Ice cold in Rusutsu

Beirut's off, but there are plenty of other unusual skiing options this year - mobile homes and Japanese resorts are not as barmy as they sound, says Stephen Wood
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The Independent Travel

It's still September, and too early to take a long-term view, but so far 2006/7 has been a vintage ski season. The brochures have made unusually interesting reading. True, Thomson's plan to run a holiday programme at Faraya-Mzaar, above Beirut in Lebanon, had to be abandoned almost at the same time as it was announced; but that still leaves an intriguing crop of new destinations on offer from the major tour operators. To illustrate the breadth of choice, the same company - German-owned travel giant Tui - has introduced ski packages, sold through its Thomson and Crystal brands respectively, to a mobile-home park in the southern Alps and to hotels in Niseko and Rusutsu in Japan where the breakfast menu includes fermented soya beans.

Most ski operators - even the smallest - want to refresh their brochures for each new season. They learn by experience, and usually find that something which happened in the past season necessitates at least some fine-tuning of the subsequent brochure. And novelties stir interest both among loyal clients and potential "conquest" customers. Many years ago I asked a product manager I was interviewing about his new ski programme why it was so important to introduce fresh resorts. "Well for a start," he replied, "you wouldn't be talking to me now if we were offering the same ones as last year, would you?"

The smaller operators don't have much room for maneouvre. Even for a big "small" operator such as the estimable family specialist Esprit, a compellingly logical innovation such as its new programme at family friendly Les Gets in France required careful and critical analysis because of the investment (mainly in staff) required to achieve its child-care standards. Often, customer demand leads to the addition of new resorts, since the last thing tour operators want to see is existing customers defecting to a rival which already has the resorts on offer. Jane Hartley, managing director of Erna Low, says of the company's North America programme that "customers wanted it so we had to go"; and this season, sales there are double the level of last year.

Operational factors may also open up destinations. New flights, new accommodation, even highway improvements in the mountains can make previously impractical resorts viable. For example, Esprit's opportunity to start the programme in Les Gets (a resort the company had long coveted) arose because of the construction of a brand-new chalet which fulfilled its needs. What brought Superdévoluy and Puy St Vincent in the Southern Alps into the Erna Low fold was a consultant charged with developing the UK business of the two lesser-known French resorts. Obviously they had spare capacity, something which Erna Low needed for large-group bookings "and also for those people who ring us up saying that they have booked low-cost weekday flights into the Alps and want to know where they can find accommodation," says Hartley. The same issues prompt the big operators to innovate, too - so Superdévoluy (which clearly still has some capacity) appears for the first time this season in the Crystal and Thomson brochures.

At Inghams, the manager of product development is Andrew Russell; ask him about how and why new resorts are introduced and he lists all the factors above plus many others, including accommodation and ski-area improvements which bring a destination up to the standards required by his company (he mentions Schladming in Austria, new this season in the brochure, as an example).

But thanks to their commercial leverage, marketing power and the sheer bulk of their clientele, the big operators - Crystal, Inghams and Thomson, in order of size - have a freedom that their smaller brethren lack, namely to make bold gestures. And this year's bold gesture is the launch by Crystal and Inghams of ski packages to the Japanese resorts of Rusutsu and Niseki, both on Hokkaido island.

The development is not quite as innovative as it seems. First, the resorts were not unearthed by some intrepid resort-hunter. In fact the two tour operators - plus the smaller Ski World - were flown out to Japan as guests of a group of local hoteliers and Japan Airlines in the hope that the UK ski market might soak up some of the resorts' excess capacity, caused by Japanese skiing's decline. Second, this is not the first time that Japan has featured in a major UK operator's brochure: 15 years ago Crystal itself offered packages to Shiga in the Nagano region. But that history underlines the boldness of this season's programme, since Shiga lasted just one season.

Andrew Russell is, however, bullish about Rusutsu and Niseki, where Inghams holidays start at £995 per week for log-cabin accommodation. (Crystal's starting price, for a hotel, is £1,225.) "It isn't nearly as expensive as we thought it would be," he says. "It's just as important to offer value for money at the top end of the market as in the middle, and there were good deals to be had on the four and five-star hotels." Russell judges the Japanese resorts to be "cheaper than Courchevel".

In Japan skiing is so unfashionable now that even the influx of Australian skiers (particularly to Niseki) has failed to take up the slack. Hence the resorts' decision to woo UK tour operators. The Australian presence has helped smooth the way for Crystal and Inghams: customer-facing staff mostly speak English and there is plenty of English-language material about the skiing and facilities.

Part of Russell's research prior to his trip to Japan consisted of reading the brochures of Australian tour operators. The visit left Russell very excited about the skiing, too. "Expert skiers are going to be blown away by the snow: there are regularly falls of a metre. And the slopes are not crowded - in fact they were deserted during the week."

Yet Russell seems oddly sanguine about having to share his prize with fellow tour-operator Crystal. "If we are both talking about the same resorts that won't do either of us any harm at all," he says. And this view is apparently shared by Stuart McLeod, managing director for ski, lakes and active holidays at Tui UK, Crystal's parent company. "The presence of Inghams helps us, because people will say 'These Japanese resorts must be good: everyone's going there'."

Obviously both men are aware that Japan is a hard sell. A cynic might go further and presume that their joint venture is more "gesture" than "bold". In the past, operators launching exotic, one-season wonders have been accused of using the resorts to gain publicity for their brands rather than to make money. Should that be the case here the Japanese programme is, I'm afraid, already a success.

What of the new destinations this season for McLeod's other brand, Thomson? A curiously eclectic bunch of nine resorts, it reflects his view that "change is a good thing, and we have an obligation to offer something new each season. Skiers like variety, and we like providing it."

Many of Thomson's new resorts are keenly priced places suitable for families and less skilled skiers. As McLeod says, "you don't want to take out a second mortgage and go to St Moritz for your first skiing experience". Instead he is introducing Thomson clients this season to Nassfeld and Werfenweng in Austria, plus the French resorts of Risoul and Superdévoluy (which he describes as "very competitively priced" at from £339 per week, self-catered).

For intermediates there are a couple of resorts which though small and relatively quiet provide access to big skiing: Sansicario in Italy is part of the Milky Way ski area, and St Christoph in Austria is connected to St Anton's slopes.

Like other tour operators, Thomson is extending its Lap- land programme with a new resort, Iso-Syöte. (Inghams has added the equally obscure Saariselkä and Tahki this season.) The "winter playground" of Lapland - very flat, therefore not much of a place for downhill skiing - is very popular with families, and with tour operators because of the margins made on outings and trips. At the other extreme, Thomson is indulging expert skiers with a programme to Crested Butte in Colorado, which probably has the toughest skiing within the official boundary of any North American ski area. At the same time, no doubt, it is building a relationship with a resort whose appeal is being broadened under new ownership.

An exemplary roster of new resorts, then, with something for everyone, apart from those hoping to ski in Lebanon? Yes. There is even a resort, Le Grand-Bornand in France, for people who want to ski from mobile homes. "I went there and had a look last winter," says McLeod, "and the accommodation is really super. It isn't in caravans but in those big mobile homes that aren't really mobile. The holidays are extremely good value" (at from £199 per week, self-catered) "and I am very confident that they'll be successful."

Thomson (0870 606 1470; www.thomson.co.uk).

Crystal (0870 160 6040; www.crystalholidays.co.uk).

Esprit (01252 618300; www.esprit-holidays.co.uk).

Erna Low (0870 750 6820; www.ernalow.co.uk).

Inghams (020-8780 4400; www.inghams.co.uk)

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