Business · interviews · Sunday Times

How I Made It: Rupert Longsdon, of the Oxford Ski Company

RUPERT LONGSDON’S love of wild places led him into the Guinness Book of Records. He was part of the first expedition to reach the Antarctic pole of inaccessibility — the exact centre of the continent — by foot.

“The expedition took about 48 days,” said Longsdon. “I’ve always had a sense of adventure.”

It was a love of mountains that drove him to found the Oxford Ski Company, a winter sports travel firm, in 1998. Based in Witney, Oxfordshire, it managed sales of £7.5m last year and expects that figure to rise to £8.8m when it files accounts next month.

It has a portfolio of more than 400 chalets and 70 hotels, about 80% of which are in France and Switzerland. “Hotels are the fastest-growing side of the business,” said Longsdon. “The quality and investment in hotels in the Alps has gone up enormously in the past five or six years.”

The Oxford Ski Company tailors its holiday packages to the client, with a concierge department organising accommodation, food, childcare, ski instruction and entertainment. The staff plan everything from honeymoons to family Christmases. “Santa seems to be turning up to a lot of different chalets this year. People often care about those extra details more than the skiing,” Longsdon said.

He is used to taking requests from “tricky” VIP clients, including celebrities and royals. At the moment he is organising a surprise 50th birthday picnic on top of a mountain. A table and chairs will be cut out in the snow and butlers will be on hand to serve the food.

“We will arrange anything as long as it’s legal,” said Longsdon. “The boundaries do get pushed sometimes by a few Russians.”

Half his clients are British, with young City workers making up many of the winter bookings. The busiest period begins this month, although the company’s 13 employees were hard at work during the summer, visiting properties and finding new landlords.

Longsdon came up with the idea of starting a winter travel company while working in a French ski resort. He spent two years travelling the world after leaving Eton College in 1991, and then arrived in Val d’Isère where he spent the winter as a kitchen porter at Bananas, a popular après-ski venue.

“I had a great time in that environment,” he said. “It was adventurous and fun, so I thought, ‘What business could be made of this?’ I didn’t have a career path ahead of me.”

Longsdon was born and raised in Cirencester, Gloucestershire. His mother cared for him and his three siblings. His father was an army officer, which meant for two years the family lived in Germany.

“My parents were very supportive. They didn’t believe we had to follow the norm and go to university; rather, they encouraged us to go out and make things. We’re a creative and diverse family.”

His younger brother, Charlie, is a racehorse trainer. His younger sister is a teacher and his older brother is a banker.

In 1998, after five years of working in bars and ski resorts in the winter and a summer job with a marquees company, Longsdon decided to seek backing for his business idea. He borrowed £10,000 from NatWest and got the Oxford Ski Company off the ground by acquiring the use of two chalets in Crans-Montana, Switzerland.

The business did not have his full attention for almost a decade, however. For eight years he dabbled in pyrotechnics, staging firework displays at weddings. His hobby became the Damn Good Firework Company, a small venture he set up with a friend in 2000. “I love fireworks and lots of friends were getting married, so happily the business combined both.”

In 2003 he bought his local pub, the Tunnel House Inn, in the Cotswolds countryside near Cirencester. While there, he decided to take part in the Antarctic expedition — “my last adventure”.

After six years he sold the pub for a profit and the fireworks company. “Life had moved on. I wanted to concentrate on the Oxford Ski Company and try to be more focused.” With the benefit of his time and the cash from the other businesses, the Oxford Ski Company thrived.

In 2011, Longsdon set up a summer holiday company, OS Private Travel, which offers villas, yachts and private islands to complement the winter ski operation. It is already turning over £1m and has pushed the business’s number of employees to 16.

“Winter holidaymakers come back to us to organise their summer,” the boss said. “You become a kind of PA to your client to make sure their holiday is perfect.”

Longsdon, 40, lives in the Gloucestershire hamlet of Calcot with his wife, Davina, a chef by trade, and their three children.

He advises entrepreneurs to be prepared for hard work: “You are solely responsible for your business, so it is difficult; you have to take some calculated risks. Be bold in asking people to help develop your idea.”

Link to Sunday Times website

PDF – Rupert Longsdon of the Oxford Ski Company

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