Deciding where to go skiing is harder than ever this season. For most British skiers, the Austrian resorts of Kolsass, Weer and Mallnitz have not previously entered the equation; nor have Aprica and Falcade in Italy, the High Tatras in Slovakia and Alyeska in Alaska. But all of them appear in the brochures of major ski operators for 2001/2, along with several other unfamiliar places.
The two biggest operators, Crystal and Thomson (now both part of Thomson Holidays' ski division), lead the way with, respectively, 15 and 14 new featured resorts. By my count, Crystal now offers a total of 137 different skiing destinations, and Thomson 101. True, the number of options available from the major operators did decrease by one when Inghams cancelled holidays to a new destination, Palandoken in Turkey, in the wake of the terrorist attacks in the USA. But that still leaves a plethora of new resorts from which to choose.
What has brought about this sudden increase in choice is the millennium season, two years ago. Preoccupied with managerial problems caused by the calendar, few operators ventured into new territory for 1999/2000. And the poor sales in that season, 12 per cent down on the previous year, made them hardly more adventurous in 2000/1. As one senior ski manager told me at the time, "we couldn't afford to risk having another bad year"; so the operators reduced capacity, and largely stuck to tried-and-tested resorts.
But the UK ski market bounced back last season, growing by almost 20 per cent according to figures produced by Thomson's ski division. Their confidence restored, ski operators started looking for new destinations to secure their share of the market for almost a million ski holidays.
How is the choice of new resorts made? Until recently, exchange rates were an important criterion: a rise in the schilling and a fall in the franc would have operators pulling out of Austria and invading France. But now that the euro-area currencies are locked together, exchange rates have become less important. Instead, market trends now seem to be the key factor. For example, the major operators' brochures include several new destinations in Canada this season: the country now has a committed following among British skiers, but to keep them coming - say the product managers - they need the stimulation of new resorts.
Gareth Crump, the product director at Thomson, says that the same logic applies to the introduction of four Italian resorts - Aprica, Falcade and San Pellegrino in the Dolomites, plus Madesimo. "Historically, skiers went to Italy merely because of its cost advantage. But Italy had a very good season last year, partly because of good snow, but also because people like Italian style and culture. Italy is `in' now."
Serious skiers might wonder about the choice of the individual resorts (the Where to Ski and Snowboard guide describes Aprica as an "ugly, straggling village with bland slopes and limited facilities"), but that is often determined by other market factors. Because it is a growing sector, many of the new resorts are aimed at family skiers, for whom cost and convenience can be more important than epic skiing. They are the target for one of Crystal's new resorts, the "Magic Mountains" of Axamer Lizum in Austria.
"It's not for die-hard skiers," says Stevan Popovich, the company's product manager for Austria and four other countries: "Crystal has a tradition of innovation, particularly for families, and at Axamer Lizum we have introduced an all-inclusive package - the only one in our brochure - which includes not only the lift pass, tuition and equipment rental but also full-board accommodation and a programme of activities. …