Cool Runnings: The inside track on ski holidays next season

As one ski season draws to an end and another one begins, we talk to ski expert, Arnie Wilson, about what’s new in the industry, how the Winter Olympics in Sochi captivated viewers, and what some of the unfamiliar ski terms - from ‘slopestyle’ to ‘skicross’  - actually mean.

Q: What do you see as the biggest trend in the ski industry going into 2015?

A: The very essence of skiing is facing a rather bewildering array of pluses and minuses. We’ve had good back-to-back winters in the Alps (and even in Scotland) and in spite of the doom-mongers, the basic ingredient of skiing – good snow – continues to be delivered, at least for the time being (not universally, but that changes every year). There was very little snow in the Tirol for the first half of the season and it never really recovered. Overall, it wasn’t a great season - just an unremarkable one. Some of the best snow was in Italy and the Pyrenees.

In spite of the easing of the recent recession, it hasn’t been a great winter for tour operators, some of whom blame the late winter floods in the UK for unsettling many families’ plans to take their normal winter holiday. Skiing continues to be very expensive – especially during half term and Easter - and one major worry is whether we can bring a new wave of young people into the sport.

Q: What are the major challenges facing the UK ski industry?

Given good snow next winter, in spite of the inevitable vacuum caused by the no-doubt quickly forgotten Olympics “fix”, we can be optimistic, at least, that new season will be a more positive one. Ongoing challenges include the so-called “ski hosting” system in which tour operator staff traditionally show clients round the mountain and point out good runs and restaurants (but don’t teach – no sir!).  The stubborn French see this (irrationally and incomprehensibly in my view and that of many) as taking work from their own instructors. They are putting their foot down on this one and it remains unresolved until the French courts have further deliberated later this year.        

Q: What resorts are looking good value at the moment and which ones are looking pricey?

Once again cost will be critical. Italy and Andorra should capitalise on being cheaper than the “big three”: France, Austria and Switzerland.

Q: What effect do you think Sochi might have on the UK ski industry?

I hate to be negative but I don‘t think it will have had much of an impact, in spite of British snow athletes’ relative success. Although we love to go skiing we’re not really a mainstream Winter Olympics nation, so I fear Sochi will quickly be forgotten in the UK – and even by many Russians intent on continuing their trendy love affair with the Alps!.

Q: If you could recommend one resort for a family, a couple and a group of beginners, which ones would you choose?

It’s no surprise that I get asked this kind of question quite a lot!

  • Family: Probably Italy where lunch for the tribe is less likely to bankrupt you and the sun is more likely to shine and keep the youngsters warm. Courmayeur, Sauze d’Oulx or Gressoney.
  • Couples: Needs to be romantic, right? (But not necessarily cheap!) Zermatt (Switzerland). Alpbach (Austria). St Moritz (Switzerland)
  • Beginners: Need to have lots to do apart from skiing in case they don’t like it! So: Cortina d’Ampezzo (Italy) Kitzbühel (Austria) and maybe La Clusaz (France)

Q: What has been the most surprising resort you’ve skied in the last 12 months?

Livigno in Italy. I hadn’t skied there for decades. My recollection of it was almost completely wrong (possibly because I wasn’t such an adventurous or experienced skier back then). This time round I found the terrain vast and very skiable for almost all levels of skier and boarder. Plus the resort now has some exhilarating (and modestly priced) heli-skiing. The only drawback is the long transfer from Innsbruck (at least 2½ hours).  

Q: Is enough being done by the UK ski industry to attract new skiers/boarders who are maybe a bit intimidated by a ski holiday?

I spoke with Betony Garner, Media Officer, Snowsport Industries of Great Britain, who said:

“The UK Snowsports industry has several initiatives in place to introduce new people to skiing and snowboarding.
“Snowsport England runs a campaign called GO SKI GO BOARD which offers value for money, all-inclusive sessions allowing people to have a go and get tuition over six hours showing them how much fun skiing and snowboarding can be! These are on offer at indoor snow centres and dry ski slopes across the country. All of them include instruction and skis/ snowboard, boots and poles, with some of them offering an option of renting clothing as well.
"Operators such as Inghams, Crystal and Skiworld also have many holidays specifically tailored for beginners offering daily tuition and help from resort staff to show them exactly what they need to do to get started!
"The Ski Club of Great Britain also offers a beginners' membership which includes advice on how to get started, as well as discounts on kit, clothing and lessons both in the UK and in resort.”

Q: Sochi introduced many of us to some completely new activities and terms. What are your favourites and which ones do people tend to get confused by?

Funny you should ask. I’ve been trying to educate myself about this. It’s rather confusing, especially for older skiers. Many years ago the French invented a wonderful phrase to describe all things skiing: ‘La Glisse’, which essentially meant all forms of sliding on snow. Today, Freeride skiing means exploring the whole mountain on or off-piste. Freestyle in general covers all those activities that are not alpine skiing - i.e. not downhill, Super G (super giant slalom) Giant Slalom and Slalom.  Freeskiing is a sub-section of this. As of this year, there are two Olympic free-skiing events: Halfpipe skiing and Slopestyle. Other Olympic Freestyle events include aerials and skicross…

Q: Lastly, where are you off next and why?

Well the ski season is over of course, but I have plans to visit some places I’ve never got round to before. I might give my “usual haunts” a miss and aim for Zakopane, Poland, heliskiing in Marrakech and who knows where else. It’s early days!

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Arnie Wilson was the Financial Times ski correspondent for 15 years before taking over as editor of Ski+board in 2001 until he stepped down this year. In 1994 he skied every single day of the year (a Guinness Record) and recently finished a lifelong mission to ski in every USA state with ski lifts. He blogs for Inghams at: http://blog.inghams.co.uk/. You can also find him here: http://www.arniewilson.com/wordpress/

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As interviewed by Mark Henshall

By Stefan Hull

23 April 2014