The slippery slope

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Although heavy snowfalls last winter produced some of the best skiing in Europe for years, travel firms are already predicting fewer first-time skiers on the slopes in the coming season.

Inghams chief executive says: “After difficult years from 2008/9, when the ski market shrunk by about 10 per cent each year, we confidently believe the market has reached a turning point.

“The decline is probably over. We think the market is likely to start going forward again, in terms of numbers booking ski packages. But the beginners’ market is dramatically weak. It may be that in a recession, people are reluctant to risk hard-earned money on a holiday which they won’t necessarily enjoy.

“Because of this trend, Inghams has dropped holidays in Bulgaria altogether, for 2012/3. As a beginner’s destination, it has, for the moment, had its time.”

According to the Crystal Ski Report, Brits took 894,000 ski holidays in 2011/2. About 510,000 of those were packages, and the rest DIY trips with skiers booking each part of their holidays separately. But soaring prices for items such as transfers are helping the operators’ cause.

About a third of this winter’s ski packages (some 160,000) are thought to have sold already. But with main brochures now being published, the next few months will shape the success, or failure, of the 2012/3 ski season, from the operators’ viewpoint.

Perrin also says massive snowfalls last winter, which trapped some guests in hotels for days, have boosted demand for packages in 2012/3, because operators have to rescue customers when things go wrong.

Many skiers who booked flights, transfers and accommodation separately, he says, were marooned by extreme weather with nobody to help when resorts and key roads closed for days after heavy snowfalls.

“In the worst weather last December, some customers found our seven-night holidays lasted 10 days,” says Perrin. “No great problem for them, but we had the problems of getting them back.”

He thinks the battles in the ski market in the months ahead are likely to focus on guaranteed access to good snow, which means higher resorts, and the range of value-added offers, including nursery slopes, ski and boot hire, and quality of fine food and wine in chalet stays.

“We have taken a strategic decision this year to move our product range firmly up the mountain, all above 2,700-2,800 metres level, with little chance of no snow during a holiday,” says Perrin.