There is still a good month's skiing left in the high-altitude Alpine resorts, but as this is the final instalment of the Independent Traveller's 2007/8 snow-sports coverage, let us consider what sort of winter we have had. In terms of snow, it has been good. From October onwards, ski areas were proclaiming 2007/8 as a record season: Austria's early snowfall enabled Kitzbühel to open earlier than ever before, on 2 November; Aspen/Snowmass in Colorado set a new record for December snow, with an accumulation of 118 inches; only halfway through January, Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia was able to announce that for a third successive month, the snow had exceeded normal levels.
Since February, snowfalls in the Alps have not been plentiful: checking last week on the Ski Club of Great Britain website, everywhere I looked I found snow depths that were considerably below the 14-year average for the time of year. But the early snow established a base that endured, and skiing conditions have remained good throughout most of Europe. The western part of the US had a dodgy start to the season; but now Vail, for example, has a snow depth 80 per cent above average, and conditions are excellent across North America.
On the other hand, it hasn't been a good season for those who decided to holiday in the world's largest ski area. Why? Because it has been only half its usual size. The Vanoise Express cable car in France closed down in December because of "anomalies" found in its main cables. Unfortunately, this is the lift that connects the skiing at Les Arcs with that of La Plagne to create the Ski Paradis domain, bigger than any other in terms of skiable acreage.
It has been a memorable season for the owner of a poster of a Russian skier printed in 1952. It came up for auction in Christie's South Kensington "Ski Sale" on 20 February, with an estimated value of £600-£800. Some estimate: it actually sold for £36,500.
Posters have drawn attention to skiing on the streets of the UK, too. This winter, Starbucks promoted the warming qualities of its drinks with an illustration of a man seated on a chairlift offering a steaming Starbucks mug to a woman passing in the opposite direction on the same lift. From the skiwear shown, 1950s-style skiing was the fashionable wave that Starbucks was trying to catch; and the modish London fast-food retailer Leon was on the same wavelength, with a 1940s/50s look in the artwork on its poster promoting "Leon Winter 2007". It showed a skier stepping out of his bindings, the accompanying text containing the uncomfortable suggestion to "fill your boots" with a beef-and-Guinness stew. Bizarrely, Peugeot used a similar retro-skiing theme on "Festival of Winter" print ads for its 207 model, setting the car on a painting of a 1930s woman skier beneath a Matterhornish mountain.
Working out exactly what is going on in these advertisements is tricky: why on earth would an illustration of skiing as it was 75 years ago induce anyone to buy a hatchback today? But the ads cannot have done skiing any harm this winter. And it is rather encouraging that images of skiing (but not of boarding, presumably too young to generate nostalgia) can shift products.
What was bad for skiing, in the run-up to the 2007/8 season, was the previous winter's snowfall – or rather the lack of it. Would memories of the almost non-existent cover in December 2006 badly affect bookings for the new season? Was climate change set to do lasting damage to skiing? These questions were high on a worrying agenda, at least until the big snowfall in Austria in mid-October. Yet when I spoke in September to Nick Morgan, managing director of Le Ski, a chalet company whose Alpine base is in Courchevel 1650, he would have none of this negative thinking. The lack of snow early in 2006/7 was a blip, he insisted. Did skiing recover from 1964, when snow failed to materialise until mid-February in Val d'Isère? Of course it did. And the same would happen again.
Though this turned out to be correct, it was pure bluster. Ask him now if he was worried last September, and he says: "Yes, definitely. I was expecting Christmas to be difficult to sell. But then, in late September/early October, there was a sudden surge of Christmas bookings. Soon afterwards the snow fell on Austria – and since then it has been a cracking season. We're 10 per cent up on revenue over last year." Morgan puts some of Le Ski's good business down to its new online booking service. "Probably people have become cynical about tour operators claiming that holidays are selling out fast. But with online booking, they can actually see what has sold, and how few rooms are left. I'm sure that has helped us this season."
There have been a couple of downsides, one of them being the calendar. "Usually, there's quite a long gap between the half-term holidays in February and Easter, and that causes a trough in demand. This year, they were much closer, but that has moved the problem on, and the weeks beginning on 6 and 13 April have proved difficult to fill." Morgan is somewhat sheepish about the other problem, that when the snow is generally good the competitive advantage of high-altitude ski areas – in which Le Ski operates – is eroded. This season, the snow has been plentiful in cheaper, lower-lying resorts such as Les Gets; and a week's skiing was available there after Christmas and the New Year for as little as £199, says Morgan. "That did affect us towards the end of January."
Does Le Ski's experience reflect that of the UK ski business as a whole? Probably, but the performance of market leaders Crystal Thomson, both part of the giant TUI travel group, is perhaps a better indicator. Since the season is far from over, statistical data is not generally available; but a spokeswoman for the two brands gave me a broad-brush picture of 2007/8 so far.
There have been no big surprises for the TUI management. Rather, existing trends have continued. Family skiing remains on the increase; the trend towards better accommodation has endured, with budget properties now the last to sell; Canada is attracting more and more UK skiers; and France, with its snow-sure, high-altitude skiing, is still performing very well.
Among other destinations, Finland is a growth area thanks to new charter flights and the enduringly low cost of living for visitors – plus a wide range of winter activities for families. Both Austria and Italy have suffered a hangover from last winter's poor snow, and have not done well this season. TUI has seen an increase of about a quarter in ski-holiday sales to Japan, but the numbers are so small that it takes only a couple of extra coachloads of skiers to achieve that growth rate. Switzerland has sold well, thanks in part to a favourable exchange rate between the pound and the franc at the time when holidays were being priced.
Next season, with the franc growing in strength, Switzerland probably won't be so attractive. Where else will we see changes in 2008/9? Primarily, in the UK. The TUI group has now added First Choice to its portfolio, and has put all the three big ski operators, plus the short-break company Flexiski, into a new Tui Travel Mountain Activity Group. Its managing director, appointed last month, is 38-year-old Matthew Prior; he now controls about half of the entire business of major ski-package tour operators in the UK. A former ski rep (one season in Valloire, another in Zermatt) who has an MBA from Manchester Business School, he has spent the last seven years at First Choice, running its ski operation from 2002 to 2005.
Prior has a reputation in the ski business as being "very bright and very businesslike" (in the words of one experienced hand). Yet he hasn't so far had the chance publicly to display a dynamic side; and when I met him last month, he said, "I'm not coming in with a mandate for change: the businesses aren't doing much wrong at the moment." But, to be fair, he was only in his sixth day at the new job, and the likelihood is that TUI management is still engaged in a strategic review linked to the recent integration of First Choice. It would be a surprise if his mandate didn't change soon.
Another place to look out for change next season is Colorado, particularly if you are planning to drive from Denver (which has a new daily flight from Heathrow on United) to the ski resorts on the I-70 highway. Skiers are making the road increasingly congested, and Colorado doesn't have the funds to widen it. The solution, says State Senator Chris Romer, is road pricing; and he aims to start a pilot scheme to discourage peak-hour driving in the coming ski season. More on this in six months' time.Reuse content