Since founding their boutique ski chalet and architecture business, The Alpine Club in 2004, husband-and-wife team Chris and Helen Raemers have built a luxury enterprise with an annual income of £500,000. But how can they spread the word that their Savoie mountain resort receives plenty of snow?
The midlife crisis usually strikes somewhere between 45 and 60, leading otherwise responsible people to suddenly squeeze into paunch-defying clothes, splash out on expensive new hobbies and develop ravenous appetites for new technology.
Chris and Helen Raemers, however, believe theirs kicked in early – in their mid-30s. They quit their jobs as architect and training and development manager respectively, travelled the world, and returned with a piece of paper bearing a simple question: “What do we do next?”
They had scribbled the words “we like skiing – let’s do some ski seasons” on that blank sheet. Fifteen years later, this mission statement has somehow gestated into them running The Alpine Club – a cluster of boutique chalets, nestled in the village of Saint-Martin-de-Belleville in the heart of the 3 Valleys, in the French Alps. During winter, they also get to indulge their love of skiing on a weekly basis.
But establishing a luxury hospitality business hasn’t been without its challenges, not least attracting guests to a lesser known resort, overshadowed by its famous neighbours of Val Thorens, Méribel and Courchevel.
“It’s all trial and error,” Helen Raemers tells Director. “There are hundreds of websites where you can pay £200 a time to advertise your property but there’s no guarantee of return. Likewise, there are so many third-party travel agents too.”
Back in 2003, the Raemers were running a 12-guest chalet for French ski holiday specialists YSE. “We loved doing the ski seasons but thought, ‘We really need to set up our own business’,” she recalls. “So we did masses of research, ending up with an Excel spreadsheet which narrowed resorts down to Saint-Martin – a beautiful mountain village with a sense of community where we could imagine living.”
The following year the pair rented a Saint-Martin chalet, with Helen working as a chef – having quit her career in training and development – and Chris making the chastening switch from successful architect to chalet-cleaner.
Adding a second rental chalet to their portfolio, the pair – who met at Huddersfield Polytechnic in the 1980s – bought a 100-year-old Savoyard farmhouse in 2009, with Chris using his design savvy to renovate it.
The same year, Chris established his full-time architecture business, focusing on chalets, leaving Helen and her 10-strong team to look after the refurbished farmhouse (Abode) plus two other chalets (Chamois Lodge and Ecurie).
Along the way, The Alpine Club – not to be confused with the world’s oldest mountaineering society, set up by Victorian alpinists in 1857 – has had to evolve in line with advances in the hospitality market. “Today, you can go to a Premier Inn and get a choice of pillow, Twinings tea and branded products in the bathroom – all for only £55 a night,” she points out.
“That’s the expectation now – whatever you want, you can have. We’re seeing that with the food – when we started, we’d only have to cater specially for vegetarians. Now, our guests’ requirements include gluten-free food, low-sugar requests, dairy-free, guests asking for specific flavours of tea. Because we’re a bespoke service, naturally we are delighted to provide these.”
This cuisine – six-course affairs prepared by Michelin-trained chefs – is a key-selling point of The Alpine Club. However, with the architecture/chalet business’s joint turnover healthy at £500,000 a year, the Raemers don’t have any plans to turn the chalet business into a year-round operation.
“We open in December and shut when the ski lifts close in late April – the six-week summer business is primarily a self-catered market and not one I want to develop,” she says. “But I don’t have time off – I’m effectively a one-person band, doing back-of-house operations, accounts, marketing, re-doing the website, staff-training manuals and developing the business for the winter. Then, from September onwards, it’s just full-on marketing.”
This marketing is something that Raemers admits is a “real weakness – not something I have experience in, I just learn as I go”. In particular, the Raemers are struggling to get the message across to potential guests that the snow in Saint-Martin is as good as its bigger, better-known rivals.
“There’s a perception that we don’t get good snow in Saint-Martin because of its height,” she says. “Our elevation is 1,450m but the height of resorts like Val d’Isère and Courchevel is 1,800m-plus. However, Saint-Martin gets excellent snow because of our position, the quality of piste management and the state-of-the-art snowmaking machines.”
