Season's greetings: Get ready for winter on the slopes

As the French resort of Tignes opens for its 2007-8 season, Stephen Wood examines how ski operators are adapting to the changing climate – and to the changing demands of winter holidaymakers

In early December last year, a newspaper asked the Tourist Office of St Anton, the resort in the Arlberg area of Austria, for help with a picture shoot. As outlined to Wilma Himmelfreundpointner, the office's deputy director, the photo would feature a grumpy-looking cow standing on a snowboard in a grassy meadow.

The deputy director (for short) was bemused, but not for long. For this was the era of The Great Snow Shortage of 2006; and when the paper indicated that no snow should appear in the picture, all became clear. The photograph was to illustrate one of the "Snow's no-show in the Alps" stories (that was how one British newspaper headlined its contribution to the genre) that appeared regularly in the run-up to Christmas. In the end, the paper got a grassy, snow-free meadow in front of the camera; but no grumpy cow was available.

Media coverage overstated the problem, as it turned out. "Lack of snow threatens to cancel winter in Europe", stated the International Herald Tribune on 8 December, but, for example, Val d'Isère's snowfall for the whole season (4.77 metres in the village) was above the annual average, and after the early shortage, St Anton had enough snow to maintain the runs down to the village for the rest of the season.

The New York Times headline on 16 December, "Global warming poses threat to ski resorts in the Alps", was more measured. But although low-lying areas did suffer, Alpine skiing proved resilient. At the end of the season, Switzerland reported that its ski business was down by five per cent in value. The French ski-lift operator Compagnie des Alpes, however, said that although "skier-days" had dropped by 3.4 per cent, revenue had slightly increased.

Those who had prophesied doom rather than mere gloom did make much of the news in June that little Abondance, in France, has ceased to operate the lift connecting it to the Portes du Soleil ski circuit. Elsewhere in the Alps, however, no resorts died. The worrying spectre was raised of temperatures climbing to the point where snow-making machinery becomes inoperative; revenue was lost at the crucial Christmas/ New Year period; and the relationship between the skiing business and journalists did deteriorate. Nevertheless, 2006/7 proved survivable, and UK ski-holiday specialists are now optimistically describing it as a "blip". Did skiing recover from 1964, when snow failed to materialise until mid-February in Val d'Isère? Of course it did.

Perhaps it is that sort of bravado that explains why ski companies are showing no reluctance to use the "S-word". The preview edition of First Choice's ski brochure, published at the beginning of the year, had "snowsports holidays" across its cover; come the summer, the main 2007/8 brochure bore simply the word "snow" under the operator's name. When one of the UK's best-known travel names, Kuoni, produced its first ski brochure this year, it took the same approach. Across a photograph of a cross-country skier – an odd choice since that form of skiing barely features inside – are the words "Kuoni" and, three times as large, "snow".

Didn't Alicia Welsman, whose role at Kuoni is "Senior Manager Activity", have qualms about producing a snow brochure during a season that started with a notable absence of the stuff? "It was a last-minute decision – but no, I don't believe we thought about that at all," she replied. Her intention was to avoid creating "just another skiing and boarding brochure"; and she was keen to plug in to the growing popularity of Finland – "up 30 per cent in the UK market," she says – as a snow-activity destination. The use of the word "snow", Welsman figured, would indicate that the holidays involved not just skiing but other snowsport activities such dog-sledding and snowmobiling, too. She was disappointed that First Choice adopted the same strategy. "I thought, 'How dare they!'."

Welsman's task of creating Kuoni's first ski programme was an enviable one. Since the company – which is Swiss – had been producing a Switzerland-only ski brochure for three decades, a significant Swiss presence (15 resorts) was a given; otherwise, Welsman had a free hand in filling the new brochure's 136 pages. "I made all the choices, with the help of a team of experts," she says. She describes Kuoni UK as "the largest luxury travel company in the country", so it's not surprising that the North American programme involves familiar up-market resorts (Aspen, Beaver Creek, Banff) and hotel brands (Fairmont, Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton). But the French and Austrian offers are more heterogenous (Kitzbühel and Solden, Courchevel 1850 and Val Thorens), and the Italian range is very broad indeed.

What is consistent is the way the holidays are structured. Kuoni doesn't have charter flights, using scheduled services instead. This means it can't compete on price with the biggest ski operators, but can – at a premium – offer flexible, tailor-made holidays that are not locked into weekly rotations. "I am not looking for volume, I'm looking for quality," Welsman says. "We won't be a threat to Crystal and Thomson [the UK's two biggest ski operators]. But my hope is that, in a couple of years, we will be making a dent in their luxury business, and worrying Inghams, too."

