Brits are hitting the slopes

Snowsport holidays – previously reserved for the rich – are becoming more accessible as disposable income and the availability of package deals rises

The Nineties saw such growth in the popularity of snowsport holidays that it now represents a very important sector of the British market. Because the UK has a poor domestic facilities for this type of holiday, British consumers prefer to travel overseas for skiing and snowboarding activities.

Research shows that there were 954,000 overseas ski and snowboard trips made by UK residents in the 2001 to 2002 season, despite relatively poor snow conditions in European resorts. Mintel predicts that this number will break the one million barrier for the first time in the 2003 to 2004 season.

Holidays are increasingly seen as a necessity, rather than a luxury, and have become such an integral part of our lives that even during hard times they still tend to be taken. However, skiing and snowboarding trips are much more expensive than beach holidays, which makes cost a limiting factor. That said, personal disposable income – a key indicator when measuring outbound tourism – increased by 18 per cent between 1997 and 2001 and is expected to rise by another 21 per cent to &£823.86bn by 2005. This growing affluence means that skiing and snowboarding holidays are steadily becoming a more viable option.

More than 60 per cent of snowsports packages are sold as inclusive holidays – booked through a tour operator – while about a quarter are booked independently, with the remainder consisting of school trips. Over the past two decades the most dynamic shift has been the decline in the dominance of the school trip – from a 76 per cent market share in the 1980 to 1981 season to just 13 per cent during the 2001 to 2002 season. However, this reduction has been counterbalanced by an increase in both tour operator and independent holiday markets.

As consumers demand more flexibility, it is the independent holiday market that has experienced the most growth – increasing at nearly twice the pace of tour operators. The wealth of information available on the Internet about ski resorts and skiing conditions has made consumers more confident about booking independently. Although tour operators are expected to continue to prosper – increasing the number of bookings to about 699,000 by the 2005 to 2006 season – they will have to provide more flexible travel and accommodation packages to compete with the growth of independent skiers. The move towards a cash-rich, time-poor society has also fuelled this need for greater flexibility. Subsequently, interest in short breaks or day trips has also increased.

Although there are some 200 tour operators selling ski holidays in the UK, it is the six-largest operators – Crystal Holiday, Inghams, Thomson Holiday, First Choice, Neilson and Airtours – that control more than 80 per cent of all packages sold. This concentration has been characterised by aggressive pricing policies, heavy price competition and a drive by tour operators for strong brand differentiation.

The Alps provide the best skiing in Europe, consequently France, Austria and Italy dominate the British snowsports market. As France is easily accessible from the UK and has the best skiing in Europe for the mass market, it is not surprising that it is still the preferred destination for British skiers. In the 2000 to 2001 season more than 200,000 British skiers booked package holidays to French resorts, about 55,000 more than in the previous season. The popularity of France as a destination for British skiers is further underlined by the fact that there are some 20 independent operators in the UK that are solely dedicated to a single French resort. No other country has generated such a specialist market.

Austria was the most popular destination for British skiers for most of the second half of the 20th century, although it has now slipped to number two behind France. This is largely because Austrian resorts do not offer the extensive lift systems and challenging skiing offered by the bigger French resorts. Italy and Andorra closely follow Austria as the third and fourth most popular snowsports destinations respectively.

Exclusive consumer research from Mintel shows that 15 per cent of all British consumers have been on a skiing holiday, with half of these saying that they will definitely go again. But there has been no increase in the number of skiers, which suggests that the market is becoming saturated.

Of those that have been skiing, 43 per cent are from the ABC1 socio-economic group, with 15to 24-year-olds most likely to be skiers or potential skiers. The propensity to ski also declines rapidly as consumers get older, which means that young consumers drive product development and the image of the industry. Operators will have to respond to this movement in order to tap into the potential revenue. Regionally it is Londoners who have the greatest propensity to ski.

A quarter of consumers still feel that skiing holidays are too expensive. However, four years ago this figure was nearer one in three, so clearly snowsports holidays have become more affordable to a broader spectrum of consumers than before.

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