We talked to Matt Barker, owner of Mountain Adventure Camps in the beautiful resort of La Tania, between Courchevel and Méribel in the world famous Trois Vallées, home to the largest ski area in the world. Matt started his working life in a bank in the City of London but now owns and manages an adventure camp company in the French Alps – two very different worlds. We wanted to know by what path this British expat came to his new life in France…
TGLF Tell us a little about you and what inspired your move to France
Well, I’m 38 and I grew up in a ‘normal’ suburban house in a small town called South Woodham Ferrers, which is part of Chelmsford in Essex.
Whilst at secondary school and as with most children aged 12 or 13 I had to decide on my GCSE options, which in effect, meant deciding what career path I should follow for the rest of my life. So for me, some 25 years ago I wanted to be a bank manager, therefore I took various GCSE’s and BTEC’s to help me in my chosen career.
At the ripe old age of 30 and sitting in a large corporate bank in the City of London I was fortunate enough to be able take some time out and travel. For me, this is where it all changed. 18 months later I returned to the UK and having realised that there was more to life than having a shiny TV and pushing paper around a desk, I embarked on changing things. Deep down I wanted to run off to the mountains and be a ski instructor. The problem was that I had a mortgage and other commitments, like a girlfriend. So that winter I focused on getting things in place for a move abroad (no we didn’t split up, that happened a while later), the first step was completing my BASI level 1 ski instructing.
I now had nieces, nephews and younger cousins in the family and I started to notice that more and more children didn’t play outside the way I did when I was growing up. They played more and more online games and more recently would live on Facebook, Twitter or their Xbox. I distinctly remember my 14 year old cousin stating on Facebook last year that she was bored. That particular day was sunny and a Saturday. When I was growing up a Saturday would be whole day of adventure. We would build camps, go swimming in the river or get lost on our bikes and just about make it back home in time for dinner.
So, that was my inspiration. I walked away from the security of my office job in London and took a role abroad with a summer camp. Here I found my vocation. Children would arrive at camp, a little nervous and slightly homesick. During their two-week stay I would see them flourish and grow. This was a real sense of job satisfaction.
After the summer, I took a winter role for a ski company in France and fell in love with the ski resort of La Tania. I didn’t want to go back to an office job. I wanted to stay in the mountains. I wanted to go to bed tired through hard work and content that I was helping someone discover and learn about themselves.
That April I was speaking to some local residents along with British expats and they all said the same thing, La Tania was beautiful in the summer but no one came and enjoyed it. That’s where it all fell into place. I went straight back to the UK and set up my own adventure company. I returned to France 3 months later and I haven’t looked back.
TGLF: What sort of house do you have in La Tania? (I ask this as I’ve read that all buildings must be clad in wood …)
Well, La Tania was developed specifically for the journalists of the 1992 Winter Olympics so the village has a few apartment blocks (pretty ones mind) and two hotels. As the area is primarily a ski resort, the architects and Maire were insistent that all the properties were built traditionally out of wood, so, yes you are right. There are about 70 wooden chalets spread throughout the forest, all very picturesque. In the summer we use two of these chalets for our guests. I stay about 100m up the road in an apartment.
My actual ‘house’ is a converted barn that sits on the other side of the valley, looking up to La Tania and Méribel. It’s about a 15 minute drive from La Tania in a small village called Montagny, part of the commune of Bozel. It was a lot cheaper than buying or building in the UK!
3. You mention speaking to British expats – is there a big community of expats in La Tania?
There is a huge expat community in both La Tania and Bozel (well, I think huge for a ski resort) with the majority being here during the winter. There are a fair few English ski tour operators operating from November through to April. The owners of these companies tend to live permanently in La Tania, with a few residing in Bozel. I’m not sure of the actual numbers, but percentage wise it’s quite high.
TGLF: Can you give your top three tips for anyone moving to France? (and in particular to the Alps?)
Research the area by spending as much time there as possible before committing yourself. Make sure you experience the area at different times of the year too. What might seem as a nice, friendly and vibrant area one month might be a ghost town for the next 11. That could work both for and against you, depending on your situation so make sure you find out first.
Speak to the locals, speak to the restaurant and bar owners, they know anything and everything about the area and if you’re honest with them, they will help you. They might be reluctant at first and dismissive, but if you show that you are learning the language or following the traditions of the village, people will become you friends.
TGLF: What is Mountain Adventure Camps all about?
In a nutshell, it’s about getting children and adults outside having fun and adventure, enjoying freedom and making new friends. It’s about encouraging children (and the child in us adults) to be children again. There are no mobile phones, laptops or TV’s. We go mountain biking as soon as it’s been raining, so we get muddy We provide daily French lessons and go shopping at the market for that evening’s dinner, things like that.
It all started with us providing residential summer camps for children aged 9-17, that was my main driver. Children come and stay with us from the UK, France, Switzerland, all over really. On arrival, they are put into groups of approximately 6 based on their age and have a chaperone that will then look after them during their stay. In the morning the children have French lessons and then sports such as tennis, then its lunchtime. In the afternoon, we go rafting, mountain biking, skiing, things like that. We see children grow, learn about themselves and ultimately develop.
Following this, the children’s parents started asking if they could come along, so we started providing bespoke multi-activity holidays for adults and families. After more feedback and comments we are now introducing walking holidays for adults next summer.
The team here is very passionate about what we do; we try to offer something unique. We have grown primarily through word-of-mouth recommendations, returning guests and guest referrals. We shall remain reasonably small, as it enables us to be flexible, but more importantly provide a more personalised service to our guests. I know the children enjoy the smaller group sizes, one of the many comments we get is the fact that the children ‘felt part of it’ and weren’t there just to make the numbers up – something I’m proud of