Mountain Magic in the French Alps
Published: April 2009
By Jeff Wise
Influenced as much by Disneyland as by classic resorts like Zermatt, a brand-new faux-Alpine ski village opens in—of all places—the French Alps.
High in the Savoy region of southeastern France lies a tiny village, home to generations of dairy farmers. The weatherworn buildings are made of native granite and wood from nearby groves. The natural beauty of the place has always drawn visitors—skiers especially—and about a hundred years ago two local brothers each decided to open an inn. The older, Alphonse, was a true man of the mountains and built his in a rustic style, with broad-planked floors and wooden furniture thathe carved himself. He called it Refuge de Montagnard. Antoine, the younger brother, was a more restless type and left the hamlet to travel the world. When he returned, he built an inn influenced by the pale woods and clean elegance of Scandinavia, and called it Hameau du Glacier. To this day, Alphonse's and Antoine's inns can be found directly across the street from one another, in the heart of the ancient village where the men were born.
You can stay at either one, if you like, but as for the rest of the village, you'll have to use your imagination—it's still being built, lowered piece by piece from giant yellow cranes that swing through the air above the French Alps. The inns are a year old, and the brothers never existed: their tale is a backstory, an elaborate bit of Hollywood-style fakery meant, paradoxically, to inspire the very details that will make the town feel real. The narrative will be consulted by everyone from architects to interior designers to staffing personnel in the development of Arc 1950: Le Village, a new addition to the huge French ski resort of Les Arcs, 25 miles west of Mont Blanc. And the fake history is only the beginning: the creators of this village are steeped in focus-group data and a philosophy that frames travel as entertainment. All the local merchants and craftsmen, for example, have been cast in their parts, just like at Disneyland.
Le Village is a project of the Vancouver-based Intrawest Corporation, which has come to define the cutting edge in ski resort development. The company already operates numerous faux-Alpine properties in North America, including Whistler Blackcomb, Copper, and Tremblant, but Le Village is its first foray into the actual Alps. You could call it selling ice to Eskimos—imitation ice, at that. In fact, Le Village represents a powerful trend in ski resort evolution: the base village as profit center. An ever greater portion of the ski business takes place off the slopes, in the restaurants and shops at the foot of the mountain. Hence Intrawest's investment in Les Arcs. But the larger issue is a philosophical one: what exactly is it that makes a place—or, more precisely, one's experience of a place—feel authentic?Can Le Village, with its Truman Show bells and whistles, ever compare to the real thing?
The winter resort came into being in the year 1856, when a St. Moritz innkeeper named Johannes Badrutt built the world's first toboggan run and convinced a group of English travelers to stay for the season. By the 1920's, palatial hotels like the Bellevue in Gstaad and the Riffelalp in Zermatt were luring the rich and the aristocratic from across Europe with a newly fashionable way to amuse themselves: skiing, a formerly arcane Scandinavian mode of transportation. Mechanical lifts did a great deal to popularize the sport: when the industrialist Averell Harriman opened Idaho's Sun Valley in 1936, it had state-of-the art chairlifts.
When skiing became mainstream, the business model was straightforward: for decades, resort operators sold lift tickets and skiers bought them. Then, in the early eighties, the industry underwent a profound shift. Along with new high-speed lifts and advances in snowmaking technology, shopping arrived on mountains everywhere. At resorts 10 years ago, the average skier spent $16 a day apart from lift tickets; today, that skier spends $30, and that number will continue to rise.
Intrawest saw an opportunity and pursued it aggressively. The real estate development company acquired Blackcomb Mountain in British Columbia in 1986 and, after sinking $52 million into new lift facilities, saw skier visits climb from 280,000 to more than 700,000 annually over the course of five years. Intrawest responded by investing $240 million in the base facilities. Spending per skier soared. Over the years, the company would perfect and formalize this cycle into a process it calls the Gears: after picking up a struggling ski mountain at fire-sale prices, it invests in ski lifts to draw more visitors, which in turn justifies expansion in shops and restaurants, which help draw more visitors, which justifies the building and selling of condominiums, which makes the shops and restaurants more viable, and so forth.
The hub of this frenetic cycle is the base village. The greater its charm, the more customers it will attract, the longer they'll want to stay, and the more money they'll spend. Since it is, in essence, an elaborate outdoor shopping mall, a successful base village can maintain its appeal throughout the year and can help transform a winter destination into a year-round vacation getaway. By 2003, Intrawest had taken over, entirely or in part, 10 struggling North American ski mountains and had turned them into profit machines.
As it happened, around the same time as Intrawest's foray into the ski resort business in the 1980's, a handful of academics were pioneering a field of research that claimed to help destinations engineer their villages with unprecedented effectiveness. The new "retail anthropology" promised that by studying consumer behavior, retailers could understand customers better than customers understood themselves. One such expert, Clotaire Rapaille, has analyzed how people respond to resort settings. According to his findings, architectural homogeneity is a terrible mistake. "When all the buildings look the same, you can't tell where you are," he says. "In Italian fishing villages, they painted the houses different colors. Why?Because the fisherman wanted his house to be visible from a distance so that when he was coming into port he could see this pink one next to that blue one and think, 'That's my home.' In the same way, when you're skiing the last run of the day, you should be able to say, 'That's where I'm going. That's where people wait for me, that's where people love me.'"
