Peter Welcome to our travel podcast. We’re specialist travel writers and we’ve spent half a lifetime exploring every corner of the world.
Felice So we want to share with you some of our extraordinary experiences and the amazing people we’ve met along the way.
Peter This week, as the European ski season approaches, we’re letting the train take the strain to the French Alps. You may remember that some years ago, there used to be a weekly charter train each winter week to Moûtiers and Bourg St Maurice organised by UK tour operators.
Felice When that died, Eurostar ran an overnight service via Paris and a direct train on Saturdays. This got you to within easy reach of your ski resort with a lower carbon footprint and unlimited luggage, albeit at a higher price than by plane.
Peter But to the horror of dedicated ski train travellers, financially-troubled Eurostar scrapped this pre-COVID and there seemed little chance of the service ever being restored.
Felice Then much to the surprise of skiers and tour operators, French travel firm – Travelski – has just reinvented it. It’s not the same: the service is limited to their clients who are travelling to six resorts, but if all goes well Travelski plans to carry 750 rail passengers each week throughout the season to the French Alps. That’s the equivalent of three large planeloads.
Peter And that makes it a large tour operator indeed. We caught up with the CEO of Travelski, Guillaume de Marcillac. Welcome to the show. Now this is something very exciting for me – it’s now a couple of years since Eurostar decided that they could no longer operate train service to the Alps from London. Of course, a lot of that time it hasn’t really been necessary because there wasn’t any skiing last year for British people anyway. But now the train service is back…reintroduced by you. Now you’re actually nothing to do with Eurostar, but can you explain who you are first of all?
Guillaume Yes, sure. Travelski is a European tour operator, which grew up in France over 15 years ago and which has developed a very strong and wide relationship with the French Alps ecosystem, building a lot of packages and offering a wide array of packages originally to the French community to help them enjoy our beautiful mountains. Travelski then grew and progressively became more international. We started with Belgium, which is a natural extension to the French market, and a year ago we did acquire a Dutch tour operator to extend our reach, because Dutch clients are actually also big consumers of skiing and enjoy going to the Alps.
During the COVID crisis, we observed the fact that there was a lot of comments and sadness among the UK British community about the fact that this Eurostar direct train between St Pancras and Bourg St Maurice had disappeared. And obviously, as you say very rightly, there was no point in actually setting it up last year because obviously COVID prevented us to travel throughout Europe and to enjoy the mountains. When preparing for the exit of the COVID crisis, we started to think about the possibility of potentially reintroducing this train and offering this product and this service to the British skiers.
We heard that during the spring that Eurostar was not willing to reintroduce it for the next season. So we entered into discussions with them to see if possibly, in the case that we would actually fund and finance those operations, whether they could possibly think about running the train for the next winter. This was quite a bold move, and I think to their surprise and to our surprise, after initial calls we basically started to have real discussions, and on both sides we realised that it would make a lot of sense. So we are not reinventing everything, but at the same time we are really inventing something radically new because it is the very first time that Eurostar is going to charter a train for a full season. And on our side, it is the very first time that a tour operator does such kind of move. And I think it could be the beginning of potentially a long story and a long history of further deals between tour operators and rail companies.
Peter You’re not really reintroducing the same sort of service, of course, that was running before. You are actually chartering for your own tour operation, so only your clients can travel on the train.
Guillaume Yes, for obvious reasons, this is the DNA of a tour operator. We listen to the needs of our clients and we build packages dedicated and addressing those needs. So we are basically buying a train, chartering a train, and we are packaging it with accommodation, with transfer, with ski passes and we offer it or we present it to the English community based on our understanding of their needs. But yes, this is very much so what any tour operator would do in the world.
Felice I realise that Christmas dates are different from usual, but otherwise you travel from St Pancras on Friday to six resorts and then arrive back in London the following Saturday. Is that right?
Guillaume Fundamentally, the customer journey will be a welcome in St Pancras on the Friday nights where customers will check in. They will spend the night in the train and arrive early morning in Moûtiers or Bourg St Maurice. From those two stations there will be transportation waiting for them so that there is a seamless connectivity and connection to two resorts starting from Moûtiers, which will be Le Menuires and Méribel. Then four resorts starting from Bourg St Maurice – Tignes and Val d’Isère, to Les Arcs and La Plagne. The reason why we are dealing with those six resorts is…one reason is that they are Compagnie des Alpes resorts, but more importantly, they are well known and well respected and correspond to habits of the English community.
When it comes to the number, the exact number of resorts that we are connecting to the train, we have to deal with two things; two parameters which are very important in terms of experience for the clients. The first one is distance: we don’t want to add a too-long trip between the arrival in Bourg St Maurice and the arrival in the resorts. And second, it is quite a challenge, operationally-speaking, to make sure that it is not just an arrival, like you would arrive in an airport and then have to find your own taxi or your own transfer operations.
