During my short stay in Verbier (see last weeks blog articles: Short Ski Break Verbier in 3.5 days), I caught up with Verbier PR and Marketing manager to see what developments were going on and where Verbier saw itself in the overall ski market.
I was looking forward to meeting an official person from this famous and glamorous ski resort nestled in the French speaking part of Switzerland. Pierre introduced himself and the rest of the staff and I immediately felt that he was keen to talk about Verbier. ‘How was the skiing today’ I was asked by someone. I replied saying that it was great, ‘very quiet’ I said. This didn’t seem to go down well, but I pointed out that I meant there were plenty of people about but no queues and the slopes weren’t over crowded. Smiles all around.
We went into Pierre’s office and I felt a bit overdressed in my ski clothes as I could have been in any marketing office in any city in the world. We chatted a little about my background and how the winter weather had been so far.
I wanted to find out what type of person Verbier was trying to attract and where they came from. Is Verbier a kind of Chamonix and St Moritz mixed together?A kind of upmarket town for good skiers. To me this is like Ferrari drivers, they are always too old to take full advantage of the car. Can rich people be great skiers, are great skiers rich?
Pierre explained that the majority of visitors to Verbier were Swiss, British and French. This is followed by the Benelux countries, Germany, Scandinavia, Italy and Spain. After that there are visitors significantly from Russia and The USA, and then all over the world. ‘But what kind of people are they’, I asked? ‘Active people, people that are good skiers in the winter and like the outdoor life and culture in the summer’, pointing out the fact that the Verbier festival, a classical music event, was now a major part of the calendar. I wanted to know if this had changed over the last ten years or so. Has Verbier started to attract a different type of person? ‘No, we attract the same people as we always have, good skiers that like an active lifestyle’.
I asked Pierre what his favourite ski run is in Verbier and why it is his favourite. He thinks for a while about this before answering. ‘Tortin is my favourite run’. This is a steep and wide north facing itinerary route which tests the best skiers, often heavily moguled, Tortin is one of the most famous classic ski runs in The Alps. Pierre continues, ‘it is always in good condition, it is demanding and offers different conditions from one side to the other’. I had skied Tortin that day and agree the conditions are normally pretty good. The bumps on the left side are large, whilst on the far right hand side they mellow out.
If Verbier is great for good skiers, then what about the rest? I ask Pierre what type of skier Verbier is best suited for and he maintains that good skiers will benefit most from Verbier’s slopes. But, there are plenty of options for beginners and children as well. An area called La Chaux has always been perfect for nurturing the technique, but it was tricky to get in and out of. A new lift brings skiers over from Ruinettes straight into La Chaux and back again. This area is being developed further with a Kindergarten and a restaurant (lacking before hand). For intermediates, there are miles of pistes to be found in the 4 vallees region which links Verbier up with the resorts of Nendaz, Veysonnaz and Thyon.
So Verbier’s reputation for advanced skiers is without question. But there are other resorts which offer good skiers an abundance of challenges. Chamonix in France or St Anton in Austria would be up there on my list. I ask Pierre why good skiers should choose Verbier over these resorts. ‘There is a huge variety here’ he says. ‘Not only that, we have slopes facing every orientation, north, south, east and west’ and goes onto point out that because of this you can always find good snow conditions. I can see his point. Even when the weather is variable you can find a south facing slope to try and catch some sun, but the high altitude, north facing areas always keep good snow, sometimes weeks after a snowfall. ‘The other difference here’, Pierre points out, ‘is the view’. Verbier sits on a sunny balcony looking out towards the west, offering fantastic views across to the Mt Blanc Massif and the spectacular Dent du Midi.