The master planner behind Intrawest's resorts, Eldon Beck, shares many of Rapaille's conclusions. He too shuns homogeneity—indeed, he creates minor imperfections on purpose.
"Surprises are part of a successful village, and they can be built in," he says. "After I finished working on the village at Whistler, I went around and took pictures of all the mistakes. I thought, 'My golly, the roofs don't quite match, and this column over here is really dumb.' It took me only a little while to realize that all these flaws were actually delightful. They were wonderful little accidents that gave the place humanity."
Now Beck deliberately designs buildings so that they don't quite line up. "There's more value to a corner that hangs out a foot than in one that's absolutely true," he says. "It costs a bit more, but it creates a sense of texture throughout the village."
The goal is to make a dense sensory environment, but one that does not overwhelm. East West Partners, one of Intrawest's largest competitors, used a similar approach in designing the Village at Northstar on Lake Tahoe. "When we were in the planning stages, we talked a lot about what we want people to feel when they're here," says project director David Tirman. "We want the smell of fresh bread to be coming out of the bakery in the morning. Or hot chocolate. A roaring fire in the public plaza. We want to evoke responses."
Even pavement can play a part. Narrow stone streets meander to "provide a greater sense of discovery," in Intrawest terminology. "We pay a lot of attention to these details," says Lorne Bassel, Intrawest's executive vice president of development. "Next time you're walking down a street, watch where people linger, and you'll find that the paving patterns are a lot less linear there, as opposed to streets that have lines down the middle, which tend to make people go through faster."
Intrawest engineers the human component as well, in a process it calls "animation." Shopkeepers are chosen for their roles as if they were actors, to provide an engaging human face for the resort. Musicians and jugglers are hired to keep the street scene lively, and "experiential retail" is provided to entertain visitors, with demonstrations of fudge and snow-cone making. At a pub in Tremblant, Intrawest's resort in Quebec, customers tend to get up on the bar and dance once the liquor starts flowing. And that's no coincidence: "The bar is designed in such a way that it's guaranteed to happen," says Intrawest planner Joanne Maislin. "There's a pole mounted on the ceiling over the bar so that you can keep your balance while dancing there. So people do it all the time."
Such details will go unnoticed by 99 percent of the visitors who pass through, but it's exactly something like this—a pub where patrons dance on the bar—that gives a place its personality and makes it memorable, real.
For all the sophistication of his methodology, Beck realized that to perfect the resort village he needed to look not forward, but back, at history. He needed to study the real thing. Intrawest sends teams of employees on 10-day bus tours through the Alps, stopping off at two villages a day. At each destination— Annecy, in Savoy, for instance—they split up, taking notes on the medieval towns' meticulously preserved architecture: the ancient stonework and wrought-iron balconies; the chimneys and winding steps; the narrow, meandering streets, so seductive to visitors.
Through such fieldwork, Intrawest gleans design principles. According to Beck, when public spaces get larger than about 150 feet across, they tend to lose the feeling of personal intimacy: "There need to be boundaries, not just on the sides but also overhead," he says. "At the top of the first floor there should be a whole range of things happening: awnings and signs, balconies, umbrellas, trees—anything that tends to put a bit of a roof above you. It's the sense of being contained in all dimensions that gives you a feeling of security and friendliness."
When I visit Les Arcs in March of 2004, Le Village has been open just a few months. As a light powder wafts from the sky and glazes the rough slates covering the rooftops, construction cranes pivot above a vista that includes the distant Mont Blanc. The streets seem oddly dislocated, old in style but new in feel. The façades are accented by ornate balconies, copper drainpipes, and wooden shutters painted in muted but cheery tones, in a way that suggests pigments faded by long exposure to the sun. The slate on the roofs is real, however, and the beams holding them up are solid timber. As time goes by, the buildings will weather into even more credible facsimiles of their ancient models.
For the time being, though, it feels a bit like a stage set.
"You can come in and create a nice environment architecturally, but you can't create history," says Chris Stagg, vice president of marketing at Taos Ski Valley, an old-school ski mountain in New Mexico. "Taos has been settled for hundreds of years, so you have rich people and poor people, good things and bad things. It's not a museum of the way things used to be, it's a genuine community. That adds a level of reality that you don't get just from the architecture."
Yet the faux-historical village continues its rise. Intrawest has expanded beyond skiing to build pedestrian villages at resorts in warm-weather destinations, including Las Vegas; Kauai; Palm Desert, California; and Sandestin, Florida. East West, which already operates 10 year-round resorts, is building villages at six locations in the West and Southeast.
As for the French, even those who work at Le Village don't seem to know quite what to make of it. "It looks like Disneyland," says Denis Chassard, who recently opened a gift shop here. "But it's beautiful."
T+L contributing editor JEFF WISE also writes for Men's Journal and Details.
Le Village, part of Les Arcs resort, is a year-round destination that offers skiing through April. The closest international airport is in Geneva, a two-hour drive away.
Arc 1950: Le Village
DOUBLES FROM $551 PER WEEK. LES ARCS, BOURG ST.-MAURICE; 33-4/79-04-19-50; www.arc1950.com