If ever there was a prize given out to ‘the unsung heroes in the Alps’, airport transfer drivers would surely be nominated for it every time. Early mornings, late nights, flight delays, snow, rain, fog, hairpin mountain roads, Geneva airport on a Saturday, French radio....... the challenges these guys can face on a daily basis are often more gnarly than the most difficult black run in the whole Val d'Isere ski area!
As part of our new series of interviews with Val d'Isere Local Experts, we sat down with Rob Forbes who operates the Cool Bus to find out what really goes on behind the wheel of an airport transfer operation. Based in Bourg St Maurice, Rob and the Cool Bus run airport transfers from Geneva, Lyon, Chambery and Grenoble to all the ski resorts in the Tarentaise including Tignes, Val d’isere, Les Arcs, and La Plagne.
Tell us a little bit about the CoolBus - how it started out and where you're based..
We are based in Bourg St. Maurice right in the heart of the Tarentaise which is home to some of the biggest ski areas in the world. Cool Bus started out simply as a means of paying for winter seasons in the Alps. We were lucky enough to set up shop around the same time that Easyjet started to release flights to ski destinations. The result was a sudden increase in demand for private airport transfers in a market that had previously been dominated by package holidays. After a couple of seasons it soon became apparent that there was a genuine business opportunity to be had and that was when things started to get a little more serious!
How many buses do you have and how many people do you employ?
We will have 20 vans on the road this season and 35 drivers. Frequently, at weekends, our vans will be on the road around the clock, hence the need for more drivers than vans. Being based in Bourg means it is very easy for our drivers to switch halfway through the working day. To put all of this into context, our vans will cover a total of around 1 million kms in the Alps this winter!
Any new developments for winter 2012/2013?
20 vans represents an increase in capacity of 30% for us so we are looking forward to a busy winter! As a result and also in response to customer feedback, we will also have a desk at Geneva airport over the weekends which will be manned by our rep, Jemma Harrison (also of Funi headwear fame). She has been working for us for many seasons now and has consistently proved herself to be one of the loudest members of staff, ideal for attracting the attention of our customers when they arrive in the packed arrivals hall at Geneva!
Also new for the 2012-2013 season will be The Cool Bus onboard magazine which we are pretty excited about!
Last year was epic with huge amounts of snow - talk us through the most memorable moments…
2012 was indeed an epic season. So many incredible days on the mountain; virtually every single day I had off last season was a powder day! Riding knee-deep powder at one the lowest resorts in the valley at the end of April is not something that happens every season! On the downside, many of the heaviest falls came on Fridays and Saturdays, just in time to really mess up the weekend traffic!
To date, what has been your most difficult day on the job?
It has to be the 31st December 2011. The Saturday between Christmas and New Year is always one of the busiest of the season in terms of traffic. Last year it kicked off with a massive dump of snow on the Friday. As a result, on Saturday morning, an avalanche came down over the main road between Bourg and Aime, burying a car. Thankfully no-one was hurt but it did necessitate the closure of this road for three hours from 10am whilst the area was made safe. This is the main road out of the valley which services the resorts of Val D'Isere, Tignes, La Rosiere and Les Arcs and traffic is horrendous on Saturdays at the best of times so, as you can imagine, the tailbacks caused by this were catastrophic!
Every vehicle we had out was subject to some delays and four were completely stationary with passengers onboard for 2-3 hours. Even when they did get moving the journeys took twice as long as usual. The knock on effect of this of course is that we had other customers waiting at the airport for their drivers to turn up. Most people were very understanding once they were aware of the circumstances but not all!
I spent this - the most stressful day in my life - on the phone constantly from 8am until 6pm trying to reshuffle transfers where possible and placate irate customers. I finished New years Eve by driving the most angry customers I have ever met up to Les Arcs at 11pm. When I got home I had a large whiskey on the balcony and went to bed. The worst New Years Eve ever!
What's your staff turnover like during a winter season and any particularly memorable employees?!
We have been lucky enough to have had an amazing team of drivers over the years which has definitely been in massive contributing factor to the success of our business. Naturally you get a few who drop out injured but I rarely have cause to sack one during the season. One guy does stand out though. He was constantly late for work but the final straw was when he overslept and missed a transfer. He wasn't answering his phone so we had no choice but to send another driver who was in the area. Eventually he did wake up and explained what had happened. The pick up he missed should have been at 2pm. Guess it was a late night!
Geneva airport must be your second home - where is the best place to get a coffee?
The Hub does a drivers special and is conveniently placed right next to arrivals!
Is there anything particular that skiers/passengers can do to ensure an efficient, safe and happy transfer process?
Don't give your kids loads of sweets and fizzy drinks and then sit them in the back of the van in front of their Nintendo before you are about to drive down a twisty mountain road. I think you can imagine what the consequences of this are!
Oh and don't ring me to book a transfer at 11 o'clock at night unless it is an emergency. We do have lives (and small children!) as well!
What do you do in the off season?
We have been involved in the mountain biking side of things since CoolBus first started. Both myself and Bry Watt have done lots of guiding in Les Arcs and the surrounding area and have got to know it extremely well. We have also been on many multi-day backcountry missions! We are lucky enough to have several local resorts that open their lifts to mountain bikers during the summer but there are loads of better trails in the area that can't be accessed in this way. Given our experience and the vehicles we have available it seemed only sensible to set up a summer business providing vehicle uplifts to some of these trails. This is certainly not something that is going to earn us a lot of money - in fact it barely breaks even - but it is definitely an enjoyable part of the year!
Do you get to ski at all in the winter and how many hours sleep do you average?
I try to make sure I get one day snowboarding a week. Having said that, if the snow is poor I find it difficult to motivate myself knowing that I will have a ton of work to do when I get home. When the snow is good though I'm usually out on the mountain first thing and will ride until about 2pm by which time I am exhausted anyway, especially if we have been hiking. That way I can get back home in time to get on top of the day's emails (after a couple of espressos!).
I do get enough sleep over the week its just not always at the regular times - see question 7!
What advice would you give to anyone looking for a job as a transfer driver for the ski season?
Start looking for work in the summer. October is too late! Ideally you should be over 25 and have previous experience driving left hand drives, in Europe, in vans and, if possible, on snow! I genuinely believe transfer driving is the best job you can get in a resort!
If someone was thinking of driving in France this winter, what expert advice would you pass on?
- Double check your SatNav. Many, many people have fallen foul of following a route which leads them over one of the three mountain passes that surrounds our valley and are closed during the winter months.
- Bring snow chains. If it is snowing heavily you will definitely need them and the police regularly set up road blocks to prevent people driving up to resort without them. Stop and put them on in a lay-by before you get stuck in the snow. The majority of traffic delays around here in winter are caused when people are forced to put their chains on in the middle of the road because they cannot drive any further! Practice putting your chains on before you set off anywhere. A pitch black snowy lay-by is not the place to start learning these things! And don't forget to put them on the driving wheels!
- Finally, if you are considering hiring a car to get you from airport to resort instead of a transfer don't forget to factor in all of the following additional costs: insurance, snow chain hire, Swiss motorway vignette (40CHF), French motorway tolls, fuel, and parking in resort.
A huge thanks to Rob for taking the time to answer our questions.
For more profiles on Val d'Isere's key players, be sure to check in regularly with our Leading Locals section.