Will bookings continue to go downhill for the sector this year or is ski going to provide a boost with the upcoming season? Gary Noakes reports.
Children are back at school, mostly, and after a summer no one wants to remember, thoughts now turn to winter. In theory, there should be cause for optimism; millions have missed out on a summer holiday abroad and squirrelled money away instead.
Barclaycard estimates 23% of households have put cash into savings instead of spending on a foreign holiday this summer.
The trade will be hoping some of that stashed cash goes towards agents and operators this winter, so a holiday largely spent outdoors, mostly away from crowds, would seem to fit the bill. But does this mean the mountains beckon?
As well as quarantine unknowns, a couple of incidents last season could specifically temper enthusiasm for winter sports, although one of them is a bit of a red herring.
In March, the first UK cases of Covid were reported after a Brighton man returned from a ski break in the French resort of Les Contamines-Montjoie. He reportedly infected friends in a chalet after contracting the virus at a conference in Singapore. This case is no reason to avoid a winter sports break, but perhaps cause to be conscious of accommodation type and social bubbles.
More worrying is legal action under way in Austria, where more than 6,000 visitors to the resort of Ischgl claim to have caught the virus in February and March, with several reported deaths. Ischgl is famous for its party scene, with busy nightclubs and star-studded mountain-top concerts.
The group alleges bars and venues were shut down too late after the outbreak and the Austrian government is liable for compensation. The first hearings started late last month. Ischgl is now engaged in a damage limitation exercise and admits, “we have learnt from the past”.
There will be no Mountain Opening Concert when the season begins on 26 November and “no apres-ski in its usual form”, although this has yet to be detailed. Filtering scarves will be provided with all ski passes, but Covid tests are encouraged, not mandatory.
The resort says: “We recommend guests are able to present a negative test result no more than 72 hours old when they check in.” Those who do not “have the option to undertake a voluntary test on-site”. Other resorts are unlikely to follow Ischgl’s testing request, but will likely mirror its cautious approach to apres-ski.
The party crowd will be absent from the mountains next season, believes Helen Furlong, a Midcounties Co-operative Personal Travel Agent specialising in snow sports.
Furlong believes resorts will be occupied by serious skiers avoiding bars and clubs. “I think it’ll be focused far more on ski than apres,” she says. “We could have heavy lates for ski, but I don’t think we’ll see beginners learning to ski next season.”
Despite this, she says she’s “quite optimistic” about the coming months. “Ski is more buoyant than I thought it was going to be. Whoever has a good Covid policy is doing well.”
Furlong adds Easter, from 2 April, “is selling well” with clients hopeful of an end to quarantine, but February half-term is proving “weak”. She is avoiding packaging under her own Atol and “sticking with the big operators until things settle”.
Operators have seemingly let consumers’ timidity drive their booking policies. Crystal Ski has tackled the issue of local UK lockdowns, with no amendment fees payable. It also allows flexibility on booking changes, but clients who cancel just through reluctance to travel will lose deposits.
Not that this makes much difference to some. In contrast with Furlong, former ski rep Lee Hunt, managing director of Deben Travel, is downcast. “Usually September is a big (ski) month for us, but we’ve not had one enquiry. Regular bookers tell me they’re put off because they don’t know what the situation will be.”
Hunt says he is frustrated at the lack of price messages coming from operators. “Looking at Christmas, February half-term – there are no prices out there that are enticing. I’m surprised, bearing in mind we lost a great part of last season.”
Hunt is putting his faith in the lates market, but adds: “If they put out a few half-term offers I would snap them up.”
Crystal Ski managing director Chris Logan disputes the lack of deals, pointing out a previous two-for-one lift pass offer and adding it has more campaigns due in October. “Hopefully agents will gratefully receive them; they will be stronger than previous years,” he says.
Crystal Ski has removed a third of capacity and will not offer Sweden or Slovenia next season. Most of the reduction comes from removing multiple flight frequencies.
“We’re expecting a late booking curve as, hopefully, some quarantines are lifted,” says Logan. Crystal Ski has also cancelled its chalet programme, albeit only 15 properties. “Unsurprisingly, there’s been a move towards self-catering, but half-board hotels are holding up in terms of share. Demand for chalets isn’t there; there are concerns about social distancing.”
However, in winter sports, there will always be those with the cash to buy exclusive space and peace of mind. Ultra high-end chalet and apartments specialist Consensio has found ways of meeting Covid safety requirements, retaining its full inventory of properties.
Next season, catered accommodation will feature buffet-style breakfasts, afternoon snacks laid out, contactless cleaning and a restaurant booking option instead of the usual waiter service. To reflect reduced service levels, chalet prices are discounted by 25%.
Managing director Ceri Tinley says the brand had to adapt. “Having the amount of staff we have in chalets is too big a risk.” Consensio has also had to adjust its terms and conditions. Deposits have been reduced from 25% to 10% and balances due 28 days in advance, instead of 10 weeks.
Its Covid policy now offers free rebooking or a 90% cash refund. Crystal Ski’s Logan believes a decision to remove a lot of pre-Christmas capacity was wise, not just from a risk point of view, but also to allow resorts to perfect Covid practices.
“A lot of resorts will open up well before our customers go out, so will have Covid restrictions in place,” he explains.
Fingers crossed, clients will be reassured and there will be no repeat of Ischgl’s headlines next winter, but fasten that helmet, winter 2020/21 is shaping up to be a white-knuckle ride.