We can’t quite believe it’s been 20 years since the start of Premiere Neige in Sainte Foy
As part of our 20th birthday we sat down with our founder Fiona (who is still very much at the helm of the company to this day) to ask about the humble beginnings of Premiere Neige and how she went from answering the phone in a small flat in Edinburgh to running this small and friendly company that is now highly regarded as one of the leading experts on all things Sainte Foy.
Q&A Session with Fiona Harvey – Premiere Neige Founder
What inspired you to set up your own Company and why in Sainte Foy?
I had done three ski seasons in Val d’Isere and had fallen in love with the skiing but also the chalet life and service. I loved looking after guests & making them happy after a great day on the slopes. So despite trying to settle back into the real world of work I kept day dreaming of the Alps, skiing and roaring fires with afternoon tea & happy guests.
One momentous day I was attending an Overseas Home exhibition with my job in Edinburgh and I noticed the ambitious project for the new development in Sainte Foy – a little known deserted resort just down the road from Val d’Isere that I had skied in during my seasons. I knew I wouldn’t have been able to afford to start a ski company in Val or any other established resort as the buy in and competition were too great, but this little acorn of a resort captured my heart and I saw a unique opportunity.
I found myself researching and writing a business plan…
Then I handed in my notice & there was no turning back…
Where Did Premiere Neige Begin?
It all began in Edinburgh in a small flat in Montgomery street. I remember sitting in my box room – a make shift office – the first day the website finally went live and waiting for the phone to ring! First call was my mum & I was waiting quite a few nerve wracking weeks until that first real customer call came in.
Who encouraged you and supported you in the beginning?
To be honest most people thought I was crazy when I mentioned the idea and thought I was delusional to give up my ‘good job and pension plan’- especially as Sainte Foy only had 3 lifts, 1 ski shop and hardly any chalets at the time… certainly no catered chalets or Tour Operators. However, once I had the website up and running, had quit my job and sold my flat, my parents realised I was serious and accompanied me on the long drive out from Edinburgh to Sainte Foy.
Fiona Harvey (founder of Premiere Neige) comments:
“We arrived at 11pm at night the moon was shining on the snow and I remember thinking how magical it all looked… My parents looked at each other with fear trying not to burst my bubble and said ‘but where are all the chalets & shops?”
The Resort was so small back in 2002 with very few services and no big buildings.
Check this link out on The Sainte Foy Tourist office site with lots of great old photos and articles of the resort opening 1990
When did you visit Sainte Foy for the first time?
1999 on a day trip down from Val d’isere on a powder day. There was hardly anyone there except a few local ski instructors on their day off and a couple of camper vans with hard core off piste skiers and snowboarders. It was so beautifully unspoiled and had the best snow! The natural setting was magical.
The first 4 months was just me and then I employed a young girl to be the second chalet girl as we had two chalets at the start. Her boyfriend was an avid snowboarder so was happy to help on busy and snowy days to clear the paths as well as doing some shopping and maintenance for board and lodgings. Meanwhile I was the accountant sales girl and marketer – so the days were very long but exciting too.
Fiona in the early years, Marketeer, Accountant, Chalet girl and more.
Did you speak French?
A good amount from my previous time in France (but nowhere near fluent) but enough to ingratiate ourselves with the locals and suppliers. They could see I was trying and wanting to grow our company with the resort. I worked closely with the local instructors and the one ski hire shop in resort. The one local bar La Pitchoulie was the central social point and where all the real business happened. We did so much promotion in the UK at ski shows etc and had some early success with journalists in the UK press. This along with the new MGM chalet development meant that Sainte Foy was getting noticed – especially by the Brits.
Did you have any experience of running a business or experience in the travel industry/hospitality?
Not really but I had worked in high end restaurants in Oxford whilst at University studying Business & Marketing and then had 3 years working in Val d’isere in the chalet business after travelling. Then I also had a burning desire and blind faith that it would work! The wonders of youth- I’d be terrified today to try it again.
Why is Sainte Foy so special?
Sainte Foy has often been likened to Marmite by Brits – you either love it or hate it. It is true that in terms of numbers of night clubs, bars and shops it is small compared to many of the giants around us but it has an authentic magical atmosphere where you still feel that you are in the French mountains and not in a ski factory.
The lift system has been modernised so getting around is much quicker and there are practically no lift queues. It has a fantastic range of skiing, well-groomed pistes, fun forest runs for the kids and awesome off-piste terrain that is easily accessible. Plus the lift pass is fantastic value especially for young families (kids under 5 ski free and heavy discounts for children from 5 to 14 years. All our chalets and apartments are within easy walking distance to the slopes with many offering ski-in, ski-out locations – making the skiing experience more easily accessible than in the larger more spread out resorts where you have to take a bus.
A page from the 2005 Premiere Neige Brochure
What were the biggest hurdles you had face in the beginning?
Getting funding together to start off – I had to sell my flat in the end to get the capital together. Then it proved to be a challenge understanding all the French administration, taxes and all the permits required. But also persuading people that a small resort like Sainte Foy with just 3 lifts and little infrastructure was worth trying.
What are your favourite memories from the last 20 years?
