With fresh snow up high and just a few weeks to go until the lifts open, Chamonix is buzzing with anticipation as we wait for the 2012-13 ski season to get underway. Of all the Chamonix locals busy gearing up for winter, there can be few busier than the guys at the Compagnie du Mont-Blanc (CMB) who manage and operate the lifts and cog railways, four ski areas and three key tourist sites in the valley.
As part of our new series of interviews with Chamonix Local Experts, we sat down with the Compagnie du Mont-Blanc’s Antoine Burnet (Sales and Marketing Director) and Mathieu Dechavanne, (General Manager) to get an insiders take on what is involved in running one of the world’s most popular and best off-piste ski resorts - Chamonix Mont-Blanc.
Tell us a little bit about yourselves, how long you've been in Chamonix and what you do for the Compagnie du Mont Blanc...
AB: I was born in 1977 in Chamonix and grew up in this beautiful valley. Like many others who grow up here I learned to ski, climb and hike at a very young age but my main passion was actually ice hockey which I played for nearly 20 years.
After completing my Bachelors degree I left Chamonix to go to Annecy and Lyon to further my studies at University and spent 7 years studying for diplomas in marketing, management, sales etc. During this time I was also working for the Montenvers Train and the Compagnie du Mont Blanc and whilst it was tricky combining work and study, I did it.
I’ve held various positions at the Compagnie du Mont-Blanc including Head of Sales, Director of Sales and Customer Relations and I am now the Director of Sales and Marketing.
MD: I am 41 years old and at University I studied business in France and the USA. Upon graduation I joined a UK international parts supply company as part of an international management scheme. After 2 years spent working on different projects in different countries, I was given some management responsibilities in London.
4 years later, I came back to France to run a factory which won an award for the best French/German factory in 2006 (INSEAD/wirtshaftsWoche). The company was then bought by a US group quoted on Wall Street and then by a German company (Mahle gmbh). I then worked on restructuring the division internationally while setting up a new plant in Mexico.
It was then in 2009 that I was informed that the position of CEO in Chamonix was available. As I love the mountain environment and was attracted to the idea of working in the tourism industry, I applied and was offered the job. Following the general shareholders meeting that will take place on the 23rd of November, I will take on the role of Chairman and CEO.
How would you describe what the CMB do and what are the areas covered by the organisation?
MD: Established in 2000, the Compagnie du Mont-Blanc (CMB) was one of the first ski lift companies to operate in France and we provide transportation in the valley by ski lifts, chairlifts, gondolas, cable cars and cog railways. We operate in the municipalities of Chamonix, Vallorcine and St Gervais and manage four of the valley’s ski areas - Les Grands Montets, Balme, Brévent-Flégère, and Les Houches. We also operate three world-famous sites and attractions - the Aiguille du Midi, Montenvers - Mer de Glace, and the Mont Blanc Tramway.
Finally, the CMB also run the Grand Hotel du Montenvers, the Vertical shop and Vertical restaurant at the bottom of the Aiguille du Midi lift, and own some restaurants on the slopes but do not run them directly. In the peak winter months we employ 660 personnel.
What are the main challenges facing the CMB and Chamonix as a whole?
AB: Since its inception in 2000, the Compagnie du Mont Blanc has been engaged in soliciting major investment in the valley - the main objective of which is to renovate, modernise and install Chamonix’s lifts and cog railways. Before 2000 little had been done to improve facilities, so it is a big and very important challenge that the CMB face.
Customer expectations and purchasing behavior has also changed dramatically in recent years and the Compagnie du Mont-Blanc are constantly working on new products in both areas - such as the new Glaciorium at the Montenvers - Mer de Glace and the renovations at the summit of the Aiguille du Midi. We know that even if our customers are satisfied with our existing sites and natural areas, they are constantly looking for new attractions and ways to learn more about the area and this is why the Compagnie du Mont Blanc is constantly expanding our portfolio of services.
We are always searching for the right balance between maximizing client experience with a strict respect for the wonderful environment in which we live. We think we have found a solution in explaining this dilemma through the use of modern technology with the creation of Glaciorium and the Vertical Lab at the Top of Aiguille du Midi.
