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A Life Less Ordinary – Peter Chittick

Luxury hotelier turned philanthropist Peter Chittick talks to THE STAND about creating safe spaces for Nepalese children seeking an education.

Illustrious hotelier Peter Chittick changed the face of the boutique hotel market in the nineties when he was a key partner in Hotel du Vin. Last year he sold Crillon Le Brave, the property in Provence that he and his wife (CBI Director-General Carolyn Fairbairn) bought in 1988 and turned into a celebrated luxury hotel. Chittick’s focus now? His Nepal-based, UK-registered charity, Stay at School. He talks to THE STAND about why he decided to dedicate a decade to making a real difference, and his advice for aspiring philanthropists.

What is Stay at School, and what is its mission?
In the poor, remote mountain communities of Nepal, more than 70 percent of children drop out of school without qualifications. The Stay at School charity, whose motto is ‘More learning, less walking’, helps them get a good education by supporting local communities to build and operate accommodation at or near schools.

We’ve taken it upon ourselves to reach out and to try to engage with everyone – taking a ‘no child left behind’ approach

How did you wind up in Nepal?
I’m originally from Canada, and during law school I worked for tour company Butterfield & Robinson and became interested in walking and cycling. Then, when I moved to Europe, I became very involved in travel. In 1986, I trekked to Everest base camp in the middle of winter. That was tough; my heel still has scars! But I loved it there, and in the early 2000s we did a couple of family treks with the kids. In 2008, I had some cancer issues, which forces a certain amount of re-evaluation. I trotted off again to the village I’d fallen in love with all those years ago. And, as trekkers often do, I helped out on a few projects, then created a UK-registered charity called Solu Khumbu Schools Trust that supported schools in Nepal. I started by giving – £10,000 to £15,000 goes a long way – and then we were creating scholarships, rebuilding schools and training teachers.

Peter Chittick in Nepal.

Peter Chittick in Nepal.

Why did you create Stay at School?
In 2013, I discovered some kids aged between 10 and 14 camping out in a building in the forest in atrocious conditions – thin mattresses, broken floors, no electricity or running water. They lived the furthest distance from school – four hours each way – so their choice was to do that walk every day or camp nearby. In Nepal, the drop off to what we would call GCSE level is staggering, and part of it is due to mobility. Typically, the father is often away for years, working abroad on a construction site. The mother will be living on rented land, without any education herself, tending a couple of cows. The only money available is whatever the father is able to send back home. And when the children do get home, it’s not like they can sit and do their homework; there’s no electricity. So our idea was to create safe places where the kids live during the week and eat proper food, play sport, get health checks and a host of other things. Because at home, their lives are really tough.

What has it been like transitioning from the luxury hotel industry to the charity world?
When I started Stay at School, I still had Crillon Le Brave and was involved in Soho House and some other things. Turning 60 last year was pivotal for me on a personal level. I knew I needed a decade to really have an impact in Nepal, so I said, “from 60 to 70, I’m going to make things happen.” We’d made the decision to sell Crillon Le Brave a few years earlier, so when it went, I could focus solely on Stay at School. I wanted to bring an ambitious structure (similar to what we had with the hotels) to what we were doing in Nepal. I go there for long stretches – two or three weeks – several times a year.

How are the children chosen?
The kids who live furthest away get the boarding spaces. The children are able to literally double their daily hours at school, and it’s transformative. We make sure the children understand that they have the good fortune of being there, that there’s no running away halfway through the year or not showing up. The local community has to contribute, and if you’ve got a child in the programme, it costs the equivalent of about US$15 per month, which covers half the costs. For many, that’s a lot of money, but it gives them a sense of ownership. We also have scholarships once the children leave school, so they can go on to higher education.

What lessons have you learned in Nepal?
We’ve had to make sure we don’t just concentrate on the top kids. In Nepal, everyone is comparatively poor, but there are some who are really disadvantaged, even within that community. In one valley there’s a primary school that has extremely low achievement rates. We were told, ‘Oh, they’re the untouchables’, and that those people weren’t capable and not worth the effort. We’ve taken it upon ourselves to reach out and to try to engage with them – taking a ‘no child left behind’ approach. In a local community, it’s easy to identify the more successful people, but you have to look for the others because they don’t surface by themselves.

How is running a charity different from running a luxury hotel business?
I don’t think they’re that dissimilar – the fundamentals are the same, in terms of running it and the governance. The building work is fascinating, because earthquake resistance is absolutely crucial in Nepal. I love getting into the details, such as how the beds are constructed. And even though it’s not about finding the finest Egyptian cotton duvets [as it was with the hotels], we still have to provide good bedding. You also have to marry the interests of the local community with your objectives – that’s true whether it’s a village in Nepal or in Provence. Fundamentally, it’s about having an impact, ensuring the beneficiaries receive every penny of value they can get.

Could you tell us about your new projects?
We’ve had very generous support from many people, as well as from our Crillon Le Brave shareholders, receiving £100,000 for a new boarding house: a building for about 30 boys and 30 girls, with toilet and shower facilities, a dining/study hall and a residence for five teachers. Most Nepalese schools have great difficulties attracting teachers to rural communities, so good teacher accommodation was crucial. Nepal is a developing country littered with development projects that have been abandoned or left unfinished. We ensure we contribute to them. We’ve also got three initiatives in neighbouring villages and valleys we’re currently raising money for. We’re looking for £600,000 – we’re not quite there, but we are getting there.

My wife and I have also been talking about funding other business projects out there, including possibly a small lodge. Investment in business is crucial in these kinds of areas, but it has to be sustainable. Nepal has a lot of trekkers, but it doesn’t have high-end tourism. Maybe one day I’ll end up doing something there on the tourism front, too, but it will not be to make money; it will be to help local communities create jobs and more economic opportunity.

What advice would you give to someone who wanted to start a charity?
If you land in a country out of the blue with a lot of money to spend, you’ll waste a lot of money. I had the benefit of not having yet sold my business, meaning I had a few years where I was able to learn. There are so many unintended consequences of what you do; if you don’t know your way around, you’ll make mistakes. Taking it slow was frustrating, because I wanted to get on with things, but I learned a lot. There are many people doing great work in Nepal, but those who have the most significant effect are the ones who have been doing it the longest, as opposed to just showing up in a village with a few pounds to sprinkle around.