What IS The Future For La Grave? We Ask La Grave's American Resident and Top International Mountain Guide, Joe Vallone
Could this be the year when the remote wildness of La Grave is tamed by a new lift operator? And should it happen? Are there alternatives for the community that would help local businesses without losing the remote appeal? Resident American pro Freeskier and International Mountain Guide, Joe 'Pro' Vallone, whose office is the freeriding backcountry of La Grave, gives us his view of the future...More marketing, longer lift opening and better service are three of the steps, Joe Vallone would take to help La Grave evolve without losing 'the exclusive product that is La Grave'. Also an end to old feuds...
How long have you lived and worked as an UIAGM/IFMGA International Mountain Guide in La Grave?
I have been guiding in La Grave for 15 winters now. I moved to La Grave full time as a year round resident six years ago and now I spend all the year here as one of our small village's residents. I'm a full blown ex pat at the moment and I really don’t see myself ever moving back to America. I was an aspirant guide learning from local guides for my first years and obtained my guiding license in 2005. I was about the 26th US guide to obtain UIAGM/IFMGA certification.
What's so special for you about La Grave that you have moved from Colorado?
As an independent mountain guide it is a better place to work and easier to practise my profession. My UIAGM/IFMGA license is not recognised in America. Ultimately skiing brought me here, but I came so that I could mentor with some of the best mountain and ski guides in the world.
When returning to Colorado year after year, I started to realise how restricted and regulated the land and mountains were in America. I wanted to push my skiing and search bigger challenges. At the time the ski industry in America was far behind the movement that was well established in the French Alps. The things I wanted to do along with the partners and mentors I was seeking were hard to find in the States. The mountains in La Grave were bigger, steeper and more wild than anything back home, but most importantly, they were open to anyone willing to take responsibility for their own actions. That kind of logic was and still is unheard of in America.
Simply put, I discovered freedom in La Grave
In addition to the skiing, I had mentors and friends here like Chad Vanderham and Doug Coombs. I had much to learn about mountains, life, culture, skiing, travelling and guiding. La Grave had it all so I stayed for a lifetime of challenges to come. La Grave has something I never experienced in a lift environment in America. Simply put, I discovered freedom in La Grave.
Joe discovering the freedom of La Grave, slashing a turn down a premiere descent on the Pic de L'Homme named 'Ulysse's Last Stand' after a friend who had recently died. Image: Ptor Spricenieks
I was tired of being told where and when to ski at American resorts and it was a struggle to use my training and practise my profession. The ski industry and the culture really didn't recognise mountain guides in America. That might have changed a bit in the recent years but in the French Alps it is in their culture and always has been. The American ski and guide industry will always be playing catch up with Europe so I liked being at the front of the pulse.
How many clients do you have on average in a season in La Grave? How many returners? How much business does this bring?
I would say about 40%-50% of my clients are returns every year. Since the beginning, most of my work has been word of mouth or referrals from clients who have skied with me. I don't market as well as I should but I like it that way.
I am an independent guide in the village and I work for myself with my own private clients. I am the only American guide who works and lives here year round as a legally registered resident. I hold the same French license and credentials that the local French guides carry.
I specialise in low ratio, high-end guiding
When I first arrived I worked a bunch for Didi Haase and Pelle Lang at Snowlegend and Skiers Lodge, respectively. They are both owners of local guide services in the village and they are always smiling, friendly and psyched to make sure you are satisfied. They understand the service industry and are an integral part of this community and the small guiding family that exists in La Grave. I will still work for them when they need me if I am available and we have always had an amazing relationship. They both started my career here and I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work with both of them over the years.
I mostly do my own thing as I have grown my clientele over the years to the point where I stay pretty booked for the winters. I specialise in low ratio, high-end guiding. I try to work with small groups and privatise my product as best I can to fit my guests' needs. When I have overflow I will send most of my guests to Didi and Pelle. They are legends in every sense of the word and I am grateful to know them as they have both taught me so much about the profession and this mountain.
