AliKats’ manager and former chalet host, Will Fox, writes about how he ended up doing a ski season in his forties.
TOP TIPS FOR BEING A HOST
• Pace yourself. You can work hard, ski hard or party hard – but you can’t do all three. You are there for five months, so you don’t have to ski every day!
• Take care. Get insurance, wear a helmet and know your limits. You are responsible for looking after yourself on the slopes. A chalet host with a broken arm is just a body taking up a bed. If you can’t work because of injury, your chalet company will probably send you home – at your own expense.
• You’re not on holiday. Because you get free bed, board and a whole season’s ski pass, it means you don’t get much in the way of wages so you have to be frugal with your money. Remember not to spend like you would on holiday – buying lunch up the mountain can see you wiping out your tips for the week in one go! If you’re going up the mountain, make sandwiches or take leftovers from breakfast.
• Be prepared. Medicine can be expensive in France so take lots of paracetamol, Nurofen, throat sweets etc with you to save money. Lip balm and hand cream are also vital – mountain air dries out your skin quite a lot and working with detergents and cleaning products every day will give you hands like a mummified witch.
• Enjoy it! Your season will only be as rewarding as you choose to make it. Sometimes you will be tired and maybe a bit fed up but always remember this: people pay a lot of money to ski in the Alps – and you are there for a whole season! Make sure you make the most of it.
As a man in his early-to-mid-forties who had just been made redundant, I was a prime candidate for what is commonly referred to as a “mid-life crisis”. Some men in my position might have been tempted to buy a sports car, get an inappropriate tattoo or possibly embark on an ill-considered affair. None of those really appealed to me. So when my partner Claire was also made redundant, we took it as a sign. We decided to become chalet hosts! We’d been on ski holidays before, we’d stayed in chalets, we saw what chalet hosts did – how hard could it be?
It’s a bit tricky to tailor your CV towards hosting when your only relevant experience was working in bars and restaurants as a student over 20 years ago. But after scouring a few forums and notice boards, I discovered a whole community of small, independent chalet companies who were looking for couples. One company in particular caught our eye – AliKats. They were more interested in us as people than our experience in hospitality. And so we ended up meeting Al and Kat, our soon-to-be new employers, for a chat on Skype. Like us, they loved the mountains, had both been professionals before jacking it all in to live in the Alps and were happiest making other people happy. They were our kind of people and, luckily, we seemed to be theirs.
The traditional set up for a couple running a chalet is for one partner to primarily be the chef and the other to primarily be the host. Luckily, as neither of us were likely to be bothering MasterChef anytime soon, we were partnered with another couple, Leo and Lian, to run a larger chalet on the proviso that Leo would be the main chef. This was perfect. Leo would be in charge of preparing and cooking the evening meals while Lian, Claire and I would do everything else: cook breakfasts, bake cakes, clean rooms and so on.
After 2 weeks of training (which included first aid, driving on snow and how to clean a bathroom in just 10 minutes) we were straight into our first guests of the season. As with most jobs, you end up learning more when you are thrust into the action than you can ever being taught.
Despite the fact that it was all so new (previously, I was an art director and Claire worked in retail), we soon settled into a routine. Our day started at 7am, clearing up from the night before, preparing breakfast and shovelling snow. While the guests had breakfast, we would bake a cake for tea, re-stock the minibar, set the fire and top up chemicals in the hot tub. Then we would shepherd everyone towards the bootroom to pick up skis and boots and load them onto the minibuses – never straightforward, particularly when kids are involved! While one of us shuttled the guests to the ski lifts, the others would make the beds and clean the chalet.
On a good day, we could be skiing by 11am and on duty again at 4pm, to bring guests back for afternoon tea. While they showered, drank wine and relaxed in the hot tub, we prepared dinner. Kids would have earlier mealtimes, after which we’d make and serve canapés, lay the table and then help plate-up and serve a gourmet four-course meal. Once the guests had moved through to the living room for cheese and wine, we’d clear everything away and eventually have our own supper around 10pm. What was left of the evening was ours and we would sometimes stay up and have a drink with the guests or, if we weren’t too shattered, head to a local bar.
That was a standard day but there were lots of real dramas! We had a guest with a punctured lung helicoptered to hospital and a nut allergy episode when a 10-year-old had to be epi-penned after helping herself to a Christmas tree chocolate. On another occasion, we arrived home to find a blood-spattered living room where a guest with pneumonia had coughed himself unconscious and smashed his head on the coffee table as he fell. Then there was the time one of the minibuses was run off the side of the road and had to be dug out of the snow, the time three guests went missing as they tried to walk back to the chalet late at night and the time a fire truck crashed into the side of our van as we were on our way to pick up some guests. These were things you couldn’t train for and that would sometimes leave us emotionally drained – but it certainly made a change from the desk job!
There were lighter moments too though: like the elderly lady who sat through dinner in her tights having forgotten to put on her skirt – and her family didn’t tell her! And another lady who left her video baby monitor on in the living room while she went to change for the hot tub, completely unaware of the show she was putting on downstairs…
Changeover days were hard and could be up to 18 hours long when some guests left at 5am and sometimes new arrivals didn’t turn up until midnight. On these days we had to strip bedding, drain and refill the hot tub, clean the vans, scrub bathrooms, launder towels and make the chalet all beautiful again for the next guests. If you were left tips on these days it kept you going but if you weren’t it could be pretty demoralising. But one look out of the window at the view would make us realise just how lucky we were.
So, was it worth it? In a word, yes. I woke up to stunning mountain views every morning, my snowboarding improved beyond recognition and, moving from a sedentary desk-bound existence to a physical Alpine one, I lost a stone-and-a-half without even trying. We made friendships and bonds that will last forever – and have even stayed in touch with some of our guests. Plus, I have become a bit of a dab hand in the kitchen and can now rustle up a cake without even thinking. Who would have imagined that? Mary Berry eat your heart out!