I’m going to tell you how to take a ski break for a day. You can literally check out the snow reports one day, be skiing or snowboarding the next, and be back in the office the following day. In other words, you can take one day off work and ski the Swiss Alps for a full day in the mountains. How’s that for a day out the office!
Why Switzerland? Well it has fabulous resorts within easy reach of Geneva Airport; you can use public transport to get to the slopes; and accommodation at short notice is widely available if you stay in the valleys rather than the mountains. And it is no more expensive than France for a quick break and much more convenient than Italy or Austria. Although Innsbruck in Austria is quite convenient for a number of resorts, there are fewer flights.
I’m not going to push Easyjet, but it is a good choice for getting to Geneva from the UK, with several flights a year from Gatwick and regional airports. BA is also a good choice if you have lots of Avios points. And if you want to take your skis with you, Swiss will carry them for free. Typically Easyjet flights start from about £26, but get pricey at weekends. At a day’s notice it can cost less than £100 pounds return for an evening flight out, and either an evening flight back the next day or an early morning flight the following day – both of which will get you back in the office the next day with a full day’s skiing.
Geneva Airport has a station in the airport itself with direct trains running to hub towns from where you can get to the slopes, either by a single train journey or a very reliable bus service.
You can stay in a resort, but with a late flight and an hour time difference it is a push if you leave the office to take an evening flight. I would recommend you stay in one of those “hub” towns, somewhere like Lausanne, Vevey, Montreux, Aigle, Martigny, Sion, Sierre or Visp. It all depends on how much travel time you are prepared to put in to and from respectively the airport and your preferred ski resort. Some towns on the main line service to Brig from Geneva Airport are particularly convenient for specific resorts, e.g. Aigle for Portes du Soleil (Champéry), Villars, Les Diablerets and Leysin; Martigny for Verbier and Les Marécottes; Sion for the central section of the 4 Valleys (Nendaz, Veysonnaz or Siviez) and Anzère; Sierre for Crans-Montana; and Visp for Saas-Fee or Zermatt. I could mention other resorts, but on the whole they require longer transfers or are much smaller.
Most towns have convenient and reasonably priced accommodation near the main railway station that can be booked at short notice, typically via Bookings.com.
You are spoilt for choice about which resort to go to. Saas-Fee and Zermatt are open for longer seasons than the rest, and mid-week skiing is usually only available at the others from the start of December. During peak season Leysin, Villars, Les Diablerets and the Portes du Soleil are the nearest significant resorts to Geneva.
Let’s look at a couple of examples.
Flying out of Gatwick on a Wednesday at 6.20pm, arriving at Geneva at 8.55pm, book into the Lausanne Youth Hostel or Hotel AlaGare both walking district from Lausanne station. Get up early and get a full day skiing in Verbier, leaving your stuff in a locker at the base station for Verbier. Return to Lausanne in the evening and take the 7.00am Easy jet flight getting you into Gatwick at 7.35am.
Another example: Take the same evening flight and book into a hotel in Aigle. Ski Leysin the next day, then take the 9.35pm flight back getting you into Gatwick at 10.05pm.
The costs depend on a number of factors. Costing out the first option, you might spend £100 on flights, plus transit costs to a UK airport. You can bring your skis on Easyjet for £39 or hire in resort for about the same if you book in advance. With Avios points I’ve done a return BA flight for £60. The return train fare on Swiss Railways from Geneva Airport to Lausanne is about £40 and the cost of a combined ski and travel pass (the Snow’n’rail scheme) for Verbier will be about £100. Lausanne is about 50 minutes from Geneva Airport and just over 2 hours from the gondola station serving Verbier. Accommodation near the station will cost you about £80 for a night. Food and drink are best bought from supermarkets and it is totally acceptable to drink alcohol on the trains.
On my trip to Saas-Fee last week I took advantage of an all-season ski pass I bought for under £200. I also have a half-fare card which halves the cost of rail transfer in Switzerland and I have Easyjet+ which gives some perks flying Easyjet. I am over 60 so travel in the UK is free or heavily discounted. And I have a pad in Switzerland about 1 hour 30 minutes from Geneva Airport and half an hour from the nearest ski resort.
I also have a pass for 25 other leading Swiss resorts that cost me around £200 for the whole season. The benefit of also having the Saas-Fee pass is it gives me good skiing early and late in the season.
