High hopes for a winter of bargains

The snow starts here. The downturn has hit tour operators hard, so seek out the deals this season

The outlook for skiing in 2009/10 is uncertain, for skiers and the ski business alike. Never, in recent memory, has a season marked by snow conditions as good as those last winter failed to deliver a feelgood effect to the next. That, in itself, is a cause of anxiety; so is the potential erosion of other familiar elements of the UK ski market.

For decades, ski-holiday companies have held fast to the same seed-and-yield principle that good snow in one year will deliver good sales for the following year. British skiers could be relied upon always to remember the great conditions on their previous trip, and always to forget that last season's weather proves nothing about the season to come. So reliably has this behaviour endured that UK ski-business executives asked about the forthcoming season would habitually start by describing the weather in the Alps nine months earlier.

True, those executives are still talking about how conditions in 2008/09 will affect the new season. But the conditions that concern them are purely economic. Because what skiers remember or forget matters not a jot if they don't have the money to buy a ski holiday.

Last year, the threatened collapse of the global economy gave us more immediate things to worry about than booking ski holidays, which suddenly lost its urgency. Tour operators already had some money in the bank: in a normal season, a good proportion of sales – perhaps 15 per cent – are made in the first six months of the year, from "preview" brochures. But at the beginning of the period in which the bulk of sales are made, from September to November, consumers held back on discretionary purchases.

Every ski company carefully monitors year-on-year performance. Staff know in advance how many sales should be made by, say, the end of September: they take a projection from the previous season, and the seasons before. If sales are falling short, the normal reaction is to cut prices and throw in enticements (lift passes, "kids ski free" offers). Last autumn, every company was offering deals; but in the sluggish market, none of them got much response. So the deals continued, for almost the whole season. Even skiers who weren't looking for a bargain got one.

According to the annual Ski Industry Report compiled by the UK's largest winter sports operator, Crystal, the number of ski holidays sold in 2008/09 was 13 per cent less than the figure for the previous year. But that tells only part of the grim story. Among those holidays which were sold, few fetched the full price; as a result, tour operators' margins shrank even further. Nobody in the business has volunteered to reveal the decline in their turnover; but for some it could have been 20 per cent or more. Those with fixed overheads – such as chalet companies, whose contracted properties had to be paid for whether they were occupied or not – were the hardest hit.

How has that experience impacted upon this season? For a start, the usual raft of seasonal innovations – new destinations, resorts and flights – is far more limited than usual. Much more dramatic have been capacity cuts. The TUI group's main ski operators (Crystal, Thomson and First Choice) have dropped 22 of the resorts which featured in the 2008/09 brochures; according to Mathew Prior, whose responsibility for all three brands makes him the most significant figure in the UK ski business, TUI's chalet capacity has been reduced by 40 per cent; and all three have pulled out of Scandinavia, leaving just a vestigial offer of bespoke trips to Sweden's Ice Hotel from Crystal.

In the inter-season, there was also one very high-profile company failure, which left the most affluent UK skiers wondering where they would go this season. The company which went down was Descent International, whose chalet portfolio included the most glamorous and expensive properties available in the Alps. Not quite so surprising was Kuoni's decision to abandon everything in its ski portfolio apart from the Swiss and North American programmes.

It is a measure of the difficulty that ski destinations are having in presenting a convincingly new face for 2009/10 that one Nordic country, when asked for news of its innovations, was reduced to telling me about the launch of flights from Amsterdam.

Among the few traditional novelties for 2009/10 is Inghams' introduction of a programme in Slovakia – which, thankfully, was not packaged with flights on the low-cost airline SkyEurope, which collapsed a few weeks ago. Neilson has introduced charter flights to Fagernes, handily located for all the best Norwegian resorts; there is a slew of developments at Whistler Blackcomb associated with its hosting of the 2010 Winter Olympics in February; a stylish hotel is set to open in Méribel; and in the US, there is new, upmarket accommodation at Aspen's Snowmass area and at Deer Valley and The Canyons in Utah – a state which has seen a major cultural change this year: prohibition is over and alcohol is now freely available in bars and restaurants.

The big question mark hanging over the coming season is this: will the pattern of 2008/09 – when tour operators, in panic, made price cut after price cut – be repeated? This summer, every tour operator was singing from the same bullish song sheet. There would be no late-booking bargains, they said. Last season's problem of "distressed inventory", meaning accommodation and flights on impending dates which had to be sold swiftly and cheaply to get at least some revenue from them, would not arise. Why? Because the cuts in capacity for 2009/10 would ensure that demand for ski holidays would match or exceed supply.

None of that sounded very convincing. In the silly season for bookings, when the preview brochures were yellowing and the "main editions" (the brochures designed to shift the bulk of holidays in the peak booking season) were not yet published, substantial discounts were already being offered. For a while, one tour operator was offering three discounts on the same holiday: one for booking early, another for doing the deal online, and the third – the inducement of a free lift pass – because the other discounts obviously weren't enough.

When Crystal's main edition was finally published, later than usual at the very end of June, the same "no late-booking bargains" was repeated. The company's key innovation for this price-sensitive season was new packages under the name Crystal Ski Plus. These all-inclusive packages started at £479 for holidays in the French resorts of Les Arcs, La Plagne and Flaine, and boasted not only flights, transfers, half-board or self-catering accommodation and a local rep service, but also a lift pass and ski/board hire (or ski carriage on flights).

Crystal Ski Plus is a laudable effort, as is the similar all-inclusive offer from Inghams. It meets a market need, and the prices are very good. For Crystal, the packages are a useful, flexible tool for a season in which every tour operator is setting great store by flexibility. (The memory of chalets contracted for 2008/09 which stayed empty for much of the season will probably last a lifetime.) The packages can be switched on and off as necessary: when sales are slow, Crystal Ski Plus can be extended to other resorts, as has already happened; if sales do pick up, customers may find that the packages have sold out.

As ski companies ponder sales figures which are said to be as bad as, if not worse than, in 2008/09, does it strike them that there may still be excess capacity this season, despite the cuts? And if so, will they soon have to backtrack on their "no late-booking bargains" resolution? And as skiers look at the £479 all-inclusive holidays, do they wonder whether booking late is necessary, since the bargains seem to be available now? As I said, the outlook for skiing in 2009/10 is uncertain.