What sort of ski season will 2010/11 turn out to be? Right now, as the main holiday-booking season gets under way, that question is intriguing skiers and troubling tour operators. The omens are good: at the beginning of this month there was half a metre of snow at the top of many northern Alpine ski areas, and the high-altitude Colorado resort of Loveland had already wheeled out its portable snow cannons in anticipation of temperatures low enough to permit snowmaking.
To those who favour forecasting techniques over omens, however, the future looks bleak. The underlying trends are not good. The last two seasons have seen the UK market shrink by 13 and 11 per cent respectively. If that trend continues, 2010/11 will be the worst season this century.
Yet many in the business are curiously upbeat about their prospects. Doom is no longer on the agenda and much of last year's gloom has evaporated. One reason for this is that, globally, winter sports have remained remarkably buoyant. The ski areas of France, the premier destination for British skiers, actually had their best-ever season in 2008/9, at the height of the credit crunch, with 58.6 million skier-days. And 2009-10 wasn't bad: business was down, thanks in part to bad weather, but it was still 2 per cent better than the average for the last four seasons.
For the US, the other major international ski destination, last season gave cause for celebration. Despite poor snowfall, it recorded 59.7 million skier-days, the second-best total ever. In America, as in France, a very positive result was achieved not despite the economic recession but because of it. Skiers were less able to spend money on travel and hotels, but still keen to ski; so they went to local areas rather than bigger and more distant resorts. In France's record year, visits to the celebrated ski destinations of the Savoie fell, while skiing in the Vosges area and the Massif Central – easily accessible from several cities – boomed. Likewise, it was areas such as the Pacific Southwest (skier days up by 15 per cent) and the Midwest (up by 7 per cent) which gave the US such a good 2009/10.
But none of this helped UK ski companies. Few Britons ski locally, although enough did so on Scotland's epic snow earlier this year to give that country its best season for 15 years. The credit crunch put the UK market into steep decline, and the tour operators – who had already contracted hotels and chalets, block-booked airline seats and hired seasonal staff – had a disastrous 2008/9 season.
Demand did not pick up for 2009/10; rather, it fell again. But this time the tour operators knew what to expect, and had reduced their commitments and capacity accordingly. The headline-grabbing figure was the 40 per cent by which Tui (owner of the Crystal, Thomson and First Choice brands) reduced its chalet capacity; but overall, the number of ski holidays available from the big tour operators fell by less than half that amount. However, the philosophy of matching supply to demand and keeping operations as lean as possible made the 11 per cent fall in the market survivable.
So what about this season? Mathew Prior, who as the boss of Tui's ski operations is the most important figure in the business, believes that the market has bottomed out. Just talk? Hardly: Prior has increased the Tui group's capacity for 2010/11 by 8 per cent. If his hunch is correct, this could be skiing's comeback year.
Prior's recently appointed opposite number at Inghams, Andy Perrin, is a little more sanguine. But that is partly because his appointment came too late for him to make the changes he would have wanted for this season. Perrin also points out that 2010/11 does present operational difficulties. Both Christmas Day and New Year's Day fall on Saturdays, disrupting the normal holiday pattern (with Saturday transfers) at a commercially important part of the year.
Also, with Easter falling late, this is a long season – "the longest I can remember in almost 30 years in the business," Perrin says. An opportunity? Yes, but also a problem. "There's a logic in favouring budget destinations this season," he says, "but for March and Aprilwe'll need the more expensive, high-altitude resorts, which are snow-sure."
Perrin will be happy if his brands – Inghams plus Ski Total and Ski Esprit – sell as many holidays as they did last season. That might not sound ambitious, but it would be a considerable turnaround after two years of steep decline.
Your favourite destinations
At the end of last season, the Tui ski brands – Crystal, Thomson and First Choice, plus Flexiski – cumulated the responses in the 39,606 customer questionnaires they had received to establish which are the bestliked ski resorts. In the relevant question, Tui clients were asked to give an “overall satisfaction” rating of between 100 per cent (“Excellent”) and 1 per cent (“Poor”).
The results were extraordinary. Two small, little-known French resorts, Risoul and St Jean d’Arves, came fourth and fifth respectively; Sölden came third, and another Austrian resort, Lech, took a less surprising second place. The winner? Copper Mountain.
Now Copper Mountain is a nice, family-friendly place, but its main attraction is its proximity to Denver. Quite why it should have outperformed far more celebrated Colorado neighbours such as Breckenridge and Vail is a mystery. One caveat raised by Tui is that the survey did not factor in the number of customers rating each resort. A 100 per cent vote from a single fanatic would place a resort ahead of one rated at 99 per cent by hundreds of customers. A spokeswoman for Tui said that if the number of satisfied customers had been factored in, the top resort would probably have been Val di Fassa in the Dolomites – another surprising result.
Whatever happened to France?
For as long as many British skiers can remember, France has been our favourite winter sports destination. So it should be. It is handily close, and the skiing is relatively easy to access. It has snow-sure, high-altitude slopes in extensive ski domains serviced by an unparalleled lift system. And it has more purpose-built, ski-in, ski-out accommodation than anywhere else.
Yet what now seems the natural order of things has not always prevailed. Until the mid-1980s it was to Austria that UK skiers gravitated, largely for historical reasons. And in recent years Austria has been expanding its share of the UK market at France's expense. According to the Crystal Ski Industry Report, France's share of the UK market fell to 33.2 per cent in 2009/10, while Austria's rose to 25.6 per cent. Will that trend continue this season?
