Snow business

31 January 2005 by
Snow business

It's a little weird sitting in the warmth of the Clubhouse bar, because it feels exactly like I'm in Milk & Honey in London. The decor, the drinks and even the bartender are familiar, but I can't help noticing that outside the window it's not scurrying Soho socialites I can spy, but a thick blanket of snow and an extremely large mountain.

Jonathan Downey, owner of the Match Bar Group, which operates six venues in the British capital, including the multi-award-winning members' club Milk & Honey (M&H), has branched out into Europe by opening a boutique hotel in Chamonix, one of the leading ski destinations in the French Alps.

Called the Clubhouse, and opened last month, it is, according to Downey, "a genuinely world-class destination hotel and bar in the most sensational of settings". This is his first serious venture outside London - Milk & Honey New York, the inspiration for its London counterpart, was originally created by Sasha Petraske, and Downey's dalliance with a high-end beach bar in St Tropez was short-lived.

He is clearly enthused about this project, though, and is determined to replicate the quality of the drinks and service for which London's M&H has been celebrated. "We are taking the city to the Alps," Downey says. "We are offering something stylish and affordable that has not previously been available in ski areas like this."

The hotel boasts seven rooms, with accommodation for as many as 24 guests, plus a lounge bar, restaurant and treatment suite, and there is also a wood-decked bar terrace seating up to 30.

The day-to-day running of the site is under the control of Pete Vohman, Downey's partner in the project. Vohman, a former investment banker, bought the building two years ago and operated it for a year as a guesthouse called the Big Friendly House. He is a member of M&H London and he was introduced to Downey one night in the bar through a mutual friend. Vohman wanted his advice on how to run the bar, but ended up with a partner in running the business.

"I was hoping to get some tips on creating quality drinks, but I was lucky enough to attract one of the world's leading operators," says Vohman. "We shared a vision about the venue and its place in the region. Chamonix is incredibly popular, with tremendous repeat business, but there is no real social hub to the area. We want to provide that."

In an attempt to connect with the community, the Clubhouse has arranged special deals on equipment hire and all things ski-related. It will also run a ski clinic throughout the winter season with Slopestyle ski champion Abi Pickett. The benefits of becoming a member of the Clubhouse include use of its two street-legal quad bikes and a BMW X5 for private airport transfers.

The €1m (£700,000) design makeover which changed the Big Friendly House into the Clubhouse took six months and was led by Jonathan Mangham from Mango Design. He says: "Jonathan Downey insisted it had to be ‘anti-alpine', with no chintz, and the bar should reflect its relationship to Milk & Honey. And where there were original features, to try and keep them."

The villa was built in 1927 and owned by one family until Vohman acquired it. Mangham says: "There was a lot of classic furniture remaining from the family, such as 1950s rosewood chairs, which we have retained."

He continues: "In the bar area, we have attempted to reproduce the art deco feel from M&H with classic wallpaper, and we have imported the tin panels from New York, which are one of London's main features. However, we did not want to have a naff ‘themed' feel, so we have not continued the deco atmosphere into the bedrooms. In there, it is more modern, with clean lines and dark tones to indicate sexy luxury and mountain glamour."

And talking of sex, the showcase bedroom, called the Myla suite, has been built to raise the temperature. Created under the eaves of the hotel in what was a dusty attic is a room designed specifically for a naughty getaway. It has a huge 2.7m bed (the average double being about 1.6m), outfitted with Frette linen. Aside from panoramic views of Mont Blanc, there is a walk-in "rainforest" shower with translucent glass screens that is visible from the bed.

But perhaps the most innovative feature is the range of Myla sex toys available in the minibar, and a selection of racy DVDs that can be played on the plasma-screen TV. If that's not enough to mist up your ski goggles, there is a library of erotic fiction and further "tools for bedroom arts" provided by the Coco de Mer erotic emporium.

The Myla suite is priced at €195 (£136) per night, with the bunkhouse rooms starting from €50 (£35). Downey is clearly trying to extend his membership "family" to include the Clubhouse, as existing members of M&H will get discounted rates and preferential booking.

The hotel is being marketed as a membership-only venue, with options such as an international membership at €150 (£104) per annum, which includes €75 (£52) of "Clubhouse cash" to spend in the bar and restaurant. Local membership is €300 (£209) for three years, if you live within 250km of Chamonix, and founder membership is by invitation only and costs €1,200 (£836) for 10 years.

Over a martini, Downey admits that moving into hotels is a different proposition to running bars. "You need to host people over a longer period," he says. "You're with people for a week, for instance, rather than just a few hours, and therefore the service needs to be consistently excellent across a range of issues."

He is so excited that he is already looking at other venues. He has just returned from sizing up a 30-bedroom hotel in Monterosso, Italy, and is in negotiations to create summer versions of the Clubhouse in Biarritz and Ibiza.

Finishing his drink, Downey surveys the white expanses stretching away outside the hotel, and appears convinced that this winter haven will propel his business to another level. Currently, there seems to be no business quite like snow business.

The Clubhouse

Owned by: A partnership between Jonathan Downey of the Match Bar Group and former investment banker Pete Vohman.

Design: The building is a 1927 villa that has been renovated at a cost of €1m (£700,000) by Mango Design. This took six months, and created an art deco-influenced bar and dark-toned modern bedrooms, intended to evoke "mountain luxury". The showcase room is the Myla suite, which contains a massive 2.7m bed and a minibar with sex toys.

Rooms: The Clubhouse can sleep 24 in seven rooms.

Price: Members only. Membership is automatic if you are already a member of Milk & Honey; if not, yearly membership is €150 (£105), local membership (within 250km) is €300 (£209) for three years, and lifetime membership (invitation only) is €1,200 (£836) for 10 years. The Myla suite costs €195 (£136) per night; bunkhouse rooms start at €50 (£35).

Restaurant: The Pacific Rim menu has been designed by Ivy-trained chef Shaun Rowlands and serves breakfast from 7am to 10am and dinner from 7pm to 9pm; snacks will be available from the bar throughout the day.

Bar: The drinks list, created by Dale DeGroff and Jonathan Downey, features classic cocktails (€8/£5.60) and a large selection of Scotch whiskies, vodkas and vintage Armagnacs. Bottled Evian is used to make twice-frozen ice for the drinks.

Tell me more about Chamonix

Where is it?
Chamonix is in the French Alps, just an hour's drive away from Geneva, in an area that is dominated by the highest mountain in the Alps, the Mont Blanc massif (4,807m).

What's so good about it?
As a skiing resort, it is regarded as one of the best in the Alps, although it's not really a place for novices, as it is acknowledged by the Ski Club of Great Britain to be the climbing and extreme skiing capital of the world because of the severity of the runs and the sudden changes of weather.

And the hospitality?
Welcoming. Chamonix town itself is based around a core of hotels and villas built at the end of the 19th century. However, it is not so much a single resort as a chain of unconnected ski areas set along both sides of the valley, many of which have a reputation for a lively evening scene.

How do I get there?

Drive, or fly to Geneva and transfer. EasyJet flies daily to Geneva from locations across the UK for prices starting at £51 return.

The Clubhouse

74 Promenade des Sonnailles, 74400 Chamonix, Mont Blanc, France

Tel: 00 33 4 50 90 96 56

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