We asked ski industry specialist, Craig Burton, what the ski situation is in the world at present and whether we will be able to go skiing this winter.
Craig There is real evidence there that there is a very big upturn in development. We think there's the same number of people who want to go skiing, if not more.
Peter Welcome to our travel podcast, we’re specialist travel writers and we've spent half a lifetime exploring every corner of the world.
Felice So we want to share with you some of our extraordinary experiences and the amazing people we've met along the way,
Peter Skiing and snowboarding, that's where we're at this week. Well, not necessarily actually doing it ourselves, but thinking about it, dreaming about it. In this new Covid world after what for many would have been a two-year layoff from our sport, the question is, will we be able to get back to it soon?
There's a huge pent-up demand for snowsports out there and hopefully for winter 21/22, things will return some semblance of normality, particularly in Europe. To get a snapshot of the overall situation worldwide, I caught up with London-based industry expert, Craig Burton.
Craig, welcome to our podcast. Now you're the CEO of a specialist travel agency, Ski Solutions, and you deal with all kinds of inquiries from people around the world who want to go skiing and, at no cost to them I might add, you arrange their holidays – everything from flights and transfers to hotels or chalets and even ski guides and lift tickets, childcare and all the difficult bits of organising a ski vacation. What is the ski situation in the world at present? Can I go skiing?
Craig Wow, good question. It's pretty tricky, isn't it? I mean, certainly from a Northern Hemisphere perspective, we're in the middle of our summer. It is possible to go skiing. As we know, the glaciers are open – I know Val d’Isere has been open recently and the glaciers of the likes of Zermatt and Cervinia are all skiing. Can we get there as Brits is another question. It's been tricky and that's really the legacy of the winter we've had. Southern Hemisphere: I'm not I'm not quite so clear. I assume down in Australia and New Zealand, they are all skiing and enjoying the season.
Peter Well, they're just getting going, really. I think as far as I can gather. New Zealand's getting very excited because Australians can now travel to New Zealand and normally they make up, I think in Queenstown, around 40% of the winter clientele. And this year they're hoping to have a far bigger figure than that for obvious reasons – because the Australians are the only people apart from New Zealanders who can ski because the frontiers are closed to other people. But they've had the hottest June ever, I think. But it's chilled down now and I think that sounds quite exciting if you happen to be in New Zealand at the moment. And I think the same with Australia: they've they've had some good snowfalls, I think, and you can ski in several resorts now. But are we going to get a proper ski season in Europe next winter, this coming winter?
Craig Well, that is literally the million-billion-dollar question really for the industry, not just from our perspective, looking as an outbound operator from the UK, but obviously the destinations principally in Europe and North America, where the density of skiers exist. I mean, we certainly look more hopefully than we did last year. We have got a viable exit from Covid that we believe in and can see crystallising into what…certainly as we look at it, it's sort of all or nothing in some regards. In that if we can operate this winter season from December through to April, it will probably be the biggest winter that we certainly will have had on record and indeed the same thing for an awful lot of operators and destinations. The demand to ski is very apparent and is real, so if we can operate, it will be a magnificent winter in that regard.
Peter I think that's very true. Certainly the pent up demand seems to be quite extraordinary, but the landscape of the ski industry, certainly in Britain and in the rest of Europe, has changed dramatically in the last two years, hasn't it? We need to consider what's happened with Brexit, which I won't go into detail here, but it's made it kind of difficult for Brits to go skiing. It's very difficult indeed. And then we've sort of got Covid on top. So what we've seen, I think you’re right in saying, is that change in the number of tour operators who would normally take people skiing and of course, the number of flights.
Craig Yes, Covid and Brexit for twin evils as such – for tour operators, outbound tour operators from the UK – have certainly created quite a sort of toxic environment in which to try and operate at present. That said, the sort of manifestation of this for British skiers at least, is that there's a change in the accommodation mix that's available to them for their holidays. The traditional catered chalet holiday, particularly at the sort of lower to mid-end of the market, has reduced in terms of capacity quite significantly…
Peter …if not almost disappeared. By my reckoning, something like 80% of UK tour operators. Some years ago, there used to be 50 or 60 of them and now they're reduced to just a handful. And they’ve really changed, haven't they? Those that haven't gone out of business have changed their modus operandi completely.
Craig They have. You're absolutely right. Both the volume of products and also the pricing that's available there. I mean, the catered chalet, if you wind back ten years or so it was often a kind of entry price point for a lot of skiers to come and discover the joy of being in the mountains. That's now just not possible. If you want to go and stay in a catered chalet, you are going to pay for that this year, because the supply is much reduced and actually chalets are still there are more upper-mid end of the market rather than what we might have called cheap-and-cheerful.
