Snow cannons are being wheeled onto the ski slopes of Colorado; ski areas with the benefit of glaciers are opening up in the Alps; after another season that saw fewer UK skiers on the slopes, the winter-sports business is contemplating a horizon still clouded by recession. Does all that sound familiar? Yes, we're back where we were at this time last year, except that the slightly upbeat mood evident at the beginning of the 2010/11 booking season – the result, perhaps, of simple survival – has been replaced by a sort of resignation.
Being battle-hardened by three successive years of decline does make it easier to take the knocks. But the cumulative effect of the downward slide is raising new concerns. One tour operator shared with me his anxiety about budget destinations such as Bulgaria and Romania, which rely heavily on beginners. In a recession, he said, people are disinclined to spend money on a new activity they might not enjoy. And Switzerland's prospects are being much-discussed: with other European currencies falling away from the sturdy Swiss franc, the country has been left with a punishing exchange rate for foreign visitors.
While we're on the subject of bad news, last season's promise of a new age of the ski train has been sidelined. This spring, Eurostar ended its short-lived offer of seats at a set tariff for tour operators so that they could readily price holiday packages in advance.
In this rather gloomy atmosphere, however, a bold, bright, light is emanating from one tour operator, Inghams. It has given itself an ambitious makeover for 2011/12.
You may remember that a couple of years ago Tui UK took approximately one-third of the chalets out of its Crystal, Thomson and First Choice ski brochures. A lot of ink flowed, some of it mine, as the future of the ski chalet – a peculiarly British invention – was examined, and generally found to be limited. The collapse or near-collapse of several chalet operators seemed to prove the point. But some of their best chalets were picked up by Enigma, a company whose two ski brands, Total and Esprit, under the management of the doyen of ski tour operators, Andy Perrin, continued to sell chalet holidays as if that wasn't actually the road to ruin.
In summer 2010, the Enigma group was bought by Inghams, and Andy Perrin was put in charge of what is the second-biggest UK ski brand. Almost immediately, he set about building a substantial chalet operation, something that Inghams had not previously had.
"People want chalets – at least they want good ones," says Goran Zunic, who arrived from Enigma with Perrin and, as Inghams' Group Overseas Director, did much of the contracting for the 42 new chalets that are in the brochure this season. "We came to Inghams and found it had maybe a couple of dozen chalets and chalet hotels. We asked ourselves, 'Why?' People want chalets; that's what we should give them, as we did at Enigma."
Zunic defines a good chalet as one with en-suite facilities ("or at least a private bathroom") which is close to the snow ("preferably ski-in, ski-out") in a high-altitude resort. The last factor led Perrin and Zunic to drop some resorts, with an average altitude of 778m, and to introduce others that average 1,520m.
Regarding the facilities, Zunic says that "luxury" is not a term he uses, "because you can't define it. But obviously we want to offer a good product, with a sauna and sometimes a swimming pool."
Chalets have changed significantly since their "communal" days. ("Not being British, the idea of sharing a bathroom was not something I was comfortable with," says Zunic, a 50-year-old born in Belgrade.) And both Zunic and Perrin believe that chalet holidays are now highly appropriate to our times. "You pay in advance, in sterling, and that is the total cost of your holiday," Zunic says. "You don't have to worry about exchange rates, and you don't have to go out and buy drinks: we serve very decent wine in the chalets."
But hold on a minute: if chalet holidays are so logical, how come Tui ditched all those chalets? This was an exciting set-up. The two big ski-holiday groups were going head-to-head with different strategies, and there could be only one winner! Other tour operators remained calm, however: one said that accommodation was secondary, because "filling airline seats is the secret of running a successful ski business". An exective at Tui pointed out that his company still has an inventory of 100 chalets, compared with Inghams' 58; and an Inghams spokeswoman reminded me that the chalet and chalet-hotel holidays constituted only 25 per cent of her company's operations.
On reflection, too, it became apparent that the two-year gap between Tui's divestment and Inghams' acquisitions was very material. With a ski market in steep decline, you don't want a large inventory of chalets to which you are irrevocably committed for a whole season; but when the market is flat – as Perrin and other tour operators believe it now is – the risks are much reduced.
Nevertheless, the battle between Inghams and Tui should be worth watching this season.
Your favourite resorts
At the end of their holidays, skiers are routinely asked by tour operators to complete a questionnaire indicating how satisfactory their chosen resort proved to be.
The Tui group (including Crystal, Thomson and First Choice) received almost 40,000 completed questionnaires last season; they revealed that Winter Park in Colorado was the best-liked resort.
The unfiltered results would have generated a top 10 made up entirely of North American resorts. But when Tui restricted its list to resorts on which at least 100 clients had reported, the top 11 looked like this: 1 Winter Park; 2 Galtur; 3 Arinsal, Breckenridge and Whistler; 6 Obergurgl, St Johann and Zermatt; 9 Alpbach, Montgenèvre and Zell am See.
Do other companies' clients have similarly catholic tastes? Yes. Neilson's equivalent top 10 was: 1 Val d'Isère (pictured left); 2 Les Arcs; 3 Obergurgl; 4 Kaprun; 5 Vemdalen; 6 Montgenèvre; 7 Val Thorens; 8 Arinsal; 9 Pas de la Casa; 10 La Thuile.
