The end of a dry, white season

The Millennium proved a near disaster for the ski industry with bookings falling by 15 per cent. This winter, operators are under pressure to turn the tables

Pity poor Adrian Harwood. While most skiers are facing the pleasant task of deciding where to take their holidays this season - traditionally, bookings start to build up now - he is trying to work out his plans for the winter of 2001/2. As marketing and planning director of tour operator First Choice's ski programme, he has soon to decide how many skiers will be travelling with his company in 16 months' time, and where they will be going - because he has to bid for next season's charter-flight seats. But right now, he doesn't know how many customers First Choice will attract
this winter.

Pity poor Adrian Harwood. While most skiers are facing the pleasant task of deciding where to take their holidays this season - traditionally, bookings start to build up now - he is trying to work out his plans for the winter of 2001/2. As marketing and planning director of tour operator First Choice's ski programme, he has soon to decide how many skiers will be travelling with his company in 16 months' time, and where they will be going - because he has to bid for next season's charter-flight seats. But right now, he doesn't know how many customers First Choice will attract this winter.

The 2000/1 season is a critical one for all the big ski operators, including First Choice. The millennium winter proved a big disappointment: they saw sales fall about 15 per cent. So, says Harwood, "there's more pressure to do well this season, because you can't have two bad years in a row - the shareholders demand a return". As a result, most operators have played safe with their programmes, making only minor adjustments (generally, expanding in Austria and cutting back in Italy, as a result of their respective snow conditions in the past couple of years).

First Choice's main departure, in terms of destinations, has been to add the three Swiss resorts of Verbier, Saas-Fee and Crans Montana to its brochure.

But some aspects of First Choice's operation are very different this season, because skiers' desires, and those of potential skiers, are changing. While Harwood works on long-term planning, it is in the marketing part of his portfolio that the major innovations have occurred, the last (and most interesting) of which comes on stream tomorrow.

First, an all-inclusive "Total Ski" package, covering everything from flights through ski equipment, tuition and lift-pass to free drinks between 4pm and midnight in the package price, has been introduced at several smaller resorts (La Clusaz and Valloire in France, for example, and Badgastein in Austria). Very keenly priced - from £309 in March - these holidays are aimed at first-time skiers: "The idea is to bring new people into the market," says Harwood, "because to keep skiing fresh we've got to do that, although we're competing with winter-sun holidays, which can cost as little as £150 per week in Spain." The packages have sold "extremely well," according to Harwood.

The second innovation aims to tap into the growing number of "independent" customers. Over the last two decades, skiers have abandoned travel agencies and big ski operators, choosing instead to book their holidays direct with small, specialist companies: the big operators now estimate that the thriving independent sector accounts for 35 per cent of the UK ski market. This clearly frustrates Harwood - all the more so because research suggests that independent customers are more affluent and more frequent travellers than holidaymakers who habitually make bookings with the big operators. "We think our products, prices and service are as good as, or better than, those offered by the 'specialists', and would appeal to direct-bookers," he says.

So, since First Choice's image as a ski operator is compromised by its big, beach-holiday business, Harwood has produced a special brochure called Cutting Edge, which has been mailed to potential direct-bookers. It contains a selection of the holidays in the travel-agency brochure, presented in a way "to appeal to a different audience. It's very difficult to inject personality into a travel-agency brochure," says Harwood, "because you are one step removed from the customer. But when you deal direct you can get across the fact that the company knows what it is talking about." First Choice's key words for the Cutting Edge brochure are "friendliness and professionalism" - exactly the qualities that independent customers look for in the small, specialist operators.

The most interesting initiative, however, is First Choice's short-breaks programme, launched tomorrow and due to appear in brochure form next week. The first serious attempt by a major operator to cater for weekend and short-break skiers (Airtours has a small programme, and Thomson will have one this season), Ski Xpress will offer individually priced trips to the Portes du Soleil, Chamonix, Megÿve, the Trois Vallées, Espace Killy, Les Deux Alpes, Verbier and Crans Montana, with a base price of £185 for three nights at Brides Les Bains in the Trois Vallées. The packages include scheduled flights, car hire and accommodation.

