Saas-Fee compared to Zermatt

Nicholas Oatridge at Saas-Fee
Nic Oatridge skiing Saas-Fee.

Saas-Fee was the first ski resort I visited in Switzerland, way back in the early 1990s. Since then I have skied over 100 other ski resorts in Switzerland, some many times. I have also skied other resorts in the UK, mainland Europe and North America but Switzerland is my destination of choice for many reasons.

Not least amongst the reasons is that you can ski some decent slopes as early as November in Switzerland. I skied Zermatt last week, Verbier last weekend and Saas-Fee this week. I have written in previous blogs about my recent experiences in Zermatt and Verbier, but here I would like to concentrate on the relative merits of Zermatt and Saas-Fee for early season snow sports.

Skiers above the Morenia middle station

The routes to Zermatt and Saas-Fee diverge at the municipality of Stalden where the Matter Vispa and the Saaser Vispa rivers conjoin. Stalden is a dizzying community of homes on steep valley walls atop which are a number of small ski resorts such as Grächen, Törbel, Bürchen, Unterbäch and Visperterminen – of which Grächen is the largest and most charming. Stalden already has some spectacular bridges but a bypass planned to complete in 2023 will add to the spectacle with seven additional bridges, including the 270m long Chinegga Bridge.

Saas-Fee is the quicker to get to from anywhere you choose to come from, although the last leg from Visp is by bus rather than the train, as is the case for Zermatt. Neither resort allows cars, but the parking lot in Saas-Fee is actually in the village, unlike Zermatt where you have to take the train for the last leg from Täsch if you drive.

Saas-Fee is the highest and largest of four resorts in Saastal – the Saas valley – and the route to the resort passes through one of them, Saas-Grund. Saas-Grund has a creditable 35km of piste in the winter season up to a top station of 3200m. In terms of scale it is somewhat dwarfed by Saas-Fee with its 100km of piste up to 3600m, but it provides some variety if you come to Saastal for a week, often has untracked off-piste when Saas-Fee does not and is less crowded in peak season.

Looking down in November on the ski resort of Saas-Fee

Saas-Fee is not as high or as extensive a resort as Zermatt which, fully open, has an incredible 360 km of piste between 1620 and 3899m. However in November, neither resort is fully open and – in the case of Zermatt – the runs over to Cervinia in Italy which would normally be open are closed because of Covid-19.

Saas-Fee and Zermatt have the highest ski runs in Europe and this is why anyone looking to ski outside the regular season should consider them. Zermatt is open all year round, but summer skiing there is very limited. By mid-November, Zermatt had open 26 km of piste and 10 lifts – limited by the lack of access to Cervinia – whereas Saas-Fee claims 43 km and 12 lifts. On the 28th November the lifts up to the Rothorn and Stockhorn are scheduled to begin operating in Zermatt, opening up at least 100 km of piste.

Both resorts have their upper runs on glaciers, which means off-piste is not an option in those areas, and – since glaciers move – the only lifts on the glaciers are surface lifts. However both resorts currently have chairlift-served runs lower down.

From earlier this month the Covid-19 precautions have resulted in all bars and restaurants being closed until at least the start of December in Valais, the canton where Zermatt, Saas-Fee and Verbier are located. This certainly puts a damper on the apres-ski and mountain restaurant scene, although even without Covid many restaurants and bars are not open in the resorts in November. But we’re here for the skiing and snowboarding, right? Right.

The slopes below the Allalin top station in Saastal.

The limited skiing available in Zermatt is gentle reds and blues with a little off-piste whereas Saas-Fee has many more steeper sections. The open areas are reasonably well-connected. To get to the top at Saas-Fee you take two gondolas and an underground train, and the return journey is just the one train from Morenia. For Zermatt the trip up is three cable cars, but you have to take two back – from Trockener Steg and Furi. Since only the most southerly section of Zermatt is open it is also a longer transfer from the train station to the lifts than it is from the garages and bus station at Saas-Fee. In fact, at Zermatt, you might want to take the courtesy bus or a taxi to get to your hotel and to the slopes.

