotion of her training camps.
Now in her third full season, Adventures in the Alps has diversified. In the winter the company runs ski safaris that take advanced downhill skiers on a week-long journey linking a number of ski resorts, and winter training weeks that combine cross-country skiing and snow-shoeing with cookery, yoga and Pilates.
For the summer season, Pip reckons the next big thing will be guided running holidays. Covering distances of up to 170km in a week, runners will follow classic mountain trails such as the Ultra Tour de Mont Blanc, the Grande Traversée des Alpes and away from the Alps, Corsica’s demanding GR20 and the GR8, which crosses Paris.
A summer walking holiday following the Andy Goldsworthy art trail in the mountains of Haute-Provence has proved very popular and is now an annual fixture.
Her biggest coups however have been persuading Rebecca Romero, Olympic cycling gold medallist, to host a cycling training camp, which will take in the big cols that feature regularly in the Tour de France, and recruiting Aliona Vilani, the Strictly Come Dancing professional who won the 2011 series with Harry Judd of McFly, to host a dance fitness week.
In an attempt to diversify further, Pip also plans to develop a luxury chalet internet rental agency and this winter she will be marketing catered chalets in Valmorel to attract British skiers to an off-beat resort that Pip says retains a sense of being in France.
This summer she is also pioneering luxury catered chalet holidays for families in the Haute-Savoie resort of Grand Bornand.
When Pip initially revealed her plans to old hands in the Alps they told her that if she made a summer business work in the Alps she would be the first and Pip readily concedes that it has been tough. Nevertheless she feels that she is finally making progress and that the market for summer holidays in the French Alps is growing.
“From the outset I just thought what an amazing place, but I just could not believe how under-promoted the Alps in summer were in the British market – I had never heard of Lake Annecy but I must have passed it en route to the ski resorts,” Pip confesses.
“People think of the Alps and they think of them in winter they cannot imagine what it is like in the summer and how beautiful it is and just how hot it can be,” she adds.
Pip however has learned to love the Alps in all seasons and for her there are two treats that make it all worthwhile.
“When it has been snowing for days and the skies are clear I jump put of bed and say to myself, I am going to have a couple of hours of this – blue skies and skiing knee deep in powder snow; it is just amazing.
“The other is when I finish a day in the summer, I jump in the car and pop down to Lake Annecy and swim out into the middle where I kick back and lie out looking up at the mountains and always I think this is what I do it for.”
Fate took a hand in bringing Pip to the Alps but it is her determination to succeed that will keep her there. LF