February 22, 2024

‘Housing had to be simple because there was little money’ – Colin Murison Small

bOxing Day, 1958: A dozen travelers, comprising the very first chalet ski party, left London Victoria by train for Newhaven Harbour. They sailed overnight to Dieppe on the north coast of France. Then the long and winding train journey to Grindelwald in Switzerland began. In those austere post-war days, the holiday seemed like an impossible dream: two weeks of skiing, being cared for by hosts in a chalet and drinking unlimited wine.

Their guide and organizer was Colin Murison Small, who has died aged 93.

Many 21st century travelers will not know his name. But with vision, courage and innovation, Mr Murison Small helped create the travel industry that British holidaymakers enjoy today.

The key to that first season: affordability. “Each participant had paid 30 guineas [£31.50] for travel and full board,” he told me on the 50th anniversary of that groundbreaking trip. At the average wage in the late 1950s, it would take about a month’s work to earn enough for the trip.

That holiday price is equivalent to £625 today – less than a week’s worth of the average UK wage in 2024.

The catering included tea when they returned to the chalet and unlimited cheap wine at dinner.

In 1959, the average man had to work three weeks to earn enough to pay for those precious fortnights; for women this was five weeks.

“Yes, accommodation was basic in those days – but that had to be because money was tight and Brits were limited to a £25 foreign exchange allowance.”

Mr. Murison Small created the role of chalet host: a person who combines cooking formidable meals with creating a cordial atmosphere for guests, making a disparate bunch of strangers feel like the best of friends. His company, Murison Small Ltd (later Small World), catered to individual travelers as well as groups of two, three or more. Everyone could book with the confidence that they would be part of a like-minded party.

Small world: Colin Murison Small (right) in his chalet in Grindelwald, Switzerland, in 1960 – unlimited cheap wine with dinner was one of the selling points

(Alex Klein)

The concept was born the summer before. In 1958, Mr Murison Small had traveled to Yugoslavia with friends for a budget holiday on the Adriatic coast. Two of his friends’ girlfriends were unemployed at the time, so the others agreed to cover their housing and food costs if they cooked.

Colin Murison Small had come up with a great business idea. He promptly formalized the role and those two women became his first employees for the upcoming winter season.

Sir Arnold Lunn had organized skiing holidays for the British upper class as early as 1899. But it wasn’t until Mr Murison Small hammered the price down that ordinary people could start dreaming of winter sports holidays. The entrepreneur kept costs low by renting chalets for the entire ski season, staffing them with British women and offering an all-inclusive deal with no hidden extras.

In return, clients were expected to help.

Breakfast consisted of two large pots. One was filled with porridge, the other with boiling water. Next to the water bowl were fresh eggs – and a marker with which you could write your name on the bowl. The chalet hosts ate with the guests and everyone did their best to clear the tables and wash dishes. The role of the host was not to serve, but to make the customers feel at home – and at home you boiled your own egg,

The concept caught on quickly. “Although I lost £50 in the first season, I persevered and spread to top resorts all over the Alps,” Mr Murison Small recalled in 2008. By then the chalet concept had been formalized – although the politically incorrect job title “Muribirds ” before the hosts were long gone.

Mountain high: Drina and Anne, two ‘Muribirds’, in the French ski resort of La Villars in the late 1960s

(Alex Klein)

Colin Murison Small paved the way for a new kind of winter sports holiday and copied the concept for summer packages on Spain’s Costa Brava: the first villa party trip, in 1959, took place in Blanes – just down the coast from Lloret de Mar.

Yet his lasting love was for Greece. The tour operator unlocked Lindos, Rhodes, as a destination for British travelers in the early 1960s. The location, overlooking a beautiful Acropolis and a wide sandy bay, was perfect. He met the mayor in the square, together with the fisherman who owned the largest house in the village. His first villa party on Lindos was staying at “The Captain’s House”, as it was called.

Small World bought seats on Britain’s first charter plane to Athens in 1965. At the time, most British holidaymakers flew to the Greek capital and then traveled to the islands by ferry. But airports on the islands opened quickly, meeting public demand for what Murison Small succinctly described as “direct flights, short transfers and no antiquities, thank you”.

Places going: Colin Murison Small (right) at Corfu Airport in 1965

(Alex Klein)

The early 1970s were years of turmoil for the British travel industry. Tens of thousands of people were left stranded or destitute as holiday companies went bankrupt. The collapse of Court Line in 1974 left 40,000 holidaymakers stranded abroad and 60,000 others lost money.

To protect travelers from future collapses, the Atol plan (now in its 50th year) was created. But smaller companies individually could not afford to meet the new, strict bond requirements. Mr Murison Small arranged a meeting with his rivals in a London pub – and became chairman of the newly formed Association of Independent Tour Operators (Aito), providing vital financial protection.

Colin Murison Small retired from Small World in 1985. His new venture, Hidden Greece, marked each destination out of 10 for what he called ‘The Martian Factor’: the higher the number, the more likely you were to meet other British travellers.

“Greeks will remain Greeks,” he noted, managing the expectations of potential customers.

“The Greeks do not prostitute their way of life to please tourists: they continue to rise with the sun, enjoy lukewarm food and turn shouting matches into an art form.

“Not everyone will appreciate the finer aspects of Greek life: the rooster that greets the sunrise from your windowsill, the tendency of buses to run at dawn or the noise the locals make when you want to sleep. But our customers return time and time again because they love our small-scale, mostly family-run accommodation where friendliness replaces service.”

Tourism, the industry of human happiness, thrives on people meeting people in beautiful parts of the world. Throughout his long and illustrious career, Colin Murison Small showed his love for travelers and their hosts.

Simon Calder, also known as The Man Who Pays His Way, has been writing about travel for The Independent since 1994. In his weekly opinion column he explores a major travel issue – and what it means for you.

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