Snow business: Can you still afford to ski in North America?

The US and Canada had a great winter season last year, but with the pound in freefall will British skiers find a return to North America too expensive?
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The Independent Travel

The United States had a remarkable ski season in 2007/8. First, there was the snowfall – a huge amount of it. Snow depths broke records at Aspen Snowmass, Crested Butte, Steamboat and five other resorts in Colorado; on the West Coast snowfall was up 61 per cent on the previous season, and on the north-eastern slopes by 28 per cent.

The conditions meant US resorts did more business than ever before, notching up a total of 60.5 million visits. That number – which is around equal to the entire population of Britain – was 2.7 per cent better than in its previous best season, 2005/6. The East Coast resorts did particularly well, recovering after a poor season in 2006/7. The estimable Okemo Mountain Resort in mid-Vermont saw a 25 per cent increase in skier visits.

Canada had good snowfall too, though it only set a historic record at Mont-Sainte-Anne in Quebec, which had 5m of snow, surpassing its previous best. Further west in Alberta, however, Fernie snaked by with only 11.18m, which is some way off its highest figure.

The weakness of the US currency – dollars were two a pound last season – did wonders for the number of international visitors to US ski slopes, which rose by 28 per cent. The Edinburgh-based North America winter-sports specialist, Ski Independence, saw its transatlantic sales increase by 14 per cent, season-on-season. It sent 23 per cent more clients to Whistler, already the continent's most popular destination for UK skiers. Business to Aspen Snowmass was up by 30 per cent and to Park City in Utah by 86 per cent.

A further indication of boom times were the reports of reopenings at defunct resorts. After decades of steady decline in the number of ski areas, the fact that Ski Bowl Village in New York State, Wyoming's aptly named Sleeping Giant (one of the oldest ski destinations in the US, dating back to 1936) and Mt Waterman in California were all planning to welcome back skiers in 2008/9 looked like evidence of a sea change.

But, as you may have noticed, there have been bigger changes than that recently. The erratic price of oil, the strengthening of the US dollar and the impact of the global credit crunch all look like good reasons why North American resorts shouldn't expect to do much business with the UK in 2008/9. Even some skiers who actually booked winter holidays in North America are not going. In August, the failure of Zoom – one of the airlines brought down by the cost of fuel – caused serious difficulties for tour operators who had included Zoom flights in packages sold before the collapse. In some cases, according to stories in the travel business, tour operators brusquely returned clients' money and informed them that their holiday was cancelled.

But the economic crisis – and the fall of the pound against the North American dollars – occurred after the big ski-holiday companies had fixed their prices for the coming season. Look at the current Inghams brochure, for example, and you will see that North American packages have barely increased in cost since 2007/8: the same holiday in the Colorado resort of Vail (a week at the four-star Holiday Inn Apex, plus BA flights and transfers) is only £21 more expensive this season compared to last, at £1,004. So worries about their own finances are the only valid reason for UK skiers to avoid North America.

Of course Michael Bennett has an axe to grind, being the managing director of Ski Independence, but he makes a persuasive case for a transatlantic ski trip this season. Clearly, the players in North American skiing are aware of the negatives stacked up against them, so their response has been positive. The airlines are, says Bennett, "re-aligning" prices. As a result, he expects the cost of transatlantic flights to be no more than "four or five per cent up on last season". At the same time the resorts are coming in with deals, among them Whistler – which usually remains aloof from making bargain offers.

"The booking season is short," Bennett says, "so Whistler has already launched a 'Buy seven, get 10' offer [guests get 10 nights' accommodation and a 10-day lift pass, but pay only for a week]. There's no point in resorts waiting to see how sales go, and then thinking, 'Let's put an offer out'. It'll be too late then."

Bennett admits that Ski Independence's North American sales are currently running 12 per cent behind last season's, and that he is not optimistic about matching the 7,000 holidays sold for 2007/8. "But although late deals aren't likely, with the capacity that Zoom's failure has taken out of the market, I don't expect people will end up paying more than they did last year." Right now, he says, the Colorado resorts of Winter Park and Copper Mountain are doing very well, along with Big White in British Columbia. Whistler, also in British Columbia, is doing only "reasonably well".

Even if North America is viable, why go all that way rather than ski closer to home? The perennial virtues of North American skiing are these: plentiful, good snow; uncrowded slopes, and civilised behaviour in lift queues; the quality of service; good value eating and drinking; and a familiar language. Being perennial, they hold true for this season, albeit with the usual qualifications. For example, it is only out west where large quantities of dry, soft snowu are all but guaranteed: early this month Snowbird in Utah already had four feet, and Whistler – along with resorts in south-west Colorado and California – had more than a foot.

