What I wish I knew: building a ski chalet business

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Francesca Smith, Owner of Powder N Shine, a collection of four ski chalets and two self-catering apartments in Les Menuires in the French Alps, shares what she’s learned since setting up her chalet holiday business in 2009

Start from the ground up

When we started out in 2009, we rented our first chalet and just dived straight in. I was the chef and my husband Steve was hosting. We were living in a tiny room on the top floor, and my office was in the laundry room. We learned so much from doing that because we’d never actually been chalet people before.

Some people start up businesses and get the staff in straight away. But because it was completely new for us, it was absolutely vital to start from the ground up. Now, looking back at what we have, because we’ve experienced the cooking and the hosting, we can give our hosts and chefs support. They respect the fact that I’ve mopped the floors and cleaned the toilets. If you’re starting out small, it’s important to live and breathe the job.

It’s all about the people we employ

Staff are the hardest part of owning a company. They are crucial to the success of the business. Looking back, from interview techniques to how we find the people, I’m pretty much changing that every year.

From the guest’s perspective, they say it’s all about the people. That’s been a huge learning process. You can’t just pluck people out of thin air. I’m talking to more agencies that do more of the reference checking, and they seem to attract really good individuals. Our professional chefs are key to the business.

If you can’t get the staff right, you run the risk of losing your lovely guests who return year after year. That’s the hardest thing: because we attract such wonderful staff and have great food, exceeding people’s expectations every year is difficult. Sometimes staff leave and you don’t know how you’re going to top it.

Now I don’t have any qualms about firing people

Now I don’t have any qualms about firing people. A few years ago, I would try my hardest to hold on to someone, even if I knew they weren’t 100% right for the business. I’ve become more cut throat. I’m not scared of change, whereas earlier on you’re terrified that you’ll lose a chef. I have to keep a cool head now.

Working with others

At the beginning of the business I didn’t really work with tour operators. At first I was scared because I didn’t want to give away 12% of my bookings. But actually it makes so much sense. They’re really good to work with. They have a big loyal following, and they tend to get the full advertised price early on. That’s definitely something I’ve learned: don’t be small-minded about the 12% because you might run the risk of not selling and then discounting anyway. Very early on, we had a couple of rooms that were available and I discounted them by 50%. I wish I hadn’t. When you’ve got a certain level of standards and personal service, you do attract people who can afford the slightly higher prices that we charge. But as soon as you discount, you get people who don’t mix well. You have to be quite strong, and not become a discounting brand.

Focus on technology

We have a lot of online systems, but right at the beginning we didn’t really need them. Now I’ve got a great online accounting system, and an online booking system as well. We’ve got MailChimp for our emails and newsletters. It’s all about being efficient, because I need to focus on strategy and sales. Once you’ve got systems, you’re minimising the risk of losing data. We have lists of all the guests that we update every year. You build up a little bible of our guests, which is part of the personal service.

A foot in two countries

Starting up a business in your own country is challenging - we're from the UK - but from the beginning we had to set up a French branch as well. It’s very important to talk to people who have done it before. In terms of recruitment and setting up the business, plus the bureaucratic nature of the French system – the goalposts change all the time. And now we have Brexit to consider, and that is going to change things massively for us in terms of cost and employment.

Hero image: credit to Adam Batterbee

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Powder N Shine is a collection of four ski chalets and two self-catering apartments in Les Menuires in the French Alps
Learning to have an open mind when working with tour operators has been a turning point, says Francesca
Staff are the hardest part of owning a company. Changing things each year, from interview techniques to how they find the right people has been an important part of Powder N Shine's growth
At the beginning of the company's journey it had many online systems, which it didn't necessarily need. Consolidating this process has allowed Powder N Shine to focus on strategy and sales