As life returns to normal post Covid-19, I have again returned to the Ski slopes this winter to feed for my addictions for “white speed” and boozy Après ski nights out, with family and friends across European Ski resorts.
Historically, Ski holidays were part of the “mainstream” with each of the big four tour operations each having ski brands. These rarely made large profits, but were another way of utilising their internal charter aircraft in the quieter winter months, even though fixed weekend hotel “changeover” dates did force many peak Saturday or Sunday morning slots to be handed over to the ski division.
Each holiday was usually a weeklong and included all the key ski holiday elements of flight, accommodation, transfer, and ski packs for one inclusive price. This created both a convenient “one-stop” purchase for customers and allowed buying power via scale.
So why over time has this market virtually disappeared, with there now remaining only relatively small ski tour operators, who no longer operate or own charter flights?
Like many things in our industry, I believe it is a combination of the growth of low-cost carriers and customer access to the internet, which has created a large DIY marketplace.
For example, when traveling to Andorra to ski, I use Skyscanner to find the best combination of flights from the North and South of England, which arrive at similar times, so that I can combine the various members of my dispersed family on to one private transfer from Barcelona for the 3-hour journey to the resort.
I then use Andorra Travel service a local resort-based ground handler to book my hotel, lift passes, ski hire, and even restaurant bookings, to complete my complex ski needs.
Many upmarket Ski operations have built similar business models, using low-cost airlines to provide non-committed flight stock, to power their destination-specific tour operations to Verbier or other well-known ski resorts.
Ski holidays on average cost twice as much as a 7-beach holiday, so initially it may seem surprising that none of the top 5 UK ATOL holders, including the people providing most of the flight capacity for the ski market i.e. Jet2 or Easyjet, have created their own tour operations to exploit the demand created.
The complexity of the product is probably the main reason for the lack of interest, as it does not fit into a simple online booking journey and would require call center staff and in-resort, operations to deliver effectively. Brexit and in particular French restrictions have effectively banned UK staff from providing traditional repining and childcare services, that are still available in large beach hotels.
Transfers have also become much harder, as traditional weekend hotel “changeovers” have been scrapped, with customers now arriving throughout the week and often for 3-4 days ski breaks over weekends. Hotels have adapted, by charging more on a nightly basis to cover any gaps in occupancy compared to the easier back-to-back week holidays.
However, it is now much harder for ski tour operators to focus enough demand to fill the 56-seat coaches, that used to dominate the transfer market now that they are not delivering 100s of skiers on one charter flight. Often, the airport-to-resort transfer element now costs more than the flight itself.
In some ski destinations like Andorra, local coach businesses such as “AndBus” are thriving, offering 2 hourly pre-bookable, low-cost shuttle services from Barcelona and Toulouse to resort. When talking to “Andbus” owners, it is fascinating to discover that hardly any sales come via UK tour operators or travel, with most customers discovering the service by word of mouth or Facebook groups.
I do have to wonder if homeworking groups are missing a trick here, by not working more closely with local ground handlers, to create high margin Ski packages for often affluent customers that may also book other high-end summer holidays. Bluntly, if you can afford to ski you often travel on holiday multiple times per year.
Adding expertise and value to complex long-haul holidays has allowed many homeworkers to thrive, so why not explore Ski?
It may be more complex but the crucial in-resort partners are out there if you look.