The History of Erna Low
How it all started
That brief ad appeared in the personal columns of the London Times in 1932. It was to launch the career of one of the great pioneers of the skiing holiday - Erna Low. Some seven decades on, her company, Erna Low Consultants, is still going strong. In fact, they're the largest UK self-drive tour operator to the French Alps - organising holidays for over 14,000 people last season.
Erna's first group of clients were to boldly go where few British skiers had gone before - Austria. The cost for a fortnight in Solden was £15 (that's not a misprint). It included full board in the one and only inn, rail travel to and from the resort, ski hire and tuition, and, of course, a lesson in German. Those early skiing trailblazers were a hardy breed - they had to be.
They wore stout, leather, lace-up boots which would have turned a skinhead green with envy. Simple straps and ties held boots and wooden skis together - and together they stayed: safety releases were a thing for the wimps of the future, as were lifts. If you wanted to ski, then you carried your skis and walked up and up and up. Hardly surprising that the Stubai and Hintertux glaciers were fairly skier-free.
Homesickness, rather than a desire for entrepreneurial glory, prompted Erna's first sortie into the travel business. In the twenties, she'd left Vienna to study in London, but found that she couldn't afford to visit her family and the Austrian slopes as often as she would have liked. Necessity was to prove the mother of invention, hence that brief ad in 1932. It attracted five enthusiastic clients - enough to help fund Erna's trip home. But that first holiday was far more than a financial success - Erna and her party had a marvellous time. So much so that she decided to offer more skiing holidays. Erna placed great value on the 'personal touch'.
She inspected the hotels and knew the guides. In fact, she personally accompanied each group until the mid-1950s.
The business flourished in the thirties and Erna Low holidays were well and truly on the map. But the map was to be torn up by one Herr Hitler. During the Second World War, Erna joined the Army's Education Corps as a lecturer, travelling the length and breadth of England. Travel was hardly a burden to Erna; indeed, it provided her with the catalyst for another innovation in the holiday market - the house party. She rented large English houses and boarding-schools and invited paying guests to stay. The atmosphere was informal. The aim was to allow people to meet each other. Sounds familiar? It should do.
These English house parties were the forerunner of the chalet holiday. In the early fifties, Erna became the first tour operator to offer them as a holiday option for skiers.
The Erna Low Travel Service had been launched in 1947 against a backdrop of post-war austerity. Her early brochure featured the slogan, 'To Sun and Snow with Erna Low' - how enticing that must have seemed in that bitterly cold British winter.
1950’s & 1960’s
Foreign currency controls were still in place but Erna made life easier for her clients with her 'V' Form scheme - enabling them to pay part of the cost in sterling. In those days, most people travelled by rail. They boarded the train at Victoria Station and arrived in Austria a day later. A long journey, but one made less tedious by another of Erna's ideas - the music car (the prototype for today's disco car on the snowtrain). Thousands made the trip. As package tour holidays began to boom in the sixties, Erna introduced many more flight packages.
1970’s & 1980’s
Erna sold her business in 1972, only to buy back her name and the goodwill some three years later. In 1979, she sold the business for a second time. However, Erna had no thoughts of retirement. In 1980, at the age of 72, she launched Erna Low Consultants Ltd. Her first client was La Plagne - Erna became the resort's official UK representative. It was at this time that she was joined by a young graduate, Joanna Yellowlees-Bound - now a partner and the company's MD. Flaine was quick to follow La Plagne's example. A few years later, they were joined by Les Arcs. In 1997, to complement its three dedicated brochures on La Plagne, Les Arcs and Flaine, the company launched its first general French Alps' brochure for 16 years in conjunction with Pierre et Vacances, for whom Erna Low is UK ski sales agent. The brochure offers hotel/apartment holidays in the major French resorts, tailor-made for the independent traveller.
1990’s & the new Millenium
Already the market leader for self-drive French ski holidays, Erna Low continues to expand and is now UK ski agent for MGM Residences, the top luxury apartment agency in France.
During the past seven decades, Erna's contribution to the development of the ski industry has been enormous. Since she placed that first tentative ad in The Times, her ideas and expertise have helped to change skiing holidays almost out of all recognition. So, the next time you feel sorry for yourself because you're stuck in a lift queue, spare a thought for Erna and those early pisteblazers. Imagine them striding past you and climbing up the mountain. And if there's a traffic jam up to your resort, grit your teeth and think of Erna and her clients making the ascent to Saas-Fee by foot or mule.
In May 2000, Erna Low gained the highest accolade from the British Travel Industry to enter the 'Hall of Fame' - an Award only offered to the very elite of all the industry - recognition of her entrepreneurial skills and doyenne of the ski world.
The end of an era
Sadly Miss Erna Low, died at her London home in February 2002.
Her travel career spanned nearly 70 years; her advert for a ski party in 1932 laid the foundation for a lifetime spent pioneering holiday themes and locations around the globe.
Company MD, Joanna Yellowlees-Bound, and all the Erna Low staff, are determined to continue the Erna Low tradition of innovation and customer service. Miss Low will be sadly missed but the foundations she laid will help the company remain the leader in its fields.
The 2000’s and onwards
The success of the Erna Low product and the expertise of all the Erna Low staff in the field of quality holiday accommodation has led to exciting opportunities for the company which is now expanding to cover sales of high quality holiday properties, as well as expanding the core ski holiday product to the US and Canada.
Erna Low's ethos of providing good value for money and the best possible quality holidays continues.
A selection of past Erna Low brochure covers