Things weren’t helped by the mild winter of 2015-16, in which the Alps had its warmest-ever December. “Just before Christmas, we’d normally be sending photos out saying, ‘Look at all the snow’,” she says. “But instead, the media focused on photos of green fields. It was frustrating as Saint-Martin was open and we had snow.”
The Alpine Club has built sturdy relationships with national ski journalists and “we are working together to promote Saint-Martin not only as a beautiful Savoie mountain village but a ski resort which has guaranteed snow and the best access to the skiing in the whole of the 3 Valleys. We need to let people know that we have fantastic snow here.” To assist the couple in their mission to publicise the surrounding snow-covered slopes, maybe our panel has some ideas…
The Alpine Club asks: How should I best use PR and marketing to dispel the myth that we don’t get enough snow in Saint-Martin-de-Belleville?
Adam Gordon Managing director, Social Media Search
This is a great challenge and there are some straightforward and inexpensive ways of doing this. The skiing community is discerning and knowledgeable. You need to create regular content of various formats. Everyone likes to digest information in different ways so you need something for everyone. Some people will want to read your blogs, shorter-form real-time insights, watch video and enjoy images. You’re lucky in that your business is highly visual. Create a content calendar and populate it a month in advance to keep you on track.
I can recommend a company page on LinkedIn to reach that business-focused population and using your individual LinkedIn profile to connect with influencers. I also recommend a Facebook page to create your own skiing community and interacting with other skiing-focused pages. Instagram and Twitter both have highly engaged skiing populations.
Use LinkedIn to find and connect with all bloggers and journalists who cover Saint-Martin, outdoor Alps things plus skiing. Then you need to generate goodwill with them by interacting with their online activity and being useful. Share a monthly ‘feature’ with them and sooner or later you become one of their trusted sources.
Pam Wilde Global marketing director, SSP
Your key action is to change perception and expectations, and the best way to achieve this is through advocacy and testimonials from customers and like-minded locals. This could be generated through, for example, digital images and streaming video of the fun people are having at the resort, along with customer soundbites.
Placing digital imagery on Facebook or similar would be better than advertising online. When uploading content to your website, make sure your SEO is optimised with keywords and use other ways to drive traffic to you, rather than web advertising. You could promote with an offer such as a refund if there is no snow in the resort – this shows total confidence.
There is a larger barrier though. This high-end customer will expect the best – often including a recognised, big name resort they can tell their friends about. You must answer the question of why would they choose this non-mainstream resort. You should look at your positioning and overall offering – instead of being misperceived as a poor relation ski resort, you could be seen as a gourmet experience with snow activities.
Simon Corbett Managing director, Jargon PR
Changing perception is difficult but can be achieved with consistent ongoing messaging reinforced throughout all comms channels. Gain awareness of Saint-Martin with press reviews to highlight the quality of the snow and skiing. Pitch to travel journalists and encourage them to experience the skiing first hand to gain widespread awareness through the international press. Drive credibility through customer testimonials and online feedback reinforcing what an amazing skiing experience visitors have had in Saint-Martin. Positive reviews from customers carry huge weight. Research and enter as many international awards as you can to gain industry recognition around the quality of skiing available. You don’t have to win, a finalist nomination speaks volumes and adds credibility to your messaging.
Your social and web imagery is good and I’d encourage you to enhance this with greater volume of imagery emphasising the quality of snow. Plan your messaging and make sure this runs through every channel that potential customers interact through. Communicate how much snow you receive in as many different ways via as many different channels as possible. Messaging must be clear, concise and consistent.
Thank you for your recommendations. Honing in on the need to change attitudes and ways to do this gives me a clear strategy. Simon’s recommendation for messaging to be “clear, concise and consistent” needs to apply to all businesses promoting Saint-Martin. I appreciate Adam’s mindfulness of costs and the social media channels he recommends, with the goal of becoming a “trusted source”. Pam poses a good question about why high-end customers would choose Saint-Martin. Many guests come to Saint-Martin to ski but also to enjoy the mountains, experience an authentic village, relax in charming chalets and enjoy exquisite food. As Pam recommends, we need to look at our offering and then communicate this using all of the channels available.
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