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Great for teambuilding and incentives, alpine events require careful preparation but are well worth the effort. Annica Wainwright hits the slopes
Putting together a corporate ski
trip must be many event organisers’ idea of hell. Not only is it one of the most
labour-intensive projects you could embark on in this business, but there’s also a fair bit of stress involved in letting groups loose on a mountain – and that’s before you even start worrying about the hazards of après-ski.
So why bother? Well, for a start, people love them. Few activities are as thrilling or rewarding as skiing and snowboarding and, as relatively expensive sports, they make for very tempting invitations. Dedicated fans would never turn down a trip to the Alps, while the uninitiated might see a free trip as the perfect opportunity to finally give it a go.
From a host’s point of view, the events are costly but great value, as John Denham, managing director of The Corporate Ski Company, explains: ‘Skiing is a great bonding medium and you get lots of client “face time” for your money – not least on the lifts. Sure, they can be a hassle to organise but that’s where people like us come in.’
Now, he would say that, wouldn’t he? But enlisting the services of a specialist is actually a very smart move. First of all, their expertise will not only help you choose the right resort, but
they’ll know exactly which suppliers to use once you get there. Any reputable operator (don’t be afraid to ask for references to confirm yours is one of them) will have spent weeks, if not months,
researching its preferred destinations and cherry-picking the best rental shops, instructors, activities and hotels.
As Denham points out, you need to know that the people you’ll be working with are reliable. ‘There’s a lesser degree of tolerance in a cold climate. If you were on a beach in Barbados waiting for a boat that ran on “local time”, most guests would be fine hanging around, but put them outside in freezing temperatures, and an instructor that’s five minutes late becomes a major problem. Skiers are very impatient people.’
Our most recent trip, organised by Altitude Inspires (tel: 020 7591 4970) in association with the Swiss Convention & Incentive Bureau, was a lesson in careful planning and attention to detail. Knowing that guests would arrive tired on the early morning flight, MD John Saunders and his team fitted everyone’s bags with giant Altitude luggage tags to ensure they’d be easy to spot on the carousel. They also laid on lunch aboard the coach so we could head directly from the airport to the mountains, where we were whisked straight to the ski-rental shop to find staff had our pre-ordered equipment at the ready.
‘Anyone with access to the internet can book a ski weekend but it takes experience to turn a good trip into a great one,’ says Saunders. ‘Corporate events always reflect on the company’s brand so you need them to run seamlessly, be hassle-free and of a really high standard. It is often the little bits of attention to detail that combine to make the trip truly memorable,’ he explains. And, with over 16 years experience working for blue chip clients including HSBC and Deutsche Bank, he knows what he’s talking about.
One of the biggest challenges in planning alpine trips for groups is finding decent accommodation. Most hotels and chalet operators like to rent rooms by the week so you’ll need good contacts to book the shorter stays favoured by corporates.
Even seemingly simple tasks can be difficult without insider knowledge. Take lunch reservations, for instance. You may think you’ve found the perfect restaurant but did you check to see it wasn’t perched at the end of a black run? No amount of gourmet food or panoramic views will make up for half the group not being able to get there. A good organiser will be savvy to the fact that learning to ski can be a knackering experience and so might even find a restaurant that’s accessible by lift, should anyone prefer to hit the spa, not the slopes, in the afternoon.
As long as your trip is carefully put together, you will be able to entertain guests of any ability. ‘That’s why skiing makes such a great corporate activity,’ says Saunders. ‘In order to accept a golf invitation you have to a) know how to play and b) be of a good enough standard not to let the side down, but I’ve run trips where one guest had skied for their country while another, from South Africa, had never even seen snow before – you really can accommodate all levels.’
The key, of course, is quality instruction, so be sure to choose ski schools carefully. It is also a good idea to think of après-ski activities that will really bring the group together. In Davos, we had great fun at the local ice hockey game and loved chasing each other down the tobogganing slope, but the most memorable evening involved catching horse-drawn sleighs to a remote fondue restaurant.
Snowmobiling is another great one if you’ve got the budget, but it’s also possible to cut costs with a much simpler programme – daytime skiing followed by late-night drinking being the most tried & tested format – and it doesn’t need to change much year on year.
‘Skiers don’t get bored,’ confirms Denham. ‘We have clients who’ve done the same event for over five years and it’s just as successful every time. One of them thought they’d try something different one year and booked a golf trip instead. They came running back the very next winter.’
GET IN THE ZONE
If you’re entertaining entry-level skiers (or simply want to perfect those parallel turns yourself), consider booking some lessons ahead of your trip. SNO!zone operates indoor slopes around the country and what sets these apart from so-called ‘dry slopes’ is that the vast venues are chilled to freezing so you can actually ski on real snow. There is also an entire slope dedicated to instruction – whether for groups or individuals.
One night after work, we headed up the M1 to put the Milton Keynes site to the test and actually came back feeling like we’d been on a mini ski break. Nothing can prepare you for the weird experience of hurtling down a slope inside a suburban shopping mall – but, trust us, this is actually pretty close to the real thing.
Although the runs were longer than we’d expected, you do have to spend a fair bit of time on the lift as you go up and down, but the snow quality was fantastic and the cold temperature added to the experience, not least as you look the part when you’re suited up in ski gear (available to hire if you haven’t got your own).
After two hours on the slopes, our untrained muscles were ready for après-ski but, having well and truly caught the bug, we couldn’t wait for our next dose of skiing – be that in Milton Keynes or the Alps.
This article first appeared in Square Meal Venues & Events magazine, Autumn 2008.