With Verbier’s reputation as an upmarket resort for good skiers firmly established, I wonder if it is possible to do Verbier on a budget. After the closure of ‘The Bunker’, previously the cheapest option to stay in Verbier in hostel style accommodation, is there anywhere in Verbier to stay which won’t require a job as a city banker? Pierre states, ‘although Verbier is an upmarket resort there are opportunities for good value when you look around’. ‘There are self catering options and the lift ticket is cheaper than many other large resorts’. He goes onto to discuss the growing popularity of La Chable, the town directly below the resort of Verbier. La Chable was previously not regarded as an option for tourists visiting the area, but since the cable car that links it with Verbier runs into the evening and buses operate now until mid-night, the town has grown into a mini resort in its own right. Many resort workers now chose to live in La Chable as accommodation is more readily available and considerably cheaper. ‘The other growing area is Bed & Breakfast’ says Pierre. ‘These are privately run chalets which offer flexible accommodation at a reasonable price’.
‘What’s the best thing about Verbier’ I ask Pierre. ‘The ambience, it’s relaxed and you get people from all over the world’. ‘There is good night life in the town with a relaxed atmosphere’. ‘Celebrities mingle with everyone else, and you don’t even notice they are there’. Certainly there were a few around on my visit. Prince Andrew and his family were apparently there and I thought I glimpsed one of the princesses in the pub one afternoon. Richard Branson owns a chalet in Verbier and is a regular visitor to the resort.
I reverse the question and ask Pierre what the worst thing about Verbier is. ‘The traffic’, he is quick to point out. ‘The town is badly planned when it comes to traffic’. ‘The look of the town was well thought out with no high rise or concrete buildings, but the traffic can be a problem’. I ask if it possible to make the resort car free like Zermatt or Wengen. ‘No, this is not possible because the roads are too steep and the resort is too large’. Pierre clearly feels frustrated by this and seems determined that a solution will be found. I find out that the problem will be exacerbated with the opening of a new Starwood W Hotel on the Parking lot by the Medran lift station. Still, I think, I don’t come here to drive a car, so who cares? I guess the locals probably do.
I want to find out what kind of improvements are being made to the resort in the next 3 to 5 years, hoping that the progress made with some of the new lifts, will not slow down. Pierre explains, ‘there will be a new lift linking the areas of Attelas to Savoleyres’. It is not possible to ski from the main ski area of Attelas to the smaller and more gentle terrain of Savoleyres at this time. You can link up in the opposite direction, but to get to Savoleyres you either have to ski down Vallon d’Arby (an itinerary route often closed after heavy snowfall) or catch a bus from the central square up to an ageing bubble car. This major project will significantly improve the overall experience for many skiers, especially intermediates, and I immediately see the benefit of this new lift. Pierre continues, ‘the lift will start near Carrefour and bring skiers directly up to the top of Savoleyres. This also means the people in the chalets at the top of the town benefit from being near a major ski lift’. ‘As well as this we are making improvements to the snowmaking facilities and replacing the two older chairlifts, Mayen and Combe 1, with a new high speed lift’.
The skiing is one part of the Verbier experience but the town is famed for its party atmosphere. I ask Pierre if the nightlife is as good as everyone says it is. ‘Yes! After skiing you can go to many places for live music or a nice atmosphere and then at night you have everything you need’. The Pub Mont-Fort is a Verbier institution which buzzes from 4pm to 6pm and then 11pm onwards. It’s still the place where the resort workers hang out and the skiers want to be seen after a tough day out on the mountain. But The Farinet offers a more party style après ski atmosphere with live bands and lots of table dancing. For a more relaxed affair, The Fer a Cheval is a great place to sit and watch the world go by whilst sipping a beer and enjoying one of their famous pizzas. Later at night, clubs like The Farm or the more recently opened Coco Club, provide exclusively expensive drinking until the early hours, whilst the Casbar is where all the 20 something resort workers head to once they have been thrown out of the Pub Mont-Fort.
I’m starting to get a little warm in Pierre’s office with my ski gear on, but I ask Pierre to sum up Verbier in 5 words: ‘Sporty resort in a fantastic surrounding and ambience’ he says. That’s a few more than 5 words I say, but then Verbier seems to offer a little extra on every level, so I let him off.