|Yesterday at La Thuile, Italy|
As it definitely wasn't a day for skiing (or leaving the chalet at all) I have been finishing reading Mark Frary's new biography of Erna Low, the remarkable woman who virtually created the idea of the 'skiing holiday'and who was responsible, in the 1970s, for bringing La Plagne, Les Arcs and Flaine to the attention of the growing number of British skiers.
The book gives a fascinating impression of the energy and indomitability of its subject, the driving force behind her quickly expanding ski trip programme. However, the outbreak of war in 1938 meant the end of all foreign travel, so she turned her 'wily sheepdog ability to get things and people organised' to English country house parties, where measly rations would be pooled by groups of like-minded young people seeking to escape the trials and tedium of the war, and maybe by the way to find a wife or husband!
Low was an inveterate match-maker, although she herself never married despite a lifelong string of apparently platonic male relationships. Mark Frary has uncovered a couple of 'love letters' she wrote giving an insight into the more vulnerable side of her workaholic, tee-total personality.
|Erna on skiis|
Jet planes, increasing prosperity and a 'bumper crop of shining new artificial ski resorts' revolutionised the travel industry in the 1960s and 1970s, with Erna Low struggling to continue with her 'personalised approach' in the face of mass-tourism competition. Teaching Princess Anne to ski in 1966 combined her rapport with the 'upper class' and her hunger for publicity. Erna Low diversified into summer holidays (which never made any money) and school trips. The book explains how the introduction of VAT, currency exchange restrictions and the 1967 sterling devaluation disadvantaged Low's 'personal touch' operation in favour of the larger operators like the ill-fated Clarksons.
By the mid 1970s France had become the favourite destination of the UKs 250,000 skiers, and Erna Low became agent for the new resort of Flaine, and later La Plagne. Frary explains clearly the complicated series of changes of ownership, liquidations and eventual buy-out of Erna Low Travel Services Ltd by its eponymous founder.
A 'master (sic) of reinvention' she then concentrated on in-bound tourism through her Enjoy Britain brand but by the end of 1975 was back in the winter sports market having abandoned the 'made to measure' approach that she had hung onto since the beginning. This didn't last, she sold out again to concentrate entirely on selling Flaine, La Plagne and in the 1980s, Les Arcs. Vigourously promoting these new destinations in every way possible (including touring film-shows and a kind of 'ski clinic' minibus) she helped put them on the map, and created a new product, the 'self-drive, self-catering' holiday package that is still the backbone of the Erna Low brand today.
There are, however one or two mistakes that make me think perhaps there are probably a few factual errors (Peisey/Vallandry is part of Les Arcs, not La Plagne), perhaps because the book tries to deal with so many places, people and events. Another niggle is the badly organised bibliography and sloppy index ( which lacks, for example, an entry for the subject herself).
However, Aiming High is a fascinating and enjoyable read for anyone interested in the skiing business, and the world of travel and tourism in general. Mark Frary makes me realise we owe a lot to people like Erna Low, and provokes a few thoughts about what things might be like in another 80 years.
Aiming High by Mark Frary is published by Matador Books (2012). ISBN 978 1780883 540