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Courchevel: reaching for the top

Courchevel, a ski resort of superlatives, made a place for itself in the ranks of global elite luxury destinations. Performances for the 2015/2016 season, trends and future developments: portrait of a hotel market that keeps reaching new peaks.

Luxury is king in Courchevel, a resort of extravaganza and superlatives, where winter sports enthusiasts mix with stars and millionaires on the slopes or around the tables of a Michelin restaurant. The Trois Vallées ski area has twelve such restaurants, seven of which are in Courchevel, its most prestigious resort destination. At night VIPs may stay at one of its many luxury hotels, including three that officially bear the "Palace" label.

The famous resort in the Tarentaise Valley celebrates its 70th anniversary this year. Its first ski-tow was set up in 1946, as public authorities were seeking to develop alpine tourism in the post-WWII years. The first skiers who hurtled down its slopes would have a hard time recognizing the small village of Saint-Bon today, however. With 1.1 to 1.2 million ski pass days expected this year by operator S3V for Courchevel alone (and close to 6 million for "Les Trois Vallées" altogether), the resort has established itself as one of the most popular destinations in the Alps. The organization of Nordic and ski jumping events during the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville turned the international spotlight onto this already renowned resort, at the dawn of a decade when it joined Gstaad and Aspen as one of the most prestigious winter sports destinations worldwide. Tourism benefited from the Perestroika and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, leading to the subsequent development of a lavish Russian oligarchy that made Courchevel one of its favorite destinations.

The resort is one of the most expensive in Europe in terms of lodgings, and is a key destination for luxury tourism during the winter season. Its pioneering altiport, the first of its kind in France, embodies this fact: at 2,000 meters, it is the highest in Europe. Its runway has a gradient of 18.6%, the most significant in the world. This mountain airport recorded 8,000 movements last year (planes and helicopters), including 6,000 during the winter season: it gained increasing popularity among clientele wishing to avoid the vacation traffic on the Tarentaise's winging roads.

The resort's assets go well beyond the high society's quest for blue-blood socializing. With more than 600 kilometers of ski slopes -there are 318 slopes- the Trois Vallées ski area is one of the largest of its kind worldwide. Courchevel is linked to its less glitzy neighbors Méribel, Les Menuires and Val Thorens: a special combined ski pass allows winter sports enthusiasts to enjoy all of their slopes. Despite the ubiquitous pomp of the resort, the strategy aiming to keep the cost of a ski pass at a reasonable level (€49/ day for the 2015/2016 season) has been successful so far, enabling skiers to enjoy its slopes on a day trip even if they cannot afford accommodations in Saint-Bon-Tarentaise. What could be a better way to boost the resort's magic and glamorous appeal than to open the way to living among  stars for a day?

The ski resort boasts one of the most significant collections of luxury hotels in France, whose clientele is ready to spend several thousand euros per night. A week spent at the Edelweiss -a luxury chalet just steps from the slopes- can reach a record €250,000 to 300,000 during the high season. Le Cheval Blanc, Les Airelles, Le Strato, Le K2, La Sivolière... prestigious hotel addresses abound, for those who can afford them. Exclusivity is the key: there are 2,300 rooms in 55 hotels (chalets included) in Saint-Bon-Tarentaise, including 24 five stars properties - the highest possible rating. Meanwhile, Courchevel's global accommodation capacity is estimated at 40,000 people by local authorities.

The beginning of the 2015/2016 season was difficult, with occupancy rates for luxury hotels and palaces dropping by 7.8 points from the previous year - and 21.7 points by comparison to the 2013/2014 preseason (source: HotelCompSet database). That year, the season got off to a cracking start, thanks to early snow cover and regular snowfalls. In 2015-2016, "the start of the season was difficult for the resort's hotels, especially due to the lack of snow", recalls Florence Carcassonne, General Manager of La Sivolière 1850, adding that "the Paris events may have had an impact on occupancy."

Fortunately, this sluggish start was offset by the first significant snowfalls in late December. With 92.3% in occupancy rate, luxury hotels and palaces were much busier during the strategic holiday season. Yet occupancy levels remained below the excellent results recorded two years ago. The decline in the Russian ruble -and the growing interest of this clientele for the slopes of Caucasus, including Sochi and its 40,000 room-strong hotel supply- can explain this variation. During the 2015-2016 season, "we were not directly affected by this drop, but throughout the resort we noticed a slight drop in regard to this clientele due to the Russian economic crisis. In Courchevel, clientele remain strongly correlated with currencies. On the other hand, we noted an increase in British clients, whereas we still have a fair volume of guests from the Persian Gulf," according to Florence Carcassonne. Inasmuch as geopolitical tension with Russia and oil prices seem to have hit rock bottom, future prospects concerning this source market will probably be more favorable. This is an asset for Courchevel's upscale hotels and their future growth, as Russians used to represent 80% or more of the clientele during the Russian New Year and Christmas holiday (first week of January).

