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Ski holiday operator slid into his career by accident
Buy this photo » Rupert Longsdon, founder of The Oxford Ski Company, with staff at the company’s head office in Witney. Picture: OX62707 Denis Kennedy
Like many young people when it comes to leaving school and making the next step, Rupert Longsdon had no idea what he wanted to do.
“I’d had no eureka moment, no childhood longing. “At school we are told to study various subjects so we can pass exams, and that means schools and universities get the right results,” he said.
“But no one is spending enough time on telling young people about careers and looking at what direction they should take.”
Mr Longsdon, 40, did know that university was not for him and after leaving Eton College in 1991 he was looking for a direction.
He added: “I was the only person out of 250 leavers not to go to university.
“There was nothing I wanted to study and I didn’t see the point of going to university to study something like geography just because I should do it, and still have no guarantee of a job at the end of it.
“I wanted to see the real world and start working.”
One thing he had always wanted to do was travel and he spent two years moving around the world and working in bars and restaurants to earn his keep. Eventually he ended up as a “plongeur”, or dish-washer, in the French ski resort of Val d’Isere and found he really enjoyed the skiing culture.
“I liked the interaction of meeting people and I loved being in the mountains.
“It led me to thinking about the service industry around skiing and I thought about starting my own business.”
As a result he formed The Oxford Ski Company in 1998. The idea was to provide ski chalets which were fully serviced by staff, including a professional chef.
Despite having no experience, he managed to secure a £10,000 loan from NatWest Bank in Oxford, and the idea became reality when he gained the use of two chalets in Crans-Montana, Switzerland.
“It was a gamble and I don’t think I could have got the loan had I been starting now. But I’m still with the same bank.”
Very early on Mr Longsdon decided the business would be heavily internet-based.
“When I started we were the only ski company with a website. No one had computers at home then but it gave us a head start.”
Clients flooded in from around the world, including Russia, the Far East and South America, showing the power of the web even in its early days.
The business, now based in offices at the Thorney Leys Business Park, in Witney, has grown steadily and now has an annual turnover of £10m and 16 staff.
The most significant growth has been in the last five years.
“At the top end of the market not everyone was hit by the recession, and people who love skiing like to go each year, whereas a safari might just be a one-off.”
The firm now offers skiers a choice between resorts in Austria, France, Italy, Swizterland, the US and Canada.
Two years ago Mr Longsdon launched another arm of the business, OS Private Travel, which offers clients breaks in villas, aboard yachts and even on private islands.
It is all a far cry from his humble job washing dishes in a ski resort and has allowed him to indulge his love of travel and adventure.
In 2007 he was part of the first expedition to reach the Antarctic Pole of Inaccessibility – the exact centre of the continent – by foot. Only an expedition from the Soviet Union had been there before, using vehicles in 1958, and, after 48 days on foot he and his companions found a statue of the former Communist Party leader Vladimir Lenin, mastermind of the October Revolution in 1917, incongruously sticking out of the snow, to mark the culmination of their journey.
Now he is looking for the next adventure. “It’s about finding something challenging, exciting and new,” he said.
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