As the battle of the ski lifts intensifies across Europe, Macron & Co. warned this week that skiers hoping to hit the slopes in bordering countries over the holidays would be met with prefect-coordinated ‘random” border checks and week-long quarantines.
France – where downhill skiing is banned until January 20 (although resorts are open for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing) – is in agreement with Italy and Germany about a European-wide closure of all remontées mécaniques (ski lifts) until the New Year to avoid a third wave of Covid. Their diplomatic plea has fallen on deaf ears in Spain, Austria and Switzerland who are offering travel-deprived populations the possibility of a white Christmas on the slopes.
The Alps accounts for 43% of the world’s skiers that brings in €28 billion in revenue every year. After Austria, France generates the second-largest share of profits. The 350 ski resorts across France employ around 150,000 people and rake in $10 billion a year.
Unsurprisingly, there were protests on Wednesday in Chamonix as the first snow of the season fell. “It is devastating for everyone who works and lives here … everyone,” says Monica Huszcz Delevau, an American from Irvine, California, living in Chamonix. “Chamonix is based predominantly on tourism. If we don’t have tourists we don’t survive, it’s as simple as that.”
Monica, founder of Haute Wedding, one of Vogue’s Top 5 International Wedding Planners, illustrates how Covid is hitting her adopted ski resort by sharing the example of her business partner, Charlie Charlesworth, who also owns a transfer business, with the Geneva airport-valley route making up the chunk of its service.
“Charlie’s 2020 summer revenue was down 95% and instead of the ten chauffeurs he usually employs, this summer he had one driver. Projections for winter 2021 show that business will be down 90% over last year, and he will take only two drivers compared to 25 in a normal winter season. This is a decade-strong healthy company that saw its best year in 2019 and has now literally crashed overnight.”
The bilingual American in Chamonix
I first met Monica in 2018 at the inaugural ÖTILLÖ Swimrun in Cannes, where she was the finish line announcer and interviewing teams in English and French. The bilingual sports announcer also does the Nice-Cannes Marathon and Ultra Trail du Mont-Blanc and worked at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi and the 2020 Youth Olympic Games in Lausanne.
Her French is flawless. “I studied French for six years in high school and college, which gave me a solid grammatical base, and then during my undergrad studies at California Polytechnic San Luis Obispo in the late 90s, I did a study abroad in Aix-en-Provence for a year. Being a college student helped, of course, but the real answer is a French boyfriend. Hands down, the best way to learn a language,” Monica laughs.
During her year abroad in France, Monica travelled throughout Europe and met a group at a youth hostel in Biarritz that were from Chamonix. “I came to visit them, loved it, came back for a ski season … and one ski season turned into two ski seasons, turned into three… and 20 years later I’m still here!”
Chamonix, she describes, is a mix of local Chamoniards and a strong international community so “it was super easy to fit in, but I also spoke French so that always makes things easier.”
Chamonix is vibrant 11 months out of the year and so benefits from longer seasons than most resorts in the Alps, which are only in full swing for three months in the winter and two months in the summer. “November here is usually grey and drab and that’s when locals go on vacation to exotic destinations to take a break from the mountains,” says Monica.
In the winter it’s all about skiing, Nordic skiing, skijoring (being on skis and pulled by a horse, a dog or a motor vehicle) but in the spring, summer and fall there are countless activities like mountain biking, road cycling, rafting, climbing, hiking, downhill biking, paragliding, photography walks, museums, concerts, trail-running, mountaineering, skateboarding … take your pick.
Monica reveals that life in the mountains consists of “regular stuff” – work, kids, homework – but that living in such a gorgeous place also “allows us to pursue a certain lifestyle with time spent outside doing one of the above mentioned activities whenever possible!”
After two decades, the American living in France admits she still gets frustrated with the lack of positivity amongst the French. “I wish my kids would experience school and sport in a way that is uplifting and hopeful, that type of positive mindset and perspective is more prevalent in American culture.”
On the flip side, when she goes back to California, American consumerism shocks her. “People are constantly buying, buying, buying …all the time. I, too, love my retail therapy, however, I find it over the top whenever I do get back stateside.”
She confesses she gets homesick for things like good Mexican food. “I am still on the hunt for an authentic Mexican restaurant in France even after 20 years!”
The Wedding Planner
Monica started Haute Wedding in 2009 with Charlie, a Brit with a corporate events background, and the pair began planning weddings in Chamonix and the Alps. They quickly noticed Americans were attracted to the French Riviera and Provence so they expanded their service and now specialise in only these three regions in France – the Alps, Provence and the Riviera. “We don’t do Paris, the Loire valley, or other regions … we are true experts in our chosen geographical locations.”
The must be experts. In 2016 and 2018 Haute Wedding was selected by Vogue USA as on the world’s Top 5 International Wedding Planners. “We honestly couldn’t believe it and we only found out from another planner who congratulated us when the Vogue publication came out. My theory is that one of their journalists went undercover, pretending to be a bride reaching out to us.”
Monica describes their couple clientele as being 98% international although they work with a lot of Americans, British, and expats. She gives an example of a French man engaged to a Brazilian living in NYC, or a German marrying an American living in Dubai. “Our international team grew up outside of France so we know where our couples are coming from, yet we have been living and working in France for so long that we ‘get it’ and know how to accomplish things efficiently and smoothly.”
For Monica, their “haute” weddings are a mixture of high quality service, attention to detail and vetting the best partners and suppliers all to the background of unique “jaw-dropping gorgeous” settings – historical palace hotels overlooking the Med, castles, vineyards, exclusive villas and luxurious mountain hideaways. “This is more than just a business for us. We honestly love coordinating and producing an event that brings together our couples’ love story with their friends and family – it is better in real life than in a fairy tale!”
Pandemic And The People
And how is the wedding planner coping in the year of Covid? “Covid started to affect our business in March 2020 for the spring and summer weddings, and our revenue has dropped painfully low as cash flow has become almost non-existent. Couples usually book weddings 12 to 18 months in advance and we charge 50% of the planning fees when they start the planning process, and the remaining 50% of our fees are due six to eight weeks before the wedding date. So the income we were supposed to get this spring and summer for the second half of payments has been pushed to 2021.
“Compared to other businesses we are ‘lucky’ because people still want to get married and they aren’t cancelling weddings, just postponing. Hopefully, those second instalments will come later down the line. For the time being we are in survival mode. It’s hard, no money, just hope to keep pushing us forward.”
The Haute Savoie is one of the regions in France where the second wave of the virus has been circulating the most. “The mood of residents here is basically frustration, distress and fear of losing everything they’ve worked so hard to build. We need to be allowed to continue living. The economical, psychological and emotional damage cannot be measured. At this stage we will be happy if we survive.
“During lockdown, I’ve continued coming to the office, the kids are in school and we’ve been trying to keep morale up by keeping busy, going outside and being even more thankful for what we do have in this beautiful place where we live … but the bank account is diminishing too quickly, and government aid, help from family and personal savings will not last forever.”
Photos courtesy of Haute Wedding.