What sort of season have skiers and boarders had in 2012/13? A most unusual one. There was good early-season snow, and therefore good bookings. There have been no major operational problems: last weekend aside, airports have mostly stayed open and mountain roads have remained passable. And, unlike in the two previous seasons, the Christmas and the New Year peaks fell on dates convenient for tour operators and travellers.
But the fact that all has, so far, gone remarkably well is not what makes 2012/13 exceptional; rather, it is the behaviour of skiers and boarders. They have turned out in such numbers that by the end of the season more ski holidays will have been sold than in the previous winter. The last time that happened was back in 2008.
Since then – according to the annual Ski Industry Report published by Crystal, the UK's biggest ski tour operator – the market for ski holidays has fallen by a quarter from 1.2 million to 900,000. The years of decline – initially a precipitous 13 per cent fall, finally a more manageable 1.8 per cent – coincided with the global recession; hard-hit tour operators have spent them making winter sports more affordable and scanning the economic horizon for signs of recovery. But ultimately, it has taken just a good ski season to turn the market around.
Tales of this season's successes are recounted with glee: the amazing 98 per cent occupancy on Tui flights between the opening of the season and the end of February; the soaring popularity of Austria (St Anton's visits were up 20 per cent in January, I was told) in the wake of heavy infrastructure investments and unusually deep snow; and Crystal's decision to tack an additional, late week on to its season.
Quite how well 2012/13 has gone will be quantifiable only in mid-April, but Andy Perrin, CEO of Inghams, Esprit Ski and Total, says: "The market has finally bottomed out. We are doing significantly better than last season. There's a couple of weeks to go and we still have some capacity, but there's an awesome snow base which only an epic heatwave could melt."
Perrin is adamant that it's people returning to winter sports who have caused this season's growth. The beginners' market, he says, is still flagging, as evidenced by heavily discounted packages – some at just £129 per week – offered in Bulgaria, traditionally a beginners' destination. "We came out of Bulgaria and I am glad we did," he says. This season his companies have seen "growth in France in chalets and chalet-hotels, because of guaranteed good value in that sector. With the pound wobbling, it has made sense to buy as much as possible – food, drink, ski packs – in advance, in sterling".
The recession-beating efforts of ski tour operators have included products such as Crystal's Ski Plus, which for this season included not just flights, transfers and a week's accommodation but also a lift pass and equipment hire in holiday packages costing from £449. And a recent innovation means that instead of last-minute deals, it's the early bookers who get the discounts, which gets money into tour operators' banks and – ideally – limits the unsold packages which, like those in Bulgaria, must be unloaded at "distress" prices.
Traditionally, late bookers could cause unhappiness by telling other skiers about the low price they paid. Now that is being flipped around. Perrin says: "It has taken time for people to appreciate the good value we offer to early bookers." Some clients have learned the hard way. He describes chalet conversations in which it is the late booker who is left "complaining that he didn't get a discount".
Ask Perrin about just how much the market will improve this season, and his response is sanguine. "Of course any upturn is good, but we are not talking about a 'recovery' this season. There will definitely be growth, but it won't go into double figures – how could it when no tour operator has had double-digit growth in capacity? And whatever upturn we get comes in the wake of a 30 per cent decline."
It must be said that this season had everything going for it, with a co-operative calendar, trouble-free travel and excellent snow in the previous season to stimulate bookings. If 2012/13 couldn't generate an upturn, what season could? But next season looks promising, with advance bookings for 2013/14 already strong after two very snowy winters. Perrin senses that confidence is returning to the winter sports community: the advance bookings are not just for well-known, high-altitude resorts such as Tignes and Val Thorens in France but also for Austrian resorts including Söll and Ellmau in the relatively low-lying SkiWelt area.
Apart from further progress for Austria, which has increased its share of the UK market every winter since 2006/7, what other developments does next season promise? A return to Norway by Crystal, which will introduce a programme in three resorts, among them the estimable Hemsedal, but so far little else. We may have to wait a little before tour operators are ready to switch into expansion mode.
One thing we might hope for, before next winter, is a resolution of the "guiding" dispute in France. Since the conflict in the late 1990s over the right of foreigners to give ski instruction in France, UK tour operators have made it clear that their staff act only as on-piste guides when accompanying guests on the slopes, not as instructors. For years this has seemed to be acceptable to the French, but the prosecution in February of chalet company Le Ski for "guiding" – on safety grounds – suggests that it no longer is. Le Ski is appealing the decision.