I have an unusual affection for New England skiing, because of the charm of the local ski hills, their history, and the genuine small towns and villages (rather than the simulations) in which one stays; that doesn't blind me to the fact that the "snow" there is frequently ice.

You'll certainly find quiet slopes and civilised skiers in New England, but with the possible exception of Colorado (which attracts one in five skier visits in the US) and ever-popular Whistler, you'll find them elsewhere in North America, too. The sheer sociability of queuing skiers can make leaving the line to get on a lift something of a wrench, particularly for agoraphobes contemplating the wide-open slopes. I have quoted these figures before, and they are so remarkable that I shall quote them again: when I skied Idaho's Sun Valley a few years ago on an average weekend, there were just 3,000 skiers on a 2,000-acre ski area.

The style of service, particularly in the US, doesn't appeal to everyone. Many feel, for example, that it should be up to them whether or not they have a nice day. But eagerness to please certainly makes interaction easier than it sometimes is with "customer-facing" staff in French resorts; and the common language is a comfort when you find yourself in any sort of difficulty.

Even at current exchange rates, with considerably less than two US or Canadian dollars to the pound, eating and drinking remain cheap in North America. Some, however, are unimpressed by the quality of the catering. Maybe having an American wife helps, but it doesn't take long to work out that by avoiding top-end (pretentious) and bottom-end (unhealthy) restaurants, and staying on the middle ground, you can get great value in North America's eateries – thanks in particular to a wider range of ethnic food than is ever available in the Alpine resorts.

For this season there are added attractions in many resorts, the most obvious are in British Columbia. On 12 December, the new Peak2Peak gondola will open at Whistler, making the first lift connection between the slopes of Whistler and Blackcomb mountains. And at Revelstoke – much hyped because of the property being marketed there – an extension to the existing gondola will give the ski area a lift-served vertical drop of 1,713m, the biggest in any North American resort.

In Colorado, too, there have been big changes. Breckenridge has a new village at the base of Peak 7; Telluride has extended its ski area again, by installing a lift in the new 50-acre Revelation Bowl; and the fast-developing base of Snowmass mountain at Aspen has three new restaurants and a bar. Winter Peak also has a new base village; and its near-neighbour, Copper Mountain, has a more radical innovation. More of that later, when I return from a visit to its youth-oriented, Camp Woodward facility.

Traveller's Guide

Skiing there

Ski Independence (0845 310 3030; ski-i.com) is offering 10 nights in a studio with concierge service at the new Nita Lake Lodge in Whistler, for the price of seven, from £998 per person. The price includes British Airways flights from Heathrow to Vancouver, transfers and accommodation. A "Buy seven, get 10" lift pass is part of the offer. At Winter Park, Colorado it is offering seven nights in Founder's Pointe at the new base village from £779, including flights and transfers with BA. Ski Independence also offers trips to Big White in Canada.

Packages to Aspen Snowmass, Breckenridge and Revelstoke are offered by Erna Low (0845 863 0525; ernalow.co.uk); a week in Breckenridge in mid-January starts at £962 per person, including return BA flights from Heathrow to Denver, transfers and room only accommodation.

Packages to Crested Butte, Steamboat and Park City are offered by Crystal Ski (0871 231 5659; crystalski.co.uk); a week in Crested Butte starts at £1,105 per person, including return BA flights from Heathrow to Denver, transfers, seven nights' self-catered accommodation, passes and equipment.

Packages to Snowbird, Sun Valley and Mont St-Anne are offered by Ski the American Dream (0845 277 3333; skidream.com); a week in Sun Valley starts at £995 per person, including return Northwest Airlines flights from Heathrow to Boise, transfers and seven nights' self-catered accommodation.

Mount Waterman (001 818 952 7676; skiwaterman.com) is an hour's drive from Los Angeles, which is served by British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and Air New Zealand (0800 028 4149; airnewzealand.co.uk) from Heathrow.

Okemo Mountain Resort (001 802 228 4041; okemo.com) is around three hours' drive from Boston; Ski Bowl Village, Gore Mountain (001 518 251 2411; goremountain.com) is around four hours' drive from Boston, which is served from Heathrow by BA, Virgin Atlantic (08705 747747; virgin-atlantic.com) and American Airlines (020-7365 0777; americanairlines.co.uk).

Sleeping Giant, Wyoming (001 307 587 2297; yellowstonecountry.org) is around four and a half hours' drive from Salt Lake City, which is served from Gatwick and Heathrow via Atlanta by Delta (0845 600 0950; delta.com).

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