Ski season 2011: Highs, lows and uphill struggles

Christmas and New Year on the wrong day, a late Easter and erratic snowfall – as the ski season ends, Stephen Wood reflects on a challenging period

Andy Perrin didn't mince his words: "I'll be jolly glad when this season is over," he told me a couple of weeks ago. Today, when all his charter flights have been counted in, he can relax; it will, finally, be over. Unfortunately for Perrin, who took charge of the ski programmes of Inghams, Ski Total and Esprit last summer, Easter 2011 arrived almost as late as it can; and as a result the ski season is the longest Perrin can recall, after 30 years in the business. And it has offered challenges throughout its prodigious length.

They started, in fact, even before the season began, in September and October, the key sales period for the big tour operators. Just when they were hoping for good sales of full-price holidays, the new Conservative Government announced its austerity plan for 2011. The prospect of half-a-million job losses in the public sector, a cut in child benefits, and an increase in the VAT rate did nothing to encourage holiday bookings.

Then, in the early part of the season, the calendar – not content with putting the profitable Easter period almost out of reach in April – threw another spanner in the works. Both Christmas Day and New Year's Day fell on Saturday, the day on which the big tour operators' flight transfers normally take place. Clearly, the idea of running flights on those days was unattractive. So in their wisdom, the flight schedulers changed the transfer day to Monday for the Christmas/New Year period, and then got back to the standard, Saturday rotation by inserting a "short break" slot departing on 3 January and returning to the UK on 8 January.

"But nobody wanted that slot," says Perrin. "At that time the vast majority of regular skiers want a whole week of skiing, not a trip offering only four days on the slopes." At one of the more popular parts of the season, tour operators were landed with holidays for which there was little demand.

In what was already a challenging season, says Perrin, "late-market sales became very important. But then snow conditions were not ideal." Skiers who have not booked in advance, during the autumn, are usually tempted into the market by news of snowfall in the main ski areas. But the Alps saw little fresh snow for two months from Christmas. As Perrin points out, "the high-altitude resorts mostly had good cover on 90 per cent of the skiing"; yet the lack of snow in webcam images of the villages, and the continuing absence of fresh snowfall, cast a shadow. Sales did not pick up significantly.

Easter is a high-demand period, primarily because of the school holidays, so tour operators had no choice but to continue their programmes well into April. Selling holidays in the run-up to Easter is never easy, however; and this season there have been more weeks to sell. While snow stimulates sales, sunshine does not. As early summer weather arrived in the UK at the beginning of April, Perrin pointed out that "it does become harder to sell ski holidays when the daffodils are out".

Has the snow really been bad this season? In the Alps, yes: and since the end of March snowfall has been negligible, the slopes inexorably going green. But elsewhere, as snow reports at Skiinfo.co.uk have shown, conditions have been good, and in some places exceptional. In the Dolomites, the Pyrenees and Scandinavia the snow has been much better than in the Alps. Scotland has had its third good season in a row: in late March every lift in the country was operating, for the first time in 15 years.

But the star performer has been North America, where a La Niña weather system has brought huge snowfalls to the Western resorts and also excellent cover to the East. In Squaw Valley, at Lake Tahoe in California, a snowstorm on 8 April took the resort's cumulative snow depth for the season to 700 inches, the highest on record. Unfortunately for Michael Bennett of North America specialist Ski Independence, "people who head across the Atlantic in response to good snow reports make up only a small proportion of the market: most UK skiers plan North American trips well ahead." As a result, the company sold more holidays in the Alps – via its European arm – than in snowy North America. "We expected a flat year in Europe, and that is what we got," Bennett says. "We expected a flat year in North America, too, but sales there are probably 10 per cent off."

In late September last year, previewing the ski season, I perhaps overstated the optimism in the UK ski business. True, the Tui group (which includes Crystal, Thomson and First Choice) had increased its carrying capacity by 8 per cent, after two seasons during which the market shrank considerably; but at the same time Andy Perrin was more sanguine, saying that he would be happy if Inghams sold as many holidays in 2010/11 as it did in 2009/10. In the event, neither Perrin nor his opposite number at Tui, Mathew Prior, have got what they hoped for. Perrin now reports "slightly lower passenger-carrying than last year, but I am happy with that because it is all that the market could bear"; Tui will be lucky to achieve half its hoped-for growth.

Otherwise, the picture painted seven months ago of 2010/11 was in many respects a good likeness. The tour operators' usual cry that "There will be no late deals this season" proved as erroneous as ever. The discounts available in the second half of March were astonishing, with holidays frequently being marked down by two-thirds. I haven't read any reports of chalet rage, but there must have been ugly scenes when early- and late-bookers compared the prices they paid for the same holiday.

Andorra was expected to make a comeback this season, and it did. Increased prices in the principality had aliented its traditional UK market, of budget skiers and beginners; and the more affluent crowd it hoped to attract did not materialise. So Andorra's marketing team took the fast route to increasing market share. It offered deals to the tour operators, enabling them to put keenly priced packages into their brochures; and the budget skiers returned. The Tui group increased its capacity into Andorra by 20 per cent this season. And by how much has its business there grown? By 20 per cent, I am told.

Rail travel was another expected growth area. It was hoped, back in September, that an initiative of the Snowcarbon.co.uk website with a group of supportive independent ski-holiday companies could kick off a revival of the old tradition of train travel to the Alps. But delays in finalising the rail-travel packages and the rather ambivalent attitude of some train companies have so far held that development back.

This season, there have been signs – so far largely anecdotal – of a most unwelcome trend: a growth in fatal accidents on the slopes. Those who regularly read the daily online newsletter for the US ski business, First Tracks, will have noticed the frequency with which fatalities have been reported. The 28 March edition alone noted three deaths, at Steamboat and Beaver Creek in Colorado and at Welch Village in Minnesota. And the UK press has reported on avalanches which have claimed 18 lives this season, two of those killed (at Val d'Isère) being British. Only when the figures have been collated will we know whether something statistically significant has been happening; happily, a report that winter-sports fatalities had doubled this season in Austria turned out to be unfounded.

On a much lighter note, I reported in my season preview that the Tui group had used ratings in 39,000 customer-satisfaction questionnaires to generate a list of the best-liked ski resorts in 2009/10. The five favourites, starting from the top, were a mixed bunch. I called Tui to enquire how those resorts fared this season. Copper Mountain and Risoul have, I was told, shown a little growth, and the two Austrian resorts (where Tui increased its capacity) have done well. What about little St-Jean d'Arves? It disappeared from the programme before the season started, because of a lack of bookings. That's curious; as was the preview I got of Tui customers' best-liked resorts of 2010/11. They are (from the top) Copper Mountain, Galtür, Arinsal, Breckenridge and Whistler, an even odder list than before.

How is next season looking? To Andy Perrin, just fine. "We've got pretty good bookings; we have sorted out the flights for Christmas and the New Year; and Easter is perfectly placed." Michael Bennett is equally optimistic. "Forward sales are exceptionally strong," he says. Fingers crossed.

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