As North American resorts continue to lure skiers away from the Alps David Henderson scans the market
Many ski party leaders are keen to do something new in 2000. A trip to a different Alpine country? A more adventurous but expensive journey across the Atlantic? A sally into term-time? A go at snowboarding? Perhaps a change of tour operator?
Hundreds of party leaders have already taken their decision for the Millennium, fully appreciating the pressure on places. Hundreds of others will be holding options or holding fire until after this season's trip.
Choice continues to be vast in a healthy market, stretching to over 130,000 school skiers. Economic recession has yet to affect the school ski market, where parents are continuing to shell out substantial sums for the annual trip, over pound;700 for some in the United States or Canada. Operators, however, expect some dip later in line with the 10 per cent fall in this season's adult market.
North American destinations are popular for 2000, with schools prepared to opt for resorts way out West, despite the 10-hour flights. Alun Williams, managing director of Skiers World, reports 10,000 bookings already for North American resorts, with Mammoth in California the most popular.
David Lyne, managing director of Pinnacle, a smaller North American specialist, describes the market as "extremely buoyant".
As ever, major companies come and go. John Bowden, former boss of SkiBound which sold out to First Choice, the second largest holiday operator, has launched yet another operation under the name of SkiPlan, aiming to provide a higher quality product, principally in France and Austria.
STS (School Travel Service), part of the Shearings Group, has sold out to First Choice. STS has run a coach-based ski programme to 23 resorts in Austria, France and Italy.
Thomson, the largest holiday operator, has bought Crystal, the market leader in adult ski holiday sales. Crystal keeps its brand name and is expanding its school ski programme.
Skiers World, the North American specialist and second largest school operator, now with a substantial European programme, is currently on the margins of take-over talks.
German-owned Thomas Cook is planning to merge with American-owned Carlson, parent company of Skiers World.
SkiBound and Ski Partners, both brands of First Choice, continue as the largest school operators, carrying around 35,000 between them. Adrian Harwood, marketing director, says Europe continues to dominate his companies' destinations with 90 per cent of the business. High French resorts, with doorstep skiing and club hotels, remain popular.
Andy Peters, Crystal director, agrees more teachers are showing interest in America, where prices are one-third dearer than in Europe, largely because of more costly flights.
John Shepherd, managing director of Equity, remains committed to a strong European programme with only small expansion to the States. "It's more expensive, there's not so much skiing and it's a long way to travel."
American trips generally only have five days' skiing, against six in the Alps. Mr Lyne believes that in 2001 the market will move back to Europe, and Mr Peters shares the optimism about European resorts: "The American market is growing but sooner or later America will be too far to go."
But Mr Williams at Skiers World believes there is some way to go before the American peak. He also argues the long flight has to be compared with the equally lengthy coach journey to the Alps for many British schools. "Standards are higher in North America and you get what you pay for. It's not just skiing. What we promote is an overall experience of going to North America," he explains.
Interest in snowboarding and grunge gear appears to have peaked, according to many of the operators. Gillian Gilyead, chair of the English Ski Council, says: "Snowboarding is more difficult to control. There's a question of supervision out of ski school hours."
Next year, all Pinnacle's American resorts will offer snowboarding and skiing at the same price, provided there are 10 in a group.
Mr Shepherd points out the lessons are generally more expensive as classes are smaller. Hiring boots and boards is also dearer.
However this year, SkiBound is offering snowboarding as a supplement for pound;19, against pound;60 last year. SkiPlan's packages include three days skiing, three boarding for pound;22 per person.
BELL'S BUMPY START
Martin Bell, Britain's former top downhiller, used to plummet down mountains in search of medals and podium places. Now retired, he is selling his fame through ski teaching videos.
Whether top performers make the best coaches is open to question. Alex Ferguson, Manchester United boss, was merely a competent footballer, but turned into a great manager. Bell is attempting to make the transition into celebrity teacher and does not entirely succeed in his latest and largely conventional ski instructional 45-minute video, 'Conquer Powder and Bumps'.
The blurb advises: "This video will help all skiers with over one week's experience to deal with difficult conditions, off-piste and in mogul fields."
In fact, this video is chiefly for aspiring experts with experience of many conditions. Most early and even advanced intermediates avoid powder if they ever get a sniff of it and bumps if at all possible.
Bell tries to explain "up-unweighting" for powder skiing, "down-unweighting" for "classic mogul technique", and "cross-under transition" for linking carved turns.
Follow that and you will be doing well.
A cross-check against the Ali Ross methods (see review, right) would prove interesting. That apart, there's good watchable action, including out-takes in steep gullies when Bell comes a cropper.
'Conquer Powder and Bumps', with Martin Bell and Pat Sharples, is by Paul Paley Productions, price pound;14.99