Sloping off for winter

HIGH APPEAL: Skiers and snow sports fans have decided to book early for their winter holidays, according to smaller tour operators.
HIGH APPEAL: Skiers and snow sports fans have decided to book early for their winter holidays, according to smaller tour operators.
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SNOW EARNINGS: After a difficult year for ski firms, bookings for the coming months are starting to snowball, reports Jeremy Gates.

Despite the recession, British skiers are heading for the slopes this winter in such large numbers that flight prices for February half-term are already climbing.

Nick Morgan, whose Le Ski operation focuses on Courchevel, Val d’Isere and La Tania, says: “Our sales are up 24 per cent on last year, with the average spend around £1,000 per head.

“Households in the North seem more resilient than those in the South; there’s plenty of cash still knocking about in Cheshire and parts of Yorkshire like Wetherby, Knaresborough and Harrogate.

“People are still looking for quality winter holidays, where they know they are guaranteed high service standards.”

Last year was a very different picture, with a combination of factors meaning ski companies faced an uphill struggle to attract bookings.

Chris Thompson, managing director of operator Ski Famille, says: “Christmas and New Year fell on the wrong day, Easter was extraordinarily late and economic conditions were difficult.

“Poor snowfall across much of the French Alps gave stretched consumers an easy reason to scrap their trip to the mountains. Operators saw a significant dip in new sales from mid-January, and big firms led the way in hefty discounts.”

For 2011/2, however, the big firms have slashed capacity and packages based on hotels, so small, specialist firms, offering high service levels and a smaller selection of resorts, are already cleaning up.

Award-winning Peak Retreats has lined up four-star accommodation in resorts like Les Gets, Val Cenis, Peisey, friendly La Clusaz and Sainte-Foy.

Ski specialists Erna Low think more skiers will drive to the slopes to cut costs: its self-drive packages include a Eurotunnel FlexiPlus upgrade, free of charge.

The “nightmare” of a euro that has strengthened against the pound has badly hit profitability, say operators – but it also means more skiers want all-inclusive chalet-style packages to control spending.

The calendar for 2011/2 looks a bit kinder, too.

Thompson says: “Christmas and New Year are on more favourable days – although still not ideal.

“The pre-Christmas week falls inside school holidays for many people and this is already a popular week with families. In addition, Easter week falls at a far better time and operators already see robust demand for the last week in March and the first in April.

“The main UK half term also offers better value than usual as it does not clash with the absolute peak of French demand.”

As for snow conditions, Thompson says: “Although a poor snow season tends to lead to poor early sales for the following winter, that has not happened this time. Operators I speak to are pleasantly surprised by the levels of early demand and it is not restricted to peak dates.”