Travel Skiing North America: The great North American package

US resorts have their drawbacks but with corporate millions pouring into them it is no wonder they are so popular.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Ten years ago the idea of skiing in North America would, to most Britons, have seemed absurd - or at least absurdly expensive. Since then, the number of British skiers travelling there has grown to the point where it represents almost 15 per cent of the UK market.

The decline in the cost of long-haul flights, and of the value of US and Canadian dollars against the pound, have made North American resorts far more accessible.

The cost differentials may have decreased, but going to North America is still more expensive than staying in Europe. Also, travel and jet lag reduce holiday time and increase discomfort.

Most North American ski mountains are really just huge hills, far less dramatic than the Alps, but high enough in the west to make altitude sickness a problem for some. And far from offering the charm of Alpine settlements, many North American ski "villages" are about as appealing as motorway service stations.

So why do so many of us go there? Snow is one good reason: it comes naturally and in reliably good quantities in the west, while in the east cover is provided by a combination of cold weather and white-hot technology. On New England slopes, snow-making cannons are set on towers 10m high - apparently, the further the snow falls, the more it resembles the real thing.

But the greatest attraction of North American resorts is that everyone speaks English, and good customer service is guaranteed.

The advantages of a common language are most obvious in ski tuition, but the social dimension is also important: getting out of trouble on the slopes or into conversation in the bars is easy.

It helps, too, that in the US everybody you meet seems to have graduated cum laude from classes in relating to complete strangers. And those are just the amateurs; for staff in ski resorts, the "Have a nice day" charm may not quite have been elevated to an art, but it is definitely a well- oiled machine.

In the resorts themselves, or at least the ones to which tour operators take British skiers, lifts, queues, pistes and even the skiers are organised with a degree of efficiency unimaginable in Europe.

In the Nineties, skiing in North America has become an arena of takeovers and consolidation, marketing and massive investment. The big corporations are competing for a share of a fairly static ski market, and are fighting the Caribbean cruise lines. (Have you ever wondered why spa, health and beauty facilities are so prominent in US resorts? It is to help American men to persuade their wives to go skiing rather than cruising.)

So it should not be a surprise to find that these resorts have become extremely efficient.

For those who regard North America as a promised land, this development may be as desirable as the low prices in factory stores and the consistency of the fast-food outlets. Certainly resorts have benefited from corporate financial muscle (Vail Resorts spent $74m last season), and skiers have gained from marketing strategies - particularly multi-resort lift passes.

There is a downside to the streamlining of North American skiing, in that resorts are losing their individuality, but this trend may, paradoxically, benefit British skiers in the future.

Most operators expect that, after a decade of steady growth, North America's share of the British ski market will remain static this season; Canada, with its weaker dollar, may show a slight increase, but that will probably be offset by a proportionate decline in the US - partly as a result of the cancellation of last year's unwarranted charter flights to Colorado.

What effect will this have upon ski operators taking British skiers to North America? As far as the East Coast is concerned, very little - because for most Britons the primary attraction is the destination: the US. It makes little sense for keen skiers to go to New England when the Alps (where the mountains are mountains and the black runs are black) are so much closer to hand.

But out west, where the serious skiers go, there could be significant changes for next season.

One mass-market tour operator's analysis went like this: because of the increasingly anodyne nature of North America's corporate resorts, and also because they lack the large, linked ski areas of the Alps, British skiers do not become attached to them; so the way to hold on to this now limited (but still free-spending) group of customers is to keep offering them new destinations.

Our operator is already excited about the potential of Utah, which is little exploited by British operators despite its reputation for great snow.

For a chance to win one of seven Club Med skiing holidays, see page 25. For the 50 best ski resorts in the world, see today's The Information