In a way, New Year's Eve can be seen as a turning point of the 2015/2016 season. The first significant snowfalls, long-awaited by hoteliers, were as good as any fireworks. After a good month in January, Courchevel's luxury hotels registered excellent occupancy rates during the February Winter holidays - the indicator reached 90% over the period, a 5.8-point increase from the previous year. The tendency should remain positive until the end of the season, leading to higher occupancy rates than during the two previous seasons, thanks to favorable snow cover on the Northern Alps.

From December 1, 2015 to March 20, 2016 luxury hotels in Courchevel thus registered a 2.1-point gain in occupancy rates. Combined with a 4% increase in average daily rate, the RevPAR of upscale hotels surged by 7% from the previous year (Source: BDD HotelCompSet): the 2015-2016 season ends on a positive note.

Driven by this success, Courchevel keeps attracting hotel investors, and stirring up the dreams of HNWIs. Joining forces with other private investors, the founder of Free (France 4th telecom operator), Xavier Niel, spent 100 million euros to develop the Apogée Courchevel, an address offering 20 rooms and 33 suites. The hotel welcomed its first guests in December 2013, and is operated by Oetker Collection (operating the Bristol in Paris and the Lanesborough in London). Xavier Niel followed in the footsteps of another famous businessman, Bernard Arnault, who opened Le Cheval Blanc in 2006, rekindling the memories of his childhood winters spent on the slopes of Courchevel. Today, this hotel offering 36 rooms and suites is one of the resort's three "Palaces."

It is therefore no coincidence that LVMH chose Courchevel to open its second hotel, after a first property inaugurated in 2012 in Saint Tropez, iconic destination of the stars on the famed Côte d'Azur. Through its subsidiary LVMH Hotel Management, the luxury group called on architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte to give its latest address a setting worthy of its reputation. The Hotel White 1921 opened its doors in December 2015, offering guests a direct access to the slopes, and the usual benefits of a five-star hotel: first of all a sauna and hammam -an essential element of "après-ski" at the resort's prestigious hotels. Despite the abundance of new openings, professionals do not really fear the competition. Luxury chalets rented by private agencies remain the major competitors, much more than other hotel properties - ultimately neighbors more than rivals. For the General Manager of La Sivolière, "every hotel in Courchevel has its own personality. We are lucky to have loyal customers, who keep coming back year after year. At most, hoteliers will need to be more attentive regarding the price range."

In 2016, another major player in the French luxury industry will inaugurate its latest address on Courchevel's opulent slopes: the hotel Barrière Les Neiges is slated to open in December 2016, and will be the group's first mountain hotel. Offering 42 rooms including 19 suites, the property will have several features to convince future customers, reflecting the resort's extravaganza. It will boast Courchevel's largest spa, an outdoor swimming pool and jacuzzi, a ski room, a private cinema, and three restaurants - including a Fouquet's brasserie.

Courchevel is a first-class destination for gastronomy lovers, and as a winter destination it concentrates an unparalleled selection of Michelin-starred chefs: Yannick Alléno (Le Cheval Blanc), Pierre Gagnaire (Les Airelles), Michel Rochedy and Stéphane Buron (Le Chabichou), Jean-Rémy Caillon (Le Kintessence at the K2), Gatien Demczyna (La Table du Kilimandjaro), Jean-André Charial (Le Beaumanière 1850), Julien Machet (Le Farçon)... not to mention La Bouitte in Saint-Martin-de-Belleville, in the neighboring valley. René and Maxime Meilleure, a father-son duo, joined the exclusive club of three star chefs in 2015.

Beyond this gastronomic dimension, the resort has multiplied initiatives to highlight its difference and focus its appeal on upmarket clientele. Activities not directly related to winter sports, in Courchevel more than anywhere else, appear to be a central concern for the resort's authorities. In partnership with Galeries Bartoux, Courchevel Tourism chose to recreate an open-air museum, exhibiting works by sculptor Richard Orlinski and graffiti artist JonOne, who rejuvenated the resort's ski lifts. Other innovations and alternatives recently made their debuts. Following a 63 million euro investment by the municipality, Courchevel celebrated the inauguration of Aquamotion, a 15,000 m² aquatic complex offering a wellness center, swimming pools, whirlpool baths, saunas, a climbing wall, and a F&B outlet operated by Nikki Beach. L'Ecorce, a new concept store, opened its doors in late 2015. This boutique is multi-faceted, and may be transformed into a lounge bar, a tea salon, or even a nightclub at nightfall.

Winter sports nonetheless remain a "natural" priority for local authorities, who centered its communications on skiing and winter sports this year to favor a sports-oriented image. The feat of local champion Alexis Pinturault -son of the owner of the five-star Hotel Annapurna- may have encouraged the resort to insist on the most significant asset of all: its superb skiing area.

Whether on the slopes or after-ski, Courchevel has many attractive features, which allow its luxury properties to continue to climb - despite many hotel developments that are trying to find their own place in the sun.

Also read:



  • Mountain tourism: what challenges for supply and demand?
  • LVMH développe White 1921 à Courchevel


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