There are some amazing guides in this village, some of the best in the world if you ask me
I would say about 40% of my clientele are American and that is growing. The rest are international and represent many nationalities all over Europe. I think on average I am selling about 300-350 lift tickets a year, sometimes more. In recent years I think I am down a little more than usual. This is mostly because of the village struggles, lack of snow, and the difficult access due to the RN1091 Tunnel Du Chambon closure. On top of that, what affects us most is the general short season with minimal businesses open for resources.
I think the businesses and the guides who hustle and provide service and an optimistic approach are still doing ok. There are some amazing guides in this village, some of the best in the world if you ask me and the good ones still know how to sell an experience no matter what the conditions are or what the town morale is. I think the guides who market themselves and keep a relationship with their clients don’t have to worry. In some ways the guides who know how to market and sell what we have including themselves are still doing fine.
I take pride in bringing business to the Téléphérique and the village
Short of my social media stoke and spreading the word, I don’t market that well, but I guess more people are watching me than I am aware of. I know through the ski industry and media outlets that I have created a ton of international exposure for La Grave. It’s super gratifying when someone you don’t know comes up to you on the mountain and says thank you for your posts or because of you I know about La Grave, you put it on the map for me.
I think I am doing pretty good despite the current climate, conditions and economy in La Grave and I take pride in bringing business to the Téléphérique and the village.
With last winter's closure of the Chambon tunnel and lack of snow, did this result in you taking clients elsewhere? How much do you rely on La Grave?
Many guides just didn't work and the good ones travelled and made the most of what we had. The morale was low and it seemed so many just gave up. The depressed behaviour seemed contagious and many threw up their arms and did nothing. It seemed like folks were just standing around complaining and waiting for something to happen.
The devastating closure of the Chambon Tunnel in 2016
I used the closure and the state of conditions as a positive time to tell folks to come and visit. I promoted the place for its lack of people and it really was a special season.
Last year we started with no snow and didn't open on time, but the season was amazing. I had one of the best seasons I could remember. I skied so many new lines last year. Some of these lines are so rarely in condition, I might never be able to ski them again in my lifetime.
It was easy to find snow and the season basically kicked ass
In general, it was quiet here and I was stoked to have had the place to ourselves. The clients who trusted me were rewarded with memories for life. It was easy to find snow and the season basically kicked ass. The locals who ski didn't mind either since the season was relatively slow for work, there was more time to play and no one else was skiing. We loved it.
I bet I was down 35% last year. That doesn’t sound like much, but when your main source of income revolves around this lift for two to three months a year when they are open it can be a big hit financially. Regardless, I skied so much and I had some of the best runs in years without any people. In a way I am thankful for all the cancellations and the road closure. It truly was a special and exclusive time to be in La Grave.
I noticed today that the businesses and town are very slow at the moment due to the lack of snow, but the road is ridiculously busy again. The damn trucks are back! I just realised how quiet and nice the village was for two years, but now the tunnel is open again. The trucks are coming through our small village and driving faster than they should be. At some point the town is going to need to re route the trucks and main traffic away from the main road. It would be nice if La Grave had a centre ville feel without trucks.
The work I did do, last winter, was out of the box
The work I did do, last winter, was out of the box. I had to think differently and part of a guide's bag of tricks is to adapt. The guides who didn’t work and the businesses that struggled simply didn’t adapt. I am pretty sure of that. Most guides get stuck in the same routine and think they can only guide certain things in certain conditions and the clients want a black and white product. The reality is that most guests don't know what they want. I have so many tricks up my sleeve and I try to make the most out of any situation. I can always find a lesson or something to work on that maximises the conditions or the day.
I still posted stoke and showed folks what I was skiing
I was pitching this place all season when the marketing of the lift and town fell apart in a depression. I still posted stoke and showed folks what I was skiing. Many guides only ski when they are working, but when I am not working I keep skiing and going to new places so that when my guests arrive I have more options and less unknowns.
The thing about La Grave is you never can trust a forecast or the general reports. You need to ask a local who is here and riding it. People who come and visit do have expectations, but you can always show them something they have never seen or thought of. Even if it is hard snow or bizarre conditions, the lack of people and silence on the mountain can always be enjoyed. You have to know how to sell it.