It's unlikely. The Tui brands are increasing capacity to France, albeit by only 2 per cent; and the slight recovery in the chalet market – Ski Total has added 31 properties this season – will also expand France's accommodation pool. So it may be that the gap between France and Austria will widen again in 2010/11.
Peak time: trains now departing for the mountains
There is good news and bad for skiers who want to reduce their carbon footprint by taking a train to the slopes. Two long-running services ground to a halt at the end of the 2008/9 season: the venerable Denver ski train, a weekend shuttle service to Winter Park that started in 1940; and Rail Europe's overnight Snow Train to the Tarentaise resorts in France, whose notorious disco carriage made it a rite of passage for young skiers and boarders. The Denver service has been officially declared dead. The Snow Train is, theoretically, just "suspended".
The good news is that there are three railway arrivals this season. The snowcarbon.co.uk website will, from 1 October, offer a range of rail-inclusive ski packages from St Pancras, including transfers from stations to resorts and across Paris; among the tour operators involved are Erna Low and Peak Retreats. For this season the Inghams brochure includes rail travel as an option in its packages to the Milky Way resorts in Italy. And from 29 January-19 March a new, dedicated Snowtrain – to be formally launched next Thursday, 30 September – will run every Saturday from Geneva airport to Brig, with stops at Aigle, Martigny, Sion, Sierre, Leuk and Visp to provide access to the resorts on either side. V
Italy: why downhill is up
C Italy is, by and large, an unpretentious ski destination. It has a few high-calibre resorts, notably Cortina, Madonna di Campiglio and San Cassiano, all in the Dolomites; elsewhere the ski-holiday experience is simple and relaxed, with crowds and queues notable by their absence (except at weekends). So low is Italy's winter-sports profile in the UK that the man in the street may not know that you can ski there.
For those who have experienced the ambience, eaten the food, and seen the Dolomites – in my view the most beautiful mountain landscape in which to ski – Italy is a place to be treasured, even if things don't always run smoothly there. Because local hoteliers and lift companies generally can't demand the premium prices charged in France and Switzerland, tour operators like it too. In boom times they might regard it as second-division; but when skiers are short of money, Italy becomes a desirable destination. Last season the tour operators favoured Italy over France, and its market share increased from 13 to 14 per cent.
The 2010/11 brochures, otherwise not notable for innovations, include a handful of additional Italian resorts. Crystal introduces Folgarida (accessed via Verona), a small, good-value, back-door resort whose skiing is connected to the much bigger area of posh Madonna di Campiglio.
Andorra: the comeback
The saga of Andorra, the tiny principality wedged high in the Pyrenees between Spain and France, continues. A ski destination since 1957, when a local farmer erected a lift on a steeply sloping field, it became the big draw for budget skiers from the UK in the 1990s.
By 2002/03, Andorra attracted one in seven British skiers – more than Switzerland and North America combined. But Andorra's ski entrepreneurs were unhappy with the slim margins of low-cost skiing. They resolved to go up-market. Lift systems were improved, and connected to create two biggish ski domains; new hotels – one a stunning five-star – were built; and prices rose to reflect Andorra's image of itself. British skiers just didn't buy it: they weren't prepared to pay French prices for what they still regarded as a budget destination.
By 2008/09, Andorra's share of the British market had slid to one in 20. So Andorra's entire promotion budget for the UK was funnelled into the big tour operators, as incentives (lift-ticket discounts, and so on); that was the only way to get an immediate upswing.
It worked: last season Andorra gained a percentage point. It will probably gain more this season. Why? Because one big tour operator – Tui – has increased its capacity there by a whopping 20 per cent.
Deals of the season
It's the same every autumn: "There will be no late deals this season," say the tour operators. And what actually happens? Come January, when holidays are hard to shift, the prices come down. The 2010/11 season is unlikely to be different, but don't expect the same terrific bargains in Canada as last year; capacity to Calgary has been cut back, so tour operators won't have lots of airline seats that must be sold.
Price isn't everything, of course; and only the most undiscerning skier will go just anywhere merely because it's cheap. If you know where you'd like to ski, and don't want a holiday which – probably for good reason – has failed to sell, the better option than to wait for a late-season bargain is to go for an early-season deal, even if the saving may not be so great. Inghams (020-8780 4447; inghams.co.uk) aimed to get the market moving this week with good December discounts in resorts from Courchevel 1850 to Bansko in Bulgaria.
Last year, Crystal (0871 231 2256; crystalski.co.uk) formalised its early-season offers with the "Ski Plus" all-in package, including ski-pass and equipment rental. The packages continue this year with an extended reach: they are available in 38 resorts, with prices starting at £425 per person. But beware: you must book Ski Plus packages by 30 November. The early-season offers from Ski Total (01252 618333; skitotal.com), called "Crunch-Busters", are currently open-ended; they include discounts on lift passes and ski hire, plus cashbacks, and can save £500 on a holiday for two.
'The mountain atmosphere in the heart of London'
The Independent is working in partnership with the world's largest consumer winter-sports event, the Ski & Snowboard Show (0871 2301 100; metrosnow.co.uk), which takes place from 20-24 October at London Olympia. New elements include the Land Rover Mountain Theatre, featuring Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Steve Redgrave, and the "Ice Driving Experience".
Tickets are £12 (£9 in advance) for Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, or £16 (£13 advance) for Saturday and Sunday. But readers of The Independent Traveller qualify for a reduced price of £15 for two (on weekdays) or £20 for two (weekends) when booking by phone or online and quoting "Independent".