Switzerland has had clear unclouded skies since the start of November and this has worked worse for Saas-Fee than Zermatt. The snow is reasonably good at both, but fresh snow would be welcome and the pistes were icier in Saas-Fee. Both ski areas are north-facing, but Zermatt was bathed in sunshine nearly everywhere whilst the slopes were open, whereas many parts of Saas-Fee, with a low sun behind the Allalin, hardly moved out of shadow all day. I think Saas-Fee would have been a lot better with fresher snow, and I enjoyed my skiing more at Zermatt but I will look to visit again before the end of the month to see how the conditions are holding up.

Skiers and snowboarders exit the undeground train at Allalin.

I visited both on weekdays and would expect them to both be busier at the weekend. When I was at the resorts Saas-Fee had more ski racers in training, whereas Zermatt had more ski school instructors under instruction. The runs at Saas-Fee were generally much busier, but at both resorts it was possible to find runs where I was an almost solitary skier. Unfortunately the lifts up and down the mountain at both resorts were quite busy. Masks are compulsory on all lifts.

In broad terms what you are getting in November in these resorts is a similar snow sport experience as you would get mid-week, peak season in a resort like Braunwald or Pizol, albeit at a significantly higher price.

I like Saas-Fee. It is pleasant car-free village, reasonably compact with an excellent lift system and a good range of snow-sure slopes. Zermatt has its downsides but there is probably not a better ski resort on the planet, in my very humble opinion. Both resorts are expensive. Even without the bars and restaurants, ahead of the full season opening, I would on balance choose Zermatt still, but it is a far closer call, especially with Cervinia closed.

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The end of the Ski Season comes early

The ski and snowboard season has effectively ended early across the whole of the Alps in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Numerous clusters of infections arose in ski resorts so it has not been surprising. What is more surprising is how many people persisted with their ski holidays this last week knowing that there may be a risk they would have difficulty getting home afterwards – or of catching the virus whilst abroad. It is worth bearing in mind that one of the first outbreaks that impacted the UK arose in a French ski resort. The French have, ironically, also been the last of the Alpine nations to close their season. Apparently 30,000 British nationals are stuck in the French resorts alone.

In North America the vast majority of ski resorts have now closed. Industry leaders Vail Resorts, Alterra Mountain Company, Telluride Ski Resort and the Aspen Skiing Company have closed dozens of resorts as of this weekend. Many operators had hoped to remain open during the crisis whilst taking steps to prevent the virus’s spread, but have had to face up to the new reality. Some operators claim it is a temporary measure, but it won’t be. Effectively, this season has finished in the Northern Hemisphere, and it is unlikely lifts will open this year in the Southern Hemisphere.

It is too early to say what the impact of Covid-19 will be on next season. Possibly the level of community-wide immunity to the infection from people already infected stops the spread of the disease to a significant extent before next season starts. If a vaccine is developed, however, it is unlikely to be available before next season, and ramping up production to cater for demand would take months: it could be that both of the next two seasons are wiped out.

Clearly the significantly shortened season, just ahead of the Easter holidays, is going to have a huge impact on everyone associated with winter sports. The extensive industry base that supports skiing will suffer badly. Package tour operators, chalet owners, airlines, hoteliers, restaurants, hire shops, ski schools, ski guides and ski gear manufacturers will be impacted in addition to lift operators. Many resorts are going to see their summer tourist visits plummet too. And if it runs into next season or beyond, the impact will be immense. Demand may shrink as older skiers decide it is time to quit the sport, and many potential new skiers will have chosen some other activity instead of snow sports. Lift operators will feel a huge cashflow hit which may badly impact investment and, for some resorts, even their viability.

Many industries are going to suffer from the epidemic, most will probably bounce back even at the expense of businesses going bust, but some may be changed forever. Winter sports could be one, with its expense and climate footprint having a long term impact on demand. Lower resorts facing the impact of the trend of warmer winters may see this as the time to stop their lift operations permanently. Older skiers and snowboarders may decide it is time to quit the sport, and many potential new skiers and snowboarders will have chosen some other activity instead of snow sports.

