Sam and Dave Pentin left England eight years ago to start a new life and business in the French Alps, running a catered chalet for skiers and bikers.
Has it been an easy ride? Do they have any regrets or advice for others looking to start a business? Wendy Hollands caught up with them over a hot chocolate to find out.
In Part 1 of the series we found out why Sam and Dave moved to France and how they settled into a new country. In this article Wendy talks to them about setting up and running their business.
Setting up the business
During their previous ski holidays, the family had stayed in catered chalets, and Sam, who already had some catering experience, running a wine bar in England, felt she could cope with the demands of cooking for chalet guests. The concept was much easier to implement than the alternative of Dave becoming a ski instructor, and together, they now manage all aspects of running Snowchalet — taking bookings, picking up guests from the airport, cooking, cleaning, arranging ski hire in winter and generally ensuring their guests have a great stay.
A key to the Pentin’s successful lifestyle change was choosing a manageable chalet size. Although their chalet can sleep up to sixteen guests at peak times such as Christmas, they try to keep the capacity to a comfortable eight or ten.
Dave explains why: “What we realised when we worked in a larger chalet (when we first came out) is that mixed groups don’t really work well beyond ten or twelve. Larger groups tend to break into smaller groups, which affects the atmosphere in the chalet.”
What about the off-season?
Both of them are arts graduates and they have recently discovered a niche market for their quiet spring and autumn months. They provide art holidays for small groups of beginner and improver painters. Filling their normally quiet months of June and September under the Artchalet banner has now provided them with a year-round income — something many chalets and guest houses struggle with.
Dave smiles as the guests approach our table with their jackets zipped up and their gloves on. He and Sam listen to their stories of the morning’s tough red runs and a silly tumble in poor visibility. They must have heard similar stories from countless other guests, but they listen attentively until the guests leave.
“The best thing about our job is meeting loads of really nice people,” Sam says.
Running a business in France
In a country where paperwork is constant, many chalet businesses have cut corners. Indeed, during their second year in France the Pentins had problems with the legality of the existing business they took on.
“We found a good accountant who had experience with other chalet owners. He gave us some great financial and legal advice for the French business, while also taking into consideration our English connection,” Dave says.
“If I had to give one piece of advice about running a business in France, it would be to do it totally legally,” Sam says. “It’s tempting not to, but it’s not worth the penalties if you get caught. We’ve had on-the-spot inspections, so your paperwork must be spot on. If not, you’ll be fined and possibly closed down.”
“Running our type of business is not just physically demanding. It’s mentally and emotionally draining, so you need a lot of support,” says Dave. “Luckily, we work well together and have some great friends who listen to us rant when it all gets too much.”
Regardless, they both admit it’s been worth it. “We really feel at home here,” Sam says.
“Yeah,” says Dave. “There’s something about being up high. It’s like this feeling of empowerment. You feel like you’re on top of the world.”
All images courtesy of Sam and Dave Pentin.
1. The snow chalet.
2. Inside, the Pentins keep their chalet guests fed and watered in nice surroundings.
3. Sam and Dave get to relax in between summer and winter seasons.