Tootlafrance talks to another man behind the scenes in France’s Alpine world – Christian Marie, who is Sales Director of the ski lifts at Alpe d’Huez
“I’m almost local,” he jokes, “but not really!” As with all close-knit rural communities (which the Alpine communities are, at heart), a blow-in can gain acceptance through mutual respect but a blow-in is still always a blow-in!
He’s happy here and says that, in any case, Cherbourg is “too rainy” for his liking at this point. Although he was born by the sea, he’s clearly happier in the mountains, spending all his working life there, as well as choosing to explore foreign countries’ mountain ranges when he’s on holiday himself, rather than their coastlines.“Living in a ski resort, you spend all your winter in the sun and that’s very important for your mind and we receive lots of foreigners in the resort, so it’s always very happy to meet different people and to speak different languages. Most of the people who work with me speak two or three languages. It’s nice to meet the world!”
As well as his native French, Christian speaks English, German (in which he’s “ok”), a little Spanish and a little bit of Russian. His job is Sales Director (Directeur Commercial) of the ski lifts at the smart station in the department of Isère in the Rhône-Alpes region of France.
“I’m in charge of the smooth running of all the people involved in selling ski passes, down to the people at the cash desk who are selling the ski passes for the Alpe d’Huez ski resort,” says Christian, when asked to describe his job. Alpe d’Huez is one of Europe’s premier ski resorts with 249km of ski runs and 84 ski lifts. It has been somewhat out-shone only by the phenomenon of smaller resorts grouping together to form larger ones (such as in the case of Paradiski or Les Trois Vallées).
“It’s a big resort so we have quite a lot of desks, for example. At the other end of things, I have to look after the promotion and marketing for all of what we call the intermediary clients – tour operators, groups and so on. So we’re in contact with tour operators all day long.
“First of all, in Spring, we give them all the news of the resorts plus the rates and the package rates. Then they prepare the brochure and then they sell it and when they begin to sell it, they always have many questions that we need to be able to answer for them. We give them plenty of information and supply them with photos for their social media or whatever. I would say that it’s a 12-month year-round activity.”
Today, at the beginning of the 2014-15 season, Christian is busying himself with preparing the rates for the 2015-16 season.
“It’s not so easy to do this – you have to ‘tip-toe’ your way through it to try to find the best rate and the best promotion and marketing for next season.”Competition is something that has grown over the last few years from different countries offering cheaper products, but France has the strongest offering in Europe in terms of size and the expansion of Europe has also seen resorts such as Alpe d’Huez change its clientèle, attracting more and more from the East:
“The really big change for me in my job was the opening of the Eastern European countries. We were always used to dealing with people from the UK, Ireland, Holland, Belgium, Italy and Spain, but not so much from the Germans, who tend to go to Austria. But suddenly, the wall fell down and we had a huge market that opened up to us and we could now sell the resort in places like the Czech Republic and Slovakia and from Poland down to Croatia.
“Then, the second step was Russia. It was still a closed market initially but after two or three years, suddenly it was open and we got many clients from Russia and even the Ukraine. It has really changed the way we work because the new market was practically just next door… It’s quicker for me to go to Zagreb than it is for me to go see my parents in Cherbourg, for example!”
The market now, he says, is very varied. About two years ago, many British stopped coming to Alpe d’Huez as the effects of the recession hit home. This year, the UK market is the fastest growing one again. His statistics, he admits, make no distinction between the British and Irish market as they both arrive using often the same UK or Irish-owned companies. One wonders just how great a role the current Irish economic recovery is playing in that. For now, however, the two main foreign markets for the resort are the UK and Denmark, he says.
What about skiing time for himself?
“It’s a bit difficult to work in your office and look through the window at the snow and the sun! It’s a very sunny resort so when we have one hour for lunch, for example, we jump on the skis and we go and refresh ourselves! We can do the long 16km Sarenne run (the world’s longest and which has new snow cannons this year) in just under one hour, so you take your sandwich in the gondola, you go up to the top (3,330m), then you ski down on the glacier and then onto the piste proper and honestly, it’s the best way to start work again with your brain cleansed!”