Is it worth buying a ski holiday a year in advance? Stephen Wood examines the special offers
Pity the poor travel agents. This year, the number of fat, glossy ski brochures they have had to carry on their shelves has almost doubled. Go into a high street branch of the major travel agencies now and you will find not one but two current brochures from each of the top six tour operators. One offers skiing holidays in this, the 1996/7 season; the other, a "Preview" or "Earlybird" brochure, is for the 1997/8 season.

It was Inghams that started the trend last year. In previous seasons it had given its clients "pre-registration" forms while they were still in a resort: the deal was that if the client booked a holiday for the following season straightaway, or soon after returning home, Inghams would offer preferential terms - primarily a discount on the prices to appear in the late spring brochure. Last season, instead of the pre-registration forms, Inghams distributed an "Earlybird" advance booking brochure with special deals on 1996 holidays. It was such a success that the company has produced a similar brochure this year - and all the other big tour operators have followed suit.

The 1997/8 Earlybird brochure was handed out to Inghams clients from December 1996. And last month it was made available to the general public through travel agents. It is effectively a reprint of the 1996/7 brochure, with a new cover ("valid for a short period only", it proclaims), a handful of pages detailing "the significant advantages in booking early", and lower prices for most of the holidays on offer in the current season. The reductions average about 10 per cent, says Andrew Russell, assistant to the chief executive at Inghams: they range from 8 per cent in Bulgaria and Italy to 15 per cent in Slovenia. To take a couple of examples, Christmas week at the Ritz Carlton in Aspen cost pounds 989 in 1996, but the Earlybird price for this year is pounds 916; and a holiday at the Chalet Sonrier in Courchevel, which costs pounds 518 this week, is pounds 45 cheaper for 1998.

"Pre-registration was a way of rewarding loyal customers," says Andrew Russell, "and the Earlybird brochure is a progression from that. The initial idea came from the reps on the ground. They said: `You want us to get customers to pre-register holidays for next year, so give us something to help with that.' And what more effective tool could there be than a brochure?

"Without giving away too many trade secrets, there is obviously an advantage to tour operators, hoteliers and travel agents if people can be persuaded to book holidays early rather than late."

The advantage is primarily the guarantee of business in advance - and tour operators can exploit that by squeezing keener prices out of hoteliers.

"But currency also plays a part," adds Russell. "The pound has strengthened against most European currencies since we costed the 1996 brochure, and that helps to account for the lower Earlybird prices."

Russell is cagey about the proportion of 1996/7 skiing holidays that were sold through last year's Earlybird brochure. "That's confidential information. Nobody else did such a brochure, so they can't judge how successful the approach is. But from the fact that every major tour operator has a similar brochure this year, you will gather that it was a success." Other factors (primarily economic) affected the figures, but the other tour operators will certainly have noted that in the Holiday Booking Audit produced by the market research company StatsMR, sales of winter holidays were up 68 per cent in March 1996 - before their skiing brochures were published.

The rival advance-booking brochures mirror the Inghams model. They are aimed initially at existing clients, emphasising the priority offered for booking popular accommodation such as individual chalets. They all highlight the fact that the low prices are available for a limited period, but none of them specify when it will end (although both Inghams and Crystal guarantee their offers only within a set period from your return from this season's holiday). Most have cut the deposit required on early bookings to as little as pounds 20-pounds 30, and all offer inducements for group bookings - which are traditionally made early in the season.

For groups, these brochures certainly offer good deals. But is it worth the rest of us booking our next skiing holiday a year in advance? Unfortunately, the answer will become clear only in late spring, when the main brochures are published. Many prices have been cut from this season, although if you carefully compare the prices of individual holidays, you will see that some have gone up, too. But that's history: what we want to know is whether the advance-booking prices are lower than those that will appear in the main brochures.

Crystal makes the rare commitment in its "Preview" brochure that "certainly prices WILL be going up in our next edition"; the other tour operators raise the possibility that prices will in fact go down (if the pound stays strong), by undertaking to refund any difference to the advance booker if that should happen. None of the brochures states that the other enticements - such as discounted ski-packs, free accommodation for children, and packed lunches - will not be offered in late spring.

Most of these brochures were published before this season began; and (as is always the case with holiday brochures) their small print protects the operators from any miscalculations. The key phrases are the right to vary brochure prices when holidays are in fact booked, the (unspecified) "limited period" for special prices, and the caveat that the "availability" of advertised holidays cannot be guaranteed. The last of these does not necessarily have anything to do with accommodation being full: a holiday is available only if a tour operator makes it so. A spokesman for one operator told me that if heavy demand suggests that "we're giving away too much too early, we'll stop selling at those low prices".