Peak performance

Mary Novakovich meets a British couple who have successfully made their mark on the chalet holiday market in the French Alps

In a saturated ski chalet market in the French Alps, how do you make your business stand out? Having a bright green and white logo is a good start, especially when it’s plastered over practically everything you own. Then add a wholehearted embrace of social media and a natural flair for marketing and branding. Top it off with a bit of Yorkshire determination and warmth, and you too could be spending your winters snowboarding and summers mountain biking in the Trois Vallées resort in Savoie.

It wasn’t quite as smooth as that for James and Gemma Greenway, but their Green Mountain Chalets business has grown astonishingly quickly over the past three years. James, 35, had been working in recruitment and Gemma, 31, was a legal executive when a snowboarding holiday in 2009 planted the seeds for a major change in lifestyle.

They were staying in a chalet in Les Arcs run by an Englishman whose staff shortage was hampering the service he could offer. “We had a good holiday, but we saw what could have made it better. Things weren’t right,” says Gemma. “So we thought about how we’d do it if we were to do it. Can we rent property or do we have to buy? We were surprised that we were able to do it because we thought there would be a big brick wall. We never expected it to work out. People say it must be a brave decision, but looking back neither of us could think of a point where we stopped and said: should we do it?”

Eight months after that 2009 trip, the Greenways’ rented a nine-bedroom chalet in La Combe, a tiny hamlet 6km from St-Martin-de-Belleville, and were ready for business. They had signed for it back in April over a dizzying weekend. “At that time neither of our employers knew, so we had to go back into work on the Monday having signed for a chalet,” recalls Gemma. “They asked us if we’d had a good weekend!”

Thanks to friends and families, their start-up marketing costs were negligible. A friend of a friend designed their distinctive green and white logo for free; likewise the website. James’s uncle was in the printing business, so flyers and posters came with no charge. The fee for joining Chalets Direct paid for itself immediately when James and Gemma got their first booking that summer. There was only the small matter of their complete lack of experience in running a chalet, as neither had done a ski season before.

“Our very first guest was a New Zealand family coming to stay for Christmas,” says Gemma. “James told them they were our first guests. They said first this season? He said first ever. ‘But you must have both done seasons before.’ No. ‘Oh, so you’re not a chef either?’ No. They must have been thinking: oh my God where have we booked? But they had a good time. One of them has been back five or six times since then, so it can’t have been that bad!”

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Luckily James’s brother is a chef, and he passed on invaluable advice on how to feed large groups. “James tried too hard to begin with,” says Gemma. “There was mustard in everything, which became a running joke. We were told: just have a big pot in the middle of the table so people can help themselves. We wanted to do hearty food, basics like meatballs, bœuf bourguignon.”

The simple yet delicious food suits the rustic Chalet La Maison, a barn conversion whose interior is made by a huge kitchen-dining room under a stone arched ceiling. It’s a cosy room where guests linger over dinner – helped by the unlimited wine – in a warm and convivial atmosphere.

Their first season in 2009-10 brought in enough guests for them to sign up for a second year. Word of mouth was doing its job, helped by some diligent flyer distribution both in the Trois Vallées and back in Yorkshire. Facebook and Twitter accounts were set up, and James set about targeting ski journalists and celebrities with an interest in snow sports. He was thrilled when television presenter and keen snowboarder Tim Lovejoy agreed to come for a holiday in December 2010, which got a mention on Tim’s show Something for the Weekend. In a cheeky move, James asked Tim to come up with a dish to add to the chalet’s menu after his semi-final win on MasterChef. (It’s a very appetising chicken and chorizo stew.) You can get a tantalising taste of what a GMC holiday is like by checking the photos on Facebook as well as Flickr, Instagram and YouTube. Glowing TripAdvisor reviews are posted on the GMC website. There’s hardly a social medium that the Greenways haven’t used.

Where they’ve taken it to the next level is the branding. The GMC logo is everywhere – on snowboards, helmets, rucksacks, their three Land Rovers, their clothing. However, the mountain-shaped GMC logo isn’t the only one to feature everywhere. James has been busy on the sponsorship front, and last season GMC became the affiliated chalet for Canadian snowboard clothing company Westbeach.

“It’s incredibly humbling and mind-blowing how we as a young company could be associated with Westbeach,” says James. So now the company’s red logo joins the green and white of the GMC brand, and James and Gemma have quite a lot of funky snowboarding gear to keep them going through the winter. And for the 2012-13 season, thanks to a deal with hair care brand GHD, all guests are given the use of the high-quality hair straighteners and dryers. An arrangement with the Greenwood Organics skincare range followed swiftly after.

After their experience with Westbeach, it made sense for James and Gemma to set up a clothing brand which is being launched this season. Misguided Fools is their own range of street wear, which will also be the official uniforms of the staff at Val Thorens’ legendary club La Folie Douce. “We’ll make sure our logo is nice and prominent,” says James. “It’s another way to get us noticed.” Being affiliated with the valley’s biggest club should also a good selling point when the range is eventually offered to local shops and, of course, GMC guests.

Last season, the Greenways took the big step of renting a second chalet about a 10-minute drive from La Combe and hiring a British member of staff to run it. The risk paid off, as bookings remained healthy and guests were happy with the new property. This winter it’s all change again, as the large extension to their main chalet, previously used by their landlord, became available. So now everything is under one roof; the chalets are separate entities with Chalet La Maison sleeping 18 and Le Loft holding 10, but they can be linked if a party of 28 happens to come along.

James and Gemma will be looking after Le Loft, and will continue to do the ski hosting that comes with a GMC holiday. Because the chalet is 6km from the nearest lifts at St-Martin-de-Belleville, James drives the guests to the slopes every day and shows them the best places to ski and have lunch. “We don’t want to be regarded as staff by our guests,” says James. “We’ve had occasions when guests said it’s like we’ve been on holiday with you. We’ve always tried to maintain that relationship and not be too formal.”

James admits there’s a fine line, as some chalet hosts have been known to indulge in too much après-ski. But he will have been up at 6.30am to prep that evening’s meal and knows exactly how much time he can spend with guests in the bar before dinner. “You can be in the pub and everyone’s having a laugh, and you’re thinking: spaghetti needs to go on,” he says. “It’s about creating a relaxed atmosphere and people think it runs along so smoothly, but there’s a lot of preparation that goes into it.”

In 2011, the Greenways tried out a summer season in July and August, offering guests the chance to go hiking, mountain biking or just spend lazy days picnicking by the lake. “We didn’t know what to expect, because the Three Valleys aren’t that well known as a summer destination,” says Gemma. “But it was amazing. It’s not just for serious hikers and bikers; it’s for anybody. James’ 88-year-old granny came out. We managed to do something with her every day. She loved it.”

The Greenways still have their home near Leeds where they spend the autumn preparing for the winter season and catch up with family and friends. Tenants keep the mortgage ticking over while James and Gemma use the house’s attic room. Their chalet business now gives them enough of an income to support them throughout the year.

Gemma recalls some advice she was given by another chalet owner when they were still looking for a property: “She said to make enough during the winter so you don’t have to work the rest of the year. I was sitting at my desk thinking, can you imagine that? But it’s what we’re doing now.” LF

Image © Adam Batterbee