I don’t sell powder, I sell experiences
I will take my guests to surrounding areas when the lift is closed, but my guests come here to ski La Grave and if it’s open we go. My guests travel from all over the world to ski in La Grave. I don’t want them to have to drive hours a day to ski at the same old resorts that are everywhere. I keep them here in all conditions. I don’t sell powder, I sell experiences.
The Téléphérique is so focused on skiing the classic itinerary and many times I have clients who I can ski with on the glacier but they won’t let us up because there is no snow below. Last year, during the slow start of the season, I had clients but the lift wouldn’t open for this reason. It is frustrating when the town is in the slowest recession in years and you are here with paying customers and they turn you away. It was past the advertised opening date so I had guests who travelled to be here with me.
If we are not skiing then using the lift to access the glacier in dry times is still productive
Myself and other guides just wanted to get glacier access but the Téléphérique didn’t see the opportunity or the optimism of the guides in town like myself who knew how to give a good day with what they had. If we are not skiing then using the lift to access the glacier in dry times is still productive for many of the guides. We can do alpine days and ski randonnée tours along with glacier skills, travel and crevasse rescue courses. Unfortunately the lift has not seen that through the eyes of the guides and locals who think differently.
With the lift operation up for tender there's talk of changes for La Grave if a corporate investor is selected, this April, by the Mayor and the Commune for the next 30 years who wants to make it more viable rather than relying on a one lift operation and a clientele of extreme freeriders. We've heard there could be a generally more patrolled ie safer ski area with markers or a major transformation linking with Les Deux Alpes, putting in more lifts and even pistes with snow cannons. How do you feel about this?
I don't think it will be more patrolled and marked than it is now. It is clearly written by the Commune what the new concession can and can't do.
The Commune wants the new lease owner to build a new lift from 3200m to 3650m and have a restaurant, touristy viewing approach to it. They are thinking along the lines of the Aguille Du Midi but this is just ridiculous. We can never be the Midi and we don’t have a Mont Blanc.
I think somehow they believe if they build this worthless addition that bus loads of Japanese tourists are going to show up to go stare at Ice and Snow in a cold environment. It just isn’t gonna happen.
Japanese tourists showing up?
They also want a new loading and unloading pylon like P1 between the 2400 metre mid- station and P1 for low snow years which is just ridiculous. If there is low snow it is a 15 minute walk on a summer trail from that location to P1. If you were physically able to ski to there you will be able to walk to P1 so it’s a waste of money and unnecessary development on the mountain. The general idea is to capture more of the pedestrian traffic. I agree that the lift needs to attract more pedestrian and alternative users than just skiers but I don't believe this is the way.
Better marketing, business hours, promotions, amenities, and infrastructure could accomplish this without selling out to a conglomerate and building useless infrastructure.
The exclusive product that is La Grave will be no more
There were six proposals in the bid deadline at the end of October, 2016. Four of the six have already been rejected and we don't know who they chose for the second round consideration. We can assume 2 Alpes is one of them. Unfortunately their future plan is to connect from Alpe d'Huez to 2 Alpes to La Grave and claim the biggest ski domain in the French Alps.
I am afraid we will lose our unique identity and the exclusive product that is La Grave will be no more. There have been many stories and articles about this, most recently in December, Ski Magazine, France.
Also I think it is stereotyping to say that the lift is for extreme freeriders
It is clearly written in the proposal guidelines by the Commune that no snow making and no new pistes are to be developed. I am pretty sure of that, well, at least the no snow making part of it.
Also I think it is stereotyping to say that the lift is for extreme freeriders. The lift is for everyone and on any given day of the year I would argue that there are more recreational skiers on the mountain at all levels then there are 'extreme freeriders'. Any skier with an advanced intermediate skiing level can enjoy this mountain with guidance.
Stereotypical? Extreme freeriders of La Grave. Image: Michiel Rotgans
Do you, the mountain guides in La Grave, have any say as to the future?
There were preliminary discussions and public meetings, last year, but pretty late in the game. Everything around here is put off till the last minute. For instance, we didn’t know how much a season pass was last year until a day or two before the lift opened. The Téléphérique and many in the town still treat me like a visiting foreign guide and I am an American so that really doesn’t help. Because of that, I don’t really think my opinion matters.
In the end, it doesn't matter when it comes to small town politics. Public opinion and ideas need to be heard but I don’t think they are listening to the majority of the community. It seems they have made up their minds already and possibly long ago.
These are personal conflicts that might never be resolved
Unfortunately this town has some old feuds that have not been resolved between very important people who have a powerful influence on the upcoming decisions. These are personal conflicts that might never be resolved. In some ways, we the people of the community and the folks who have family and businesses are being caught in the crossfire. For folks like myself and many others in the village, we are at the mercy of their decision and our livelihoods now rest in the Commune's hands.
I think there is an old guard of mountain guides here who are tired and don't care anymore and a new, young-blooded generation of mountain guides flooding into the picture. The younger generation seems more open to new ideas and compromises, and they are more keen to work together and be progressive. I think their ideas are much different from the old guard. Like most things in life, the old guard have their way of doing things.
I think they would take a side but have to play both to keep their bridges from burning
It’s hard to know what people want in a small town like this. Many guides are neutral who have a strong influence on this town and community, but unfortunately they don’t say much. I believe many of them have a strong stance but, because there are basically two sides in dispute at the moment, I think they stay neutral so as to be politically correct in a small town. I think they would take a side but have to play both to keep their bridges from burning.
What would be the best result for you?
The Signal of La Grave (the crowd funding bid that was rejected,) given the other options. If I truly had my say I think we don't have to change, but I do believe we need to evolve.
Supporters' names on the poster for Le Signal de la Grave
The town, community, people and businesses need to coexist with the Téléphérique and work together to benefit each other. Right now it is quite divided. There were folks bad mouthing the Signal project but they didn’t have a better solution and they didn’t take any action of their own so in my opinion they have no say.
Over 1000 people donated to the crowd funding project so that was a loud message
I think the people who didn’t like the project just didn’t like the people involved and not the project itself. But that is my opinion. Unfortunately it is that type of attitude that has held this town back and will continue to handicap the village. It's a small town and people hold on to the dumbest grudges for ages. The Signal project had amazing support. Over 1000 people donated to the crowd funding project so that was a loud message from the people of La Grave and most importantly the paying customers who visit.
I am proud to have supported this project. I donated a day’s guiding wage from my season this year. This project made me feel the true spirit and heart and soul of this village. It brought the locals together and all the businesses as well. We saw something we had not seen in a long time as many of us stood together and made a stand.
The message was told across the world through some of the biggest media outlets
We were the majority with a huge voice and influence on the ski industry that was listening. We were heard and the message was told across the world through some of the biggest media outlets. We reached the biggest audience and showed the Commune and the Téléphérique how powerful we can be when we work together. We all used our resources and connections in the industry to blast our message to an audience that the Téléphérique and Commune could never do on its own. I am so proud of that.
Without the lift there is no town, and without the town there is no lift
I have too many ideas to list, but if I was running the lift I know what I would do having been around the industry for so long and seeing what attracts people to be a customer in a place like this, but also what is important to make a town survive. Most importantly we can’t forget that without the lift there is no town, and without the town there is no lift.
From a business and risk management perspective the first thing I would do is take out the teleski and cut off Les 2 Alpes. I would no longer maintain the piste on the Glacier Girose to 3200m. This would save so much money and it would also let the glacier, that is already dying, just live its last years peacefully. They don’t honour our season passes at 2 Alpes anyway, so what’s the point? I would prefer to leave the Girose natural and wild.
The environment would look and smell better without machines and a dying lift burning diesel all day
The Girose has, quite arguably, some of the most beautiful lift accessed glacier and ski touring in the world. That is an exclusive product in itself just like La Grave and the Téléphérique. In my opinion the environment would look and smell better without machines and a dying lift burning diesel all day.
Teleski lift on the Glacier Girose to 3200m
The lift is fragile. Many years ago the first stage of the teleski fell off the rocks under Point Trifide. If someone was on the lift that day they would have been killed for sure. Luckily it happened when it was closed but there is no way of knowing when the next section might lob off. When you look up there and climb the Pointe Trifide from the ridge you can see how detached and fragile the rock is.
Every time I get on the cat to go to the teleski I see the giant blocks next to me that fell from way above, I wonder when the next one is coming down and if I will be standing there waiting to get on the teleski with a group when it does. From a public safety risk management perspective it makes total sense to me to just remove the teleski and leave the Girose alone.
Just a couple of years ago someone fell in a crevasse and died two metres outside of the piste
Bringing public over from 2 Alpes is dangerous if they access us from the top of the glacier. Sure it is a piste but the piste is still a glacier. I feel like they are playing God up there to fill in crevasses and say the piste is safe. Just a couple of years ago someone fell in a crevasse and died two metres outside of the piste. Rumour was that they fell in almost 30 metres.
Deceptive 2 Alpes piste map showing access over to La Grave with 'blue' and 'red' runs
When you look at the glacier now and see where the teleski runs, they had to spend months pushing up the snow to make it high enough to reach the cables and fill in the crevasses. It is a great reminder and visual of how much the glacier has receded and melted since the lift was first installed. They are up there with the diggers breaking what little ice is left to make it 'safe' and fill in the holes. The marked piste and signs do not stop the tourists coming over from 2 Alpes and skiing down onto the glacier towards the giant drainages below.
Many of the La Grave rescues involve lost skiers from 2 Alpes
There are so many technical descents that require gear just off the top of the lift. The tourists from 2 Alpes are not carrying this equipment and they are on the glacier and getting lost every time that connection is open. Many of the La Grave rescues involve lost skiers from 2 Alpes who left the piste and followed tracks. As a guide who is quite active in the area I see it almost on a daily basis when the connection is open.
The financial risk is just as great. All that work to prepare the piste and then it is only used for 40-60 days a year. This year it didn’t open until a week ago with almost two months of work, but due to visibility and weather it has been closed more than open anyway. They have to groom it daily and then the cat runs all day dragging people back and forth and burning gas. They never open it on time and people are paying full price tickets because it’s open.
The real risk financially is that we are gambling on snow and it is not guaranteed
We are lucky La Grave has some of the cleanest and freshest air anywhere, but then you get up to 3200 metres and you see black smoke and get pulled behind a giant machine that spits fumes into your lungs. For me the environmental footprint doesn’t make sense in such a pristine alpine arena.
Keep it wild. Some of the most beautiful lift accessed glacier and ski touring in the world
In addition to the environmental risk we have the risk that the business takes. The real risk financially is that we are gambling on snow and it is not guaranteed. From a public safety perspective, the glacier is as open as I have ever seen it in years and the bridges are thin. That lift puts many unprepared and uneducated people in places they shouldn’t be.
I am not sure the return on investment is worth the risk of gambling on mother nature and snow. They don’t use it in the summer when, in some ways, it makes more sense than trying to use it in winter. The summer skiing and race camp potential is the missed market for all that work but I don’t think they see it.
Regardless, I don’t think financially it’s worth it at all. I just don’t see how the teleski sees a return that can justify the amount of money required to maintain it for two or three months of use per year.
That is a long explanation of my reasoning for no teleski but I thought I would explain it since most people think I am crazy for thinking it is not that important for La Grave to survive and be successful.
Here are the simple things that I would do right away if I was managing the lift:
New website immediately. We need to get with the times. That website just plain sucks and it is difficult to navigate. There is no content or incentive to visit it. The stuff that is important is hard to find. It’s the dinosaur of websites. With this is the Social Media side of it all. In many ways they don’t need to do much but just be more active and take advantage of the local pros and photographers who are putting out content. It’s as simple as sharing and building media relationships with your locals who are here doing it everyday for free and for fun. Modern day websites need a social connection and content, especially when it is associated with the greatest ski lift in the world.
A new method of selling tickets that is faster and more efficient. There is not that much time to ski in the day because we have some of the shortest lift operating hours known to the ski industry. People show up on a powder day and wait one hour in the queue to buy a ticket. Part of that is due to the window not opening until 9:00am when the lift opens, but also it’s because there could be a commission (a safety recce) and sometimes there is no decision until 10:00am or later. Folks stand in the cold for two hours, finally get their ticket and then it’s almost an hour to the top before they are skiing. It’s terrible customer service, but customer service would be a whole other story in itself for this small French town.