The best moments are always involving people – staff, guests, owners and other people in the resort. We have all grown together with this little resort that has such a magical feel to it. It seems to capture people’s hearts.
Our young staff were mainly Antipodian travellers who were ready to get stuck in to work hard and ski hard. They loved the unspoilt mountains and endless snowy terrain as much as we did but also giving their best to the guests. There was a real pioneering spirit in those first early years with everyone in resort pulling together to make the resort a success. Our slogan was “Shhhh it’s a secret” at the start….after year 4 we were told it’s not a secret anymore!
We grew rapidly with some guests loving their holiday so much they bought a property off plan if we agreed to run it. I worked closely with the local estate agent acting as a translator for the Brits keen to be part of this little gem of a resort and then help the owners to source their furniture ready for the next winter which was no easy feat in those early days.
We went from running 2 chalets to 6 properties by the start of our second year and this growth continued year on year as the resort & our reputation. I remember for one visit having to put snow shoes on to get through the heavy snow, to be able to show our clients where their new chalet would be.
The Premiere Neige Team in 2005
When did The Peak become the flagship chalet of the portfolio?
Ten seasons ago we got The Peak as an addition to our portfolio and it is now our proud flagship chalet. It was fitted out from scratch with everything from beds and mattresses to lights and and curtains being handpicked for it. We have continued to maintain and sculpt the chalet and can’t wait to welcome so many of our returning guests back once again this winter. It certainly had a growing reputation which has grown year on year!
Premiere Neige Flagship Chalet The Peak
The last couple of years have been challenging – how did you persevere through the tough times?
There were several dark moments when Covid stopped travel in its tracks, the ski lifts were closed for the whole season and our future seemed impossible, but it was the co-operation and belief of our wonderful staff and chalet owners as well as the determination of our loyal guests to come back skiing with us that gave us the boost to push through.
The resilience and determination to surmount all the hurdles to get to the slopes last winter was truly heartwarming. Our wonderful sales team had to adapt to constantly changing new rules and requirements and become the authority on travel and vaccine requirements which seemed to change every week.
We were so grateful to the hardy few who just wouldn’t give in and were coming skiing no matter what. However I have to admit Mr Macron’s announcement to ban the Brits from travelling, right on the cusp of the season opening, did feel like it might be the final toll but only for an hour… the phone started to ring with hardy guests who were still determined to ski wanting to arrive early to avoid the curfew! We were saved again.
“I can not express how grateful I am to our wonderful guests and staff team that got us through the toughest of times together when it would have been so easy to give up.”
How many weeks a year do you spend in Sainte Foy?
For 14 years we lived there full time. It was home and where our children were born and grew up but now with older children we are there for the important start of the season to make sure everything is set up and in place. Then we also visit another 6 weeks of the year but are of course in constant touch with our long standing team in Sainte Foy and the UK.
How long have you been skiing and how did you learn?
I had never skied until I first took a job as a chalet girl in Val d’Isere after university. It was my best friend who persuaded me to go for the job with her but I thought I’d have no chance as I couldn’t ski or cook at the time! So both were a baptism of fire – I do feel slightly sorry for our first guests back then but we made up for our lack of skills in the kitchen with plenty of après ski fun and generous wine pours at dinner!
What do you think the future of ski holidays will be?
Covid & Brexit have shaken the traditional ski holiday to its core, with huge hikes in costs and a reduction in cheap travel options as well as a big change in regulations with the UK leaving the EU. We have had to adapt but still keep the guest experience at the centre of what we do. We also found that during Covid, families would rather have their own private space than share accommodation which is something that has stuck even post Covid.
We feel the priority for our guests is having great personal service and the space and time with family & friends to make the most of their precious time off, so it is also worth spending a little bit more to get just that.
The Covid years have really shown us that there is no stopping skiers – they are a passionate and determined bunch and will sacrifice a lot to get their snowy fix. We are ready and waiting to welcome them all back!
Where do you see PN in 20 years time?
I have learned not to try and limit life by predicting what’s next as if you had asked me the same question 20 years a go I would never have been able to predict the crazy exhilarating adventure that we have been on.
Quick Fire Round
Ski or snowboard? Skiing
On piste or off? For me on piste, but with a little blue skies & powdery off-piste on the side.
Gloves or mitts? Gloves, as I fidget too much
Hot choc or vin chaud? Hot chocolate and Cointreau à la “Choco Jeff” at La Marquise restaurant – you have to try it to believe it!
One piece or two? Definitely two – bathroom breaks, need I say more!?
Favourite mountain food? Beaufort cheese omelette at Les Brevettes
Sunrise or sunset? Ohh sunrise.
Favourite run in Sainte Foy? Grand Solliet run going into Les Aventures de Nuts and Foxy through the forest all the way to 1580 Bar for coffee.
Second favourite ski destination? Val D’Isere its where it all began and I love a day of skiing hard here but am always glad to escape the crowds and return home to our peaceful resort.
Favourite thing about winter? Early morning on a powder day when everything is clean, fresh and there is a real buzz in the air.
Fave summer holiday destination? Mauritius
Have you ever broken anything skiing? No, touch wood.
By HJJ|2022-10-11T07:49:47+00:00October 11th, 2022|