I have been lucky to get a couple of ski trips in this season, but had also hoped to get away at Easter and possibly a last hurrah at Zermatt in May. I also expect the footfall on my websites like swisswintersports.co.uk and www.snowandrail.com to plummet, and can’t see my book “Ski and Snowboard Switzerland” shifting many copies.

Next year’s MagicPass is on sale now. This provides the freedom of over 30 Swiss resorts for the entire Summer-Winter season 2020-2021 for CHF 399.00 (Adult) or CHF 269.00 (Child) if you buy before 6th April. Is it worth risking it?

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Women-only Ski Camps in Verbier


Element ski school was set up in Verbier last season by Emma Cairns and Guy Ordway, two friends who have been teaching skiing in Verbier for over ten years. As well as the usual range of ski school activities, Emma runs a women-only ski camp, with weekend and week-long ski schools for intermediate, advanced and expert skiers. The courses cost SFr 300 (around £250) for a weekend and SFr 700 (£575) for a week – but all courses have a 10% discount if you book this month. Details at elementconcept.com.

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Ski Club of GB Annual Consumer Report

The Ski Club of Great Britain, the UK’s largest snowsports membership organisation, released findings from their annual consumer research report earlier this month.
Nic Oatridge skiing in St Moritz
The report, which is now in its fourth year, offers insight into the habits, intentions and attitudes of people who participate in snowsports, both here in the UK and abroad. It also offers some understanding of the state of the market and the likelihood for growth or decline in its size. It is the only independent piece of consumer research in the snowsports market of its kind.

From a pool of over 1.3 million email addresses the 2016 survey generated 17,270 responses of whom 2,432 were non-skiers. The responses seemed to skew towards older skiers, with the highest percentage age profile consisted of 34% aged between 50-59 years.

So what were the findings?

Has Brexit had an impact on skiers?

Brexit seems to have had little effect on the desire of skiers to continue pursuing their holidays. The survey responses were collected both before and after the referendum. Even amongst the ensuing uncertainty and exchange rate changes 65% of skiers said their skiing habits would remain the same over the next 3 years.
A further 28% said their activity would increase and only 7% said their activity would be decreasing – and much of this decrease was due to factors outside their control and mainly lifestyle changes. It seems that people who ski will continue to ski.
For the 2,300 non-skiers it was asked how likely they were to ski in the next three years. Over 5% gave a positive response (scoring 9 or 10 on a 10-point scale) – a strong potential pool of new skiers.
However, when the result was split between people responding before and after the referendum there was a major significant difference. Before the referendum 7.2% had scored their potential to ski as 9 or 10. After, if had dropped to 4.5%.

Loyalty to ski

Repeat purchase intention in the ski market is extremely high. Of the people who skied last season an impressive 97% say they will ski again in the coming season.
Skiing also remains hugely popular with 92% of those who go on a snow sport holiday choosing to ski, from these 39% choose off-piste, an increase of 3.7.% from 2015. Snowboarding accounts for some 12% of activity (down slightly on last year’s results). Although not recorded last year, 4% this year stated that they did freestyle skiing on their holiday.
Advocacy is found the more times you try; those people who skied 1 week or less recorded a Net Promoter Score* rating of 59, those that skied 2 to 5 weeks’ scored 75 and those over 5 weeks tended to score 80 and over.
Loyalty to specific markets also remains strong – 74% of people who skied in France on their last holiday say they will go there for their next ski holiday with 61% stating Austria and 49% choosing USA & Canada.

Solo travellers on the up

Although 38% of respondents had skied with their own or other families on their last ski break, 31% with friends, it was notable that 7% stated that they travelled alone, a significant 2% increase from the 2015 research.

