Specialist ski operators reveal plans for the future as Crystal scraps its chalet holidays due to Covid concerns
The news that Crystal Ski Holidays has scrapped all its catered ski chalet holidays for the upcoming winter sent shock waves through the mountains.
There are concerns that this move by the UK’s leading ski tour operator to prioritise “the health and safety of our customers” will have placed another dint in the already dwindling confidence of holidaymakers to book a trip to the slopes this winter.
“I’m optimistic that without Crystal, demand should increase for others like Ski Line, but also concerned that this may further damage consumer confidence, which is already at an all time low,” said Angus Kinloch, managing director of specialist travel agency SkiLine.
However, as the major players, including Crystal and Hotelplan, which owns Inghams, Ski Total and Esprit, reduce their programmes and move away from the mass-market catered chalet holiday, smaller, independent businesses are ready to fill the void and reassure skiers that the much-loved chalet holidays has not been lost to the pandemic.
“This is a huge opportunity for those smaller chalet operators like us that are well run and financially secure to benefit from extra bookings this season and going forward,” said Nick Williams, director of Mountain Heaven, which runs chalet holidays to France and Switzerland.
“I think those of us who can adapt to the challenging environment, which of course not only includes Covid 19 but also include Brexit, will do very well in the future and we will be able to give customers a great flexible chalet experience,” he continued.
Sam Thomas, owner of More Mountain, which runs catered and self-catered properties in Morzine, agrees that it could be the beginning of a new era for chalet holidays. “I think it is a signal to everyone that things cannot continue in the way they used to and in some ways, it could represent the end of an era. People want higher end properties and more choice – you could argue that the cheap and cheerful ski package holiday is most definitely coming to an end.”
It’s likely chalet holidays will have a significant facelift this coming winter, with more bespoke service and smaller, more luxurious properties, where an entire family or group of friends can occupy every room and remain in their own bubble.
“I do think the Crystal decision will ultimately be good for the more specialist chalet operators. This is in effect a continuation of the trend over the past few years of chalets returning to being run by specialist operators,” said Nick Morgan, managing director at Le Ski, which hopes to operate all its 33 chalets in Courchevel, Val d’Isère and La Tania as planned this season.
“Catered chalets are far more complicated to run nowadays, with, for example, French regulation limiting the amount of time our staff can work on a weekly basis. There is also a trend away from larger chalets which the big companies traditionally preferred to run. So it’s smaller chalets being run by smaller, specialist companies which has to be nothing but good for quality and satisfaction levels,” said Morgan.
Operators have begun making plans for the upcoming season, but with over three months to go until the first guests arrive it’s still too early to set these in stone. The new chalet experience is likely to include hosts in PPE, deep cleaning protocols, complimentary masks for customers and screens to separate kitchen areas from the guests.
“We are planning to operate all of our chalets however we are going to be totally flexible to what the customer requires,” explains Williams, who reveals operators are having to be more fluid than ever in their planning.
Currently Mountain Heaven guests are able to book the traditional catered chalet experience (six nights catered, including breakfast, afternoon tea and an evening meal with wine), with new Covid safety measures to be introduced once the rules become more clear from the Government.
One element that will change is the requirement to eat out at a restaurant on one night of your holidays, when the host has a night off. Mountain Heaven can instead arrange for a meal to be delivered to the chalet if guests would prefer not to socialise in a restaurant. Its chalets are now also available on a self-catered basis, with a range of additional services for example a hot meal available upon arrival, your shopping done for you before you arrive and breakfast delivery – something some will see as the best of both worlds.
Adopting a similar flexible approach is Treeline Chalets, which also operates out of Morzine. “We are excited to launch our new flexi-catered option for this winter which is proving popular, offering freshly prepared chalet meals delivered to our guests at the chalet, for them to enjoy in their own time and in their own space, and guests can really customise their catered stay to how they want it,” said Hannah Kinnear, general manager from Treeline.
Despite Crystal's departure from the world of catered chalet holidays, these small and independently run businesses are still keen to continue to deliver the service skiers have grown to love. “British skiers love the chalet model – a home from home with someone providing all the catering and cleaning so no time is lost when skiing. Children don’t have to be on their best behaviour all the time, as they do in a hotel, and friendly chalet staff provide lots of useful information about the resort and skiing and conditions,” said Fiona Easdale from YSE, which has been operating chalet in British favourite Val d’Isere for 30 years.
“The convenience and ease of a catered chalet is hard to beat, and really makes a ski holiday a true holiday,” agrees Kinnear.
At the luxury end of the market and the likes of Consensio, which operates some of the most glamorous addresses in the Alps, are fully prepared for the post-Covid ski holidays. “The level of bespoke service is a normal thing for us,” said Ceri Tinley, managing director.
“We will liaise with every single client and find out what they are comfortable with and adapt accordingly – whether that's bringing their own staff or operating contactless chalets. If luxury means choice and being able to decide what you want, where the service level is flexible and not prescriptive - then yes there will be a more demand for luxury ski chalets,” she continued.
There are hundreds of independent chalet operators across Europe, some of whom will flourish, others who will struggle to stay afloat under the pressure of Covid (and Brexit).
Unfortunately, there have already been casualties – Ski Weekends, a long-running specialist in short weekend chalet breaks, went into liquidation last month and in July, SnowChateaux, which operated 22 catered chalets in France, also fell victim to the pandemic’s economic strains.
Despite optimism that bookings will pick up before the snow begins to fall and following Crystal’s bold decision the recent addition of France, Switzerland and Austria to the Government’s quarantine list could have devastating consequences for the chalet operators who are working hard to adapt.
“September and October are the peak times for winter reservations and we have seen a loss of confidence in the ski market in general. People are afraid to commit because they are not sure of quarantine legislation, FCO advice on non essential travel and confusion over group sizes allowed to be together in foreign destinations,” said Thomas.
But there could be a solution. “Currently there is virtually nobody in the French Alps and very few new cases whereas Paris and the big cities are totally different. It does not make sense to use such a blunt instrument such as the current quarantine policy. Surely airport testing is going to become normal?” suggests Morgan.
His opinion is shared by others in the industry who have recently showed their support for The Telegraph’s #Test4Travel campaign, urging that airport testing is the only thing that could save the ski season.