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."

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Life and Style
life
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
News
Melissa and Joan Rivers together at an NBC event in May 2014
peopleDaughter Melissa thanks fans for 'outpouring of support'
Life and Style
tech
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Chen Mao recovers in BK Hospital, Seoul
health
Sport
The giant banner displayed by Legia Warsaw supporters last night
football
Life and Style
One in six drivers cannot identify a single one of the main components found under the bonnet of an average car
motoringOne in six drivers can't carry out basic under-bonnet checks
News
news
Environment
Fungi pose the biggest threat globally and in the UK, where they threaten the country’s wheat and potato harvests
environmentCrop pests are 'grave threat to global food security'
News
i100
Voices
Pupils educated at schools like Eton (pictured) are far more likely to succeed in politics and the judiciary, the report found
voices
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash
tvSimon Cowell blasts BBC for breaking 'gentlemen's agreement' in scheduling war
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
peopleWrestling veteran drifting in and out of consciousness
Arts and Entertainment
Shady character: Jon Hamm as sports agent JB Bernstein in Million Dollar Arm
filmReview: Jon Hamm finally finds the right role on the big screen in Million Dollar Arm
News
Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at 25, and battled with Hollywood film studios thereafter
people
News
Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie reportedly married in secret on Saturday
peopleSpokesperson for couple confirms they tied the knot on Saturday after almost a decade together
Sport
footballAnd Liverpool are happy despite drawing European champions
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Business Development Manager / Sales Pro

    £30 - 35k + Uncapped Comission (£70k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Business Develop...

    Graduate Sales Executive / Junior Sales Exec

    £18k + Uncapped Commission (£60k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Graduate Sales Exe...

    Web Developer / Software Developer

    £25 - 60k (DOE): Guru Careers: A Web Developer / Software Developer is needed ...

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Day In a Page

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone