End of the run

As this patchy ski season comes to a close, Stephen Wood looks back at a difficult year and ahead to what resorts can to do to entice wary skiers back to the slopes

Cast your mind back to late November, when the Alpine ski season was just getting under way. By that time, you will recall, even the most slow-witted - George Bush, The Economist - had accepted that climate change was a matter of concern in the long term. Then, suddenly, the time frame changed: rising temperatures became an immediate threat, and not just to polar bears and trees susceptible to attack from bark beetles. The Sunday papers were full of large graphics showing the parts of Europe where snow should be but wasn't. Alpine skiing was compromised, or so it seemed.

Of course, things didn't quite turn out that way. With The Independent Traveller's 2006/7 ski coverage drawing to a close, it's a good time to look back at what has actually transpired (bearing in mind that there is still a month's skiing left in parts of the Alps) and also to look forward to next season. Interestingly, skiing's immediate past throws some light on its future, and the future harks back to the past.

Since December I have experienced poor skiing conditions in places as far apart as Andorra to the south and Lake Tahoe in the west, avoiding eastern Europe (where the snow has been particularly bad) and the north (where it has been generally - and predictably - good). Mindful of the scare stories in the press and my own experiences on the slopes, I rather hesitantly raised the issue of this season's commercial performance in the Tirol ski areas with the region's PR manager. We were skiing together last month in the Otz valley, on what was the best snow of the season for me.

To my surprise he said that in the period to the end of January, the Tirol had seen an increase in skiers from all its major incoming markets, except Germany (which, admittedly, is the biggest). Thanks in part to a more frequent service on the GB Airways route from Gatwick to Innsbruck, the number of UK skiers was up by 7.3 per cent.

Back in London the big tour operators didn't have quite such good news. Nevertheless, company spokespeople reported, with a note of relief in their voices, that there has been no decline in business, and in some cases holiday sales are up a little. Canada, which has had huge snowfalls, has been a very easy sell: Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia, the most popular destination in North America among UK skiers, has seen record snow depths. On the other hand, where the snow has been poor, notably in Bulgaria and Andorra, sales are down. Overall, business was hit by the poor early-season conditions, according to Lynsey Devon of Inghams, "but when the snow came in January, booking was back to normal".

For tour operators, the respectable sales performance will be a relief twice over. As a rule, the effect of a poor snow season is felt over a couple of years: a sort of hangover effect dissuades skiers from booking holidays in the wake of a bad season. If 2006/7 is saved - and the current good conditions in popular parts of the French Alps reinforce the notion that it will be - then 2007/8 should be safe, too.

There will be black spots: Lynsey Devon hazards that "it may take Andorra a couple of years to recover from this season". And she notes that bookings from the Inghams "Earlybird" brochure, which appeared in December, disproportionately favour high-altitude resorts over the low-lying.

Is everybody in the business riding out the storm? By no means. A ski-business friend based in the French Alps tells me that hotels in relatively low-lying resorts - he mentioned Morzine and Châtel - have suffered enormously. UK tour operators have a measure of protection against poor snow in that many of us book our holidays early. But hotels which rely on a "passing trade" of continental skiers motivated to travel only when the ski is good are very exposed.

However, only the foolhardy would dismiss what has happened this season as a blip. Consider this. The past dozen years have seen the widespread adoption and extension of snow-making machinery. Many resorts fought shy of installing it, for reasons of cost (the capital sums involved, and the energy requirements) and sometimes because of environmental issues involved in the water usage. But in the end the guarantee of snow cover when nature failed to deliver was usually irresistible. Guarantee? Not really. Snow-making technology provides insurance only against a lack of precipitation: the cannons send a spray of water into the air. It is possible - at considerable expense - to cool the water sufficiently to create snow in above-zero temperatures. But what is the point if it melts when it hits the ground?

The reason why so many Alpine ski areas had so little snow in December was that the weather wasn't cold enough for snow cannons to operate. Since climate change is popularly known as "global warming", this problem might seem blindingly obvious; but when resorts were spending millions to install snow-making it is unlikely they envisaged that it could be money - and melted snow - down the drain.

That thought will give ski-area managers hot flushes into next season, and another development is likely to impact on resorts. My friend in the Alps reports that some French estate agents are warning clients that the days of 70 and 80 per cent mortgages on ski chalets in low-lying areas are over. The banks' reasoning is probably sound, but it threatens to damage what has been a booming property market.

Given all this, it would be a surprise if tour operators were thinking of next season as an opportunity for exciting, risky innovations. True, one of them is toying with the idea of opening up a new continent to UK skiers (no, I can't tell you who, or where); others have plans to expand their eastern European range of resorts. Inghams is committed to a new programme at Baqueira-Beret, a resort in the Spanish Pyrenees said to be patronised by King Juan Carlos, but it made that commitment before the start of the season.

If you are thinking that 2007/8 promises to lack colour, however, let me disabuse you. It will be very colourful. Dave Whitlow, marketing director of the Ellis Brigham/Snowboard Asylum outdoor-wear shops, is quite sure about that. A man who has the uncanny ability to speak the language of fashion and good sense, Whitlow says that the snowboard-wear manufacturers - ever intent on distancing their products from skiwear - will move on from this season's bizarre "tailoring" look to something even more extreme.

Two years ago the US snowboard manufacturer Burton produced a special clothing line with the menswear brand Paul Smith. This season that look ("Savile Row on the slopes" is how Whitlow describes it) was picked up by several companies, and the coolest snowboarders are now wearing baggy clothing in pin-stripe, tweed and Barbour fabrics. But for 2007/8 the snowboard-wear designers detected a move in that direction for skiwear - so they dropped the style like a hot brick, and headed off in the opposite direction.

So blacks and greys, indeed the whole monochrome look, are dead. As of December the coolest dudes will be in very bright, saturated colours - royal blue, bright red and apple green. The last, says Whitlow, will be the colour for next season. Brown, apparently, is history. The same colours will leach into skiwear. For example, the best-selling ski jacket at Ellis Brigham is the Snow Trip, made by Salomon; this season it has been available in black, grey or bronze. For 2007/8 the shops will stock a similar Salomon jacket available in red, white and grey, and one new style will come in red, white and blue. Those aren't alternatives: all three colours appear on the same garment. Whitlow refers to the colour combination as "the ski-instructor look", but takes pains to distinguish this from the palette of some one-piece garments you may still have in your loft. The colours hark back to the 1980s, but they are not Day-glo; these new ones are more natural.

Whitlow's analysis of market trends (as opposed to fashion trends) may offer consolation for anxious snowsport executives. He now identifies two components of the skiwear market. One is mid-market clothing, accessible and comfortable, which still has a "technical" slant (meaning it uses hi-tech fabrics and resembles something a mountaineer might wear). The other is showy, luxury-brand fashion. "Right now there seem to be plenty of wealthy, 40-plus men looking to spend a lot of money on their skiwear," he says. "We actually moved away from Spyder, Killy and the other luxury brands about five years ago in favour of technical, free-skiing styles. But now we are increasingly operating in a luxury-goods market, in which the Russians in Courchevel 1850 provide the dominant image. Skiing is fashionable again among wealthy people. It's sexy."

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