It’s been an unusual year for ski operators. Gary Noakes explores how the sector has fared as the season draws to a close.
”Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow” was not something chorused in some ski resorts over the winter – the problem was sometimes too much of it.
As the season draws to a close, operators in Europe will remember 2018/19 not just for the abundant downfalls, but also for the difficulties brought by Brexit and changes to employment laws.
The season began with nature obliging with good snow, spurring strong Christmas and New Year bookings.
This was some compensation for operators facing a late Easter – meaning only one peak school holiday period – and the supposed 29 March Brexit date.
Cathy Rankin, Pierre & Vacances UK sales and marketing manager, described the season as “better than average” but also recalls January, when clients in Austria were marooned in resorts because of avalanche danger, with some areas receiving a metre of snow in one day.
Getting these clients out at the end of their stay was expensive, with operators bearing the cost.
Rankin saw a distinct shift in booking patterns as the season wore on. Pierre & Vacances sells accommodation-only but provides properties to tour operators and bed banks, and she saw a clear pattern related to political uncertainty.
“There was a marked migration towards Atol operators,” she said. “But our direct sales and online channels definitely saw a noticeable decrease.”
Late-season jitters were also cited by Paul Carter, chief executive of Hotelplan UK, parent company of Inghams, Ski Total and Esprit.
“Our two worst-performing dates preceded and flanked the [original] potential hard Brexit date,” he told TTG, but added: “I don’t think that is specific to the ski market.”
Carter said clients were “holding back or avoiding EU destinations”, something echoed by Crystal Ski, which confirmed “an increase in demand for resorts outside the EU”.
Carter and others said profitability would be hit by Brexit disruption – particularly its effect on exchange rates.
This season saw a significant switch in the accommodation mix that will be exacerbated when Brexit finally happens.
Hotelplan cut its overseas staff numbers by 18% as EU countries began forcing operators to employ staff under local employment laws.
This has particularly affected France, where operators must match the terms and conditions of French nationals, who enjoy better pay.
Rankin said this meant an average 20% extra on the cost of a chalet holiday, while Carter said his brands had switched to more self-catering accommodation. Once Brexit happens and the end to free movement of labour begins, it will get worse. “Generally, prices are likely to go up,” he said.
There has already been one casualty. Ski-Val, which specialised in Val d’Isere and St Anton, collapsed in March after 43 years. It was licensed for just 4,170 Atol passengers and its small size meant it was unable to continue faced with all these factors.
Diane Palumbo, Skiworld sales and marketing director (and spokesperson for Seasonal Businesses in Travel) said this would worsen next season. “It’s a combination of overtime payments and social security charges, which increase the more significant the role,” she said.
“Plus we have to run payroll through French accountants. We hesitated as long as we could before launching 2019/20, but with capacity cutbacks.”
She added: “All of us have been really pushing back on our suppliers and saying ‘give us early-booking discounts and better lift passes’ because we have had to pass on the full effect of a pretty low exchange rate.”
When the sums are done, this season is expected to be slightly down because of the late Easter and Brexit.
Next year, Easter once again falls in mid-April, when charter aircraft are already flying to beach destinations. But there is a bright note – next season may be free of Brexit uncertainty.
Moreover, while winter sports is a largely static market, it is a loyal one – the Ski Club of Great Britain’s own tour operator, Freshtracks, boasts a 97-98% repeat business rate.
Whatever happens, the Brits will still want their snow fix.