As far as the commission goes on days like this, they are working backwards. In my opinion they should start at 2400m and work down to get the mid-station open as soon as possible and the public skiing. Then they can go up and assess 3200m and see if it can open later. The public is standing in the cold waiting to ski on a powder day so get them skiing, they are paying customers and this is called customer service.
The problem is how they sell the lift ticket so they have to wait to see what price it will be. It’s 2017 so I believe modern technology could easily solve this dilemma.
New restaurant with new owners at 2400m mid-station. This could be such an amazing place. It needs a complete make over and even an expansion. It needs young motivated blood, I’m sorry but if La Grave wants to evolve then this is a no brainer. The site is flat and perfect for an extension and a new kitchen and a chef who knows what service and hospitality is. Gourmet food and beverage, along with top quality service. The view from here is insane, and the terrace gets so much sun. If the restaurant was elegant enough running the lift to 2400m at 7:00pm for a full moon dinner and one lift down at 12:00 could be an exclusive product that I bet folks would pay a premium for.
I could argue the same for 3200m for expansion and modern facilities. There is plenty of room to build off the back and could be a stunning open architectural design that could blend into the environment. Right now, as it stands, it’s a small area and really only for customers of the restaurant and not customers of the lift. People need a place to warm up sometimes and/or just take a rest but the restaurant is just that and they need their tables for people buying food and not just a lift ticket. At the moment if you are in there warming up and not buying anything, they ask you to move.
It can maintain its character but it does need modern amenities and services. They need proper coffee up there as well. A real barista and a real machine. These are the Alps, people want good coffee. I would rather see this expansion and development than a new lift and building at 3600 metres.
Longer season and operating hours. The shoulder season is some of the most beautiful weather and best conditions of the year. These are the seasons when you're going to get more pedestrian traffic and more alternative use from backpackers and bikers. The reason there is no one here is because there are no businesses open and nowhere to eat and sleep. They are all closed because the lift is closed but if they stayed open then people would come. I believe it is that simple. And even if it is not flooded with people, the road is open and if businesses are open then the drive-by traffic is inclined to stop.
The season that exists in La Grave is risky. It all depends on weather and conditions. So instead of taking such a financial risk on operations for a short three to four month season of the year, why not spread it out and diversify the risk by supplementing some revenue in those bad years with an extra month or longer keeping the town and businesses open?
More times than not, the lift closes in April with some of the best conditions we have seen all year with dual sport options. Dry mountain biking from 2400m to town with incredible and, arguably, the best skiing of the year from 3600m to 2400m. Most of the other mountain resorts are closed, so it would be great to be that late season high mountain option.
Pay attention to the mountains and not the calendar, then you can ski powder in July like Joe on the legendary Ortler in Sud Tirol, La Grave. Image: Ptor Spricenieks
Plus all the mountain refuges are open that time of year and the lift can access so many of them. If nothing else they need to be more promotional and motivated to do weekends in May if not the entire month. More promotions in general in slow times. People in this town need to adapt to the financial environment just like the skiers and alpinists adapt to the mountain environment. Some business is better than no business so folks need to offer something attractive during those times..
When I first arrived in La Grave the lift stayed open until almost mid May and every year since they have closed earlier and earlier. The season keeps getting shorter but the season pass keeps getting more expensive. They are really good at selling less for more.
Marketing. To me it is practically non existent. I think that the town businesses and the locals who put out content can reach a bigger international audiences than the Téléphérique does. We have world class journalists writing for major ski magazines and cultural magazines right here in our very own village. Let’s embrace them and use them. Social media is powerful and there are many of us putting out stuff that gets people stoked for free. I don’t think the lift is taking advantage of the locals and the professional talent that lives in the village.
There are many high profile athletes who are very connected in the industry, not to mention photographers who the lift is not taking advantage of. I have three main French sponsors who I promote and they promote me. The lift really doesn’t understand that part of the business yet and they don’t take advantage of their local resources. Every ski resort known to man has its local ambassadors and pros who are used to produce content and promote the business along with the town. La Grave doesn’t know this side of the industry or how to do it.
Passes. On the lines of marketing let’s talk about the passes. Every other ski resort sells a season pass in the fall long before the lift opens. I would sell early bird specials. Buy in October for a really nice discount, in September they go up, in November they are last minute, last offer and then two weeks before the lift opens full price. It’s brilliant.
So many more people will buy a pass in October if the price is right. You sell more passes early and then you have capital and cash flow before the season starts. You have eliminated some of the financial risk that comes with a bad snow year. It’s a no brainer. Those folks who buy a pass are more likely to return more than once in the season. Those return visits stimulate the village and folks come back to spend money at restaurants, hotels and will most likely use other local services.
Keep the famous cabins of La Grave open for longer?
I would also honour those passes in the summer. It's insane at the moment that the pass is 845 euros and that doesn’t include access to 2 Alpes or a summer pass. You want to stimulate the economy here, then honour that pass in the summer. At the moment you can get three months of use from that pass at best. Maybe less if it’s a bad year and everything is always closed anyway. If the pass was good in summer, those winter guests would surely come back for summer activities. No question about it.
There are locals' passes in Chamonix and even near Vail resorts where I used to live in Colorado. There were incentives for locals to live and play there. People who chose to live in your village and give the small town and community life were given an incentive to be there. We should be doing the same thing in La Grave. Sure we are spoiled here for so many reasons but those of us who choose to live here, start businesses and/or raise families make many sacrifices and take the real risks.
People living here year round is good for the village. Give them a reason to do it and thank them for being here. When there are lights on in La Grave there is life in La Grave. When there is life in La Grave, people come to La Grave. When cars passing by see life in La Grave they will stop. It’s that simple.
Night life. Skiing through the town in La Grave. Video: Signal de la Grave
For those reasons, I think the families and communities who live here should get a locals' pass. The pass for locals and residents in La Grave should be the same price that seasonal employees get. Seasonal employees come, they buy a cheap pass, they work and ski, but then they leave. Without year round residents we wouldn’t have them and we wouldn’t have tourists either.
I think that year round residents paying tax and showing year round leases and contracts to live here or home owners should get the employee worker pass. They are committed to being a part of this community and the lift is pricing them out. They take a bigger risk and contribute more to the community than just a seasonal worker because they are the community. They are more important than seasonal workers, they give the village a backbone and its character. They are raising kids and they are dedicated to the community.
Show them some appreciation and give them a reason to live here. It gives the town life, and then that life gives the town business because tourists don’t visit towns with no life.
Pros and athletes. We have some of the most talented photographers and local athletes who have put this town on the map in parts of the world that the Téléphérique is not capable of reaching. The Téléphérique hands out passes to every visiting photographer and 'athlete' who has a business card and fancy letter in hand, yet it doesn’t even take advantage of its own local heroes who put out cutting edge content for free. It would cost the Téléphérique thousands of dollars for that kind of marketing.
There are year round residents who are world class athletes with world class profiles and they are paying full price for their passes. Many of them have produced some of the highest profile content promoting the village and the lift to an audience bigger than any visiting journalist or the marketing teams in La Grave could ever reach.
Chairlift on the Lauzette. I am not for expansion of lifts or snowmaking. I believe what we have is plenty and accesses an amazing amount of terrain. If any development was to take place I think removing the old chairlift at 2400m and reinstalling it on the Lauzette could be a useful option.
We have many powder days on the Lauzette when the lift is closed and it is a gentle but fun slope to ski and the ambience over the village is world class.. This could be a great option for the youth in the village, as well. There is a ski station in Villar-d'Arêne for the kids but it is never open because it is mostly south facing and doesn't hold snow. The Lauzette holds snow late into the season and with skier compaction and minimal snow making, I believe the base could stay here longer.
We could have kids programmes, gates, sledding and even some small baby park features here to entertain the village when the lift is closed. From the village it is visible so that can be attractive for tourists to see winter activities taking place from their cars and the restaurants. People make fun of the Lauzette, but in Colorado where I am from or in Vail, it would be a world class run. It's more fun than any back bowl I have ever skied in Vail. To see a white Lauzette in low snow years is very good for the morale.
