More thoughts on ski hosting

Last week a French court ruling against ski tour operator Le Ski (to be appealed) brought about the suspension of ski hosting by British tour operators in the French Alps.  The story has been extensively covered in UK and French press – the latter being much more even handed than one might expect. Yesterday’s article in the Telegraph by Julian Sambles –

– does not seem to me to be the last word on the subject. The bits in bold are chunks of the  article.

“The role of a ‘ski host’ or ‘ski escort’ is, first and foremost, to show people around a resort, and the pistes, in a safe and friendly way. It is not instruction. It fills a gap in the service that ski schools do not fill. As Vicky Morgan of the Ski Club of Great Britain explains, “it’s all about releasing guests from the need to look at piste maps every five minutes.”

Yes, it’s about offering a framework for social skiing. I can’t think of many people who like to ski alone (the late Peter Lunn and Johnny Vaitkus spring to mind).  But not all skiing couples and groups of friends are ski-compatible, and many keen skiers go on holiday alone, choosing chalet operators that offer hosting precisely because they can expect sociable skiing and sociable evenings.

The lack of hosting must seriously compromise the value of their holiday, and I’m surprised the question of compensation or offering customers the chance to cancel with a full refund has not come up in media coverage of the hosting story. At least, if it has come up, I haven’t seen it.  No doubt the terms and conditions are well hedged with small print that would give the tour operators the wriggle room they like, but even so I’m surprised journalists haven’t  asked the question. Peter White on Radio 4’s consumer programme You and Yours for example.

“As well as showing clients around the gentle slopes, a good host will know where the best snow is for the time of day, and the best routes and lifts to take depending on the weather: chair lifts for those hot sunny days, funiculars and bubbles for those cold whiteouts.”

This is of course true and in a big ski area such as the Trois Vallées or Val d’Isère/Tignes, with so many options and such a wide variation of altitude and aspect, it’s a valuable service; but it does surely have implications for safety and responsibility.  If the host admits that it is his/her job to find the best snow for the time of day …. he/she might be open to blame if an accident happens that can be attributed to the snow conditions – a long fall down an icy slope for example.  I can imagine circumstances where a case of sunburn, frostbite, snow blindness might easily be laid at the door of the host by a litigious skier.   Perhaps the polite and non-litigious British character is one reason why hosting is a peculiarly British thing.

I would be interested to know the stats on injuries and other mishaps that have occurred during ski hosting sessions.  Losing a skier must be a risk if, as is suggested, the hosted group never looks at the map or knows where it is.

“Let’s not forget the restaurateurs. All good ski hosts will have arrangements with various eateries to cater for their customers, ensuring that a regular stream of hungry skiers are able to have their fill while supporting the local economy.”

Interesting point.  Travel reps have boosted their income by ‘arrangements’ with restaurants and night clubs since the dawn of time or at least its mid-morning hot chocolate break.  Whether or not money changes hands, openly or secretly or in the form of a free lunch, any arrangement whereby a ski host takes his/her ski group regularly to the same restaurant or bar has obvious can-of-worms potential.  If the owner of the empty restaurant next door happens to have a brother in the local police …. he might just be tempted to pick up the phone and mention the fact that the ski host’s legal status is somewhat ambiguous.        

The free service offered by hosts …..

It isn’t free. The cost of it is included in the price of the holiday, and those who do not ski with the host subsidise those who do.  The fact that ski hosts are paid is central to the legal argument and the fact that Ski Club Great Britain can carry on its hosting/leading/guiding activities when tour operators can’t.

…. is very hard for ski schools to emulate and is a great way of introducing skiers to unfamiliar destinations.

The service is not hard for ski schools to emulate: they can emulate it very easily, and do it better by adding instruction, priority in lift queues and (probably) more expert local knowledge. But ski school is much more expensive.

Instead of persecuting this, the French ought to be applauding it.

Many French ski resort authorities do recognise the benefit, although I think this article overstates the case for ski hosts boosting the local economy.  Le Ski was not sued by a ski resort where it has chalets, or even by ‘the French.’

And where will they draw the line?  If I go out skiing with a group of friends and ‘show’ them around the mountain, am I considered to be guiding/hosting? Is this now illegal due to safety?

Only if your friends are paying you (and you aren’t qualified to instruct or guide).  The line is quite clear.  But if you take them off piste, or down a piste which is obviously too difficult for their ability, you might be at risk if it goes wrong.   I’m less sure where the line is, between ski hosts and tourist office employees who take press visitors skiing and guide them. Aren’t they being paid to do this? 

Alternatively, we could all go skiing in Austria or Italy …. 

As I have mentioned in a previous post on this, I don’t think it is right to hold up the example of Austria as a model of openness and free trade.   

…… where I expect the tourist offices are already working out how to capitalise on the short-sightedness of the French.

More likely, tourist offices in France, which are neither short sighted nor blind to the importance of the British market, will be working hard to find a compromise solution, should Le Ski’s appeal not succeed. The suggestion by James Cove of (on the You and Yours programme mentioned) that there is a case for a more systematic approach to training ski hosts, with a qualification, might be one good way towards such a compromise.  So long as it’s a qualification that takes weeks not months or years to achieve, and does not involve a slalom test.  But is there not already such a qualification, for people who act as group leaders for youth activity holidays and the like?  

 Link to previous hosting post

Link to subsequent host-post

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