By my reckoning, Kuoni has launched 29 resorts this season. But the established ski operators have been tentative with innovations for 2007/8, perhaps an indication of the anxiety provoked by the early part of the 2006/7 season. New resorts have been introduced, but in most cases they are extensions of existing programmes. For example, Thomson's launch of Chamrousse and Val Cenis in France, plus Salla in Finland, hardly changes the face of its 86-resort offer. And by introducing Furano, Inghams is merely expanding its range of Hokkaido Island resorts to three. The Spanish resort of Baqueira-Beret, in the Pyrenees, is actually more of a departure for Inghams.

One of the boldest innovations this season is Mark Warner's launch of heli-skiing in Revelstoke, British Columbia. Formerly just a base for heli-ski operations, Revelstoke is now marketing itself – rather successfully – as a new resort. An area of lift-served skiing will open there in December, and a development of new condominiums is to follow.

Another innovation, by a group of Austrian ski-lift operators, is an idea that seemed perhaps emblematic of a new realism in Alpine skiing. Five areas of the Tyrol near Innsbruck, with snow-sure glacier skiing, have combined to offer a new lift pass called White5. Priced at €290 (£208), it allows the holder to ski for 10 days on the five glaciers, namely the Kaunertal, Pitztal, Solden-Otztal, Stubai and Hintertux, all of which rise beyond 3,000m. Surely this pass was a response to the problems of low-lying ski areas in 2006/7? No, it wasn't. The Tyrol tourism office assured me that the lift companies had been working on the joint project for a few years, and in fact hoped to introduce it last season.

It is, however, concern about climate change that has led to an increase in measures designed to lessen skiing's impact on the environment – and, this autumn, to a similar increase in the publicity material devoted to them. Some u o of the measures are surely prompted by external pressure; others arise from an idealism that may, sometimes, be tempered with commercial considerations. The tour operator Ski Beat's efforts to limit the environmental impact of its chalets go way beyond the norm: reading the lengthy report on its "Parking Lot Storm Water Run-off Treatment System" from Squaw Valley in California doesn't have quite the same moral impact.

Ski Beat reports that its sales are currently two per cent up on what was a strong season last year. And most other tour operators are bullish about bookings, too. Anecdotally, Christmas and the New Year did not sell quite as quickly as usual, perhaps because of worries about the snow shortage last season; but Easter, which falls early in 2008, has done well. A frequent refrain is that high-altitude resorts are selling better, proportionately, than those at lower levels. Despite last season's good overall performance – Crystal reckons sales were up on average by three per cent – the ski business is taking a conservative approach to 2007/8. What does this mean for the skier? That there may be fewer cut-price holidays for late bookers. (Low-cost airline fares to the Alps are a different, less-predictable matter.) Certainly, one recent good source of bargains has dried up, with the cancellation of charter flights into Denver for the Colorado resorts.

But these are still early days. It is in the next couple of months that the ski business will discover whether it can put 2006/7 behind it. Some early snow in the Alps would help with bookings, of course. And a few flakes did flutter down into the valley of St Anton last week.

A guide to all-year skiing

It's the start of the European ski season, but for some, the season never stops. To ski every day of the year, you could book in to one of the few Alpine glacier resorts that try to run their lifts 365 days a year, or do it indoors on rather more limited terrain. Or you could follow the snow around the planet:

September – Today

"Winter" 2007-8 is upon us; Tignes in France opens today. The resort's Grand Motte glacier offers 20km (13 miles) of piste and a 750m (2,400ft) vertical drop. On the other side of the world, Perisher Blue in Victoria is celebrating one of Australia's snowiest winters with a party, before closing tomorrow.

www.tignes.net; 00 33 479 400440

www.perisherblue.com.au; 00 611 300 655 822

October

A few of New Zealand's ski areas will soldier on, but 2007 has been a poor snow year there, so Europe's glaciers come in to their own. Tux in Austria's Ziller Valley is open year-round, and the Party & Pow(d)er Snow Weekend (12-14 October) offers new-season gear testing by day, and entertainment by night. www.tux.at; 00 43 5287 8506

November

The first resorts without glaciers crank up their lifts. And Manchester's £30m Chill Factore indoor snow centre opens, with the widest (100m) ever indoor snow slope.

www.chillfactore.com; 0161 747 0606

December

Ischgl's opening weekend is now one of the biggest in the Alps. This year, Rihanna plays the now traditional concert in the village on 1 December. The Austrian resort has spent £13.5m on the Fimbabahn gondola, which links the village to Idalp, and has heated seats.

www.ischgl.com; 00 43 5444 5266 0

January

The odds of good snow in Kitzbühel have improved with new snow-making, meaning that the renowned ski-safari route now has 100 per cent coverage. There's also a new eight-seater chairlift.

