If ever there was a prize given out to ‘the unsung heroes in the Alps’, airport transfer companies would surely be nominated for it every time. Early mornings, late nights, flight delays, snow, rain, fog, hairpin mountain roads, Geneva airport on a Saturday, French radio....... the challenges these guys can face on a daily basis are often more gnarly than the most difficult black run in the whole Chamonix ski area!
As part of our series of interviews with Chamonix Local Experts, we sat down with Simon Hills, Managing Director of Mountain Drop-Offs to find out what really goes on behind the wheel of an airport transfer operation. Based in Chamonix, Simon and the Mountain Drop-Offs crew operate year round airport transfers from Geneva to a host of local ski resorts including Chamonix itself, St Gervais, Le Fayet, Les Contamines-Montjoie and Megeve. They also work with partner companies in nearby resorts in the Portes du Soleil and the Grand Massif.
Tell us a little bit about the Mountain Drop-Offs - how it started out and where you're based etc...
Like these things often do, it started out as a brainwave which took two years to germinate into a solid plan before I started the business about nine years ago.
I’d only been in Chamonix for a little while when I realised that there was a gap in the market for someone to offer flexible shared transfers as opposed to a scheduled service where customers would have to fit to our times. We wanted to offer a service that was designed around fitting with our customers’ times.
I talked to lots of businesses – chalets, hotels, guides, the tourist office – and anyone who’d listen to gauge their reaction. The response was overwhelmingly positive. It gave me the confidence to push the button on the project and here we are.
So how big is the business now?
Like lots of business in the valley we operate all year round but what we do have is a seasonal ebb and flow. This year for the winter we have a record number in the team and the fleet reflects that – we are also continuing to spread our wings with vans based in Val d’Isere and Tignes as well as offering transfers across the French and Swiss Alps.
Any big changes in the world of airport transfers recently?
One of the most positive changes for this season has been a much greater focus on licence enforcement by both the Swiss and French authorities. Anything which helps underpin the professionalism of the transfer industry has to be welcomed and it is fantastic news for passengers because it will improve safety standards and engender confidence that they are being driven by properly trained, licensed drivers.
The past two seasons have been epic in terms of the huge amounts of snow we've experienced in the Alps - talk us through the most memorable moments at Mountain Drop-Offs HQ...
Ah yes, the snow! We spend lots of time training the drivers and helping them prepare for the realities of winter in the valley but it inevitably comes as a bit of a baptism of fire! The 3.00am call from a driver who’d got up extra early to go and dig his van out of the snow ahead of his 4.30am pick-up was memorable...after 45 minutes of digging he’d still got about two tonnes to go. Early morning van swapping was the answer to that one.
Of course there was also the predictable moment over Christmas when the arrivals board at Geneva was showing red and there was nothing but flight delays and cancellations. The entire team, office, airport reps and drivers pulled together and it was amazing to watch – they communicated constantly with our clients, juggled passengers to minimise waiting times and made sure no-one was left behind.
Most difficult day on the job?
It was a few years ago now when the team was smaller. It was one of the busiest days of the season and we were already contending with a foot of snow the full length of the Route Blanche between Chamonix and Geneva airport.
Things got worse however, and I was suddenly faced with the triple whammy: three hour flight delays, a snow storm at Geneva which kept the delayed planes in a holding pattern for another hour and, just to top it all off, a bomb scare which meant the airport was evacuated for a time.
The result was that the passengers who’d been due to land in the afternoon arrived at the same time as those scheduled for the evening transfers – I had eight seats and 16 clients but without the wiggle room that the scale of the operation now affords.
The solution was a pair of airport taxis, not cheap but I won’t compromise on service.
What's your staff turnover like over the course of the season? And go on, give us an example of a memorable incident with a new employee...
I’m delighted to say that staff turnover is incredibly low. Lots of our drivers have been with us for a long time, some working year round in the business. We also put time and energy into recruitment so that everyone knows what to expect and we always do our very best to look after the team – generally it's injuries acquired on the hill that put people out of action!
As for the most memorable incident, I don’t think I will ever forget the hours spent digging and pulling a van out of the snow after one of the new drivers put his faith in his Sat Nav and followed it onto the Kandahar piste in Les Houches. The only thing which saved our blushes was the fact that he was on his way to pick up passengers as opposed to already having them on board!. We managed to call in another van and they never knew.
Geneva airport must be your second home - where is the best place to get a coffee?
The guys at Swiss Chalet are always very welcoming and the coffee is great.
Everyone wants to get to their destination on time - is there anything that skiers/passengers can do to help the transfer process?
Up to date information is the thing which helps us most. The sooner we know about flight delays, cancellations, changes to travel plans, lost luggage, stolen passports and so on, the more we can do to accommodate the impact of them. During the recent UK airport chaos lots of travellers emailed or texted from the departure lounge to keep us updated – it’s a huge help.
No matter what the problem is, if we know about it then we can then set about creating a solution.
What do you do in the off season?
Sleep, sleep some more and try and get some time away on the beach with my family. That said, we operate year-round and are already planning for the summer season which will come around all too fast, so the window of opportunity to get some down time is short.
Do you get to ski at all in the winter and how many hours sleep do you average during the season?
I love to ski, it’s what drew me here in the first place but I’d be lying if I said I got as much time on my skis as I’d like. I just grab my opportunities where I can – this January we had some amazing powder and I had one of my best ever day’s skiing. As for sleep it varies, we have a fantastic office and driver team, so it’s normally small children rather than work that keeps me awake these days!
Advice to anyone looking to be a transfer driver for the winter season?
Don’t wait for the winter to arrive before you apply. We recruit throughout the year to reflect the seasonal shifts in the business so it’s never too soon to hone your CV and make an application.
And do you have any advice to offer to skiers looking to drive from the UK to the Alps during winter?
Anyone planning to drive in France in the winter needs to be prepared. Cars must be winter equipped with either snow tyres and/or chains. Then there are the little things such as screen wash which operates down to -30, suitable antifreeze and some diesel additive if you don’t want it to turn to gel and spoil your day.
Of course I’d say this, but better to take the train or a plane and then share a transfer to your destination – the impact of vehicle movements in areas like the Chamonix valley are huge and shared transfers are one of the best ways of reducing your carbon footprint.
A big thanks to Simon for taking the time to answer our questions and to Sue Roberts for arranging the interview.
Here's hoping all the guys at Mountain Drop-Offs get a well deserved rest when the legendary winter of 2012-2013 finally draws to a close...