Service. In the town I believe folks need to be more willing to accept everyone and all tourists and workers. We can’t be divided in a small town. Service is everything and when you have tourists and paying customers you need to show your appreciation. When someone is standing in front of you ready to spend money and give you business, you need to acknowledge them and make them feel welcome. If you are a business complaining about a few bad years, maybe you need to look at how you are doing business instead.
For starters we all need to evolve. In slow times to tell the only customer in your business that you only take cash is just plain stupid. If you don’t take credit cards yet in this town, then get with the programme and the times. Plus we only have one ATM machine and for the past two summers it mostly remained empty. So the only paying customers were basically told by businesses, sorry, we only take cash or you have to spend this much to use your credit card. We need to remember that folks are on vacation here and we have to put ourselves in their shoes.
We need to ask ourselves what kind of service do we expect when we are on vacation and what keeps us going back to places we like to visit?
Town facelift. The town has been getting some nice upgrades over the years. The main road had a facelift and there has been beautiful restoration and renovation throughout the town. The business owners take pride in their curb appeal but I think the rest of the village has to evolve as well. All the old run down buildings need to be renovated or sold to folks who will renovate them. We as a village need to take pride in our appearance; the old buildings need to be restored before it is too late. It is ugly and sad to see a deteriorating building just rot away.
More people would live here if there were more usable places to live. Unfortunately it's a bunch of old locals who own everything and only short term rent their properties for high prices and/or to hotels. Finding a reasonable place to live year round is difficult and I think that is part of the reason we don't have more year round residents in the village.
Fixing up the old buildings will make the village feel more alive but it will also provide more beds and the village needs this. Plus it will show that we take pride in our village.
And so what would be the best result for La Grave village, including the hotels and restaurants, some of which might welcome more guests other than extreme freeriders?
The hotels here are totally open to any and all guests. I believe the problem is still marketing in the end. There are so many things to do here besides ski all year long. The problem for me is that the lift season is too short. When the lift is closed so are the businesses. For that reason no one comes here when the lift is closed because the town is also closed. More times than not it is closed during some of the best interseason conditions you could ask for. The town and mountain are so beautiful during those times.
I think if the lift stayed open for a longer part of the year, it would keep the businesses open longer as well. This could stimulate the town in the shoulder seasons to help offset the gamble of only being open for a short three to four month ski season at best. During the ski season only two of those months are when the tourist season really cranks, but that is still dependent on snow.
It's a risky business to set up shop in La Grave and/or raise a family here at the moment.
What would be the worst scenario for you?
I think it's going to happen.
Another worst case scenario is we spend another 30 years with a Commune that is in conflict with the concession. If the same childish war continues then the town and the community pay the price. Worst case scenario is the community and the people who live here continue to be prisoners of war.
The crowd funding bid by Le Signal de la Grave to 'keep it wild' and ensure the future is within the community has been rejected before getting to the second round (see poster featuring all the supporters' names, above). So who do you think will be chosen in April? And why?
Les 2 Alpes because of all the reasons I mentioned above including but not limited to: power, greed, politics, old feuds, money and personal conflicts.
It is sad, the rumour has it that the Commune didn’t even look at the Signal's proposal. That is quite a slap in the face and an insult to the 1000 plus people who believed in the Signal’s vision. I’m proud to have my name on that poster along side the 1000 plus people who stood together to send this town and the world a message.
No matter who takes the lift, I personally think a 30 year lease is too long. I understand that an investor needs time to see a return on investment, but I would like to see a 10 or 15 year trial period where certain criteria needs to be met in order to execute the rest of the lease. It could be like a probational period and up for review after the first half of the lease.
Ultimately, the best case scenario for the village and the lift would be if everyone could just get along. I wish the folks in conflict would just give each other a big hug, apologise for the past and move on. It is essential for the longevity of this community and the future of this lift. As we say in English, it is water under the bridge.
We have bigger problems and face greater challenges as the best ski lift in the world enters its next chapter in life.
My 2 cents. ;-) Peace, love and powder to all.
Joe in his element high above La Grave. Image: Ptor Spricenieks
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All images of Joe by Ptor Spricenieks