Travel Skiing: The season to come

For skiers not daunted by the extreme winter weather that claimed a dozen lives this week, Stephen Wood assesses the prospects for late bookings
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The Independent Culture
A few weeks ago, the major ski operators were getting worried. The season had gone tolerably well: nothing to write home about, but sales were generally at a similar level to those of 1997/8, despite the dark clouds hovering over the retail sector. What was causing gloom among the operators, however, was the weather over the Alps, particularly in France, which saw the biggest sales growth early in the season.

There is nothing like a good snowfall to stir up those skiers who like to book late, after the Christmas and New Year rush. Unfortunately, there had been nothing like a good snowfall in the Alps since early in the season, and late bookings were running at a low level.

All that changed in the last week of January. A cold weather system dropped up to three metres of snow on the Alpine resorts, and the booking agents' phones started ringing just as anxious operators were announcing their first special offers for February. It was the perfect scenario for late bookers: deep snow and low prices. A quick flick last weekend through the deals available for departures on the 20/21 and 27 February revealed discounts of up to 45 per cent.

True, the best bargains were for Norway and Bulgaria, where the snow is not so good as in the Alps; but there were big savings, too, in Verbier (38 per cent) and the Austrian resorts of Scheffau (31 per cent) and Niederau (30 per cent), all of which had excellent snow conditions - although the avalanche danger, tragically manifested in Chamonix, meant that some ski areas were closed.

At the beginning of every season, the operators' chorus is that there will be few bargains for late bookers; but by the middle of every season - barring highly unusual circumstances - bargains become available. Since no operator wants to find itself in a position where it could sell more holidays if only it had more capacity, the tendency is to err on the generous side. This season overall capacity seems likely to exceed demand by 10 per cent, unless the recent snowfalls stimulate better-than-usual late bookings. Cutting prices eats away at already paper-thin margins; but the operators' fixed costs (charter flights, accommodation and coach transfers to which they are committed in advance) mean that any income will improve their profit-and-loss balance.

For those skiers who travel in groups, want specific resort accommodation, or are restricted to peak-period trips by school holidays (don't look for bargains this week: it's half-term), booking early is essential. For others, the argument for late booking has grown stronger in the last two years. Wouldn't you prefer to know the conditions in a resort before booking a holiday there? The increasingly comprehensive snow-report sites on the Internet make that possible. And electronic technology makes finding ski holiday bargains that much easier.

The best of the snow-report websites are those provided by Ski Hotline and the Ski Club of Great Britain. Both offer information, regularly updated (in theory, if not always in practice, on a daily basis), on conditions in resorts - 180 of them on Ski Hotline's site, 200 on the Ski Club's. Ski Hotline offers more detail on snow conditions and weather, plus a link to extensive "profiles" of the more popular resorts; the Ski Club site is less encyclopaedic, but includes a feature of particular appeal to snow-seekers, namely an index of those resorts with the best conditions, judged by the depth of snow on the upper slopes, the amount of powder, and the greatest snowfall in the previous week.

Just how reliable this information is depends, of course, on its sources. Traditionally, snow reports come from resort tourist offices, which have no incentive to understate local cover. According to Paul Wisely, who runs the Ski Hotline site, "Some of them give reliable information, but there are others who will spin you a yarn."

The Ski Club uses its own resort contacts to supply the data - although local knowledge about snow cover can still normally be traced back to the resort management. What Ski Hotline does is to seek to corroborate such information via a network of 20-odd reporters in the Alps and by consulting local reps from those operators to which Ski Hotline supplies snow reports, Crystal and Neilson among them. Despite their different retrieval methods, however, the two websites are fairly consistent in their assessments of snow cover in the individual ski resorts. I have used these and other sources for the survey of Europe's ski areas, below.

Finding the best bargains is not so straightforward. Some websites provide a booking service; the wide-ranging Complete Skier site, for example, links a late-availability list from Ski Solutions with an abbreviated version of Ski Hotline's snow reports, and 1Ski offers a similar package. But the most comprehensive source of late-booking bargains is the Teletext pages. Going through them (I read 88 last weekend) is a slow, laborious process; and because the tour operators provide such limited information on their own pages, it takes detective work to identify the holidays and thus calculate the discount on the brochure prices.

Having done my consumer research on Teletext for next weekend's departures (finding an average discount of 33 per cent), I rang Ian Simkins, ski manager at Thomson, for an expert view. He admitted that sales for the week from 20/21 February had been "trickier this season than in previous years, so there are good deals available". Look to Italy, he said, for the best bargains, and flights from Birmingham and Manchester. (He wasn't kidding: Thomson has a basic, self-catering week in the Italian Alps priced at only pounds 189, flying from Manchester.)

Mr Simkins is keeping a close eye on the market now, because his company is developing its own late-booking website. I had a preview of it, and was very impressed. It is a delightfully straightforward, easy-to-use site: you check a resort's snow report (the data is admittedly too limited at the moment, with only weekly updates from Thomson reps), and - if conditions are good enough - scan the company's deals there. Other operators will surely copy such a good idea, and this time next season, the argument for late bookings should be even stronger.

Website addresses mentioned include: www.skihotline.co.uk; www.skiclub.co.uk; www. complete-skier.com; and also www.oneski.com. Alternatively, see Teletext, page 226.

Your Money, page 8, today features a guide to ski insurance

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