How are preparations for the winter season going - any new developments, delays, or is all on schedule?
MD: We are working hard and despite the bad weather we had at the beginning of October, everything is set to be ready on time with some new activities this year especially at Le Tour where there will be a slalom created free of charge with the ability for customers to race against each other and download images and video of their run.
Chamonix is a year round centre - which season brings you more logistical difficulties - summer or winter?
MD: Every season is different and practically every month is different as it attracts different types of customers from different nationalities with different expectations. In summer time, especially at the Aiguille du Midi, we sometimes welcome customers who have never been in the mountains before. They want to see Mont Blanc but they do not necessarily have the necessary equipment and knowledge to go up to 3,842m. Fortunately for them, we know how to deal with those situations and are here to give them the right advice so that they can make the best of their time in Chamonix.
All resorts seem to open their lifts for the winter at different times - how do the CMB make the decision on when to operate the lifts in Chamonix?
MD: We have a set time for the opening of all resorts : the 22nd of December. Unless snow is dramatically lacking, we will stick to it. In the meantime, we will make our best to partially open the Grands Montets as soon as possible as we know that everyone wants to ski as soon as it is possible. In the case of early season opening, we normally make decision for the upcoming weekend on the Tuesday night based on the weather forecast. If we think that it is viable, we will make an announcement at that time to inform people that the resort will be open at the weekend.
Which resort in the world do you think is the best managed and run?
AB: All resorts are different so it is difficult to say. For example in Chamonix we sometimes have to close all our resorts for safety reasons which is unlikely to happen elsewhere but those situations are very rare and in my opinion, there is no other place in the world that can beat the views that have in Chamonix when skiing on and off the pistes.
Having said this, I think North American resorts such as Aspen, Vail and Whistler are to be taken as models in many areas.
What is the greatest challenge of your own particular job?
AB: As I like British humour my biggest challenge is to manage my boss (!) who is particularly demanding and impatient but the good news is that we get on well and are focusing more and more on customer satisfaction.
What are you most proud of when it comes to Chamonix?
MD/AB: It is an international hub where people of all levels and experience can come to and make the best of their time in the mountains. Whether you are an expert mountaineer or someone who does no sport at all, there will be something for you to do in Chamonix.
What do you think are the areas that the town could improve on?
MD/AB: Transport between sites needs to improve further and we will soon launch a massive investment plan to renew our main ski areas, starting with the Grands Montets.... We will of course let you know more in due course.
If someone is interested in working for the CMB, how should they get in touch and do you accept applications from non-French workers?
MD: Of course. They need to visit our web site and post their CV/resume in the designated area.
Where does the CMB stand on downhill mountain biking?
AB: We have now decided to focus mainly on Le Tour and the past year was a great success for this area. We came to the conclusion that Flegere was too demanding for most of our clients and so we decided to create new trails in Le Tour where everyone from beginners to experts can have fun.
Does the CMB provide any financial support to local athletes - skiers/alpinists/climbers/bikers etc?
AB/MD: Yes, we financially support the local Club Des Sports and some local athletes.
Has the recession had any detrimental effect on Chamonix visitor numbers? What are CMB doing to meet the challenges of the global recession and the effects on international tourism?
MD: Fortunately we have not suffered too much from the global recession as we have been working hard on developing BRICs markets (Brazil, Russia, India and China) which we believe are the key to our future. Tourism is changing, more and more people are waiting until the last minute to book trips and want to make the best of their stay in a more holistic way. They don’t just want to watch and see but also understand their chosen environment and its future. It is our responsibility to meet those expectations while providing the most appropriate level of service.
Does Chamonix have any plans to partner with any other resorts - ie the Verbier/Vail partnership 2012/2013?
AB: We have an agreement with Verbier in so much that anyone buying the Mont Blanc Unlimited ski pass has access to Verbier and also to Courmayeur in Italy.
We also have good connections with Aspen in the States and are working towards setting up a partnership with them.
A big thanks to Antoine and Mathieu for taking the time to answer our questions.
For more profiles on Chamonix's key players, be sure to check in regularly with our Leading Locals section.