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

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