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How are Tour Operators in Val Thorens providing ski guiding?

Posted on: November 18th, 2013 by SkiGB

You may or may not of heard something about the new restrictions for Tour Operators providing free ski guiding, so let’s start off with a brief run down of the history of the problem.


For years Ski Schools and Tour Operators have worked side-by-side helping eachother out, the Tour Operators provide clients to the ski schools whilst the ski schools in return teach their customers. Pretty simple really.


To add value to the tour operator service they decided to offer a free ski guide to show proficient skiers around the ski area. For some customers it is a handy service if they came on holiday on their own, they now have someone to ski with for a few days of the week.


For years (decades) the tour operator ski guide and ski school instructors have co-existed and shared the slopes.


Well until recently that is!


The national ski school of France (ESF) have decided they don’t want to share the slopes with the ski guides anymore. To this end the French law changed to make ski guiding/leading/show around the piste illegal unless you are a qualified ski instructor.


At this point I think I should say that I used to be a Ski Rep/Guide for the Ski Club of Great Britain (SCGB). The SCGB offer free leading (as it is now called) to members of the Ski Club and work very closely with the ski schools.


There are a few different ‘versions’ of guides so lets quickly identify them:


Tour Operator Ski Guide/Leader:


Purpose: To show their guests who already can ski around the slopes for a couple of days a week. If the guest can not ski/snowboard they recommend that they go to ski school.

Training: Normally the Tour Operator would hire guides who are good skiers already. They have very little (if any) tuition on leading (obviously some Tour Operators do provide more tuition but as a whole not a lot). They are not there to teach therefore don’t.


SCGB Guide/Leader:


Purpose: The SCGB rep has lots of feathers in their cap but their main job is to ski with their guests. The Ski Club are VERY strict about the level of skier and do not take non-skiers. They only ski with their members and the free one day you get to test them out (SCGB advert over).

Training: They are trained very well by industry leaders, several weeks on snow and off snow training, first aid, avalanche awareness, drinking and resort knowledge. They need to have skied at least 12 weeks and are a very good standard.


Ski School Instructor:


Purpose: Purely to teach new skiers/snowboards and to better the skills of the people who already know how to ski.

Training: There are several levels of ski instructor but all the ones in France and Val Thorens HAVE to pass the dreaded speed test (I will write a little blog on that soon so stay turned) which is very very hard. Their training is very in-depth, as you would expect. However with that in mind, they do not know first aid or other skills you would expect them to know like avalanche awareness (basic instructors). Not all instructors can guide off-piste, they have to pass an extra module for that and because it is hard a lot of them don’t bother.


Mountain Guide:


Purpose: To ‘Guide’ their clients on but mainly off-piste in as much safety as possible (nothing is 100% safe in this sport). You hire them privately as part of a group or individually if you like or can afford.

Training: These guys and girls live, breath and often sleep in the mountains, their thirst for knowledge in this subject is never ending. It takes roughly 10 years to pass your UIAGM (or equivlent) guiding exam, it is a real commitment. I have met and skied with many mountain guides and all of them knew their stuff. True gods of the mountains! With that commitment and hard work they charge (quite rightly) a higher price. I think the word ‘Guide’ should ONLY belong to these guys!

 As a side note as we are talking about mountain guides, if your ski insurance says you are covered on or off-piste by a guide they mean a Mountain guide!!


A couple of seasons ago a small British tour operator got sued for leading their guest around the pistes. They were not teaching and were on-piste. This as expected had a big effect on all the tour operators offering this service.


There are two main schools of thought why the French (only the French at the moment – as far as I know) have done this.


  1. To make the pistes safer and make sure that people being guided are by someone who knows what they are doing.
  2. To ensure local jobs are looked after.


You can decide which one it is for yourself. 😉


So why the change now after all these years of Tour Operator guides and instructors working side-by-side?


I think it might be the fact that the percentage of skiers that can already ski is increasing and I don’t think the amount of new people learning to ski is increasing. Therefore the ski schools are not teaching the same amount of people and not earning the same amount either! Business is business and ski schools offer a valuable service and they need to earn enough money to continue, so I can see their concerns.


So, what next? Are the skiers who go on holiday on their own going to have to hire a ski instructor to ski with?


I have heard of two ways the tour operators are dealing with this in Val Thorens.


1. We have heard that Crystal Ski have asked their reps to guide their guests on their day off and not wearing their uniform.

This I think will not work, firstly a ski resort is a very small place, all the workers know each other or at least know if someone works there. So it won’t take long for the ski schools to figure out what is happening. Although technically they would not be guiding under the tour operator company name and therefore they shouldn’t able to get sued, I they might still have a problem in court.

The other thing is too as a customer of the tour operator would you be happy being taking off around the slopes by someone not ‘official’?

2. Some tour operators are offering ski guiding from an instructor of one of the ski schools. This is completely legal and the ski schools are probably quite happy with it. I doubt however they will hire many (probably only one) instructors so first come first served!

So there you have it that’s where we are, how it be in a couple of years could be completely different. How will people react once they hear about this? Maybe they will ski in other countries? Maybe they will just hire an instructor?


I’m sure this will all sort it’self out (maybe in the EU employment court), the French have spent a lot of money on their ski resorts (recently a lot has changed in Val Thorens which is not cheap) so they won’t shoot themselves in the foot, would they?


Ski Schools need tour operators to provide them with ‘fresh meat’ each week, what’s the phrase


“Don’t bite the hand that feeds you!”

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