Where will the happiest UK skiers be seen this season? I'm guessing in Obergurgl, Montgenèvre and Arinsal, the three resorts that make it to both lists.
A great step forward
This season, Salomon is marketing a new ski, called BBR. The company expects it to match – or exceed – the success of its landmark models, the X-Scream (launched 1988) and the Pocket Rocket (2000). The bad news about the BBR is that this season's production is sold out; the good news is that it is retailers, including Ellis Brigham and Snow+Rock, who have bought the skis, so they should be readily available at least in the run-up to the season.
The shape of the BBR (which comes in two specifications) gives it unusual versatility. The tip is wide, flexible, and designed to cut through the snow somewhat like a boat's bow; it also bends upwards, in the manner of current "rocker" skis. But if the front end is all about helping the skier to initiate turns in deep snow, the back end – a short, narrow hard-tail – does something completely different: it permits a powerful, carving exit from the turn. To oversimplify, the BBR is designed to be good off-piste because of its tip, and good on-piste because of its tail.
The unusual shape of the BBR – unlike most skis, it has no waist – is the work of Bertrand Krafft, the shaper also responsible for the X-Scream and the Pocket Rocket. The ski is named in his honour: "BBR" (pronounced "Baybear" in French) is his nickname among colleagues at Salomon's Annecy HQ. Is his new ski all that it is cracked up to be? I'll let you know as soon as I try it.
Salomon: 01276 404860; salomon.com. The BBR costs from £399 (7.9 model) and £499 (8.9 model), without bindings, from Snow+Rock (0845 100 1000; snowandrock.com). The 8.9 model costs £600, with bindings, from Ellis Brigham (0844 372 1010; ellis-brigham.com).
Late deals are already here
Skiers love them, tour operators hate them; but late-booking discounts are a necessary evil for any company which has aircraft seats that are proving hard to sell. This season, however, a wealth of discounts is being used to induce clients to book early.
The Inghams brochure is plastered with a dazzling variety of special, "buy now" offers. In fact, its "early-booking deals" have already expired. Crystal's approach is more measured, focusing on its budget "Crystal +" and "Crystal + extra" packages, which must be booked by the end of November. But be aware that Crystal's "two for the price of one" lift passes deal in Switzerland ends on 16 November.
Inghams: 020-8780 4444; inghams.co.uk.
Crystal: 0871 231 2256; crystalski.co.uk
France sleeps its way to the top
According to the annual Crystal Ski Industry Report, the last few years have seen a steady decline in France's popularity among British skiers. In 2007/8, 37.5 per cent of us took holidays in France; last season the proportion was less than a third.
If France needs a boost, it's getting one this season. A remarkable number of new beds are becoming available in the very resorts which most appeal to British skiers: those which are high enough to be snow-sure, have ski-in/ski-out accommodation, and are set on large ski areas with plenty of intermediate terrain.
There have been major developments in Peisey Vallandry (in the Paradiski area), Tignes, Alpe d'Huez and Les Gets. Also in Paradiski, the first, 63-apartment phase of Edenarc Residence is opening at Arc 1950. Over in the Trois Vallées at Val Thorens – not previously noted for its up-market accommodation – there will be new five-star apartments and a four-star hotel run by the celebrated Sibuet family.
The most dramatic changes are taking place at Avoriaz, in the Portes du Soleil area. Its 369 new apartments will open for the ski season; unfortunately the new indoor "tropical" pool – designed by Center Parcs and, if the artist has got the right impression, quite stunning – is to be completed only next summer.
Switzerland has money problems
Is the Swiss franc a strong currency? That's the same order of question as the one about the Pope being a catholic. But in recent years its strength has become overpowering, reaching 1.17 to the pound in August. (Four years ago, you could get 2.43 for £1.) Even though the Swiss franc has weakened to 1.42 this week, its value remains a serious problem for Switzerland's ski resorts.
The Swiss have, of course, seen this coming. Counter-measures are in place, in a patchwork of offers. You can ski free in Davos (above) until 23 December; the Swiss Travel Service is offering a 10 per cent discount for bookings made by the end of November; and Switzerland Tourism is giving two lift passes for the price of one with Crystal and Inghams holiday packages, albeit with a peculiar "as long as stock lasts" caveat.
Will these offers be effective? Maybe. But one tour operator suggested to me that it is next season that will prove really tough: "Wait until British skiers experience the effect of the exchange rate on the ground," he cautioned.
Old skiers are in demand
Skier numbers in the UK market have been falling steadily in recent years, from 1.2 million in 2007/8 to 911,000 last season. The recession has a lot do with this, obviously; but the ski business is concerned to bring recruits to the sport. The usual strategy has been to attract children and beginners, but now the search is not so much for new skiers as for old ones. Research for the tour operator Erna Low by the SPIKE marketing consultancy suggested that although fewer than one million people bought a ski holiday last season, there are about five million in the UK who still consider themselves to be skiers.
The exciting potential of all these "lapsed" skiers has led a group of tour operators to organise a whip-round, the proceeds of which are to be spent on further research by SPIKE.
Erna Low (0845 863 0525; ernalow.co.uk) is already cultivating lapsed skiers, albeit in a small way. For any former client who didn't ski with the company in the last two seasons there is a range of inducements – among them a massage, helmet loan for the family, a copy of the 2011/12 Where to Ski & Snowboard guide, all free – available for those who book a holiday this winter in Arc 1950 in Les Arcs.