Business owner, part-time endurance athlete, and mum of three, Francesca Eyre moved to the mountains 30 years ago to set up home in Morzine, where she met her husband, Paul. Together they set up Chilly Powder, a collection of luxury catered and self-catered chalets.
I was lucky enough to stay with Chilly Powder for an incredible week in the ski season, and then again in the summer. Along the way I discovered the fascinating story which led Francesca to the mountains, along with the grief and loss that motivated her to participate in adventure races and endurance events.
Nearly two years ago, Francesca suffered a horrifying accident during a training race, which left her with severe concussion. After a long and challenging road to recovery, Francesca has since opened a beautiful B&B in Provence.
Here we chat about Francesca’s Chilly Powder journey, her toughest endurance events, and her views on travel in a post-Covid, post-Brexit world.
You run Chilly Powder with your husband Paul. Where and how did you meet?
Paul and I met through my brother, Nick, in Morzine in the early 90s. Nick needed someone to help rebuild a bathroom in the chalet he was working in, as clients were due to stay in two days’ time.
Paul volunteered to help and arrived on the job to find my brother mixing Polyfilla in a teacup with a teaspoon! He took over, and the bathroom stayed in one piece for the following 10 years!
We started dating and knew quite quickly that we would be together. So shortly after, we decided to go into business and the rest is history – now with three kids, and one company almost 30 years later, we’re still going strong.
Where did the idea for Chilly Powder come from? Was it a smooth process taking it from an idea to reality?
The name Chilly Powder was something I thought of whilst I was driving to a catering job in London, though I had no idea at the time that I was going to set up a ski company.
I had already done a winter season in Courchevel and had a love-hate relationship with it, but Morzine felt like home.
The idea to reality was of course a massive challenge, including the financial one. Setting up a business that we had had little experience in, in another country, wasn’t the easiest way of raising the funds. Proving to the banks that we were a safe bet was challenging!
Also we were a new couple so any investors were pessimistic – but we found a way to make it work, and founded Chilly Powder in 1996.
What are the challenges of running an independent family business?
The first challenge was working together as a team; manoeuvring around Paul’s huge shoulders in my gallery kitchen, whilst he clutched a gin and tonic (Paul had no experience in a kitchen) and we had 10 clients outside to feed.
Then there was understanding the French rules and regulations. The taxes, payments and charges of running a French business. Thank goodness that was Paul’s department.
We had to do everything ourselves because there weren’t the finances to get any help.
Our first baby was born 5th December that winter and our first clients of the season arrived on 15th December. This was an interesting scenario to say the least!
It was exhausting at the time but fun. I look back now and wonder how on earth did I do it with no-one to help me apart from Paul… all the cooking, cleaning, entertaining, and smiling!
How have you been navigating the global pandemic as a business?
It has been tough as we were closed in March in the blink of an eye, with a full kitchen of food and the bar stocked up.
I was in New Zealand and Paul had to help guests suddenly depart. Staff needed to be sent back to Australia, New Zealand, UK, etc. All wanting to depart before rumours of all the borders closing. We had all of our accommodation still to pay for, clients to be refunded, and the staff accommodation to be sorted and shut down. The hotel also needed to be cleaned, disinfected, and then shut down too.
This summer we managed to open for about three weeks. We have not been able to open for the current winter season yet but this could change in any minute, so we have had to employ certain key staff members… just in case. For this winter we are doing everything we can to keep the business going.
What do you love most about running a business like Chilly Powder?
The stories: hearing so many incredible tales from guests. My biggest regret is not having kept a diary and written down the stories. Two of my children have Godparents who were originally guests. So we have made some very special friends over the years.
I also love working alongside my husband.
You’ve done a lot of amazing fundraising for Cystic Fibrosis. Why is this a cause so close to your heart?
My sister, 18 months younger than me, died of it aged 15 and then my brother at aged 34, so it’s been a huge part of my life.
Learn more about Francesca’s family story in this ‘Holmlands Stories’ video:
Adventure races are a big part of your life – what’s your motivation behind doing these endurance events?
It always makes me laugh but it was to escape the hotel and juggling my own kids. Running a hotel and having three children is an all time consuming job with always something else to do.
Entering into an event meant that I had to train, so I had to leave the hotel for a couple of hours and could just listen to my own thoughts.
What’s the toughest endurance event you’ve taken part in?
They have all had their moments! L’Etape de Tour de France 170km cycling race was tough – only because I had chronic cramp for most of the race.
I have done some amazing events and I’ve had some tricky moments in all of them but that’s where you have to fight mind over matter.
Patrouille de Glacier’s (a ski touring race) tough moment was at 06h00 coming out of Arolla and I hadn’t put my skins back on properly, so I was slipping backwards. A few expletives came out of my mouth then!
A chest infection and the altitude of 5400m on the 220km trail race in Nepal was the hardest part of the Manaslu Trail race – but didn’t stop me from making it to the finish line!
In May 2019, you had a cycling accident during a 300km training race. What happened and how did it affect your mental health? How did you overcome the serious concussion that resulted from the accident?
I have no idea what happened. I have no witnesses either. I was about 50km off the finish and I was found unconscious on the side of the road. They reckon I was probably unconscious for about 20 minutes. I still now have no memory recall of about 15 days and it took me about nine months to get over the event.
I fractured my spine, damaged my face and shoulder, and was obviously cut and bruised. It was down a narrow country lane, no pot holes and no obvious objects. When the police arrived on the scene, they said I squeezed their hand to say a car had hit / nudged me. Though I have no idea for sure.
I overcame it by walking every day. To begin with I was only allowed to walk with someone else. I had to accept my injuries, my thoughts and my muddled brain. I was very very frightened to begin with, very scared of people and I had no control of my head. Also I stopped working, so not to put any unnecessary stress in my head and concentrated on looking after my family and cooking at home. We all put on a ton of weight but it kept me busy and occupied.
Acceptance was a huge step forward.
Why did you decide to set up the B&B in Provence?
We bought the property as a private investment for our family. As we live 5m away from the hotel in Morzine, we needed an escape from work. When everything shut down, I opened up the B&B to help justify having the house and also I loved the challenge of a new adventure, working by myself with no-one to blame except me. Going back to my roots and cooking again for the first time in ages, as we have chefs in the hotel. Living and working in a total French village. I absolutely love it down there.
What are your hopes for the travel industry in the post-COVID era?
For companies in France all to be equal. That’s more Brexit related but it was very tough when a lot of Morzine companies were UK based – paying staff and taxes under the UK laws but using all the local facilities.
The global pandemic is sadly going to kill a lot of companies because they have been hit with both Brexit and Covid.
For me it’s simpler, running a smaller business. But that’s because I have been working for all my life with Cystic Fibrosis siblings and then the hotel and juggling my own children. So the accident and Covid have slowed me down massively.
My hopes for the travel industry in general, is that there is no massive damage and we can have an environmental clean up.
We are really looking forward to starting again and giving our guests their well needed holidays.
If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be?
Time – there will never be enough hours in the day. More time for our own children.
To write down 10 positive points of the day before you go to sleep and to take one day at a time.
To make a donation to the Cystic Fibrosis Trust, visit their donation page here.