February 13, 1999 may be unlucky for some school ski groups, the School and Group Travel Association has warned. All education authorities in England and Wales are taking their spring term holiday that week, putting pressure on resorts and accommodation.
Teachers should read the small print in their booking conditions and should be prepared for late switches in the "big ski week", according to Gillian Gilyead, SAGTA director, who doubles as chair of the English Schools Ski Association. "Companies are still shifting people and if they are concentrating on one week in the year that situation will get worse, particularly in Italy, where hoteliers have traditionally overbooked," Mrs Gilyead cautioned.
With headteachers and governors apparently taking a dim view of trips outside the holidays, only a minority of schools venture beyond the peak week.
Some companies do virtually all their business in seven days, others do between 50-70 per cent in the spring week. "This puts tremendous strain on the availability of hotels and whacks up the price," Mrs Gilyead says.
Neil Kewley, STS European manager, agrees. "It coincides with the Fasching celebrations and German, Belgian and Dutch groups want to go skiing at the same time. It's difficult to contract beds. It would be nice if English schools could stagger holiday dates over one month as they do in France."
Despite the warnings, the school ski industry is looking healthier than it has for some time, in parallel with the upturn in the adult ski market. "Buoyant" is a repeated word among the tour operators.
With the pound around 15 per cent stronger than last year and the economic feel-good factor still evident, parents are prepared to shell out for annual ski trip. Many prices are below this year's.
Price is still teachers' number one concern, according to the operators and Mrs Gilyead. It always has been so in school skiing, where a Pounds 10 reduction in the complex deals can persuade staff to opt for one operator over another. Cut-throat business is another description.
Mrs Gilyead, a former teacher, laments: "People are very unconcerned about matters of safety and company security and finance. The only thing they're concerned with is price."
Companies have strengthened their safety management procedures and financial security since a legislative attack and it seems teachers assume all operators conform to tougher standards. So it is back to price, reputation, service and sales reps whom you know.
Crystal, the largest adult ski operator and relative newcomer in the schools' market, is trying to persuade teachers to book outside the February logjam. Director Andy Peters explains: "We will pay for a supply teacher or offer Pounds 500 cash. Teachers able to move around get a much better price." Savings of more than Pounds 100 can make a difference to the trip's viability.
John Shepherd, managing director of Equity, believes soundings from the Department for Education and Employment indicate it is not all grim news about term-time skiing. "People are not so paranoid about organising groups as they were and with local management of schools, headteachers like to see a ski trip in their plans," he says.
Crystal's Mr Peters detects a shift back towards Europe from the United States and Canada, which have been the attractive destinations for the past couple of years. The dollar has been fairly steady against the pound, unlike European currencies, and the snow records in Europe have improved markedly. "More teachers will not see the need to go that far afield any more," Mr Peters claims.
Mr Shepherd argues the Atlantic expansion has boosted the industry and will continue to offer choice to organisers. "It will flatten out but it will be a permanent part of the UK skiing scene. The novelty will wear off." Going west increases choice, but schools can pay a third less by going to Europe.
Operators in the school skiing business change almost as quickly as the snow conditions and this year is no different. John Bowden, one of the most successful ever operators, has quit as head of skiing at First ChoiceSkiBound and set up on his own once again, marketing Canada and the United States under the name of SkiPlan. First Choice, one of the top five tour operators, is being linked with further mergers. In the meantime, its SkiBound off-shoot continues as the number one schools' operator.
Blue Ridge and Skiers World, both part of Carlson, one of the largest US travel companies, have merged and work out of Cardiff. Skiers World pioneered school parties to New England and east coast Canada and retains its name.
Equity Total Travel, tel: 01273 299 299
Club Europe, tel: 0500 026 366
Crystal, tel: 0181 241 5151
Interski, tel: 01623 456333
PGL, tel: 01989 768168
SkiBound, tel: 01273 677777
Skiers World, tel: 01222 764477
STS, tel: 01942 823503