"The existing ski-weekend operators - FlexiSki [owned by First Choice] and White Roc, for example - have been around for a dozen years or so," Harwood says. "But they cater for a very specific market, and what we're now seeing is that the desire for short trips is filtering down to people who want to pay £200 for a weekend's skiing rather than £500. They are not looking for strawberries at breakfast and a balloon ride at dusk; they just want to ski, party and sleep."

One obstacle to budget short-breaks - the high cost of scheduled flights - no longer exists, thanks to the advent of no-frills airlines. The remaining difficulty is finding accommodation, because so many resort properties are tied in to a Saturday-to-Saturday rotation. "In Chamonix, hoteliers have always offered short-term accommodation," Harwood says, "but in smaller resorts such as Chatel in the Portes du Soleil they have never done so. However, they were aware of the trend; and they knew us. So when we asked for a guaranteed supply of rooms at guaranteed rates, they agreed to work with us." First Choice also gets a guaranteed ticket price from the no-frills airlines ("but not at the lowest rate", says Harwood), which enables it to fix package prices in the brochure - a commitment the more bespoke ski-weekend specialists do not make.

Some of those up-market specialists (FlexiSki, White Roc, Ski Weekend) sell around 1,500 trips per season. But despite First Choice's much lower prices, Harwood is not aiming quite that high. "If we sell 1,000 in the first year we'll be happy; 5,000 would make us delirious," he says. If he's not worried, that's at least partly because he doesn't yet have to figure out what the demand for weekend breaks will be in the second year: since the Ski Xpress programme uses no-frills airlines, he doesn't have to include it in his bid for charter-flight seats in 2001/2.

* First Choice Ski, 0870 754 3477; First Choice Ski Xpress, 0870 900 3214; FlexiSki, 0870 909 0754; Ski Weekend, 01367 241636; White Roc, 020-7792 1188

Arts & Entertainment
tvGrace Dent on TV
Voices
Actor Zac Efron
voicesTopless men? It's as bad as Page 3, says Howard Jacobson
News
Brand said he
people
Voices
For the Love of God (2007) The diamond-encrusted skull that divided the art world failed to sell for
its $100m asking price. It was eventually bought by a consortium
which included the artist himself.
voicesYou can shove it, Mr Webb – I'll be having fun until the day I die, says Janet Street-Porter
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Sport
Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain drives in the rain during the qualifying session of the Chinese Formula One Grand Prix in Shanghai
sport
Extras
indybestFake it with 10 best self-tanners
Arts & Entertainment
Madonna in her music video for 'Like A Virgin'
music... and other misheard song lyrics
News
Much of the colleges’ land is off-limits to locals in Cambridge, with tight security
educationAnd has the Cambridge I knew turned its back on me?
Sport
Steven Gerrard had to be talked into adopting a deeper role by his manager, Brendan Rodgers
sportThe city’s fight for justice after Hillsborough is embodied in Steven Gerrard, who's poised to lead his club to a remarkable triumph
News
peopleOrlando Bloom the pin-up hero is making a fresh start
News
Who makes you happy?
happy listSend your nominations now for the Independent on Sunday Happy List
Life & Style
The North Korean TV advert for Taedonggang beer, that became a YouTube hit
food + drinkAnd what did it take to set up a taste test back in Wiltshire?
Arts & Entertainment
filmLife for Leslie Mann's can be challenging sometimes
Voices
For music lovers: John Cusack with his vinyl collection in 'High Fidelity'
voices...but don't forget rest of the year
News
The energy drink MosKa was banned for containing a heavy dose of the popular erectile dysfunction Levitra
news
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    NGO and Community Development in Cambodia

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: There are many small development projects in ...

    Sports coaching volunteer jobs

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: Kaya Responsible Travel offer a variety of sp...

    Turtle Nesting and Coral Reef Conservation in Borneo

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: Volunteer with Kaya in Borneo and work on a p...

    Elephant research project in Namibia

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: If you have a passion for elephants and want ...

    Day In a Page

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit