Posted on 23 Jan 2017

North America's Best Winter Vacation: Why The Luxury Catered Chalet Is Skiing's Next Hottest Trend

January 18, 2017 -- Forbes


One of my best friends just returned from a two-week ski vacation in Colorado for Christmas and New Years Eve. It snowed every night. The sun came out every morning. The entire trip sounded miserable, reminding me what an oxymoron the phrase “ski vacation” can be even under the best conditions.

I still love to ski. I’ve skied my whole life on four different continents (including Antarctica). But the older I’ve gotten the less I like all of the crap. The getting there, the logistics, all of the equipment, figuring out where and how to eat, taking shuttle buses everywhere. It’s even worse if you have children. Some of the unhappiest people I’ve ever met on vacation are the fathers trying to get three kids into ski boots first thing in the morning. That skiing, unlike some other recreations, suffers from a “retention” problem isn’t all that surprising when you think about it.

That the skiing and hospitality industries collectively didn’t figure out how to solve this problem years ago is what’s truly shocking. Full-service charter yacht vacations have been around for decades. Luxury catered safaris in the remote Serengeti have been around even longer. Even companies like Sandals and Apple Vacations have managed to mainstream the all-inclusive “concierge” concept.

So what’s kept skiing in America stuck in the self-service timeshare 1980s for so long?

“Part of the reason is cultural,” says Robin Craigen of Steamboat Springs-based Moving Mountains which specializes in organizing luxury all-inclusive ski chalet experiences. “The catered ski chalet concept in Europe has been a cultural norm for almost a century. Early British skiers started it in the Alps after WWI. In the 1950s the concept took off as millions of Europeans started to ski after WWII. Eventually, you just came to expect a professional chalet host (or ‘seasonaire’) staffing your property, cooking, handling the details, and catering to your needs. Americans for some reason have always looked at ski vacations differently. It’s like they feel they have to ‘earn’ them.”The Craigens

For Robin and his wife Heather importing the luxury catered ski chalet experience to America, and specifically to Steamboat Springs, was an obvious progression both for themselves and for the industry. In the 1990s, the Craigens ran a luxury charter yacht business in the Caribbean, providing a turnkey luxury experience for their clients that included arranging every last detail from wine preferences to windsurfing lessons.

catered yachts

“Yachts are by definition self-sufficient so the experience has to be fully-catered and all-inclusive to enjoy the freedom to go where boats can take you,” Craigen explains. “The parallel that we saw in terms of offering a similar experience in America with skiing was based on the simple fact that no one should be working on vacation. Ski vacations like yacht charters are complex and logistical: getting there, the weather, all the equipment you need, transportation, let alone eating. No one wants to spend the first four hours of their vacation in a supermarket . Ultimately it’s all about the time value of money. British skiers always have said that if I don’t have to cook breakfast I don’t care how bad it is. So we figured if we can do this on a boat, doing it in a luxury home in the mountains is easy.”steamboat catered chalet

Staying true to its traditional European roots, the Moving Mountains’ luxury catered ski chalet experience offers a level of luxury and personalized concierge service from start to finish suitable for a Bravo reality TV show.

First the term "chalet" is a bit misleading since it conjures up for many people images of some kind of Scandinavian herding hut. Most Moving Mountains’ rental homes would hit the market for $2 - $10 million if they went up for sale. High-end kitchens (sometimes more than one), theater and game rooms, and sports amenities like private basketball courts and fitness rooms are standard in all of their highest-end rentals. Multiple master suites with spa bathrooms that can accommodate up to 20-30 total guests at one time satisfy the recent trend in multi-generational family travel as well as corporate groups.

On the “catered” side a private shopper and a full-time gourmet chef will give you back at least 3-4 hours a day to spend skiing or in the private hot tub on your deck instead of stacking sandwiches for your kids. On-call, black car SUV service to and from the airport, the slopes, and back and forth from dinner out (should you ever want to leave your chalet in the first place) effectively puts a private Uber at your fingertips. Apres-ski, en-suite massages and pedicures can be arranged at the push of a button.

Craigen and his wife have toyed with their marketing for years to nail the right messenging to overcome Americans’ cultural instinct that a family skiing vacation has to script like a hard-earned, Chevy Chase movie. Two major shifts in how people vacation, thanks in part to start-ups like Airbnb, have also supported and validated Moving Mountains’ model. Number one, says Craigen, more and more people are now comfortable with staying in someone else’s home and booking a vacation rental online sight unseen. More than 30% of Moving Mountains’ bookings now come through sites like Airbnb, HomeAway, and VRBO.

“Twenty years ago renting someone's home was adventurous,” says Craigen. “Now it’s mainstream. 60% of Airbnb renters now want to rent someone’s entire house which is a huge confirmation of our business model. It also helps draw more people away from hotels into the vacation rental market, which is great for us, but Airbnb, HomeAway, and VRBO aren’t offering the luxury, fully catered experience. That’s where we doing something completely different.”

The second major shift was in the late 2000s when homeowners also became comfortable with people they didn’t know staying in their homes, showering in their bathrooms, swimming in their pools, and napping on their couches.

“The recession hit second homeowners hard,” Craigen recalls. “People started realizing really quickly that the second home business was expensive, and renting their second (or third) homes out to cover their carrying costs was not only a sound long-term financial idea, but in some cases also the only thing preventing the bank from seizing their vacation property.”

While the concept of a luxury catered chalet in terms of offering a turnkey, stress-free skiing experience isn’t necessarily limited by geography, Craigen is also quick to point out that historic ski towns like Steamboat Springs are the perfect place for this type of business model to succeed. Unlike ski towns built from scratch over the past 50-60 years like Vail, older mining and ranching towns like Steamboat Springs that became ski resorts more recently don’t typically have a Ritz-Carlton or a St. Regis hotel. There’s no space for them. Locals are often resistant to them. As a result, the only way to offer a five-star experience to draw luxury travelers seeking a more high-end, catered vacation is do it privately, where visitors can also live like locals (albeit a very rich one) for a week.

“The appeal of Steamboat Springs and the local lifestyle experience we offer is community,” says Craigen. “I live seven minutes walking from work and from the ski lift. That can't happen in Vail. Everyone feels embedded here, which is what makes Steamboat such a great family town. When you ski in a European resort it’s a cultural experience. You get a sense of place as well as ski, and that’s what you get here. If Disney could bottle Steamboat and sell what we have here someone would be making millions. It’s authentic. It’s rough around the edges. It wasn’t built by corporations. It was built by locals with their own hands.”

“It also doesn’t hurt that the skiing and terrain in Steamboat Springs is world class,” Craigen adds. He'd love for the secret to get out.

moving mountains steamboat




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