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The 2023 ski season - Lessons learned so far

Unseasonably warm temperatures saw this year’s Alpine ski season get off to a shaky start. Weeks on, how has that period affected the slopes, and the booking patterns surrounding them? Industry expert Chris Thompson, Director of Firebird, reveals the insider perspective.

If you’ve read or watched the news over the past few weeks, you may have gained the impression that UK outgoing ski operators could be on the verge of dying off. Record-breakingly mild weather conditions around the start of the season saw some low-level Alpine resorts experiencing zero snow, and lots of rain. While decent skiing could generally still be had above 1,800-2,000 metres, some of those lower resorts took a hit and struggled. In response, heavy reporting across the media seemed to convey a sense that none of us would be able to ski again.

This being potentially the industry’s fourth disrupted ski season in a row – one of which, due to Covid, never happened; and which came after a season that was cut short early – from an outside perspective the news looked to be catastrophic.

“There are challenges for the industry – though, interestingly, they don’t seem to be universal”

Before I go in to the details of this year’s ski season since its opening weeks, I think it’s important to stay mindful that the world’s carbon usage is clearly having an alarming impact on our environment and weather systems. As someone who has spent many years working in travel, and who often travels overseas for work, I’m becoming starkly aware of how personal choices affect the planet.

Those of you who are connected with me on LinkedIn might recently have spotted a post in which I compared the impacts of plane vs. train travel on a round business trip to Annecy. My outward flight took 7 hours 15 door-to-door, emitting more than 130kg of carbon. My homeward train journey took 10 hours door-to-door, and created roughly 21kg of carbon dioxide emissions – over 6 times less than the volume from travelling by air. Excellent, sustainable ways of getting around are out there, and need to be at the forefront of our choices.

I mention the above because I also want to say that, as we consider the future of the skiing industry, we need to recognise that mild weather has disrupted us before. Occasionally conditions like those we saw in December and early January do happen – and, to a degree, all weather systems can be unpredictable. I have a few not-so-fond memories of skiing at the top of Avoriaz in the p-ing rain on Christmas Day 1995, and many a childhood trip was impacted by poor snow cover.

Now, as we head in to February, the conditions for skiing are what I would describe as… well… bloody lovely. The snow has fallen hard, the temperatures are low, and there’s no sign things will be changing any time soon. Schladming, one resort picked out by the Daily Mail three weeks ago as being doomed, now has 60 cm of snow on the lower slopes, daytime temperatures of around -4, and approximately 40 cm more snow forecast over the next few days.

Nevertheless, there are ongoing challenges for the industry – though, interestingly, they don’t seem to be universal.

“The trends are hard to pin down”

Weirdly, my contacts in the skiing world have reported a real mix of experiences since December. Back in autumn, coming in to this winter, everyone I knew was optimistic – as I described in a piece on 2022 trends for Firebird. Advance bookings were strong, selling prices were holding up, and there was a widespread sense of relief.

In the months since then, the trends have been harder to pin down. One operator told me how, when snowfall was poor, the phone for bookings completely stopped ringing. Another operator solely focused on what some might label a low-lying resort saw no change in booking figures whatsoever – an experience that seems to defy all logic.

Overall, it appears, enough people wanted to get out into the Alps to keep trade moving forward. However, one interesting pattern has become clear: customers who have not booked their ski holidays early are continuing to hold off, even though the snow has now arrived. Another common trend is that few seem to be well-sold for the last week of March at the moment, despite this often being a great time to ski; with long sunny days, and good snow at higher altitudes.

It seems very likely that many customers are waiting until much closer to their planned departure dates to make a booking. In order to bring them in sooner, bigger operators are already offering discounts. Inevitably, this could impact small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) who still have capacity to fill. It is almost impossible to hold firm on price when bigger and more visible competitors go low, since consumers begin to think that all ski holidays ought to cost less – whereas, in fact, every operator will lose money in those conditions.

That said, I’m hopeful we can avoid the sort of “bucket shop” pricing we’ve seen in the past as there is generally less capacity and commitment in today’s market. Everyone has a good incentive not to go too low on prices. We also need to remember that booking late is not always synonymous with wanting a deal: people might book close to departure for a multitude of reasons other than seeing a discount.

“Some operators will need expert guidance to help them survive, grow and thrive”

So what does this variation mean for the ski sector now? It means we are sure to have a mixed bag of responses. It means some operators will see strong profits from this season, and may be looking to the future, considering ways to expand. Others will see great profits, having built back well post-Covid, and decide they’re ready to pass the mantle on while things look strong – perhaps contemplating their possible routes for an exit.

Still more operators may not have weathered the season with as much success. These will, perhaps, be the generalists, rather than the operators with a defined niche or destination, and they will need expert guidance to help them survive, grow and thrive.

For SMEs wanting to put their best foot forward while there is still time, the advice I can offer is classic and always worth taking:

  • Stay as communicative as you can with guests and potential guests

  • Really engage them with great messaging and marketing

  • Focus on keeping your levels of service strong, and appealing to your client base with what works

  • Have a keen eye on margins – ask: what in the business is really driving the profits?

The more effectively you can do this, the less likely it is that your clients’ attention – and their custom – will be snagged by somebody else. And when there is no reason for them to look elsewhere, you can hold firm on your prices.

Meanwhile, across the industry, at every level, the biggest challenge will be working out how to overcome the impact of earlier media coverage from this year; to collectively reassure consumers that the slopes are once again open, outstanding, and ready to be explored. I may even be getting my skis on for the first time since 2017 – and I can’t wait!

Chris Thompson is a Director of the Firebird Partnership, with almost 20 years’ experience of leading and growing businesses in the travel and tech sectors – the ski industry especially. His focus is on creating strategy, building teams, and devising processes that are both efficient and value-building.

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