Robin Quarrelle had not planned to get a job in the travel industry, but a couple of winters spent working in ski resorts had him hooked.
After leaving university he headed for the Alps, spending five winters in roles ranging from chalet driver to hotel manager, alternated with summers in countries including Zambia and New Zealand.
His passion for ski holidays prompted him to set up niche travel agency Summit Retreats, specialising in upmarket ski holidays, offering catered chalet accommodation.
His experience in resort and at a chalet agency in the UK helped him gain the knowledge he needed but it has still taken determination and patience to succeed.
He set up the business in 2011 and built the website himself based on relationships he developed with individual chalet owners or operators, but didn’t take bookings until the winter of 2012-13. And although he handles the booking process, clients pay the operators or owners direct, so no money passes through his hands.
He says: “It was quite a simple process to set up the agency but it was making contact with the chalet owners and getting everything in place [that took time].”
Robin now works with 40-50 chalet operators, offering a portfolio of 250-300 chalets across 22 resorts in France, Switzerland, Austria and Italy.
He also likes to visit every chalet and each summer spends time in resort viewing accommodation. “Over the last two and a half years it’s been a lot of work. I like to see all the properties before they go on the site and experience the service,” he says.
Almost all the chalets offer catering with a professional chef, and often there are drivers and other staff on hand.
“Some chalets have up to 14 members of staff and this is reflected in the capacity and price,” adds Robin, who currently has just one member of staff.
Business has built up slowly through word of mouth and PR – but Summit Retreats is already starting to attract clients outside the UK.
Robin has also just revamped the website. It now has an improved search function enabling clients to narrow their choices, from chalets where they can ski to the door, to a cinema room or hot tub.
But he has deliberately avoided online bookability.
“We like to give a personal approach and to have a conversation with clients to find out what makes a holiday for them,” he says.
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