High hopes: The ski business is pinning its aspirations for 2010 on added-value packages and luxury hotels
Saturday 26 December 2009
Skiers and snowboarders enjoy a party at least as much as anyone else, probably more. But although they'll join in the fun on the evening of 31 December, the advent of the new year means little to them. Like Jewish people and members of the Russian Orthodox Church, British skiers have their own calendar, radically different from the Gregorian version used in most of the world.
In the northern hemisphere, the snowsports "year" starts in mid-October, when the bulk of holiday bookings are traditionally made, and ends in mid-April, when the snow begins its annual migration to the Arctic or across the equator to the mountains of the southern hemisphere. It is rare for skiers and boarders to refer to a single calender year; rather, they remember – and look forward to – pairs of years coupled together. For example, in a discussion of seasons which started badly reference will be made to 2006-7, although the actual month in which the snow failed to materialise was December 2006.
So while the year 2010 is for most people a sequence with a beginning, a middle and an end, in winter sports terms it is a substantial part of the 2009-10 season and a minor part of 2010-11. For the ski business – resort managements, tour operators, lift builders – it is the beginning of the season which is critical. That is when major developments are completed. It is in December that hotels open, lifts start lifting, and new transportation links to the mountains come on stream.
Right now, 2010 seems little more than a continuation of 2009. But almost 12 months hence it will seem very fresh, even if many of the novelties will have been months or years in the planning. The new Denver Ski Train, which will actually start running a few days before 2010, is a novelty only in a very limited sense. It was in 1947 that the first ski train ran between Denver and the resort of Winter Park, owned by the city but now managed by Intrawest, the Canadian resort operator. The train, running on a track which climbs up to the Continental Divide and traverses in a tunnel, survived until the end of last season; then, the weekend-only service ended and the train itself was sold to a Canadian railroad. But Winter Park had already started casting around for a replacement, and last month it announced that the Ski Train will resume operations tomorrow. Coincidentally, the new train's operator will be the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad; the original Ski Train was run by a company of the same name, but without the word "Scenic".
Other projects, such as hotels, take years to materialise. So the opening for the 2010-11 season of a new Four Seasons hotel at Vail in Colorado, only the third such property in a ski resort, is a big event. It actually opens during the summer, which means that by the time the skiers arrive it will already be seasoned. Courchevel in France also expects to have three new five-star hotels in 2010; but unusually, these are already well-established properties – La Sivolière, Le Strato and Les Suites de la Potinière – which hope, with the stroke of a pen, to be upgraded from their current four-star status. For four decades, France's hotel rating system has lacked a five-star category; but earlier this year the rank was restored, and in June the minister for tourism revealed a list of the first 26 hotels to achieve it. Remarkably, six of them are in Courchevel; only Paris has more – and only a couple more. A further group of hotels will be elevated to five-star status in 2010, and Courchevel expects its three properties to be among them.
How 2009-10 pans out will largely determine what sort of season will start in late 2010. The sharp decline in the UK ski market last season meant that tour operators reduced capacity for 2009-10; and the sort of innovations that new seasons usually bring were notably absent.
In fact the one big development for this, current season is the almost-all-inclusive bargain holidays introduced by Crystal and Inghams. Instead of exotic destinations, the new, post-credit crunch thing is the £479 per person per week package from Crystal, which includes not only flights, transfers, half-board or self-catered accommodation and a local rep service but also a lift pass and ski or board equipment.
Overall, 2009-10 sales so far do not indicate a resurgence in the market. Only real optimists could expect this season to be significantly better than the last, in terms of earnings. Which suggests that the 2010-11 programmes of the big tour operators will once again be an exercise in damage-limitation.
Still, Crystal has already announced one new departure for next season. Tour operators habitually publish "preview" brochures at the beginning of one season, which offers holidays in the next, to encourage skiers returning after a good trip to book immediately for the following year, at advantageous prices. So earlier this month Crystal launched its preview brochure for 2010-11, which features one new resort, Igls, a "small and charming village" which is just outside Innsbruck. The almost-all-inclusive packages, called Crystal Ski Plus, continue for next season; but for 2010-11 prices start lower: at £389 per person for a five-night stay.
More intriguing is Crystal's new Ski Escort service, which provides an escort on the slopes for guests in Crystal's "club hotels" in France. Once a familiar part of the UK ski holiday, ski-guiding was curtailed during the acrimonious dispute over the right of instructors without a French qualification to guide skiers on the country's slopes. Now the dispute is over, but ski-guiding is still taboo. So what ski escorts do is "accompany" guests on the slopes and help them with equipment; but they do not guide, I am told by Crystal.
The big ski event of 2010, of course, is the Winter Olympics, which gets underway at Vancouver in British Columbia on 12 February. The showpiece ski competitions will take place at nearby Whistler Blackcomb, the most popular resort in North America among British skiers.
With no great history of success in these events, we British are largely unaroused by competitive winter sports (except, obviously, for the curling). British skiers, however, have a definite antipathy towards major ski competitions. The general view is that an influx of sportsmen and women, TV crews, administrators and major sponsors does nothing to improve the chosen resort as a holiday destination.
There are smart organisers (St Moritz dug tunnels for leisure skiers to traverse the race pistes when it hosted the World Championships in 2003) and not-so-smart (Sestriere restricted a key gondola link to Olympic personnel during the 2006 Turin games); given Whistler's excellent management, it will probably be in the former category. Nevertheless, the "Olympic effect" promised to sharply reduce the number of British skiers visiting the resort this season. As a result, there were some terrific early-booking deals from the specialist tour operators, with Whistler's five-star hotels (which include a Four Seasons) throwing in some generous inducements. Even now, there should still be discounts on holidays in Whistler Blackcomb in the first half of January. That wouldn't be a bad way to start 2010.
Finally, a warning for long-term planners: Christmas Day falls on a Saturday in 2010. This means that many tour operators will abandon their normal, strict rhythm of weekend transfers during the early part of the season, switching in some cases to a Monday and Tuesday flight rotation.
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