We want this to be really a seamless experience. So running those already from two railway stations to our six different destinations is already a challenge, and also because I know you both are really experts of our villages of the French Alps. You know that even Tignes and La Plagne, we call them one resort but they represent different areas, different Tignes Val Claret is not the same as being in Tignes Les Boisses. This is already quite quite a challenge.
So clients will arrive in the morning of Saturday in the resort and will have the possibility to enjoy a first day of ski the whole of Saturday, because they will arrive early morning. This is why we are packaging a seven-day ski pass so that they can enjoy already the first Saturday, and they will ski until the end of the following Friday. We leave the resort and their accommodation on Saturday morning to catch a train around 9:30am in Bourg St Maurice to be back in St Pancras mid-afternoon around 4:30pm.
Felice Do you think that in the future you will add other resorts such as Courchevel, Megève, Val Thorens?
Guillaume The sky’s the limit. In some ways, we could also think about why are we only taking one train? We could have run two trains. I’m very much of the conviction that you build great products and great companies and great customer experience step-by-step. Handling already one full train once a week, every weekend, and managing the dispatching of our guests to the right accommodation in the right destinations is already a challenge for this year. For the future, who knows? Yes, we could even envision other trains on other dates stopping at other places. So everything is open. But for now, the challenge is winter 2022.
Felice So if somebody wants to go elsewhere, will you offer an adjusted package so that people can do it without the lift pass or without the transfer?
Guillaume No. For this winter, and again, here we are talking about winter 2022. We are offering fully inclusive packages to the six resorts which I described, and we will not un-package our offers. We are convinced that the number of accommodation options that we are proposing is covering all the needs, I would say, of the skiers. Obviously, it does not apply to someone who would have his or her own chalet or her own apartment – and there are many British citizens who used to come to the Alps and who have their own accommodation, but otherwise, no, our packages will be fully inclusive.
Peter How many passengers do you hope to take each week?
Guillaume So a train, a full Eurostar train is composed of 900 seats, but we are going to make sure that we have plenty of room and it has historically been an issue with Eurostar, and we discussed that at length with them. We want to make sure that there would be plenty of room for the luggage and for the skis and snowboards. So we are going to protect about 150 seats and there will be up to 750 seats for sale in each train.
Peter That’s a lot of people.
Guillaume Yes, it’s a lot of people. It corresponds to three big planes. So it’s a significant rotation and it’s a significant volume and we hope it will correspond to what UK skiers are looking for.
Felice Do you just have trains for people from Britain or can other Europeans go from Brussels or somewhere else?
Guillaume Historically, Travelski has been focusing on on-site packages, so has not included transportation solution for our guests. Our Belgium and Dutch clients tend to, for most of them, take their own car or their own transportation means. Now in Holland, the tour operator that we acquired last year, has developed a lot of offers based on buses for our Dutch community – a lot of clients enjoy taking this solution, and is also managing some rail options. But on an ad hoc basis, the chartering of train is really a first and is starting with the UK market.
Peter Ok, so back to St Pancras when I arrive to get on the train, you have your own check in at the station?
Guillaume Yes, we are now moving into the preparation of the launch of the season with Eurostar. But yes, we will have our proper check-in. But when it comes to operations and immigration and luggage checking and so on, this will be handled obviously by Eurostar and by Eurostar personnel.
Peter Now there are no couchettes or anything, you just sit there in your seat for the full journey. It’s quite a long time sitting up. Is there an alternative? Do you think you might in the future offer couchettes or something, or some entertainment, a disco carriage, for example? I mean, years ago, Erna Low, the oldest British tour operator which was founded in 1932, they ran charter trains to the Austrian Alps and they had a disco car. I can remember as a child, I have to say here, going on this and it was pretty chaotic. It did pass the night away. So do you think there might be future entertainment?
Guillaume Yes, I heard very much about those stories, and lots of people have great memories from those experiences. Now, I think time has evolved and again the future is ours and we will have to invent potentially new solutions. But at this time, coming out of the COVID crisis, our reasoning and our approach consists in leveraging what works and the train, the night train from St Pancras, enabling people to be on site from Saturday morning onwards and going back on Saturday morning, the following week is something that has been very much enjoyed and validated by the market. So we did not want to reinvent everything at the same time.
So for this winter, this is very much the same seatings, organisation within the train in terms of logistics as the one which existed until Eurostar stopped or cancelled their snow train. Based on the experience of the upcoming winter, we will obviously discuss and be creative and learn from what has worked and what could be improved to maybe come up with new ideas or new solutions. But again, let’s not underestimate the fact that for both parties, both Eurostar and us, this is somewhat new territory. So let’s not change everything at the same time; let’s learn from this first season, and based on that we will think about potential evolutions.
Felice Will you offer food on the journey?
Guillaume Yes, there would be food, and again, here we’re going to add a twist of Travelski and of the Alps, maybe a bit more than it used to be the case. But fundamentally, here again, we are not reinventing the wheel, as we say in French and probably also in English, we are leveraging on what is working – what has worked historically. So the people travelling in standard coach will be able to enjoy the bar. And for all the clients buying premiere tickets, they will be served dinner on the way to the Alps and a short a breakfast before arrival. On the way back they will be served lunch and high tea before arriving in St Pancras.
Felice If someone wanted to come and have a trip to London from New York, let’s say, and then do that – they can book as well?
Guillaume Of course, the only point is that the departure is in St Pancras and you cannot get on in any other places. But yes, it’s open to anyone who happens to be in London on Friday afternoon of the upcoming season.
Peter I think this will work very well for North American clients because if you live in North America, as I know from previous experience, it’s really hard to organise a trip to the French Alps if you’ve never been there before. How do you get there? It’s another language; it’s complicated to buy a lift pass separately and everything, so it’s very convenient to fly to London which is, of course, English speaking. And you can just buy your package and then go back to London and then fly back to New York or Los Angeles or whatever.
Guillaume Absolutely. And we are very open and we welcome. Obviously, our offer is firstly and priority in priority dedicated to the UK market. But obviously, yes, I mean, we believe this could make a lot of sense for international clientele, whether coming from the US or from other places in the world.
Felice And what’s the starting price for a trip with you?
Guillaume We are offering for the start about 100 different packages. The fact that we have over 100 accommodation options, which can be combined with the train and lift passes that I described before. If I take the example of Les Menuires, we have an offer from our partner Belambra. It’s a club product which makes a lot of sense for our UK clientele because there will be English speakers and some activities for the kids in those clubs. So in Les Menuires, in Les Hameaux des Airelles, we have a lead-in price for a family of four of £569 per person. We have done a lot of benchmark; we have really looked very much at first what the UK skiers enjoy in terms of product – not only the train, but also in terms of accommodation and we have built quite attractive packages, both in terms of pricing but also in terms of product, because we want this to be high quality.
We are also leveraging when it comes to product, apartments because in our Compagnie des Alpes family, we have real estate agencies who are running high-quality apartments which belong to private individuals, but which are for commercialisation. We have selected a handful of very attractive products with apartments which fit a family needs; it will be a new product for the UK community, but we have selected based on what we know British skiers enjoy when they go to the Alps. An example of an apartment in Tignes le Lac, at the very top of the resort, with an apartment Bec Rouge which is in a residence, which is quite attractive I think for a family with a lead-in price at £620 per person.
Peter The pricing sounds amazing. Obviously, that is your lead-in price in the lowest week of the season, but even so in high season can you give me an example of the sort of price?
Guillaume To make it simple a ratio of 1:2 between our lead-in prices and our top prices during the holiday season. So if I take the example of the Belambra Club in Les Menuires, the leading price mid-January is at £569 per person. During the high season, at the peak of the season, it will be £1,335 per person. If I take the Bec Rouge apartment in Tignes, the lead-in price at £620, but the maximum will be at around £1,300 per person at the peak of the season.
Peter It still sounds very reasonable overall.
Guillaume Yes, it is quite reasonable because we are not selling luxury products. I mean, despite the fact that we have four- and five-star products, but we are not selling apartments for £20,000 per week, we have a value-for-money approach. The fact that we are in the Alps for over 15 years and we have built a strong relationship with the accommodation providers, enables us to have very good deals.
Peter So finally, it’s taken a French tour operator to get the train back on the tracks so to speak. This is a surprise to people in Britain. You managed to do that because of your close relationship with with Eurostar and of course, you are Compagnie des Alpes owned.
Guillaume But first Travelski is a European tour operator, it is not a French tour operator. So we have Europe in our DNA and UK is close to our hearts, I would say. Second, I would say the fact that when we look at the ski community throughout Europe, the UK market is absolutely strategic and critical.
Peter So Gillaume, how protected is the passenger coming from Britain, I mean, are you bonded like one was with a major tour operator here? Does it work in the same way? Is your money safe?
Guillaume Yes, very much so. Of course, we are ABTA-bonded and the passengers can book with us in full confidence and without worry at all about any tour operator issue. We are also belonging to a very large shareholder who is Compagnie des Alpes, who is the number one resort operator. So, yes, of course we operate in the UK, like any tour operator with an ABTA bonding.
Peter Guillaume, thank you very much indeed for appearing on the show, and we wish you the very best of luck at getting back on the tracks and getting British skiers out to the Alps and indeed all skiers to the Alps this winter.
Guillaume Well, thank you very much, and the British ski community is very close to our hearts.
Peter That’s great. Thank you very much. So if you want to book your train ticket for this winter and travel to one of the six resorts we’ve talked about with Travelski, go to www.uk.travelski.com
Felice That’s all for now. If you’ve enjoyed the show, please share this episode with at least one other person! Do also subscribe on Spotify, i-Tunes or any of the many podcast providers – where you can give us a rating. You can subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or any of the many podcast platforms. You can also find us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. We’d love you to sign up for our regular emails to [email protected]
See other rail-related episodes: Train Journeys: The Future For European Travel? and Save The Ski Train.
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