From suits to skis: How Al Judge went from consulting for Barclays in Geneva to co-owning AliKats Mountain Holidays with his wife, Kat, in Morzine, France

Since opening a small selection of catered chalets six years ago, AliKats Mountain Holidays now offers seven beautiful catered and self-catered chalets in the charming French resort of Morzine, part of the Portes du Soleil. This season, AliKats has opened two new self-catered chalets, La Grande Ourse and La Petite Ourse, plus a catered chalet, built exclusively for AliKats, called The View.

In this release, Al Judge, co-owner of AliKats Mountain Holidays, talks to Rosie Barcroft (Heaven Publicity) about his change in career from consulting to chalets, what life is like in Morzine and how important it is to be surrounded by a fantastic team.

Rosie: When did your love of the mountains begin?
Al: “We used to go to the Lake District as a family, and I remember being dragged up mountains for walks when I was six, and only appreciating them when I reached the top. However, as you get older, you find yourself loving all parts of the mountains, not just the peaks. My grandfather worked in Pakistan and regularly climbed the Himalaya, which I always found fascinating. And before the most recent troubles began in Pakistan, my brother and I climbed Jallipur South, a 5,000 metre peak in the shadows of Nanga Parbat, the world’s ninth-highest mountain. Kat and I also took our daughter, Ivy, hiking in Nepal when she was 18 months old. Basically, whenever we go on holiday, we usually head to the mountains.”

R: From travelling, how did you end up in consultancy?
A: “After university, I just fell into a recruitment job. It was only when I was there I realised just how many jobs there are, I’m not sure university prepares you for it. After setting people up in multiple jobs, which all sounded much better than my own, I decided to recruit myself and ended up as a consultant for Accenture.”

R: Did you enjoy your time in consultancy, or miss the travelling lifestyle?
A: “I did enjoy my time in consultancy and ended up working at Accenture for about seven years. I then moved to Barclays in Geneva for six years. I guess I did miss travelling, but it just makes you try harder to incorporate it into trips abroad and have cool holidays. Kat and I went to Jordan for our honeymoon, and I also went on a sabbatical for eight months and travelled around the Andes and Himalaya. So, there are lots of ways to keep passion going.”

R: Where, and when, did you meet Kat?
A: “I met Kat on 1 October 2006 at a fancy-dress party in Stoke Newington, north-east London. The theme was Rubix Cube, which involves turning up wearing lots of different colours of the Rubix Cube and swapping clothes throughout the night until you become the same colour. Changing clothes with people is a great ice breaker and Kat and I were engaged three months later. Because it happened quite quickly, our friends didn’t know each other very well, so we organised a Hag Do. Looking back, it was our first taste of hospitality; we hired a youth hostel in the Peak District for 60 of our mates, used the Rubix Cube theme again and even managed to hire a beat-boxer who had played at Bestival. Needless to say, everyone had a great time and got to know each other pretty well.”

R: Were you nervous about making the leap into the chalet business together? Was it something you had both wanted to do for a while, or was it a eureka moment?
A: “We always knew we wanted to do it one day, well, something around our passion for cooking and our love of the mountains. It was good that I was working for Barclays at the time as it meant every step along the way was a smaller risk. Of course, there were many nervous moments, but we both had entrepreneurial spirit and just kept at it. Until recently, I was still working at Barclays three days a week and helping Kat out on evenings and weekends, but I’m working at AliKats full time now.”

R: What made you decide to set up AliKats Mountain Holidays in Morzine?
A: “We actually chose to move to Morzine before setting up our chalet company. The resort is close to Geneva, making it easier to see family, and it’s also a year-round working town, not just a ski resort. People come to Morzine because it is a good ski area, but they stay because of the thriving community. We bought a big, sprawling old house and decided to completely renovate it, at one point it was down to its wooden frame and stone foundations. We then worked with the locals in Morzine to help build it into the beautiful home we have today. It took a year to complete and at that stage I was still working at Barclays to help fund the building work. It was a great way to meet the locals and the community; we now have many friends and numerous people to turn to if there are problems. This network of people has been fundamental in the setting up of AliKats.”

R: What was the hardest part of making the transition?
A: “Because it was slow, it wasn’t too bad. I thought I would miss the corporate life more than I have, but there are so many interesting opportunities in Morzine, especially as we’ve taken on three new chalets this season, so the challenge is never ending.”

R: What’s been your best memory since starting AliKats Mountain Holidays?
A: “I get the biggest buzz from the amazing team we have. Each year we have a big recruitment drive for seasonal work, and when you meet someone who is perfect for the company it’s really exciting. It’s an amazing process: taking on the chalets, receiving feedback from the guests and partying with staff. It’s always great when you can help develop careers and help the staff progress.”

R: What are your goals for the next few years? Do you think you’ll expand further?
A: “It’s in our nature to keep taking on new challenges. When we first started, we had to go in search of opportunities and put in a lot of leg work to find our original chalet. Now, however, people are coming to us because we have a good brand in a well-known area. Basically, if people come to us with an interesting opportunity, we find it hard to say no.”

R: What do your children say about the business? Do they like meeting some of the guests?
A: “We have three children, Ivy, Wilf and Albie. Our oldest, Ivy, is only five, but she knows all the names of the chalets. We’ll often be mid-way through a school run and stop off at one of our residences so the children can meet the guests. Some of our regulars even bring presents for them! The kids understand we have to work at odd times and maybe one day they’ll take over, but no worries if not.”

R: With three children, eight chalets to keep an eye on, and with The View offering an exclusive Indulgence Package, I’m guessing you’re all rushed off your feet. You must have a wonderful team around you…?
A: “This year we feel we have cracked it; we have 75% of our chalet hosts returning, which is our highest percentage yet. We find it best to create jobs around people, rather than fit people into roles, everyone is happier that way. For example, Mark and Caroline, who worked at Riverwood Lodge last year are returning to more part-time (and less intense) positions so they can enjoy the resort a little more. We are also the only chalet company to have a centralised kitchen in our house, which works really well. It means all the food is prepped under the nose of Kat, making it consistent across all our chalets. This also means the hosts can focus on the guests a lot more (without having to worry about the food), which means they can be properly spoiled.”

R: What do you look for in an employee?
A: “The single defining thing, certainly in our chalet hosts, is a ‘need to please’. They must get a buzz from helping someone else, otherwise it just doesn’t work. Most people don’t have a need to please and, after a couple of months, they find the environment is too hard. After six years, you can tell within 30 seconds on a Skype interview whether someone has got that all-important side to them.”

R: What would you say to someone wanting to start their own chalet business?
A: “Just give it a go! Seriously, it’s a lot of fun, just make sure you enjoy it and even if it fails, at least you tried. One thing I would stress, is that it’s really important to live in the same resort, being based overseas doesn’t work – there are always sales to take, improvements to make and preparations to factor in. You also need a network of like-minded people around you and the ability to remain focused on the venture exclusively, otherwise it’s less likely to succeed.”

R: And on those crazy days, what keeps you going?
A: “The hardest part of the year is from the middle of November to the middle of January. You are training a team from scratch and getting ready for all the Christmas guests, which is both special and demanding. It is also peak season for bookings; we are up at 6 am and still working gone midnight. But, the prize at the end of it all, is getting amazing feedback from very satisfied guests. It’s great when you pick them up from the slopes and they have a massive smile on their faces. We know the team will develop so it’s important to try not to stress too much, and at the end of the day, the nature of the pressure is short term: the season is only five months so there are lots of nice bits of downtime later in the year.”

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