Thursday, March 28, 2013

Aiming High: review of Erna Low biography

Yesterday at La Thuile, Italy
Unbelievable! After a beautiful sunny day yesterday with blue skies all day today it's been snowing hard at all levels down to Bourg from 9 o'clock this morning. I can't remember a season when there has still been so much snow around (and still falling) at the end of March; the red Granges run to the chalet and the Millerette beginners area still fully functioning and it looks like this could go on to the end of the Easter holidays. We have plenty of availability in the chalet from 13th April, get in touch for an end of season bargain!

As it definitely wasn't a day for skiing (or leaving the chalet at all) I have been finishing reading Mark Frary's new biography of Erna Low, the remarkable woman who virtually created the idea of the 'skiing holiday'and who was responsible, in the 1970s, for bringing La Plagne, Les Arcs and Flaine to the attention of the growing number of British skiers.

Aiming High, describes 'the life of ski and travel pioneer Erna Low' in some detail without getting too bogged down by her numerous friends and acquaintances (including many well-known names mainly drawn from the English upper-middle classes) or the many obscure  Austrian villages to which she took her early  pre-war 'ski parties'.  Erna Low came to London in 1930 to study English literature on a shoestring. To raise money  to visit her family she famously placed a newspaper advert inviting 'young people leaving Christmas' to join 'Viennese Graduette' for a fortnight in Austria (resort not specified) including rail travel and hotel accommodation for £15.

The book gives a fascinating impression of the energy and indomitability of its subject, the driving force behind her quickly expanding ski trip programme. However, the outbreak of war in 1938 meant the end of all foreign travel, so she turned her 'wily sheepdog ability to get things and people organised' to English country house parties, where measly rations would be pooled by groups of like-minded young people seeking to escape the trials and tedium of the war, and maybe by the way to find a wife or husband!

Low was an inveterate match-maker, although she herself  never married despite a lifelong string of apparently platonic male relationships. Mark Frary has uncovered a couple of 'love letters' she wrote giving an insight into the more vulnerable side of her workaholic, tee-total personality.

Erna on skiis
After the war, she effectively combined the 'house party'  and skiing holiday ideas to become most distinctive  and diverse British tour operator. Frary spends a few pages ruminating over the invention of the 'chalet holiday', which clearly resembles Low's product, although normally her guests were expected to cook the food that was provided themselves! In the end he attributes the 'catered chalet idea' to her rival Colin Murison-Small, but I was surprised that he doesn't mention the contribution of her compatriot and contemporary Walter Ingham, despite him being referred to frequently elsewhere in the book.

Jet planes, increasing prosperity and  a 'bumper crop of shining new artificial ski resorts' revolutionised the travel industry in the 1960s and 1970s, with Erna Low struggling to continue with her 'personalised approach' in the face of mass-tourism competition.  Teaching Princess Anne to ski in 1966 combined her rapport with the 'upper class' and her hunger for publicity.  Erna Low diversified into summer holidays (which never made any money) and school trips. The book explains how the introduction of VAT, currency exchange restrictions and the 1967 sterling devaluation disadvantaged Low's 'personal touch' operation in favour of the larger operators like the ill-fated Clarksons.

By the mid 1970s France had become the favourite destination of the UKs 250,000 skiers, and Erna Low became agent for the new resort of Flaine, and later La Plagne.  Frary explains clearly the complicated series of changes of ownership, liquidations and eventual buy-out of Erna Low Travel Services Ltd by its eponymous founder.

A  'master (sic) of reinvention' she then concentrated on in-bound tourism through her Enjoy Britain brand but by the end of 1975 was back in the winter sports market having abandoned the 'made to measure' approach that she had hung onto since the beginning. This didn't last, she sold out again to concentrate entirely on selling Flaine, La Plagne and in the 1980s, Les Arcs. Vigourously promoting these new destinations in every way possible (including touring film-shows and a kind of 'ski clinic' minibus) she helped put them on the map, and created a new product, the 'self-drive, self-catering' holiday package that is still the backbone of the Erna Low brand today.

Erna Low presided over a period of immense change in the travel industry and in the world as a whole. From the pre-telephone days to the arrival of the internet, her principal marketing tool was the brochure, which she elevated almost to an art-form. Writing every word herself in her distinctive slightly bossy style, according to Frary often to 5 in the morning sustained only by a box of chocolates! The book includes reproductions of several of the witty and ingenious covers, many designed and even drawn by Low herself.

In the Epilogue (Erna Low died in 2002 at the age of 92) Frary draws together neatly the threads of Erna Low's life, her extraordinary personality and her achievements that spanned the twentieth century.   The book includes a number of amusing anecdotes and touching accounts of the lives of others who played important roles in her life and business: the painter Francis Bacon was a neighbour in South Kensington, and despite a deep affection they held for each other would sometimes engaging in slanging matches - "you dirty poof!" she would shout, to which he had a stinging rejoinder disclosed by Frary.

There are, however one or two mistakes that make me think perhaps there are probably a few factual errors (Peisey/Vallandry is part of Les Arcs, not La Plagne), perhaps because the book tries to deal with  so many places, people and events. Another niggle is the badly organised bibliography and sloppy index ( which lacks, for example, an entry for the subject herself).

However, Aiming High is a fascinating and enjoyable read for anyone interested in the skiing business, and the world of travel and tourism in general. Mark Frary makes me realise we owe a lot to people like Erna Low, and provokes a few thoughts about what things might be like in another 80 years.

Aiming High by Mark Frary is published by Matador Books (2012). ISBN 978 1780883 540

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