Last week British-run ski chalet operator Le Ski announced it has cancelled all remaining ski holidays this winter, in a move unlike any other in its 38-year history.
The news came as England entered its third national lockdown and the planned reopening of French ski resorts was postponed – these are just two of the “many obstacles” standing in the way of ski tour operators this season as Covid-19 turns catered chalet holiday business “on its head.”
After being left with “no option but to be decisive,” the operator, which runs catered chalet holidays to Courchevel, Val d’Isère and La Tania in France, is now focussing all efforts on next winter, with the majority of its guests choosing to transfer their bookings to secure their space on the slopes in 2021/22.
When making the announcement managing director Nick Morgan said: “For the first time in 38 years Le Ski will not take any guests to the Alps this winter. While this is sad, we felt we had no choice but to display some certainty and clarity for our guests, staff and suppliers.”
Morgan insists Le Ski has opted for decisiveness to avoid future confusion and crisis, as many unknowns still clouding the future of ski holidays. “Guests were understandably concerned whether or not their chalet holiday would be going ahead and, if it did, would it be safe? We couldn’t answer those questions honestly in the affirmative and, with the new strain of Covid-19 causing havoc in the UK, we felt the tide was moving in the wrong direction. And it clearly still is,” he said.
While many ski companies have already folded under the pressures of the pandemic, including fellow independent operator VIP Ski, and others have been forced to make significant changes to their programmes, Morgan’s emphasis is on ensuring Le Ski is still around next winter, and for many winters to come.
“The robust companies have survived and we have no doubt they will be supported by a skiing public desperate to get back out on the pistes and enjoy the conviviality and service of their favourite chalet holidays,” said Morgan.
There’s not doubt that skiers and snowboarders are eager to return to the slopes and understandably many will be disappointed with the decisions to cancel trips – but Morgan says people shouldn’t underestimate the amount of work and time that is needed to delivery quality catered chalet holidays.
“Successful chalet holidays don’t just happen at the last minute; they need a lot of advance planning. Our chalet contracts are usually agreed at least a year in advance, as are our flight contracts, and our 80 Alpine staff begin to be recruited in May for the following season,” he explained. Once staff are in resort it then takes no fewer than three weeks before the company is ready to welcome guests, during which staff are trained to the high standard demanded by guests.
Unfortunately the clock is ticking on this winter’s ski season and as Morgan points out: “Given that the most recent lockdown is due to be in place until mid-February, at the very earliest, that meant that we might be able to send our staff out in early March, if travel restrictions were lifted, with a potential opening towards the end of March.”
While some ski resorts in Europe do remain open until the end of April and into May, Morgan points out: “Opening, possibly, for four weeks of a 20 week season is not cost effective.”
Bigger operators, including leaders Crystal Ski Holidays and Hotelplan’s brands Inghams, Ski Total and Flexiski, are making rolling week-by-week decisions on whether to cancel trips. “Whilst the situation is not encouraging at the moment, it is ever-changing as we have seen over past months. Cancelling our holidays on a rolling basis means that we are flexible and ready to take customers away as soon as possible, should it be safe to travel again this season,” said a spokesperson from Crystal.
Joe Ponte, CEO of Hotelplan UK, who’s brands are taking the same approach as Crystal, is being pragmatic about the rest of the season. “We absolutely want to be able to get skiers skiing this winter as soon as it is safe to do so, but as the Covid-19 crisis continues to worsen, we are facing the reality that it is sadly looking less and less likely,” he said.
While large companies have the backing to hold out for what might happen in the months to come, Morgan suggests this prolonged approach doesn’t help the staff or suppliers of small operators like Le Ski. “It is not fair to keep staff and suppliers waiting for us to make a decision. So we have taken away any doubt and made 100 per cent sure that we will be around to operate for next winter instead,” he said.
And the future does indeed look bright – Morgan reveals Le Ski has “more advance bookings than ever before in our 38-year history” for the 2021/22 ski season.
The larger operators share the same optimism for future seasons. “As skiers, we’re a committed bunch, and while the ski holidays of next winter could still look a little different to those enjoyed pre-Brexit and Covid-19 – we’re optimistic about the ski industry bouncing back,” said Ponte. While Crystal Ski Holidays confirms sales for next season are up by 400 per cent.
“The way that our guests have reacted to our decisive move is genuinely heart-warming,” said Morgan. “Just like back in March 2020 [when the pandemic first forced operators to cancel trips], the vast majority of guests have opted to defer to next season. Our guests are incredibly loyal and we have a genuine mutual respect,” he said.
Loyalty from guests and suppliers is what has helped Le Ski ride out this storm – rather than Government support. “The travel industry has not had anywhere near enough help during the pandemic,” said Morgan.
It’s an opinion that’s echoed by much of the industry. “It is impossible to overstate the impact the pandemic and Brexit has had, and continues to have on our industry. In such challenging times for the whole travel industry, of course there are many areas of the travel sector that could benefit from greater support,” said Ponte. A spokesperson from Crystal adds, “the travel industry has been hit more than most during this pandemic.”
Morgan compares the outbound tourism industry, which accounts for 1.8 per cent of the UK’s GDP, to the fisheries industry, which contributes 0.12 per cent. “The latter recently dominated the headlines, yet our industry, with 15 times the contribution to the UK economy, has received no targeted help,” said Morgan, who goes on to explain while furlough schemes are helpful they don’t support businesses like his, which need staff to work in order to deal with the large amounts of customer queries.
While the ski industry has had its fair share of bad news over the past 12 months, skiers should see Le Ski’s resilience, level-headedness and loyal following as a positive sign for their future ski holidays. But Morgan’s closing remarks echoe the much-repeated advice for those planning ahead. “As next ski season pans out it is more important than ever to use a fully bonded tour operator – like Le Ski - that puts together a package for you so that you are covered should the worst happen. Because, as we know from 2020, the worst does happen,” he said.