Skiing: Slope off for the weekend

Short of time, but in need of a spell on the piste? Try a three- day skiing break. As demand grows, so do your options
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Indy Lifestyle Online
British skiers are creatures of habit, and some of their habits are quite peculiar. Take the chalet holiday, for example. Back in the Forties and Fifties, when money was tight and skiing was an adventure, the idea of mucking in with a makeshift chalet community was obviously acceptable, perhaps desirable; but why does the tradition still live on, though there are few other circumstances in which holiday-makers would willingly share bathrooms and meals with a group of perfect (or imperfect) strangers?

Adherence to the discipline of staying for a week in a single resort remains fairly strict, too, at a time when other travellers are demanding the flexibility of short breaks, twin-centre holidays, and so on. And the ritual of Saturday transfers lives on, to the extent that when Eurostar - which normally dashes back and forth through the Channel Tunnel - provides a service for skiers, it has the frequency of an obscure branch-line train, with arrivals and departures in the Alps offered on only one day each week.

Yet things are changing. Innovations such as First Choice's Friday-night flights and the growth of the North American market, where most operators offer 10- and 11-night packages as well as weeks, have loosened the traditional strait-jacket. The proportion of skiers travelling "independently" (ie making their own arrangements, or booking through a small operators) has increased, from less than 5 per cent at the beginning of the Eighties to 24 per cent last season, further freeing up the market.

And, to the consternation of Alpine resorts, which have always appreciated British skiers for their willingness - not shared by their local clients - to commit themselves to a full week of skiing and spending, there is a growing trend for weekend breaks.

Gavin Foster says that when he started Ski Weekend with his wife in the 1985/6 season, "there might have been some companies featuring weekend breaks at the back of their brochure, but there was no one in the marketplace actively selling them". In its first season, Ski Weekend had 350 clients; this season it expects to have 2,000. And it is not alone in the market- place now. There are other weekend specialists, notably White Roc and Flexiski; and several ski operators, such as Momentum Travel, offer weekend breaks alongside a more traditional holiday programme.

Foster came up with the weekend-break idea while working as a ski-instructor in Chatel ("I was a bit mature for that sort of work; I was bored, and that got me thinking"), where he set up Ski Weekend's first season. "But it soon became apparent that Chamonix, to which we sent a few clients, had far greater scope as a weekend destination," he says. Since then, Chamonix has been Ski Weekend's Alpine base, with about 70 per cent of its clients skiing there; it has an office and representatives in the resort and, on an average weekend, seven or eight mountain guides and instructors out on the slopes each day.

Ski Weekend's prices start at pounds 369 which, in the pre-Christmas season, buys a three-night trip to a three-star hotel in Chamonix, including the scheduled flights and airport transfers. How much skiing do you get for your money? The brochure sets out typical weekend programmes, of which the most ski-efficient involves an 8pm departure from Heathrow and a midnight arrival in the resort, three full days of skiing, and a 5.30pm transfer on the final day to Geneva airport, for a flight arriving at Heathrow at 8.45pm

Apart from its skiing, the two factors that drew Ski Weekend to Chamonix were the short transfer time - the resort is just over an hour from the airport - and the availability of accommodation. Harold Chrystal, of White Roc, says that for weekend operators, "the big difficulty is getting accommodation, because most hotels want to take bookings for seven nights - and in some parts of the season, that's all they'll take, except at the last minute." His company, which started in 1986 primarily as a chalet-holiday operator, and switched exclusively to short breaks only in 1993, differs from Ski Weekend in that while the latter leans towards the serious, off-piste skier, White Roc's inclination is in favour of good accommodation for an up-market clientele: its average holiday costs pounds 650 and lasts 3.8 days.

Rather than concentrate on a single resort and provide local representatives, White Roc offers 18 different destinations, with three-night trips starting at pounds 362 in Chamonix and pounds 751 at the five-star Grand Hotel Park in Gstaad. "We started off in France, just with resorts near Geneva," says Chrystal, "but we spread ourselves because outside France the holiday periods are different, and shorter - and that makes securing accommodation easier at peak times.

"Also, by heading into the eastern Alps, we increased the likelihood that we could offer resorts with good snow, because the weather system is different there."

Like Ski Weekend, White Roc has seen rapid growth, from 185 weekends in 1993/4 to more than 1,500 last year. Much of the business in this market comes from young, high earners in the City of London: Amin Momen of Momentum Travel (which has seen a 28 per cent growth in its weekend-break sales this year) says that "they spend the week staring at their screens, and all they can think of is getting away at the weekend". But doesn't Ski Weekend worry about relying so heavily on the City, which provides 55 per cent of its business? Not according to the company's marketing director, Brett Gregson. "When one part of the City is suffering," he says, "there's another part that isn't. And even when everyone else is going broke, at least the insolvency people are doing well."

Foster admits that there was a time when he was concerned about the future. "We did worry that a large operator would come into the weekend business," he says, "but it soon became apparent that the logistical difficulties of setting up tailor-made short-breaks were too great for them." Although First Choice does now have a piece of the market, having taken over the short-break specialist Flexiski last season, confidence remains high among the independents. "I believe weekend breaks will definitely continue to grow," says Foster, "as people's appreciation of how to use their time - and their freedom to use it when they please - increases. These days even hoteliers are coming to terms with the idea."

If Foster is right, this weekend-skiing thing could become a habit.

Further information: Ski Weekend (01367 241636; or e-mail: www.ski weekend.com); White Roc (0171-7792 1188; www.whiteroc.co.uk); Momentum Travel (0171- 7371 9111; www.momentum.uk.com); Flexiski (0870 909 0754; www.flexiski.co.uk)

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