For a lot of people winter is something to be endured, a long season of cold, short days and stark skylines. The only escape seems to be a long haul flight to somewhere sunny and warm.
But nothing could be further from the truth.
In 1864 four English visitors to the Swiss Alps were due to return home for the winter. Their hotelier, Johannes Badrutt, said that they should come back at Christmas and stay until Easter, and if they didn’t find St Moritz as sunny in winter as it was in summer, he would pay their fares and hotel bills.
Badrutt won the bet, and winter tourism was born.
But what was there to do? Alpine skiing was yet to take off – Conan Doyle in nearby Davos was to have a large part to play in that story. With a well-developed summer tourist industry, St Moritz, Davos and many other resorts quickly developed a significant infrastructure to enable winter visitors to while away their days, and nights, and the longest established resorts still have a huge variety of non-Downhill activities on offer.
A recent article I read in the BA Leisure magazine, recommended a handful of resorts that suited both skiers and non-skiers. Megève, St Christoph, Cortina d’Ampezzo, Zermatt and Lake Tahoe make their shortlist, and it’s a good list. For the Americas, however, there are a number of resorts I would add to the list (see my ski USA page), and I think there are at least a couple of dozen other Alpine resorts as good for skiers as for non-skiers, particularly in Switzerland.
But what to actually do? Innsbruck, Montreux and Basel have wonderful winter markets, although they close before Christmas. Many resorts and Alpine towns have wonderful outdoor and indoor ice rinks, and professional ice hockey teams play throughout the Alpine nations, with a major hockey festival in Davos known as the Spengler Cup. Bob sleigh also features at a few resorts, and at Celerina adrenalin junkies can actually take part in a four man bob team!
More sedate winter sports available in the Alpine resorts include snowshoe trekking, cross-country skiing, curling and tobogganing. A town called Bergün is a mecca for tobogganing, with people visiting from all over Europe to take advantage of the runs there (and enjoy the breathtaking UNESCO listed railway you need to take to get to the start of the runs). My Swiss Winter Sports web site covers other winter sports you can participate in Switzerland in addition to skiing and snowboarding.
There is a network of well maintained winter walks throughout the Alps, the reward mid-way along the walk often being a charming mountain restaurant. There are even Michelin listed resorts in the Alps! Zermatt is particularly renowned for its mountain restaurants.
Switzerland and Austria have a highly reliable and extensive transport network which makes it very easy to choose a destination suited primarily to non-skiers, but which skiers can also use as a base for day trips to a variety of different destinations. Lucerne and Innsbruck are particularly good choices.
Often the best time to go is March. The days are getting longer and the days warmer, but the snow base is usually still good. If you are prepared to leave it late to see how the snow conditions are developing, a lot of resorts provide particularly good deals before Christmas.
Snow’n’Rail is the popular scheme organised every year by the Swiss Railways which provides a significant discount on the combined lift and public transport ticket prices for over 40 resorts. The booklets listing the offers are available from stations in local language versions, and the online brochure also provides details in English.
There are no new resorts for 2016/7 although les Portes du Soleil is back after a one year absence. Toggenburg, Hoch-Ybrig and Val D’Anniviers have fallen off the scheme, sadly, and a couple of minor resorts are now only listed online.
After modest increases last year, it is perhaps not surprising to see significant increases in some of the offers. Adelboden, the 4 Vallées, Saas-Fee and many Graubünden resorts have seen hikes around 10%. However Zermatt has kept prices flat, as have a number of other resorts, including Les Diablerets, Leysin, Villars, Grindelwald, Wengen, Mürren, Gstaad, Meiringen, Sörenberg, Melchsee-Frutt, Klewenalp, Airolo and Stoos – some routes from Luzern have even fallen slightly.
Tickets can still get pricey, even with the discounts, especially if you do not have a half-price rail card. Without the additional discount, a full day skiing or snowboarding in Zermatt from Basel or Zurich will set you back around 270 SFr. Conversely, with a half-price card, a day in Engelberg will give you change from a 100 Sfr note. Meiringen, Sörenberg and Klewenalp, in particular, provide very good value for the extent of piste available.
For more details of the new season prices visit the resort pages at SwissWinterSports.
The Ski Club of Great Britain, the UK’s largest snowsports membership organisation, released findings from their annual consumer research report earlier this month.
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.
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.
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.