But that doesn't mean there's no options available. I mean, we believe in seeing that the demand from skiers to ski in Europe and North America, from the UK at least, is undiminished. We think there's the same number of people who want to go skiing, if not more, because of what's happened with the missed season we've had. So they're going to have to take a different type of accommodation to ski, but we believe they'll still ski. So this is apartments, hotels, locally run. But I think will we'll see a lot more British visitors in the next season.
Peter But travel is a problem, isn't it? Traditionally, the UK market has been slightly dependent on the number of charter flights that there are from UK to the Alps, particularly to to France and that number of charter flights…they've almost disappeared, haven't they? I mean, the number of tour operators now who offer a package of ski accommodation, food, flights and transfers, they've almost disappeared.
Craig Yes, that's certainly true, Peter. I think what we have seen, though, and I think the summer short-haul market has proved this, is that there are plenty of aircraft out there and there are airlines prepared to put those planes on routes that have got demand from customers. As long as the ability to operate is there and the demand is there, we feel that there will be enough air capacity to get people out to the mountains then the likes of easyJet, British Airways, Jet2 will all turn capacity. Winter is a low period, for travel overall, there are no lack of aircraft and there are no lack of airlines wanting to put aircraft onto profitable routes. So we don't think there'll be a constraint in that regards if the demand’s there the aircraft will be laid on to fly those routes.
We've seen it, you know, when Portugal opened up as a green destination for that very narrow window back in May, the amount of capacity but flooded into those routes to Portugal in a very short period of time. It was quite remarkable. British Airways, I think, went from having two flights a day out to Faro, to over 10 flights a day. And that all happened in very short order. And I think the same will happen with winter. If winter is viable, as we expect it to be, the airlines will want to service those routes; they're desperate for revenue. And hence, I think whilst it might not necessarily be on a traditional charter flight, there are operators and agents out there who will dynamically package with accommodation and you will still be able to take that package as such.
Peter Yes, I think there are just very few, I would say a handful – I can think of two at the moment – of tour operators, traditional chalet tour operators, who are using charter flights for this winter. As a result, they are almost full already for the winter. I’ll mention one by name, Le Ski, which is a Yorkshire-based operation. It goes to various resorts in France to I think Courchevel, Val d’Isere and La Tania – and they tend to be 78% full for the season. But we're in July and this is a figure that they’d expect to have in November, December.
Craig Quite right. I mean, yes, that is the case with all of the chalet operators. You know, I mean, we find ourselves in a similar position. I mean, that's partly because of obviously the hangover from this winter. We've got an awful lot of clients who've rolled over bookings to next year, they're desperate to go, they trust us, we've got a good relationship with them, they're comfortable doing that. And then add on to that the wave of new bookings that we saw come through February through to May. It was a very strong period for bookings outbound for ski, because at that point we have this lost winter. But equally so, Brits were unable to viably book an awful lot of summer trips because of the restriction. So actually, people piled into winter and we saw about 150% of the bookings we would usually expect to have at this time of the year for the winter ahead. There will be capacity issues, particularly on peak dates.
Peter Yes, certainly. If you want to travel on February half term or over Easter or Christmas and New Year, you need to really get on with it don’t you?
Craig Yes, for sure. I mean, and that's looking at all accommodation types. I mean, there are not a lot of catered chalets left for half term in New Year. Across other product types there's more choice. And like I say, I don't see the flying being a big issue. I think there will be enough air capacity to service demand, but it will be in the premium resorts where there'll be challenges.
Peter What about price? The airlines don't want to run at a loss. Prices for the key dates already high and we'll get higher I imagine.
Craig Yes you're right. That charter model would often see if there was still a product available closer to departure and the price would come down. The scheduled flying model is completely the opposite to that. Usually as you get closer to departure, the price will actually be higher and it will be scheduled. Flying will be relying on much more service this winter. And so, yes, the early bird does tend to get the worm, so to speak.
Peter So if I'm an American, and I want to come skiing in Europe. Are you the guy to talk to?
Craig Well, we've got a very international audience at Ski Solutions and we've got access to over 600 different hotels across the Alps. It's a very wide breadth of destinations. And these are suppliers and partners we've worked with for a long, long time. We've all suffered the pain of the last sixteen months together and hopefully see these relationships crystallise into happy ski visits this winter.