www.kitzbuehel.com; 00 43 5356 777

February

Last winter, British Columbia had the best early-season conditions and with more than 5.5m (18ft) of snow annually at Sun Peaks, the base should be huge by now. www.sunpeaksresort.com; 00 1 250 5787222

March

With the French school holidays over, and an early Easter, opt for the underrated resort of Flaine, in the French Grand Massif. It sits in a huge snowy bowl (265km/165 miles of piste), or try Morillon.

www.flaine.com; 00 33 4 50 90 80 01

www.ot-morillon.fr; 00 33 450 901576

April

Play it safe and book high. St Moritz (1,750–3,303m) celebrates 60 and 80 years since it hosted its two Olympic Games, so join the fun.

www.stmoritz.ch; 00 41 81 8373333

May

Most Northern Hemisphere resorts close in April, but Riksgransen, in the Swedish Arctic Circle, comes into its own as a freestyle resort, and 24-hour daylight means that you can go for a midnight ski.

www.riksgransen.nu; 00 46 980 40080

June

Attention switches to the Southern Hemisphere and the race to be the first to open for their 2008 winter. The usual winner is South Africa's only ski area, Tiffindell. Now 15 years old, its success is down to snow-making technology and occasional heavy natural snowfalls.

www.snow.co.za; 00 27 45 974 9004

July

Besides the Southern Hemisphere or indoor snow centres, there's just the summer ski glacier areas. Saas Fee is one of the best, with 20km (13 miles) of varied terrain. There was fresh snow there this summer...

www.saas-fee.ch; 00 41 27 9581858

August

Chile's ski areas have had consistently good seasons, and Valle Nevado has 113km (64 miles) of runs. It hosts the first World Cup event each September, so be ahead of the game for winter 2009!

www.vallenevado.com; 00 56 2 477 70 00

P atrick Thorne

The expert view

Caroline Stuart Taylor, CEO, Ski Club of Great Britain

Q. How optimistic are you about the coming season?

A. We have high hopes. Many people are talking about the La Nina effect and the fact it is going to bring lots of snow this winter. After an average year last year, the feeling is that we are going to get piles of powder.

Q. What are you excited about?

A. Both skiing and snowboarding are getting bigger in the UK, with more people hitting the slopes overseas and here at home. The Chill Factore ski centre opens in Manchester in November, and many resorts have some great new lift developments. I hope to take the Eurostar to a French resort this season from St Pancras.

Q. Where will you be skiing?

A. I will be leading a Ski Freshtracks trip to Andermatt in Switzerland, an off-piste gem with real Swiss character. I will also go back to Murren and maybe also further afield, such as North America.

Pete Tyler, Neilson, Managing Director, Neilson Active Holidays, Airtours and Panorama Ski

Q. How optimistic are you about the coming season?

A. Last season's snowfall was sporadic; the previous winter provided excellent conditions. I don't think this indicates global warming or can influence predictions for the coming winter. At Neilson we have been including more "snow sure" resorts; our resorts in Norway, Sweden and Finland have superb snow records.

Q. What are you excited about?

A. As time off work becomes more valuable, the holiday aspect of a ski break is becoming increasingly important. More people are now focusing on " well-being" – hotels with spas, pools and fitness areas. On the slopes, new equipment design and techniques have rejuvenated skiing. We encourage skiers to make the most of the coaching opportunities in resorts, and the ski schools are responding by providing innovative "learn to" or "improvement" options.

Q. Where will you be skiing?

A. For a holiday, I'll head to the Dolomites with my wife. It's a superb ski area with wonderful hotels and you can't beat the food. For a lads' trip it'll be Austria – again, plenty of good skiing, lively nightlife and good value. For something different, Sweden – reliable snow, top-notch Scandinavian hospitality and sophisticated nightlife, plus alternative Nordic sports such as dog sledging.

Joanna Yellowlees-Bound, Chief Executive, Erna Low

Q. How optimistic are you about the coming season?

A Very. Many of our clients are booking now for February, March and April – slightly later than usual for this time of year, so it could be that people are cautious after the late snowfall last year. But bookings are up 10 per cent and we anticipate a busy, successful season.

Q. What are you excited about?

A. The many new developments and renovation projects in the Alps. A number of old hotels have been converted into luxury accommodation, and the demand is resulting in developers looking for buildings to renovate, injecting new life into villages and resorts.

Q. Where will you be skiing?

A. Arc 1950 in Les Arcs, France, a new village by Intrawest. It links to the huge skiing terrain of Paradiski. The village is fully pedestrianised, and is ski-in ski-out, with shops, restaurants, spa facilities – everything we need as a family for a great ski holiday.

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