Emily Horton meets a Surrey girl for whom the mountains have been both work and home
What could be lovelier than to have snow-capped peaks doubling up as the office wall? To spend one’s days drunk on the rarefied air of the French Alps, perfecting parallel turns with ski instructors straight from Mount Olympus?
One Surrey native to have lived the Alpine dream is ski school entrepreneur Lulu Cottle, from Bramley. Back in 1989, recently graduated and on her first encounter with the white stuff, Lulu fell in love with French ski instructor Eric Guironnet. Together, the couple launched Magic in Motion: the first Anglo-French snow sports school in Les Trois Valleés – a renowned ski region in the Savoie département – and one of the first of its kind in France.
Lulu, it seems, had always had a head for heights: her original career plan had been to work for ‘The World’s Favourite Airline’.
“After finishing at Godalming Sixth Form, and then a degree at Kingston University, I was set to follow my pilot dad into British Airways,” she explains, speaking from Magic HQ in the stunning winter resort of Méribel. “I was 24 and had three months to waste before starting my graduate placement, so I decided upon a ski season.”
One company was looking for a chef for its Méribel super-chalet and called to ask Lulu if she could help.
“I replied that I could – which was rather embellishing the truth, as I could only just about cook a basic family meal,” she says mischievously.
“When I was asked to attend an interview the next day, a friend’s mother spent the evening with me in her kitchen and I learned all her recipes off by heart,” she chuckles. “At the interview, I reeled off everything she’d told me – without having made a single dish!”
She got the job. Within days she was looking after 40 guests and pining to learn to ski.
“I was told to go chat to this absolutely gorgeous ski instructor, who would come into the chalet each week to sell lessons to our guests,” she explains.
It was Eric – her future partner in business and in love. The British Airways scheme taxied smartly to a halt, and in 1992, aged 26, Lulu joined with Eric to set up the ski school. While he was out on the slopes teaching students, she would be busy drumming up business.
Remi NGUYEN CAO
“I would clean windows to help bring in money, and while working at the chalet of Andy Searle, the owner of tour company Mark Warner, I asked whether he would send some of his guests to us.”
It was the breakthrough the fledgling business needed. Today Mark Warner remains Magic’s biggest client.
“We focus on the UK market. Thanks to our brilliant instructors, who all teach in English, we’ve managed to stand the test of time, with teams at Méribel, La Tania, Courchevel and Val Thorens. It hasn’t been easy though – we have seen so many ski schools come and go.”
At times, indeed, the path to success has proved more giant slalom than downhill all the way.
“We originally called ourselves White Magic, but naively didn’t register as such. During our second season, the only other independent ski school in Méribel acquired the rights to the name and their lawyers gave us two weeks to stop using it.”
Nor have relations with the French ski establishment, the Ecole du Ski Français, enjoyed an entirely smooth run.
“We’ve been here so long now that we’re part of the local fabric, yet the ESF still calls the shots,” says Lulu cautiously. “It’s branded in the red, white and blue of the Tricolore, the French national flag, and is politically strong. You find one of its schools at nearly every ski resort in France.”
Each of these is run independently, not by the state, and thus fiercely protected by the community. Lulu points no fingers, but it seems fair to say that the ESF has not always been an unequivocal champion of the entente cordiale.
“Years ago, when we were starting out, we’d always find ourselves with a challenge just as the season was starting,” recalls Lulu. “There’d be an impromptu visit from the taxman, or the shop that we had arranged to lease for the season would become unavailable.
“We have never had problems with teaching on the slopes, like some British companies in France, but we’ve had to work hard to develop the reasonably good relations with ESF we enjoy today. Yet I think that they respect what we do.”
Remi NGUYEN CAO
That the former director of ESF’s international section, David Lindsay – son of Colonel Peter Lindsay, who co-established Méribel in the 1930s – sent his own children to Magic speaks volumes. Especially as he later told Lulu that it is probably one of the best ski schools for kids in Europe. And, with a client list boasting Hollywood actors, British royalty and European sports stars, Eric and Lulu can afford a big smile for Magic’s 25 years on the snow.
A smile, but a few tears too. For this year’s anniversary also marks the beginning of a long goodbye: Magic has recently been acquired by Oxygène, a school based in nearby La Plagne.
“It is time to pass the company on to the next generation,” says Lulu emphatically. “Oxygène is the right team to build on our legacy. Its two bases, at La Plagne and Val d’Isère, and our own three resorts have a total of nearly 200 instructors between them.”
Her love affair with Eric having ended some 12 years ago, Lulu is now looking forward to spending more time with her family and new partner in Surrey. She and Eric will keep going for one and two years respectively to help the new team acclimatise, with most of their loyal staff also staying on. Parting, she admits, will be the sweetest sorrow.
“It’s hard to let go of Magic, as it’s my baby, but I enjoyed spending my first Christmas at home for 30 years. Even so, as I gaze out at the peaks, they still take my breath as surely as when I first arrived, all doe-eyed, 27 years ago.”
Magic Lulu may be saying farewell, but majestic Méribel still holds her in its snow-white thrall.
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