Peter Well, one of the problems I come across regularly is in the US in particular, who say ‘I'd love to go skiing in Europe, but I don't know how to go about it because I only know the names of resorts vaguely.’ And they're not always resorts that we would think of in Europe as being the ones to go to. ‘How do I go about it? What do I do? How do I find out what these resources are and book holiday?’
Craig Yes, I mean, we operate in that regards, what we consider old-school values. Talk to us, we've got a team, we've been around over 30 years now. The philosophy is around being the experts, not hiding behind email or whatever it might be. At the end of the phone line is a true expert who's been to those resorts, they’ve eaten in the restaurants, they’ve probably danced on the tables in the bars after a few drinks and we know where to go and we know what's the hidden gems as well…something that might be a bit off the beaten track.
Peter So you're simply saying, if I'm sitting it in Colorado or in Houston or wherever it may be, I simply Google the time in London, make sure it's 9am to 5pm in daylight and do the old-fashioned thing: pick up the telephone and give you a ring?
Craig Yes. Or drop us an email and we'll arrange a time to give you a call. We've got guys on live chat, 9am until 6pm at the moment, UK time, but we work outside of those hours. The important thing for us is around getting that sort of human connection so that we can really get a good idea of what you're looking for, what's important to you on a vacation? What do you need? Do you need childcare? Do you need to be beside the slopes? Is it very important to drink a very good bottle of wine at lunchtime or not? That all shapes, the assessment that we will make of the needs that you've got,
Peter Because I think a lot of people in America…sticking with that for a minute…don't realise that actually it's really economical to fly to Europe. I have a small group of clients I ski with every year and they come at Thanksgiving from New York City and they say: ‘You know, we could we could fly to Colorado and we can ski there but it's expensive. It's a hassle. It's really difficult. Whereas we get a Swiss flight to Geneva. We hire a car, we’re in Val d’Isere within a few hours. We have great skiing. And at the end of the last day, we get in the car and we drive to Geneva and fly back to New York City. It costs us about half what it would cost if we went to the Rockies.’ That may sound silly but that’s the way it works.
Craig Yes, I can believe that. And look, you know, we all want to see that transatlantic travel corridor opening up as soon as possible.
Peter And do you think that's going to happen soon now?
Craig I think there's a very marked change in policy from the UK government in terms of its approach to travel. We’ve been under the severest of restrictions for some time, but we're seeing the first steps in the UK coming through now in early July.
We also have a business called Wilderness Scotland and Wilderness Ireland, part of a group that predominantly services North American visitors who are coming to the UK to bike and hike in the Highlands. So we're watching this very, very closely and our working assessment of the moment is we will see some transatlantic travel back at the end of this summer. And certainly, I think for this winter, we're very hopeful that there will be a normal flow of traffic across the Atlantic.
Peter Can Brits go skiing in Japan again, do you think, this winter?
Craig Well, good question. Again, our assessment is that we would assume that that will be possible. I mean, certainly Brits going to North America and we've seen very, very strong demand, particularly to Canada. One of the trends we've seen in bookings for the last few months has been this desire to sort of go a bit bigger than usual, spend a bit more, go a bit further, make it a really, really memorable trip. And we've certainly seen some of these North American destinations trending. In fact, Whistler is our top-selling destination at the moment, which is quite remarkable, actually, given that Europe's usually where the biggest base of travellers are wanting to go to. There is real evidence that there is a very big upturn in demand.
Craig Absolutely. Again, a sort of truly international dimension from our perspective. We can work with you on all of the components: the air, the land, in-resorts experience, guiding, the ski school, the lunch reservations, whatever it might be. It's a true concierge service. So, yes, absolutely.
Peter If I'm from another country and I want to go to a British-run chalet in the Alps, I can do that, presumably?
Craig Yes, absolutely. Again, demand issues notwithstanding. We've got access to a very broad breadth of product when it comes to chalets actually. We work with over 50 different operators, a lot of them smaller independents, but generally at the luxury end of the market who might have two or three chalets in a particular resort offering very high levels of service. But we've been out, we've seen for ourselves where we're comfortable with the quality. So, yes, I'm not that that market's still there, despite everything that's happened, there is still a good number of top-end chalet options that are available.
Peter Yes, we should just explain here what is meant by the top end British chalet. Without going into great detail: Britain invented the so-called Chalet Holiday where you go to a catered chalet in the Alps, which is run by usually by UK staff or international staff. Rather than staying in a five-star hotel, it may well be better to go and stay in a five-star chalet where you'll get the things you can't get even in the best five-star hotel – you can't get that level of personal service. If you're dealing with just eight or 10 or 12 clients obviously, you're giving them a very special level. But you pay for it, don't you?
