It is fairly routine these days to hear captains of the winter-sport industry talk about attracting lapsed skiers back. The theory is that the recession took many skiers out of the market, but that the right inducements – and economic upturn – will bring them back into the fold. Research in 2011 suggested that there are as many as five million people in the UK who still regard themselves as skiers although they no longer actually ski.
Austria launched a bold "Ski Again" drive this season with Hotelplan (owners of Inghams, Ski Total and family specialist Esprit Ski), combining affordable packages and skiing workshops. But the UK ski market has been flatlining since the precipitous decline of 2008-2010, and the best remedy for that is attracting new, young skiers, not former skiers.
Comparing the ski market of 1980-81 with that of last season shows what has gone wrong. More than half a million skiers bought a ski holiday from a tour operator last season, and 113,800 went on a school or college trip. In 1980-81 it was the school/college trips that amounted to more than half a million, while only about 150,000 package holidays were sold.
What substantially staunched the young blood flowing into winter sports in the 1980s was a change in the government's attitude towards term-time trips – plus a growing concern in schools about legal liability. The effect was to cut the number of school trips. Recently, the Government has put more pressure on the market with fines imposed on parents who take their children out of school for holidays in term-time. And Andy Perrin, CEO of Hotelplan, adds that the abolition of Child Benefit for higher earners in 2013 had a noticeable effect on family bookings.
The peak periods of Christmas and New Year, the February half-term, and Easter (when it doesn't fall too late), are now more in demand than ever. But the rest of the season is even harder to sell. Inevitably, prices are either uncomfortably high for skiers or uncomfortably low for the ski companies. One tour operator told me the most logical way to run a ski business now would be to offer holidays only at peak periods.
Happily, the family skiing business remains viable for both big and niche tour operators. The doyen of the ski business, Peter Dyer, took over one of the specialist companies in October last year. The co-founder of Crys- tal Ski Holidays, which was started in 1980 and sold in 1998 for £66m, has now bought Ski Famille (skifamille.co.uk), which competes primarily with Esprit Ski and Family Ski Company.
"Quite a few people offer family skiing," says Dyer, "but only Ski Famille has childcare in the chalets where guests are staying." With other companies, several chalets share centralised crèche facilities, which is unsuitable for the younger age group on which Ski Famille concentrates. "Among our children, 50 per cent are under-fives," he explains.
Dyer has had the wit to offer a private tutoring service in Ski Famille's chalets this season. The job he and the other family specialists are doing is vital right now; the school-skiing generation has already had its children, and the young blood is fast drying up.
Ski season 2014-15
Do your homework
For the past five years the estimable Where to Ski and Snowboard guide (wheretoski andsnowboard.com) has featured a "resort price index" which compares costs in different destinations, taking into account food and drink, lift passes, and other winter-sport overheads.
The 2015 guide reveals that for eating-and-drinking costs the extremes of the eurozone are only about 80 miles apart, as the helicopter flies. In Italy's Monterosa ski domain you should apparently budget £100 for six days of nourishment; across the mountains in France, the equivalent figure for Courchevel is £190.
The pages of the new magazine-style brochure from Crystal Ski Holidays also features a price index for drinks. And with a small beer in Courchevel reckoned to be twice as expensive as in Passo Tonale (comparable with Monterosa), the indexes appear consistent.
More intriguing are the price-comparison opportunities offered by Nauders, an Austrian resort new to the Crystal brochure. It is located so close to a pair of international frontiers that holidaymakers can ski to Italy or Switzerland for their beers.
The ski rack is "the most glamorous part of the shop" says Steve Wells, ski hardware buyer for the winter-sport retailer Ellis Brigham. But it is not the place where most sales are made, thanks in large part to airline charges for ski carriage of up to £100 for a one-way flight. Last season, more than two pairs of boots were sold for every pair of skis, because ski footwear travels in your luggage, is more important than skis, and has recently improved greatly.
Pioneered by Salomon, Fischer and Atomic, customised boot shells – softened in a heater and moulded to the foot – allow a snug but comfortable fit, especially with custom liners and footbeds.
The other current big sellers are helmets. The strong demand after Michael Schumacher's accident last December led, says Salomon's Eric Davies, to "sold-out shops and empty warehouses". Now the busy, restocked equipment shops give Davies reason for optimism about the coming season. "People look as if they're getting ready to go skiing again," he says.
Given that last season saw a small decline in ski holiday sales, it isn't surprising tour operators were conservative with their 2014/15 programmes. There are a few new destinations, but nothing too exotic. Market leaders Crystal (crystalski.co.uk) and Inghams (inghams.co.uk) have introduced the substantial Kronplatz area of the Dolomites, and both have unearthed hidden gems in Austria.
Inghams is the more ambitious, with 10 new resorts ranging from Kranjska Gora in Slovenia to Park City in Utah; Neilson (neilson.co.uk) is more circumspect, only venturing into the familiar territory of Lech and Zürs.
Peak Retreats (peakretreats.co.uk), which specialises in small, quiet villages with access to large ski areas, has added four little-known French destinations, including Orelle and Doucy.
Big tour operators are offering deals to early bookers in the hope of avoiding deeper discounts later. And although late deals are attractive, skiers who know exactly what they want are still best advised to book sooner.
War and piste
The winter sports arena has become something of a battleground recently. The Four Valleys ski domain at Verbier threatened to become just the Two Valleys after a dispute over the division of lift-pass proceeds – until a deal was struck earlier this month.
In the long-running dispute over "ski hosting" a French appeal court has confirmed that UK chalet company Le Ski broke the law by letting staff without professional guiding qualifications to accompany guests on the slopes.
That fight will continue on its way to the European Court of Justice; but the biggest and most spectacular battle ended a couple of weeks ago. The protagonists were two neighbouring resorts in Utah; Canyons and Park City. The former is leased and operated by Vail Resorts, the giant of US skiing which also had a lease on much of Park City's ski terrain. Familiar leaseholder-and-tenant problems (late payment of rent, threat of eviction) led to a court case which ended, on 11 September, when Vail Resorts suddenly bought Park City for $182m (£111m).
Despite their bluster and bravado, ski -company bosses must be anxious about the coming season, the winter-sport business having shrunk by almost a third since 2008. But there is one who is very bullish: Ian Brown, managing director of The Snow Centre, the indoor snow slope at Hemel Hempstead, Herts (thesnowcentre.com).
The business was already enjoying its fourth year of growth when snowboarder Jenny Jones won a slopestyle medal at Sochi. The impact was immediate: phone inquiries rise 58 per cent and website visits by 228 per cent, year on year, with bookings up 20 per cent. "It was the best marketing we could have," says Brown.
Other indoor UK ski options include Snozone (snozoneuk.com) which has locations in Milton Keynes and Castleford.
Getting ready for the slopes
Pre-season exercises are hugely important, particularly for infrequent skiers or those returning to the sport after a long break. A doctor at La Plagne resort in France told me in his surgery: "I see people who cannot get up off the couch without help because their stomach muscles are not strong enough".
Regular cyclists do have an advantage because it's an activity that gives their key muscles a good workout; but others planning a ski holiday this winter would do well to start working on their fitness levels. For guidance, have a look at the couple of exercise videos by Dr Craig McLean, which the Austrian National Tourist Office has uploaded to the "Ski Again" section of its website (austria.info).