Travel: Winter sports - Where is the last resort?

What's in, what's out - keep abreast of which slopes tour operators are heading to this winter season
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The Independent Culture
For anyone planning to ski at Les Menuires in the Trois Vallees, there is good and bad news this season. Inghams isn't taking skiers there any more, having pulled out of the French resort. On the other hand, two of the other big six operators have moved in: it appears in both the Crystal and Neilson 98/99 brochures as a new resort.

If you have your eye on Colorado, be warned that availability is limited, notably in Steamboat and Crested Butte: half the major operators have dropped the former, and two of them the latter. Norway? It's a new departure for Neilson, but has departed from the Inghams brochure - in which the country appeared for the first time last season. Switzerland? The range of resorts there has broadened considerably.

It happens every year, of course. Tour operators endlessly refine their offer of countries and resorts, trying to reflect in advance skiing trends and exchange-rate fluctuations and to recover from unwise decisions made the previous season. This year is a little different, because demand is moving away from the recent growth areas, Italy and North America, and back to the traditional European destinations: hence the reshuffling of resorts not only in Switzerland and France but also in Austria. New resorts always help both to stimulate existing clients and attract other potential customers; so tour operators always like to have them in their brochures.

Adrian Harwood, marketing and planning director for First Choice's ski programme, added another reason for offering something new each season: it gets ski writers interested, too.

He asked: "If I had the same old resorts in the brochure, you wouldn't be talking to me now, would you?" He was right. And as someone who knows the value of novelty, he can see when the tactic is being used by his competitors: he described Crystal's inclusion in last year's brochure of Georgia, in the former USSR, as "the biggest public-relations stunt the world has seen, and you bought it hook, line and sinker".

Right again: I did mention it last year, and when I checked last week to see how many customers had actually gone there, the answer was none, because the package was cancelled "for operational reasons" - just as it had been the last time it appeared in the Crystal brochure.

This season First Choice offered a new destination which has attracted lots of attention. Unfortunately it was Serbia. Looking for a cheap eastern European country that would slot into the range a notch above Bulgaria, its "entry-level" destination, First Choice chose Serbia largely because it had sold well before the civil war in the former Yugoslavia.

"Thomson went there last year," said Harwood, "so we sent some people out to have a look. And the hoteliers with whom our company used to deal were very happy to see us back. But we didn't consider the politics sufficiently closely. On the day our brochure came out, the first bombs went off on Kosovo. The conflict died down; but by the time our second edition came out, it was back on News at Ten.

"We had sold enough holidays to keep it in the third edition; and anyway we were committed to 40 seats on the weekly Monarch charter flight - we would have had to pay for them even if they weren't used," he says. "But we had built into our negotiations that as soon as the Foreign Office issued advice to travellers not to go to Serbia, we could pull out. That happened about three weeks ago, and we immediately cancelled the seats."

Harwood admits he also made a misjudgement about Switzerland. "I looked at the competition, and saw that every man and his dog were in the main resorts such as Verbier, Saas-Fee and Crans Montana. I thought: "What can First Choice offer that isn't already available? The answer was nothing; so we would have had to take a very low margin." (First Choice is a mass- market operator, and its 100,000 customers - "more likely to be office workers than lawyers", in Harwood's words - spend an average of pounds 430 on a holiday; so pricing is critical.)

"Instead I went for the smaller, `alpine-charm' villages: Chateau d'Oex, Villars and Les Diablerets. I thought we could service them with a manager working out of Les Portes du Soleil. But it didn't work out, sales were poor, and I had to kill the programme."

If Harwood is sanguine about these failures, that is because it is already clear that the changes he made for this season have, overall, been successful.

"Although I got the small gambles wrong I got the big ones right: we're well ahead of last year, so the basics have undoubtedly been correct."

France is First Choice's most important market: it represents 50 per cent of the company's business, although it takes only 26 per cent of the whole ski market.

Harwood says: "And I was right to back France: we increased the number of holidays" - Les Arcs, Les Contamines and Bride-les-Bains have all been added this season - "and they're selling well."

Last season First Choice - along with a lot of other operators - had a bad time in Colorado. Its high-risk strategy involved taking 80 seats on the weekly Monarch charter to Denver, and committing itself to the necessary accommodation: a big up-front investment.

"We lost money; and we couldn't see how we were going to make money. So Colorado had to go," says Harwood. "I think I called right there."

Instead, First Choice has added New England resorts, and Mt Tremblant in Canada, to this season's programme; and it will take seats as necessary on scheduled flights.

"They're not going to be massive sellers, but they're low risk. If you talk about a new destination which will spice up the programme, they are some of the classic examples," he argues.

Considering the way the market is going this season, Harwood is also pleased with his strategies for both Italy and Andorra. Italy's popularity is currently in decline; and First Choice has dropped three resorts there (Macugnaga, Bardonecchia and Andalo) and added only one (Sagnalonga).

Andorra, meanwhile, is doing extremely well, and it has kept capacity up there. And for those still intent on going to Les Menuires - despite a reputation, quoted in the Good Skiing Guide, for being "the ugliest resort in the Alps" - Harwood has made the right choice there, too: it remains in this year's brochure.