Learning to ski in comfort

With the number of British skiers on the slide, first-timers are being given a helping hand, says Patrick Thorne

Those who are lifelong skiers or snowboarders always assume everyone else would want to ski if they had the chance. But the evidence is that fewer and fewer people are trying snowsports.

However, there is an underlying concern that the number of people actually wanting to learn to ski or snowboard is down too. According to YouGov research, the number of children going on ski holidays with their schools – the lifeblood of the ski travel industry – is declining fast, as families struggle to pay for their child's first ski experience. Last season's total of 117,700 was the lowest for 21 winters.

Rather like with church attendances, a debate is now raging as to whether the best approach is to try to attract lapsed skiers back (a lot of pent-up demand is assumed from those who would ski if they could afford it) or do more to attract complete beginners.

"Up to five million people in the UK consider themselves a skier or snowboarder," asserts the most recent edition of the annual Snowsports Analysis report published by the Ski Club of Great Britain (skiclub.co.uk). "Despite the economic outlook, some people who have not skied or snowboarded for the last few years will want to return to the sport," it concludes.

Few deny that cost is the key issue putting most people off trying snowsports. But there are ways to find out whether you will enjoy the experience without a huge outlay. There are an increasing number of tour operator initiatives to make first ski holidays cheaper. In resorts, much thought is going into developing amazing nursery slopes and new, simpler ways of learning in order to attract new blood.

The number of artificial surface beginner slopes around the UK has fallen from more than 150 30 years ago to fewer than 60 now, but they – along with the UK's six indoor snow centres – shouldn't be underestimated either. In the last 12 months The Snow Centre in Hemel Hempstead (0845 258 9000;  thesnowcentre.com), has provided lessons for 45,000 people, including around 600 juniors taking part in summer courses. Group lessons here start at £34 for non-members. "A qualified instructor will help ensure you can turn and stop with confidence in an environment that it is wholly safe and controlled," says Pete Gillespie, the centre's head of snowsports.

Freebies for your first ski

Crystal Ski, which usually makes a new destination country their "big news" each winter, has instead decided that encouraging beginners is the big thing for 2012/13.

To encourage first-timers, the UK's largest ski tour operator has gone straight to the nub of the issue: price.

Crystal is offering 300 genuine first-timers free tuition, free lift passes and free equipment hire.

The trips are available to a selection of 16 resorts in Austria, Bulgaria, Canada, Finland, France, Italy, Slovenia and Switzerland, taking in smaller areas and world-class resorts such as Whistler.

Predictably, perhaps, the deal is on offer only during four of the quietest weeks of the season, with departures on 12 or 19 January and 9 or 16 March, 2013. For more details, call 0871 231 2256 or see crystalski.co.uk/beginner-ski-holidays.

The right package for beginners

"Given the state of the economy it's wholly understandable that beginners – who don't yet know if they'll love skiing – are unlikely to find money to invest in a holiday," says Inghams' boss Andy Perrin. The key, he says, is to offer value for money "in order to bring learning to ski within range of as many people as possible and to enable those who already ski to tempt beginners to join them to give it a try." Perrin says it's essential new skiers enjoy a high-quality experience rather than a bargain-bucket trip to the wrong resort.

"We want every beginner we carry to come home having had the time of their life, and vowing to return." Examples of the company's "Learn to Ski" savings include six days' ski and boot hire, and five full days' ski instruction, in Ellmau, Austria (below) for £129pp. That's on top of the basic holiday price. Inghams (01483 791111; inghams.co.uk) offers a week at the Sporthotel Ellmau from £649 per person, half board, with return flights from Gatwick and transfers.

The learn-to-ski guarantee

If you doubt whether you can actually learn to ski, check out Austria's Grossarltal ski area in the SalzburgerLand region, which is offering a learn-to-ski-or-your-money-back guarantee. If you can't safely ski down an easy blue slope by the end of their Saturday-to-Saturday ski school course, the tourist office promises to refund the price of your ski pass, equipment hire, tuition fees and half the cost of your accommodation. Options include a half-board week at the three-star Hotel Kathrin from €846 per person based on two sharing (grossarltal.info).

Skiers can try snowboarding free

Although most people in the UK have never been on a ski holiday, there are also a lot of skiers who've never tried snowboarding. The tour operator Rudechalets (0870 068 7030, rudechalets.com) is offering skiers the chance to give snowboarding a go for a day free on chalet holidays for the weeks from 20 January and 24 March, 2013.

The company is offering the services of a snowboard instructor and the rental of a new 2013 Burton Snowboard for free to any of their skiing guests who would like to learn to snowboard.

The price is from £569 per person including transfers from Geneva, ensuite accommodation, half board, unlimited wine and mountain hosting, but excluding flights.

Seamless skiing for new starters

The giant French ski regions are currently battling to provide the best beginners experience. "Youcanski" is the offering from the Portes du Soleil region (portesdusoleil.com), which covers a dozen ski areas on the French/Swiss border. Youcanski endeavours to make the entire learning experience both fun and seamless, with online booking and all equipment rental, tuition and lift passes provided together. You'll learn fast with the latest tuition technique on a safe slope reserved for beginners. Available as a three- or six-day package, it includes half-day lessons each morning, lift pass and equipment hire including a helmet. It costs €169 for three days or €269 for six. Available in resorts including Avoriaz, Châtel and Morzine, it must be booked in advance online.

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