The first snow of "winter" 2009-10 has fallen, the first resorts are open already, even the first British ski tours of the season have already departed. The skiinfo.co.uk website reports that up to a metre of snow has fallen in the Austrian Alps this week, bringing hopes of a repeat of last season's autumnal snow deluge that set up Europe for skier number growth despite the economic downturn. It's also powder heaven on the slopes at resorts such as Sölden (00 43 525 451 00; soelden.com).
That's the good news. On the other hand, tour operators are shouting about their capacity cuts – which means fewer destinations and fewer places to stay. The result, they claim, still boils down to the same message as every year: book early.
Is that what British skiers are doing? In the past month, it seems that the answer is "yes". Summer sales were quiet, despite a wealth of deals, but they are now running above the levels of this time last year. One operator, Ski Beat (01243 780 405; skibeat.co.uk), has announced that its flight quota for the busy February holidays is sold out, although it has a few chalets left for self-drivers.
Deals or destinations?
So with everything being cut back, is there much new to report? From the tour operators, the onus is on price rather than destination. The "new" big idea is the all-inclusive package aiming to shelter skiers from high in-resort prices due to the weak pound. So a concept offered for many years by Interski (01623 456 333; interski.co.uk) in Italy's Aosta Valley is now seen as a great idea by everyone else.
There are also some special offers to be had. "We have introduced a range of 'crunch-buster' deals for early bookings," says Moira Clark of Ski Total (08701 633 633; skitotal.com). "These range from £150 per couple cash-back offers, free equipment rental and helmets for children, two-for-one equipment rentals for adults and free or reduced-price lift passes."
To try to differentiate their offering from the maelstrom of deals on offer, some operators have gone for niche markets. Ski Famille's (0845 644 3764; skifamille.co.uk) offer of a free place for a grandparent this Christmas is valid on bookings of two adults and at least one child to any of its chalets in France, saving up to £1,005. The grandparent even gets a free lift pass if they are more than 70 years old.
New destination choices for the season are hard to find. Inghams (020-8780 4447; inghams.co.uk) is offering several of the largest ski areas in the Slovak republic. All its historic areas are now owned by the Tatry Mountain Resorts group, which has spent more than €50m (£46.8m) on upgrades to ski slopes and resort villages, including a Kempinski five-star hotel.
Investment on the slopes
Spending by the internationally better-known resorts is down on previous years, most noticeably in the hard-hit North American ski market, although Alberta's Marmot Basin is putting in a new quad chairlift that will enhance slope access there. However, some projects in the €10m-20m investment bracket are still being unveiled. Austria's Saalbach (00 43 654 168 0068; saalbach.at) has new four-, six- and eight-seater chairlifts, and there's a new funicular in Italy's MonteRosa (00 46 705 771 305; monterosa.com) ski area. Perhaps the most significant news is at St Anton (00 43 544 622 690; stantonamarlberg.com) where relocating the new Rendlebahn means the resort's ski mountains will be properly united.
Let's just hope the early snow keeps falling.