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‘Accommodation had to be simple, because money was short’ – Celebrating travel innovator Colin Murison Small

Location scout: Colin Murison Small in Lindos, Greece, in 1965  (Alex Small)
Location scout: Colin Murison Small in Lindos, Greece, in 1965 (Alex Small)

Boxing Day, 1958: a dozen travellers comprising the first-ever chalet skiing party left London Victoria by train for the port of Newhaven. They sailed overnight to Dieppe on the north coast of France. Then began the long and winding rail journey to Grindelwald in Switzerland. In those austere post-war days, the holiday looked like an impossible dream: two weeks of skiing, being looked after by hosts in a chalet and plied with unlimited wine.

Their guide and organiser was Colin Murison Small, who has died at the age of 93.

Many 21st-century travellers 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 accommodation,” he told me on the 50th anniversary of that pioneering trip. At the average wage in the late 1950s, it would take about a month’s labour to earn enough for the trip.

That holiday price today is equivalent to £625 – less than a week at the average British wage in 2024.

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

In 1959 the average male needed to work for three weeks to earn enough to pay for that precious fortnight; for women, it was five weeks.

“Yes, the accommodation was simple in those days – but it had to be because money was short and Brits were limited to a foreign currency allowance of £25.”

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

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

The concept had been born the previous summer. In 1958 Mr Murison Small had travelled with friends to Yugoslavia for a bargain holiday on the Adriatic coast. Two of his pals’ girlfriends were unemployed at the time, so the others agreed to cover their costs for accommodation and food if they cooked.

Colin Murison Small had landed on a great business idea. He promptly formalised the role, and those two women became his first employees for the coming winter season.

Sir Arnold Lunn had organised ski holidays for the British upper classes as early as 1899. But it was not until Mr Murison Small hammered the price down that ordinary people could begin to dream 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 out.

Breakfast consisted of two large pots. One was filled with porridge, the other with boiling water. Beside the water pot were fresh eggs – and a marker pen with which to write your name on the shell. The chalet hosts ate with the guests and everyone mucked in to clear tables and wash up. The hosts’ role was not to serve, but to make clients feel at home – and at home, you boiled your own egg,

The concept rapidly caught on. “Although I lost £50 on the first season, I persevered, spreading into top resorts all over the Alps,” Mr Murison Small recalled in 2008. By then the chalet concept had formalised – though the politically incorrect job title of “Muribirds” for the hosts had long gone.

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

Colin Murison Small blazed the trail for a new kind of winter sports holiday, and replicated the concept for summer packages on Spain’s Costa Brava: the first villa party trip, in 1959, was based in Blanes – just along the coast from Lloret de Mar.

Yet his enduring love was for Greece. The tour operator unlocked Lindos in Rhodes as a destination for British travellers in the early 1960s. The location, overlooked by a magnificent acropolis and with a broad, sandy bay, was perfect. He met the mayor in the square, along with the fisherman who owned the grandest house in the village. His first villa party to Lindos stayed in “The Captain’s House”, as it was called.

Small World bought seats on the first charter jet from the UK to Athens in 1965. At the time, most British holidaymakers flew to the Greek capital and moved on by ferry to the islands. But island airports quickly opened up – meeting public demand for what Murison Small crisply described as “direct flights, short transfers and no antiquities thank you”.

Going places: Colin Murison Small (right) at Corfu airport in 1965 (Alex Small)
Going places: Colin Murison Small (right) at Corfu airport in 1965 (Alex Small)

The early 1970s were years of turmoil for the UK travel industry. Tens of thousands of people were left stranded or penniless when holiday companies collapsed. In the 1974 collapse of Court Line, 40,000 holidaymakers were stranded abroad, and 60,000 others lost money.

To protect travellers against future collapses, the Atol scheme (which is now in its 50th year) was established. But smaller companies could not afford individually to meet the new, stringent bonding requirements. Mr Murison Small arranged a meeting with his rivals in a London pub – and became chair of the newly formed Association of Independent Tour Operators (Aito), providing the essential financial protection.

Colin Murison Small parted company with Small World in 1985. His new venture, Hidden Greece, marked every 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 be Greeks,” he observed, managing the expectations of prospective customers.

“Greeks do not prostitute their way of life to please the tourist: they carry on rising with the sun, enjoying lukewarm food and turning shouting matches into an art form.

“Not everyone will appreciate the finer aspects of Greek life: the cockerel greeting the sunrise from your window sill, the tendency for buses to operate at dawn or the noise the locals make when you want to sleep. But our clients return time and again because they like our small scale, mostly family-run, accommodation where friendliness replaces servility.”

Tourism, the industry of human happiness, thrives on people meeting people in wonderful parts of the world. Throughout his long and illustrious career, Colin Murison Small showed his love for travellers 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 key travel issue – and what it means for you.