In recent years, I've become very specialized to Val d'Isere, so I can't give you a detailed and up-to-date comparison, but here is some advice.
First, if you're concerned to maximize value, it's not so much where
you go but when
. Every resort is packed for Christmas and New Year, then demand falls off drastically. This is reflected in tour companies' prices, but the reality is that, even at lower rates, accommodation is by no means sold out. How companies deal with that -- offering discounts over the phone at the last minute, selling holidays over the internet/teletext -- is a black art. But, believe me, you can stay more cheaply in Courchevel in the middle of January (by the way, it's only Courchevel 1800 that is very pricey) than you can in Morzine over New Year. This is my TOP TIP.
So let's look quickly at your criteria.Quality of Skiing
You don't say how advanced the best skiers in your party are but I'm going to guess that, if you had any real super-experts (and you weren't crossing the Atlantic) you wouldn't need my advice. For any intermediate to advanced on-trail skiers, most French resorts will be fantastic. I think, though, that you're right to worry about beginners. I'm afraid that the nursery slopes in Val d'Isere are lousy (as they were when I was last in Meribel) and I think that this is something that is often the case in France. You'd be well advised to get them up the hill to one of the big wide green runs as soon as possible.Transfer
If you're travelling as part of an "all in" holiday, your tour company will take you to the resort in a bus. Then it doesn't make that much difference if it's a two or four hour transfer. You're not skiing that day anyway, so it doesn't matter enormously if you get to the resort at 3 pm or 6 pm.Food
My experience is limited, but, if VdI and the 3 Valleys are anything to go by, you can't generalize -- you need to know where to go. Most of the food up the mountain is lousy and over-priced while, in town, it's variable. My solution is to come down for lunch if I want to eat -- the lifts are so quick you can easily get up high again. The time spent on the lifts is easily saved if you pick the right time and place to eat. I eat VERY well in Val d'Isere!Night Life
Not my area of expertise, but I stayed in a chalet with 6 Irish girls over the New Year and they had no complaints about VdI (provided you don't mind dancing with a lot of young Swedes
). I've heard good things about Meribel and Chamonix, but serious party people also say that Austria and Italy have France beaten when it comes to night life.
Two things you don't mentionThe Look of the Resort
Many French resorts were purpose-built in the 70s and 80s and are, to be blunt, butt ugly (Flaine, La Plagne, Tignes, I'm looking at you). If you don't mind that, you can have a good time in them (and they have great skiing and are snow sure) but they are not Lech or Zermatt or St Moritz.Ski Teaching
I would put this at number one in my choice of a beginner's resort (and why I can whole-heartedly recommend VdI). Trying to teach yourself skiing (or learning from a boyfriend/girlfriend) is a really good way not to enjoy the sport. Unfortunately, the ESF (Ecole de Ski Francais) operates as a cartel and, although there are some very good ESF instructors, customer service is by no means a priority in my experience. Beginners I've known in VdI have had terrific instruction from non-ESF ski schools. In other French resorts, I've heard, things are worse.Some thoughts on Chamonix
(which I don't know well). Pro. Amazing resort for serious helmet-heads -- incredible off-piste/mountaineering culture. Very close to Geneva. Famous night life. A real town, not just a bunch of tourist hotels. Con. Does not have a good reputation for beginners. I've heard from several who went there for their first skiing holiday and were disappointed. Communication from one ski area to another can be difficult without a car. Heavy traffic from the Mont Blanc tunnel (diesel fumes). I would seriously check before going to Chamonix with beginners in the party.
OK, final suggestion. If you're coming from Ireland, find a reputable British company and see what they have to offer at an off-peak time at an all-in price. Don't worry too much about the resort. Then hop over from Dublin and travel with them from Gatwick.
Long post -- I'll leave it there. Cheers.