Skiing: Buyer's guide to sloping off

It's never too early to get a good deal for next year, but if you're still planning to go this ski season, it might pay to wait till the last minute
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The Independent Travel

You may not have given much thought yet to next season's skiing. But if you are hoping to get a good chalet during one of the peak skiing weeks in 2000/1 - over New Year or during the February half-term holidays, for example - it's a little late to be just thinking about it: you should be doing something. One tour operator, Le Ski, already has enough pre-bookings (its prices are only now being finalised) to fill 19 of its 22 chalets in Courchevel for the half-term week, starting on 17 February 2001.

You may not have given much thought yet to next season's skiing. But if you are hoping to get a good chalet during one of the peak skiing weeks in 2000/1 - over New Year or during the February half-term holidays, for example - it's a little late to be just thinking about it: you should be doing something. One tour operator, Le Ski, already has enough pre-bookings (its prices are only now being finalised) to fill 19 of its 22 chalets in Courchevel for the half-term week, starting on 17 February 2001.

On the other hand, anyone planning a chalet holiday for this season has no need to rush. In fact, it may pay to wait a bit before booking. Although many brochures offered keen prices for the week commencing next Saturday (Le Ski's are £100 lower than at the beginning of the month), the holidays have sold very slowly. In the next few days, prices should fall even further.

Tagging along with a skiing group from the Association of Independent Tour Operators (AITO) on a "familiarisation" trip, it's impossible not to pick up a bit of insider information. Last weekend, on a visit to the Swiss resorts of Villars, Les Diablerets, Leysin and Château d'Oex with a dozen representatives from AITO member-companies, the question of booking patterns - some immutable but often illogical, others gradually evolving - came up over dinner at Villars. A dry subject? Not if you're interested in playing the ski market, to pick up bargains or avoid missing out on peak-period holidays.

Over recent years, one trend has been an increase in early bookings for peak skiing weeks, at the New Year, half-term and, usually, Easter (although this season it falls too late to stimulate the normal level of demand). Le Ski, a Huddersfield-based company that sells about 4,000 chalet holidays per season in the French Alps, has seen such bookings climb steeply. Nick Morgan, who runs the company with his sister, habitually records bookings for the following season in late April; and he's seen their value increase from £45,000 in 1997 to £175,000 last year. "And we're going to beat that figure next month, with maybe £200,000," Morgan says.

Another development has been a strengthening demand for skiing holidays in January. Skiers' reluctance to travel then (probably because of the expense of Christmas, and fears about the weather) has traditionally made it a good month for bargain-hunters. Now there is a discernible trend away from February - except, of course, at half-term - and towards January: one AITO member advanced the theory that this is because British skiers are now sophisticated enough to appreciate that in France, their favourite destination, the staggering of the country's half-term holidays leads to crowding throughout February in French resorts. Whatever the reason, prices are hardening in January and softening in February, particularly in the week before the British half-term.

The costs of chalet-holiday companies do not vary from week to week: chalets are contracted at a global sum for the whole season, airline tickets are block-booked at a fixed price, and so on. Yet the weekly holiday prices shown in the brochures differ widely, because the operators know that demand will fluctuate during the season.

Roddy Finlay, managing director of Finlays, based near Edinburgh, says that pricing ski holidays is a process that requires "experience, a feel for the market and intuition," adding bluntly that anyone who claims to be able to do it in a more systematic way "is not telling the truth". His aim (and that of any other operator) is to match price to demand, in the hope that peaks and troughs will even each other out - although he admits that "it's impossible to get it right, because of factors beyond the operator's control, such as snowfall and exchange rates".

When do these peaks and troughs in demand occur? The former at school-holiday times, obviously: that is when prices are at their highest. But there are other periods - the first week in March is one - that are consistently popular, for no apparent reason. Then, too, holidays are priced relatively high. Demand is low at the beginning and end of the season - no surprise there; but some equally predictable but quite illogical troughs occur during the main January-March period. The outstanding one is the week starting next Saturday. Already pitched low in the brochures, prices still usually have to be discounted - as one AITO member said last weekend, "you sometimes get the feeling that you couldn't even pay people to go skiing that week".

Nobody knows why it sells so badly, even in high, snow-sure resorts. But it always does - or nearly always. Next season, because Easter falls early, operators are expecting the end of March to sell better than usual, and will pitch their prices accordingly. For 2000/1, the best time to look for bargains will probably be in the middle of the month: Le Ski's early-booking prices drop £100 over the first two weeks.

And what of the skiing last weekend at the four resorts in the Alpes Vaudoises? Unfortunately, it suffered from the warm weather: even on the short black run off the 2,000m peak at Leysin the snow was turning slushy in the early-morning sunshine, while the lower slopes were turning to mud by late afternoon. The ski areas are limited, in size and variety: most pistes are beginner- or intermediate-level. But in the bright sunlight, the mountains looked sensational, notably on the long run from the Les Diablerets glacier - served by a new cable-car - down to Reusch, and in the Leysin area, where huge, gaunt rock faces protrude dramatically from the rolling slopes.

The stay in Château d'Oex (pronounced, inexplicably, as 'Chateau day') was short - a pity, since this seemed the pick of the four resorts. A two-and-a-half-hour journey by rail, on a main-line train from Geneva airport and a scenic local service up from Montreux, delivers visitors right into the small town, characteristically Swiss with its charming wooden houses and rather forbidding stone buildings. The ski area is small but has a northern aspect (the snow was crisp here even in the afternoon) and is linked with nearby Gstaad, across the language barrier in German-speaking Switzerland; and the mountain scenery is as romantic as elsewhere. It all warrants further "familiarisation", I suspect - maybe next March.

Le Ski: 01484 548996; or email - mail@leski.com. Finlays: 01835 830562; or email: finlayski@ aol.com. Association of Independent Tour Operators' directory request line: 020-8607 9080

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