Craig You do. I mean, we've seen the sort of quality level in terms of chalets grow exponentially over the last ten years or so. And many of these now come with all the trappings, you know, driver service, you name it, Peter. Often they might come with ski guides attached to the chalets to look after you in the mountains.
Peter As well as Michelin-starred chefs. And it is a truly wonderful experience. But what sort of thing we talking of in cost? What's the sort of bracket here at the top end?
Craig I mean, at the top end, chalets for maybe 10 to 12, that might be a typical size five or six bedroom, which might rent for anything up to £150,000 for a week. But you've got to spread it from £10,000 upwards. There is, so to speak, something for everyone as such. And again, using a good agent who had been there and seen it.
Peter, I know you've written about this, but there have been a number of rogue websites purporting to be luxury Chalet X in Courchevel. We've seen and known of customers who transferred money over to these these kind of illegal, fraudulent websites.
Peter You raised a very, very important point there, because these rogue websites are a curse that are out there. Some of them look really good. I've been in this business long time and I've looked at some and I’ve thought: ‘I think the one this one's real.’ And I check it out and you realise that it's completely fake. So I would say to anyone out there trying to check out some luxury website that is offering really low-priced holidays in wonderful-sounding chalets, just be a bit careful. We're always welcome to anyone to just send us an email and I'll tell you whether it's real or not. Send it to me, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org, and I'll come straight back to you and tell you whether that's a real website or not.
Craig It's an old mantra as well. Peter, if it looks too good to be true…
Peter …too good to be true, it’s not true. It's simple: you get what you pay for. You see this wonderful holiday in Zermatt for a few dollars for a week in luxury chalet – no, you don't. Craig, when did you actually last ski yourself personally?
Craig So my last skiing was in Courmayeur in Italy at the end of January 2020, so sort of six weeks before things shut down. Yes, that was the last time I was on skis. Within the group I operate in, we've got a base up in the Highlands, actually, at Scotland just outside of Aviemore, and lots of the team there had a fantastic winter in Scotland which had very, very good snow. You had to earn your turns up there this winter because not a single lift ran, but there are some good days still to be had on the mountain.
Peter But I think that's very true everywhere last winter. I mean, I've got friends in France who constantly send me pictures of them skiing beautiful powder, but they did have to earn their turns because there were no lifts open in France last winter. A different case, of course, in Switzerland, wasn't it?
Craig Very true. Well, I know if one operator in particular, a British operator, the sort of make-up of their customer base was very international, so not really British focused, more sort of Russians, European-focused. And they actually operated a reasonable season.
Peter I should explain that Switzerland decided to keep its lifts open during the last season throughout, and in Verbier and in Zermatt and in lots of other resorts, Saas Fee, everything went on relatively normal, albeit there weren't many foreign visitors.
Craig Exactly. If you could if you could get there, whether that be by car or by air, but whether it be private jet or from a destination that the Swiss were allowing visitors from…the UK was not one of them. There were good days on the mountain to be had. I just feel sick I was not a part of it.
Peter Similarly, in Austria, which had closed its frontiers and only locals were allowed to ski, if you were a Brit or an American who was staying there, you weren't in theory, allowed to ski, although I know quite a few people who got away with it. But they checked your nationality when you were buying a lift pass. But for the locals, they had the best winter ever. All the lifts were open, they were subsidised by the Austrian government, and wonderful snow conditions and completely empty slopes. Fantastic.
Craig Yes, and I understand, Peter, again, I'm not as close to it as maybe you are and some of our listeners here. But it sounds like the US domestically had a very, very good winter.
Peter Canada had a big surge towards the end and closed its lifts early, didn't it?
Craig Yes, it did. Just as the snow was looking quite, quite spectacularly good, I understand as well.
Peter Craig Burton, thank you very much indeed for appearing on the show and we wish you the very best of luck with this winter that's coming. May be as wonderful as we hope.
Craig Peter, thanks for having me. It's been a delight.
Peter If you want further information on any resort or indeed you plan to book a vacation to destinations in Europe, North America, Japan and elsewhere in the world, contact Craig and his team at www.SkiSolutions.com
Felice That’s all for now. If you’ve enjoyed the show, please share this episode with at least one other person! Do also subscribe on Spotify, i-Tunes or any of the many podcast providers – where you can give us a rating. You can subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or any of the many podcast platforms. You can also find us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. We’d love you to sign up for our regular emails to email@example.com
For further posts on skiing, see: The Man Who Has Skied More Resorts Than Anyone Else, Dan Egan: Extreme Skiing Pioneer, Warren Smith: Skiing Instructor to the Stars and Royals.