Traveller's guide to ski season 2012/13
Last year’s abundant snow should lure skiers back to the slopes. Stephen Wood previews the months ahead
Friday 05 October 2012
At this time of year, when the wintersport season starts on these pages, some distant resorts can usually be relied upon to herald the event with a light dusting of snow on high ground. Several in the western states of the US have obliged, one of them with a display well beyond the merely picturesque. Photographs of the access road to the remarkable Las Vegas Ski and Snowboard Resort (not imaginary; it does exist) taken on 10 September showed it covered with snow. On the previous day the resort's summer season had ended, and winter arrived immediately with a drop in temperature from 15C to 3C over just 15 minutes, followed by rain, hail, sleet and finally snow.
Will the rest of the ski season progress so directly? Probably not, though at least the calendar is not causing the disruption of recent years, when Christmas and New Year fell on transfer days and Easter came late. "This year, everything is where we would like it to be," says Simon Cross, managing director of Crystal, the UK's biggest ski tour operator. And, another cause for optimism, says Cross, is the excellent 2011/12 snowfall in the Alps and western Canada. Good snow in one season usually leads to strong demand in the next.
The best thing about last season, for the ski business, was that it wasn't as bad as it could have been. After three years of fairly steep decline, the UK market fell by only about 2 per cent in 2011/12. However, optimism remains in short supply. "I believe we got down to the real core-skier base last season," Cross says, "and I like to think we are now coming back up – albeit marginally, with small single-figure growth." But Crystal's main competitor, Inghams, expects the market to be flat; and at Neilson, the third key player, managing director Pete Tyler expects sales to drop by 10 per cent, though that is principally because his company is now favouring quality over quantity.
Predicting seasonal sales now, however, is difficult. The long-established historical pattern, with the bulk of holidays being sold pre-season at full price and the rest heavily discounted later, is itself history. Recently the discounts have come first, in a variety of forms from free lift passes and cashbacks to complete £449 packages including everything except the odd glass of beer. This makes sense to the tour operators, who like to get money in the bank as soon as possible, though for customers the complexity of limited-duration offers (some of which expired on 31 August) must surely be daunting. Cross says not, but I am certainly daunted when I see up to 11 offers available in a single resort, with a variety of terms and conditions.
Still, the basis of the new sales strategy is sound. As Neilson's Pete Tyler rightly says: "What we were doing before was penalising the customer who paid early."
Caution in the business means that resort selection for this season has been conservative: nobody has opened up new destinations in Iran or Kazakhstan, for example. But there are certainly some novelties in the brochures. The desire to find ways to rejuvenate winter sports has led many tour operators to commission market research, and what they have learned is that guests are not as enthusiastic about skiing and boarding as expected. The effect of this is most apparent at Neilson, where Tyler now favours the term "snow holidays" over "ski holidays" and the 320-page brochure has just two skiing photographs before moving on – at page six – to sleigh-riding and Porsches on ice.
It is something of a paradox. The way to expand the ski business is seemingly to cut back on the skiing.
Bulgaria is in demand
Budget wintersports resorts have had a hard time recently. A substantial part of their business comes from beginners, and in a recession the number of people willing to try new, expensive activities declines. On top of that, competition between the tour operators has brought the cost of some budget packages to France right down to the point where it's barely more expensive than in Bulgaria. The result? According to the 2012 edition of Crystal's annual Ski Industry Report, Bulgaria's share of the UK market fell last season from 4 per cent to 2.7 per cent. However, Bulgaria could make something of a comeback for 2012/13, according to Simon Cross, the managing director of Crystal. He admits that Inghams' withdrawal from the destination is a factor, but adds that "Bulgaria is showing strong early demand" within his company's sales.
Back to the old school
With its bowl-like setting beneath Mont Blanc and its old, car-free village, Megève is a most appealing place. It is also historically important as the first purpose-built ski resort – created in 1925 by Baroness Noémie de Rothschild. It was also the place where the ski chalet was conceived. But Megève attracts few British skiers: we make up only 10 per cent of guests here, compared with 30 per cent in some French resorts. Why? Because the ski area is relatively small and low-lying, and the hotels are mostly not big enough to make a good fit with UK tour operators. But, happily, Inghams has added Megève to its brochure, and the resort is adding a new drag-lift between two lift bases which is to be, unusually but not uniquely, horse-powered. From £825 per week with Inghams (01483 791111; inghams.co.uk).
Valley to valley
In most other respects, linked ski areas aren't much like buses, but after Les Arcs and La Plagne combined to form the Paradiski domain in 2003, we had to wait ages before the next two link-ups came along at about the same time. Last year, it was Madonna di Campiglio and Pinzolo in the Dolomites which got hitched; this season a new eight-person gondola in Austria will connect Alpbach, north-east of Innsbruck, with that of the villages of the Wildschönau region. The linked area, named Ski Juwel, above, will have 47 lifts and 90 miles of pistes; it won't be a major wintersport hub, but it will give two attractive Tyrol destinations a decent shared domain. The major UK tour operators – Crystal/Thomson, Inghams and Neilson – all offer holidays to the Ski Juwel area. A one‑day, adult lift-pass costs €35.50, low season.
Piste map in your goggles
There's no doubt about this season's must-have accessory: goggles loaded with the Recon MOD Live heads-up information system. The words "reconditioned", "mod" and even "live" might sound old school, but this is a device which delivers a Moon-landing quantity of data on speed, position and elapsed vertical, plus "jump analytics" and texts.
I am intrigued by the optical trick which makes the Recon's small display appear to be on a 14-inch screen five feet away, to eliminate the need for refocusing. And, taking the piste map off a crumpled piece of paper and placing it before your very eyes is an idea whose time has surely come. The Recon, pictured, costs £319.99 (0844 372 1010; ellis-brigham.com).
Big in America
Thanks partly to poor snow, the US business went downhill last season: skier visits fell 15 per cent. But while a cut in capacity might now seem in order, two of the big resorts are actually expanding. In Colorado, Snowmass, near Aspen, has 230 acres of new terrain and Breckenridge (left) will have an extra 543 acres. But remember, not everything is bigger in the US: the 5,289 acres of its biggest ski area, at Vail, are dwarfed by the 16,000 at the Trois Vallées and the Portes du Soleil in the Alps.
Ski down the high street
Once upon a time, when mobiles were no longer brick size but still rare, there was a telephone at the top of a piste in Colorado's Winter Park resort, with a direct line to the pizzeria down at the bottom. An order could be placed for a pizza that would be ready to eat once the skier had made the descent.
Unfortunately, I learnt about this brilliant concept only after its fatal flaw had emerged, namely that telephones soon die of exposure in the Rockies when left outdoors in winter at 10,000ft.
Last season, a ski-in/ski-out Starbucks opened at Squaw Valley, California, and for 2012/13 the mobile champagne bar which popped up in Aspen in the spring is to have a season-long presence. Along with the pizza phone line, these innovations set me thinking. Even the pre-eminent 20th-century ski developer Intrawest – whose resorts always had a shopping-centre element – failed to spot the retail potential of the slopes. But isn't it obviously a good idea in the Espace Killy to have a charity shop at La Grande Motte so that skiers who didn't put on enough layers can buy an old pullover for the long descent?
And, halfway down the steep Bellevarde piste, shouldn't there be a tune-up stall to sharpen your ski edges? Really bumpy mogul fields could have a masseur at the bottom; and at the resorts where such things matter – Gstaad, St Moritz – coiffeurs might set up shop just before the entry to the village. The possibilities are endless.
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