Back in 1990, Melvin Westlake and some mates went on holiday to Pamporovo, in Bulgaria. The resort's attraction was simple: it was very cheap. "We went to have a good time, and we did," Westlake says. "The food wasn't a great experience, but we had a laugh, and that was more important than anything else including the skiing." Such was their lack of application that they cut skiing classes; spotted on the slopes, the truants were chased down by their instructor.
In the 17 years since then, Westlake has learnt a lot about budget ski destinations. As head of product for Britain's top two ski brands, Crystal and Thomson, he is responsible for all types of ski holidays. The offerings range from the five-star indulgences in the Crystal Finest brochure to the rock-bottom-price packages at the Serbian resort of Kopaonik, which is right up against the border with Kosovo; last time I was there, the upper slopes were closed because of the mines dropped on them by Nato warplanes.
At every level, getting the product and the price right is difficult: there's always competition. But at the lower end of the market, where margins are cut to the bone, it's a struggle to make a 200 holiday anything other than cheap even though, as Westlake says of budget destinations, "everything has improved enormously since our trip to Pamporovo".
So which are the budget destinations? Answering that is something of a challenge these days. For a long time, Andorra was the clear downmarket leader; but ask Westlake if it now offers budget skiing and you get a firm "no". That change is the consequence of an effort on Andorra's part to move upmarket. Heading in the other direction, however, are some mid-price destinations that have been brought within reach of budget skiers for 2007-08 by sheer bad luck.
Last December's poor snowfall in the Alps has given the area a bad hangover. In some of the main Alpine destinations, tour operators are having to offer cut-price holidays something that most of them feared would happen. The managing director of the Co-operative Travel group of travel agencies, Mike Greenacre, has been busy this week, studying the latest snow reports. He says snow cover feeds directly into pricing: "There's growing uncertainty about snow in Europe compared to the absolute certainty of Canada where they're enjoying probably the best skiing they have had for a long, long time." He reports business in Canada up 12 per cent, with Europe marginally lower: "In Europe prices are an average of 10 per cent down, with sharpest falls in France 14 or 15 per cent down."
Price cuts from the big tour operators back up Greenacre's comments. As November drew to a close, Crystal was offering a seven-day package to the Italian resort of Courmayeur for 195, departing on 6 January; this represented a saving of 200 on the brochure price. Thomson had holidays available for the same week in Zermatt at 299, a saving of 180.
The cheapest holiday in the 2007-08 Thomson brochure is a package to little-known Le Grand-Bornand in France, priced at 199 for the week beginning 12 January. So with its slightly lower price tag, Courmayeur a highly regarded resort that has excellent intermediate skiing and a delightful old village is clearly offering budget-level skiing early next year; even blue-chip Zermatt is competing on price with Romania in the same period.
We can expect these market positions to be temporary. If the snow continues to fall in the Alps, and temperatures stay low, those premium resorts will be restored to their usual status. And budget skiers will have to revert to considering the relative attractions of destinations now mainly in Eastern Europe.
Andorra has definitely departed from the budget group. As Westlake says, the principality now has four- and five-star hotels; its ski areas have been joined up to create two big ski domains with single lift-passes; and its prices have gone up accordingly. "There is a whole marketing plan to push Andorra's skiing upmarket," he says. And has the strategy, which began five years ago, been a success? "I don't think it's working overly well yet. The product is good, certainly. The problem is one of perception: Andorra has decided to compete with the Alps, but British skiers know that it doesn't have a Les Arcs or a La Plagne."
When Andorra abandoned its budget clientele, most UK tour operators built up their capacity in Bulgaria, in the belief that the country could take up the slack. The development of Bansko into a modern resort, with up-to-date lifts and a Kempinski "magnet" hotel, and the continuing low prices in the older resorts of Pamporovo and Borovets (from 265 per week this season, half-board, in the Crystal brochure), made Bulgaria an attractive proposition for both operators and skiers. The building of large quantities of very cheap apartments, primarily aimed at British buyers, also helped; and Bulgaria's share of the UK winter-holiday market grew. But the boom was short-lived: according to Crystal's annual report on the British ski business, Bulgaria's share of the market fell last season, albeit by only 0.1 per cent.
In fact, "the wholesale movement of budget skiers from Andorra to Bulgaria" was an illusion, says Westlake. "Many did do that, but others moved to France, or to Austria." He points out that Le Grand-Bornand is not his company's only budget destination in France. Among them, Superdvoluy, in the southern Alps, stands out: on Crystal and Thomson ski holidays there, the price includes a season-long lift pass.
One reason for Bulgaria's stunted growth is that its skiing possibilities are limited, says Westlake. "The country is holding its own at the moment, but you have to remember that it has only the three resorts. Even if people like Bulgaria, they will soon move on to other ski destinations."
What about the other Eastern European destinations? I have been to Bulgaria just once, to Bansko, and have no plans to return. (Perhaps, once the mass-production of grim little apartments has ended, and Bansko becomes primarily a ski resort rather than a place to make a quick buck, it will be worth revisiting.) On the other hand, the Serbian resort that features in both the Crystal and Thomson brochures, Kopaonik, is an engaging place. Its skiing may be no better than Bansko's, and its lifts are certainly inferior, but the purpose-built ski-village at its centre is remarkable.
Most of the tourist beds are in an apartment building, Konaci, whose design is incredibly based on the defensible monasteries of medieval Serbia. The Konaci has a sort of mock-Tudor look about it, thanks to the dark, wooden beams and white rendering. The complex faades step forward and back, up and down; and dormer windows above pierce the steeply pitched, wood-shingled roofs. There is a post-modern lunacy about the whole ensemble, most of all where an octagonal watchtower suddenly bursts into the skyline.
In my opinion, Kopaonik (245 per week, self-catering, in the Crystal brochure) is a much better bet than Bulgaria. What is my opinion worth? You'll get some indication from the fact that Crystal and Thomson have seven planes flying into Bulgaria each week, and just one to Serbia. Westlake says that Serbia "is doing quite well now, but it just can't match Bulgaria on price". The other Eastern European destination in Westlake's portfolio is Romania. Holidays there (from 325 per week, half-board, with Thomson) are more expensive than in Bulgaria, too. Since the demand does not warrant running charter flights, more expensive scheduled services are employed.
The budget destinations about which Westlake is most enthusiastic, however, are not in Eastern Europe. He won't let me get away with making fun of Le Grand-Bornand in the French Alps, the cheapest destination in the Thomson brochure. Yes, the accommodation is in mobile homes; but they are properly insulated and sell well (if more were available, Thomson would take them), and the skiing nearby includes not only the local slopes but also the 130km ski area of La Clusaz, considerably better than the skiing on offer in most of Eastern Europe's resorts.
But it is Finland, the surprise growth area of the past few seasons, that gets Westlake really excited: prices in the Crystal brochure start from 259 per week, self-catering. "It's the budget destination with the most potential," he says. "It has lots of nice, small resorts, which are ideal for family holidays, usually with a choice of accommodation: hotels near the slopes, and log cabins in the woods. The skiing isn't extensive, but for learn-to-ski resorts which most of them are that's not a problem. What is important is to have a choice of other things to do, and that is just what the 'winter wonderland' of Finland delivers."
More information: Crystal (0870 160 6040; www.crystalski.co.uk) and Thomson (0870 606 1470; www.thomson.co.uk)