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.
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. 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 launched in 1947 against a backdrop of post-war austerity. Her early brochure featured the slogan, ‘To Sun and Snow with Erna Low’ – and features a very wide range of holiday destinations bearing in mind that it was before the age of ‘flights for all’ and ‘package holidays’
In the ’50s and early ’60s 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. As package tour holidays began to boom in the sixties, Erna introduced many more flight packages, it was at this time that the brochures (dating from 1965) show that Erna Low began to offer Spa holidays to the traditional spa towns in France, Hungary and Italy. Coming from Austria Erna Low had been brought up understanding the many benefits of ‘taking the waters’ and was keen to introduce this concept to the UK holiday maker.
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. It was at this time that she was joined by a young graduate, Joanna Yellowlees-Bound – now the company’s CEO. The company became the number 1 specialist tour operator for self-drive skiing holidays to France, expanding into Austria and Italy, as well as continuing to expand the spa holiday offer, to include a wider range of spa resorts as the availability of the product grew worldwide. She continued to personally research spas abroad and to accompany journalists on press trips to learn about the spas until the mid 1990s, always very enthusiastic to try the latest treatments and to ensure that the spas were maintaining the highest and most professional standards.
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 CEO, Joanna Yellowlees-Bound, and all the Erna Low staff, continue the Erna Low tradition of innovation and customer service. In 2009, the company transformed its spa holiday business from a tour operator to an online spa news service. In 2016 the website was rebranded as Body and Soul World, offering all the latest news and reviews on luxury spa openings, spa breaks, beauty and pampering treatments, holistic retreats, and personal development for a new generation of spa lovers and seekers.