Skiing: The oddest season in 1,000 years

Far from being full of party-goers, the mountains could be deserted this winter if bookings don't pick up. So should you stay or should you go?

Whatever Andy Perrin has to say about skiing is always worth hearing. And particularly this year: having spent 18 years with Crystal - he was one of the three original resort reps when the company started - he has now risen to become group managing director of Crystal International Travel, taking strategic control over 40 per cent of the UK ski operators' market. Although he takes pains to deny it, he has become the most important figure in the business, just as it faces a peculiarly difficult season.

Ask Perrin how he expects to feel at the end of the 1999/2000 season, and he replies: "I think all of us will look back with relief that it's over". The principal problems, for ski operators and skiers alike, have all been created by the calendar. First, there is the turn of the millennium, which for years has been a cause for celebration but now, as it approaches, is provoking ever-deeper gloom. Second, both Christmas and New Year's Day fall on a Saturday, the traditional transfer day: this, combined with worries about potential Y2K air-traffic difficulties, has led operators to extend many millennium trips to 9/10 days, increasing the price of those holidays and disrupting the programme for the first week of January. Finally, Easter is exceptionally late in 2000, the normally popular skiing weeks falling at a time in late April when holidaymakers are attracted more to beaches than mountains.

"The millennium is proving a real struggle," says Perrin. Ski holiday sales at Crystal and Thomson (which took over Crystal last year, but whose ski programme now forms part of the Crystal International Travel group) are 20 per cent down for New Year trips compared with this time last year. That's bad enough; but, as Perrin says, the real measure of the problem is that "expectations were so high that the market is probably 50 per cent down on the anticipated boom".

After an early-season flurry (particularly for group bookings), sales have not picked up this month as they normally do. This, Perrin believes, is partly because of Y2K anxieties and partly because, on prices, "there is a perception problem. You can pay over the odds for a millennium holiday; but there's no need to. Finalising our hotel contracts for this season took much longer than usual, because hoteliers couldn't decide which way to go on prices. In the end they went different ways. Take Kitzbuhel, for example. At the three-star Hotel Hofer, a seven-night New Year holiday cost pounds 549 last year, while this year it's pounds 949 for nine nights; but at the four-star Bruggerhof, the comparable prices are pounds 599 and pounds 859. So this year, more than ever, it pays to get all the brochures and cherry- pick - because if you look for them, there are good deals to be had."

Overlaying these factors is another, which Perrin characterises as "the part of the national psyche that decrees that when something has been built up, the greatest pleasure is to tear it down again. The doom-and- gloom merchants have got at the millennium, and created an insidious downward spiral. I find that terribly sad. So many people in this country are going to end up on New Year's Eve with a warm glass of Asti watching Clive James on TV again."

Does this mean that there will be give-away prices at the millennium for late bookers? Not according to Perrin. There is some discounting starting now, "but that's just to awaken interest - there's no prospect of holidays being ditched at silly prices at the last minute. Unsold hotel rooms are all subject to release dates, and we're currently under pressure to return some to Austrian hoteliers, because they've got the German, Italian, US and Scandinavian markets falling over themselves to get millennium bookings. What may well happen is that bed-capacity will be trimmed back to better fit the demand, and airlines will start their rotations later."

Overall, Perrin believes this season will "turn itself upside-down: it will start slowly, and then there'll be a mad rush. One reason for the operators' optimism for 1999/2000 was that all the indicators have been heading in the right direction. Inflation is at a 30-year low, the pound is strong against the important skiing-country currencies, interest rates are still at a low level, and we had fantastic snow to sling-shot us out of last season - historically, all these factors suggest a good season to come.

"But if the gloomiest predictions are accurate, the ski-operators' market will be down by 20 per cent this season: that means 100,000 regular skiers won't go in 1999/2000. I just don't believe that will happen.

"I think that those waiting for the millennium and any Y2K problems to pass will come into the market in January, along with skiers who normally go skiing at the beginning of the month but couldn't because of the long millennium holidays. Then there will be all those who usually ski at Easter but won't this year because it falls so late. So we'll have three big groups - tens of thousands of skiers - who will change their habits, and they'll all have to funnel into the 10 weeks between mid-January and the end of March."

Which leaves the late season for bargain-hunters. Unlike many other operators, Crystal is running a full programme for Easter - and, says Perrin, "there are some cracking bargains". So late in the season, "we can buy the beds for next to nothing. And the skiing in the high-altitude French resorts is out of this world at the end of April. You've got the best possible chance of beautiful sunny weather, the snow is still fantastic, and the mountains are empty."

When I asked Perrin what he would change if he could plan this season again, he replied that he would have come down harder on the hoteliers earlier in the year - not quite such a sharp response as that of another ski operator who, asked the same question about the millennium, replied that she would "know much better next time". But Perrin certainly believes in learning from experience: hence his reluctance to accept that he is skiing's Mr Big, even though he now has ultimate control over both the Crystal and Thomson brands. He insists that, despite rumours to the contrary, the UK's two biggest operators will be run separately.

"When Inghams took over Swans in the early 1980s and merged the brochures - the marketing blunder of the decade - that gave birth to Crystal; when Thomson did the same with Horizon, we had one of our biggest growth years; when Inghams bought Bladon Lines we picked up the pieces by expanding our chalet programme. How many lessons do you need? We know you can lose business by ignoring the fact that there are good reasons why one skier chooses to travel with Crystal, and another with Thomson."

A-Z of Skiing

A IS FOR AVALANCHE

A THREE-WEEK period beginning in late January this year provided a tragic reminder that ski resorts are an environment prone to natural disaster. Heavy snow in the central Alps provoked avalanches which killed 75 people: in Galtur, Austria, a snowslide hit the village at more than 100mph, while an avalanche as tall as a house plunged down the Chamonix valley.

The heavy death-toll was the result of the avalanches penetrating inhabited areas; as a rule, the victims are climbers, skiers and snowboarders up on the slopes. Avalanche conditions are usually caused by a combination of heavy snow, wind and changing temperatures. But what provokes the snowslide is often a skier or boarder: most victims die in an avalanche of their own making. For a skier going off-piste in unfamiliar terrain when there is an avalanche risk, an essential precaution is to be accompanied by a qualified mountain guide.

For anyone caught in an avalanche, the key survival techniques are to stay near the surface with "swimming" movements, avoid inhaling snow and try to create a breathing space before the slide comes to rest - at which point the snow can set like cement.

Stephen Wood

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