Image: Hautes Pyrénées
I Love Ski: Mr Pélieu, let’s present your career and your participation in public life.
Michel Pélieu: After high school, I did my military service and quickly returned to work in the equipment, where I ended up as the main controller. I left the sector very early, at the age of 55, which allowed me to fully engage in public life. My first election dates back to 1971, when I was voted as municipal councilor in the municipality of Loudenvielle. In 1977, I became mayor of the commune of Loudenvielle (65), and in 1983 I assumed the presidency of the Thermal and Tourism Union of the Louron Valley, a structure responsible for the development of the Louron valley fund, including the lake and all the facilities of leisure around Loudenvielle. In 1985 I was elected general councilor, and I undertook to reopen the ski resort of Peyresourde, which had been closed for 5 years, and it was at that time when I was elected president in 1984.
I made a rapprochement with the Agudes resort and in 1988 we created the resort between two departments: Peyragudes, by the contraction of Peyresourde and Agudes. As part of a mixed economy company with a private group that was the emanation of SOGEA, the creation of the ‘Compagnie Générale des Eaux’, we had a dynamic investment of 3 years, but unfortunately with three very difficult winters (winters of the years 88-89, 89-90 and 90-91). In 1992, SOGEA requested the opportunity to withdraw and we negotiated an interesting agreement that allowed us to assume the administration of the resort. We created an association according to Law 1901 in order to maintain the legal structure of SEM and the resort grew significantly.
In 1985, we were among the last ski resorts in the Pyrenees and, 15 years later, we are among the first resorts of the Pyrenees. We’ve also developed several real estate projects in Peyresourde. The ski resort of Peyragudes today generates between 9 and 10 million euros of CA in addition to real estate management activities. It’s a company that has about 12 million euros of turnover, which employs 180 people in winter, around 40 during the whole year, and it has generated around many companies and a significant economic activity. At the same time, as President of the Syndicate of Thermal and Tourist Waters, I started the creation of the first spa center of the French Pyrenees, in the year 2000: Balnéa.
We have had success since the very first year, with 7 jobs, 50,000 admissions and a relatively modest turnover. The success of Balnéa reached such a point that it was necessary to quickly build new spaces: the first was a Roman space and the second a Native American space. Then we developed cabin treatments, Japanese baths, which allowed us to earn up to 20% more billing. Then we created an Inca space, and a new aquatic play space is currently being built: the Mayan baths.
Today, 20 years later, we have over 300,000 visitors per year, 5 million euros in sales, 45 jobs and 70 people working in the summer. It’s an activity that works very well and that worries me less than snow, because it depends less on weather conditions. We have also made development throughout the valley; We are building a cable car connection between Loudenvielle and Peyragudes to guarantee the synergy between the high altitude ski area and the valley.
The bottom of the valley is an important leisure area, with free flight, pedestrian and equestrian routes, descents on mountain bikes… The purpose is to become an amusement park that will cover the upper part of the resort (in which you can find zip lines, sleds and fun equipment in summer) connected at the bottom by the gondola that will serve as a method of transport but also as a tourist attraction. The installation will be called “SkyVall”: “Sky” for the air side of the cable car and “Vall” for Vallée du Louron, making a nod to the James Bond movie, Skyfall, because Peyragudes had the opportunity to be a shooting location for a James Bond movie.
Not to mention the development of a 5 star campsite with accommodation in the form of bungalows, with swimming pool, jacuzzis, saunas, etc. In a few weeks, the construction of a 4-star hotel with 60 rooms and other novelties will begin.
When I was elected General Councilor in 1985, I remained for a long time as Vice President and it was in 2011 when I assumed the Presidency of the department of Hautes-Pyrénées, in which I try to bring innovation, in a difficult context where the departments are a bit rough for lack of means. But it forces us to be smarter and think about finding solutions to our problems.
I Love Ski: What are your main challenges? Why do you get up in the morning?
Michel Pélieu: I get up in the morning because I have a great passion for all this. I am undoubtedly an atypical choice, I am not the chosen one who rises to do politics. What interests me and motivates me is to build. I was a senator for four months, to replace another senator who died during his term. I could have chosen to go to the Senate, it would have been much more comfortable for me, even materially. But the 4 months I spent as a senator did not fill me. I prefer to be here in the field, in the department. I do a little of what I did in my valley, but on a larger scale: we build, we renew, we make roads, we are more protagonists of global development. I live passionately. The day I don’t do anything, I’ll just have to die (laughs). I need it to live. I like to be exhausted from work, first of all, because I sleep badly (laughs) and if I’m not tired, I can’t sleep. I have to get physical and intellectual fatigue.
I Love Ski: What is the greatest success of your career?
Michel Pélieu: At a professional level, I was lucky to be in a state administration. I was often outside, I had fun. It also gave me some flexibility in the use of my time to manage a professional life and public life concomitantly. But I’m not complaining about my professional career. I could have gone up a few more steps if I had made the decision, but I prioritized public life and left very early to retire. In public life, I believe that what has been done in the Louron Valley will have marked a page of history, in a valley that needed it. Balnéa is without a doubt my greatest success. When I started this project, few people believed in me, maybe nobody. But the members of my town hall did not dare to tell me no.
With two municipalities with less than 500 inhabitants, we invested 15 million euros. The loan has always been covered by the operating royalty, paid by the operating company that I preside. I was the master of open doors, but also the operator and the operator has always paid a fee to the project owner to cover the annuity loan. Today, Balnéa generates results, and the 15 million euros of investments have never weighed on local taxes. It’s a great success.
I Love Ski: You’re a defender, a developer of the mountain. If you had a wish list for the coming years for the Pyrenees mountains, what would they be?
Michel Pélieu: The Pyrenean mountains must not become a nature reserve. I think we can achieve a harmonious and balanced development of the mountain, in a respectful and modern way (I think I can say that we show it in my valley). Nowadays, there are planning documents that specify the areas to be built, the type of architecture. If we want to have life in the Pyrenean mountain, we will need tourism.
Obviously, I am a defender of grazing, agropastoralism, especially local agri-food products, which allow local products to be sold directly. However, we must welcome a tourist population if we want to generate activity and employment. We must continue to develop tourism, without falling into abusive developments, but without being infantilized. From this point of view, this is a reproach that I will make to the State: every time we carry out a project, we have the impression of finding many obstacles. I don’t like this situation, and I think the state should do a new act of decentralization, maintain sovereign powers (justice, education, defense, army) but let the departments administer their territories.
I want to introduce bears, for example, but not at the expense of pastoralism and other activities. The introduction of a bear costs between 1 and 2 million euros, and at the same time we are told that the state must close some or other public services. I understand that there are public services that should no longer exist in order to save money, but with the introduction of a bear that costs 1.5 million euros, I think there are inconsistencies.
I Love Ski: How do you see the future of winter sports in general, and skiing in particular?
Michel Pélieu: Contrary to what many people want us to believe, if skiing is over, it’s all over! The economic model in which we find ourselves and which pushes us to move towards a development of 4 seasons faces the reality of skiing: skiing remains the main attraction of mountain territories. In an annual turnover of 100, the ski represents at least 80, maybe 85. Gradually, the positioning of 4 seasons will increase the proportion of other seasons, but when we reach the 70-30 ratio, we will surely have made the maximum. It’s necessary to rationalize skiing.
The current time does not facilitate the extension of ski areas, but rather the optimization of ski resorts with less lifts and more efficient lifts: when we invest 4 or 5 million on a ski lift, it is necessary to systematically include the work on the slope as well as a network of artificial snow to build the slope and be in a position in which, no matter how the winter goes, we can offer a quality ski product. This winter, many resorts in the Pyrenees remained closed at Christmas but Peyragudes, for example, thanks to the snow farming network available at the resort, was able to offer a good ski product. Every winter, there is a cold period that allows us to produce snow, and every winter there is a minimum layer of snow that serves as a base. We must maintain the ski product in all resorts, or at least in the most important ones. There are resorts that don’t reach the minimum and are tempted by the repositioning, so it needs to be meditated.
On the other hand, we must encourage young people to ski: at the department of Hautes-Pyrénées, we bring young people to ski every year, offering them transport, ski lessons, packages, for both practice and sports initiation. It’s increasingly necessary to professionalize the sector and work with quality accommodation structures: there is still a long way to go, especially with regard to the hotel industry. The Italian resorts of the Dolomites almost always offer accommodation in the form of hotels, and the Pyrenees, from this point of view, have a considerable delay. I struggled to launch a 4 star hotel project in the Louron Valley, and I hope there are many more. For a skiing holiday, there must be a minimum of snow, and an adapted, easily accessible accommodation is required for international clients.
We work with Tarbes and Pau airport to attract these customers. A Parisian should know that if he comes by plane and leaves home at 9 am, at noon he can be on the slopes of our mountains enjoying himself.
From Paris to Tarbes, it takes 1 hour by plane, to cross the airport it takes 3 minutes, and the taxi waits at the door to go skiing directly.