Skiing: No room on the slopes

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The Independent Online
Anyone expecting a mass of late-booking ski bargains this year is living in Cloud Cuckoo Land, according to Thomas Cook. Stephen Wood reports on the industry's boom.

If all goes well, I will be skiing in Arctic Sweden today. I'd never heard of the resort of Dundret until a few days ago; but when somebody told me that snow had fallen, the lifts were running and the Japanese downhill racing team was about to start its pre-season training there, I thought: why not?

You'd better get move on if, for example, you are hoping to go skiing during the Christmas break. Andy Perrin, managing director of Crystal, Britain's biggest ski company, says that the week beginning 27 December is close to being fully booked, and skiers "will really have to shop around to get a holiday". And if you were planning to kit yourself out with an O'Neill fleece and some Salomon snowboarding boots from the Snow+Rock catalogues, you're too late: those items - among several others - have already sold out. The wholesaler Terry Lingard (whose Outdoor Leisure company imports K2 skis, Smith goggles and several ski-wear ranges) is cheerfully "expecting to clear out the warehouse this year".

The 1997/8 season is turning out to be a bonanza for skiing. Talk to anyone in the business, and you are likely to hear that they have "never seen anything like it".

Tour operators were happy enough last year when, after three years of decline, the number of skiing holidays sold in the UK increased by about 10 per cent. This season the increase is - so far - at least twice as big. Crystal's Andy Perrin says that bookings were "massively up" in February and March this year.

"It was almost as if people had come back from their skiing holidays with change in their pockets," he says. "Every beer or coffee had been cheaper than they expected, thanks to the value of the pound abroad, and the exchange rates meant we could put `Save up to pounds 300 per couple on 96/97 prices' on the cover of our previous brochure for this season. The result was that our early-season bookings were sometimes running at a level 90 per cent above last year's."

Skiers are, Perrin says, "going where the value for money is: the big winners are those countries which have `benefited' most from exchange rate variations." And that means the old favourites, France, Austria and Switzerland. Crystal's bookings to Switzerland are up an astonishing 390 per cent - although, as Perrin points out, this year's brochure tripled the size of the skiing programme there. But no destination is doing badly: "Italy's growth has slowed down - that's as bad as it gets," he says. The only holidays that are hard to sell are those in Christmas week itself - because the 20 December start is too early for most families - and self- catering packages, "because people can afford something better".

Perrin's figures are for the growth in the number of holidays; he has not noticed a big increase in the amount spent per holiday. But Joanna Yellowlees-Bound has. She is managing director of the independent operator, Erna Low, and one of the never-seen-anything-like-its ("not in 15 years of selling ski holidays"). She says that "trading-up" has helped her company to double its turnover this year. The fact that it has become the UK sales representative for the Pierre & Vacances apartment agency, the biggest in France, has contributed to the growth; but Yellowlees-Bound says that Erna Low's turnover on holidays to La Plagne and Les Arcs, a similar range to that offered last year, are up 80 and 100 per cent respectively.

Why the sudden rush to go skiing? Windfalls, exchange rates and the feelgood factor are a big part of it. They have pushed Thomas Cook's winter holiday market up 20 per cent, says its spokesman, Richard Grummit. But skiing is outperforming the rest of the market, he says, with sales in its Ski Direct division up by 30 per cent. Last season's weather obviously has a lot to do with that; as Crystal's Andy Perrin says, "Not only did everyone get great value for money, they got great snow, too."

In the equipment business (where Snow+Rock's sales are up 25 per cent), growth has been stimulated by yet another factor. Steve Hazell, Snow+Rock's marketing director, says the enthusiasm at last week's Daily Mail Ski Show at Olympia suggested that "everyone wanted to get buzzed up again". Sales of skis have fallen, Terry Lingard, of Outdoor Leisure, points out, from about 85,000 per year in the late Eighties to 25,000 last season; but "they are going up this year," he says, "because there's a reason to buy new ones."

The latest carving skis are sweeping away traditional designs - and buzzing up the market for boots, too. Steve Hazell saw people at the Olympia show "queuing for an hour to try on boots", and buying expensive models with custom insoles and zip-fit liners because "they no longer want to compromise on comfort". (You will not be surprised to learn that attendances on the opening weekend at Olympia, and for the duration of the earlier Birmingham show, were up by 20 per cent.)

As with holidays, so with ski equipment: "buy now while stocks last" has a ring of truth. To keep up with demand at the show, Salomon air-freighted the equivalent of a 40ft container of stock to Snow+Rock last week - they did not dare risk its being caught in the French lorry-drivers' strike. But that was part of a pre-season order; now Hazell would like to reorder many lines. In most cases he can't, because after difficult years manufacturers have reduced the amount of stock they keep - and at this time of year they have stopped production, to concentrate on next season's models.

But even in this season's seller's market, some things are readily available, and at a bargain price. In the difficult Christmas week, for example: Crystal has now dropped the prices for some holidays in Italy, France and North America on 20 December - and in ski equipment, too.

As Outdoor Leisure's Terry Lingard says, "anyone who's got stock of traditional skis will be panicking now" - so in the unlikely event that you want to buy a pair, you should be able to get a keen price. But what if the resorts where you planned to go are fully booked? Perhaps Dundret, in Arctic Sweden, could be an alternative. I'll keep you posted.