Growing the market

The report identifies new skiers as those who have skied 1 week or less and this year saw 33% were aged 40-49. From these they tended to have gone with their families.
When asked where they were likely to ski, they are more inclined to visit Andorra and some of the Scandinavian markets and significantly less likely to visit France in comparison to all other skiers.
Lapsed skiers (people who hadn’t skied in the last three years) were asked how likely they were to come back into the market. Some 50% of the people who hadn’t been skiing in the last 3 seasons responded positively and 20% of these responded with a 9 or 10. This is increase on last year of some 2% – a positive indicator of potential demand in the market.

Do we ever stop?

This year we asked people about whether they had taken a break from skiing of more than three years with 66% v 34% stating yes and no. The largest age group that featured in the yes category were the 40-49 year olds, perhaps children, work commitments or the classic cash rich/time poor issue features. The biggest age group who have not taken a break of three years from skiing is the 60+. This age group are more likely to have retired, and to have more time and money to continue their skiing each year.
The most common reason for a break has been taken was children. On top of this ‘other commitments’ and ‘costs’ as well as being at university also figure – but children remain the major issue.
However, what brought people back was their children, a love of skiing as well as increasing affluence and time. Skiing with friends and families is also often a great motivator too.

The customer journey

Although skiers enjoy skiing, the Net Promoter Score* rating across the customer journey highlights some concerns that continue in the market. The journey to get to a resort continues to be highlighted as not an enjoyable experience. Airline and airports are under-performing compared to the rest of the experience.

When do customers book?

When it comes to booking holidays 64% are booking 3 months or more before they travel and only 13% booking less than a month before their trip. When broken down into the under and over 30’s market, 36% of the latter book 6 months or more before they travel but interestingly there isn’t a significant difference for the under 30’s.

Spending habits?

Spend per head on travel, accommodation, ski passes, equipment and ski school remains fairly consistent on last year with 25% of respondents spending between £750-£1,000 per person. A slightly increase of 2.3% shows for those now spending more than £1,500 per person. Not surprisingly, when broken down 31% of under 30’s will spend around £500-£750 compared to 22% over this age.
New skiers will also spend significantly less, with 28% spending less than £500 per head compared with 19% of all over skiers

Choosing a resort

Once again, guaranteed snow is the number factor when choosing a resort, the size of the ski area and quality of accommodation make the top three. Interestingly, how busy the slopes are has risen but price still squeezes into the five most important factors. For the under 30’s market, price moves up to number 3 but quality of accommodation drops to a ranking of 5. Quality of après ski ranks in 6 rather than 12th for the rest of the market.
Winter sports in Switzerland
Preparing for a ski holiday

This year respondents were asked how they prepared for their ski holiday with 80% taking part in general fitness activities before they depart and 37% participating in other sports. Cycling came out as the clear favourite (although slightly less for the under 30’s market) but other popular sports also included swimming, tennis, golf, and squash, climbing and going to the gym
One fifth also visit an artificial slope in preparation. Interestingly it is the under 30’s market, and those who are often less experienced, who will visit an indoor ski slope.

Taking things into your own hands

The independent market – though a challenge to quantify accurately – and classed in this report as those who book elements of their ski holiday themselves rather than as a package seems to be holding steady. Last year it was identified that 33% of the market book independently – this year that figure was 34%.
There is a tendency for the 40-49 year olds to favour booking independently compared to those who are 60 and older who prefer to book with ski companies.
One of the key interesting trends that anchors the independent market is flexibility. Independent travellers are far likely less to book a standard 7 day break with 48% of people doing so compared to 78% who booked with a ski company.

Buying in UK store remains favourite but online is catching on

The UK ski & snowboard equipment store retailers remain the favourite purchase channel for ski equipment although this figure has been slipping downward across the last 2 years with 53% choosing to buy from a store in 2015 and 48% in 2016. Online purchase has increased once again by 4%.
What was highlighted was the discontentment of respondents purchasing either snow sport equipment or clothing in a resort with a very low Net Promoter Score* rating of -15 and -18 respectively.

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