Tour operators cull ski chalet holidays by a third amid Brexit strains

Henry Druce
Ski chalet operators are drastically changing their operations to combat strains on the industry - VIP SKI

Many of the UK’s key ski holiday operators have significantly reduced the number of chalets they are offering next season because of a drop in the value of the pound and increase in the cost of staffing in France and Austria.

According to Angus Kinloch, managing director of specialist travel agency Skiline, the net difference between chalet beds lost in the last two winter and those added by chalet operators is “staggering”. In total 406 chalets have been lost which represents 2,392 chalet beds.

One of the UK's largest chalet operators, Skiworld, has reduced the number of chalets by 20 per cent to 103 chalets and the UK’s largest ski operator Crystal has cut back its programme from 45 to 30 properties. It’s a similar story for other big players in the market Inghams, Ski Total,  Esprit Ski all falling under parent company Hotel Plan UK. The total number of chalets this trio of ski companies will offer is being cut by an unspecified number for the upcoming winter season though they will still boast more than 100.

Paul Carter, CEO of Hotelplan UK, says: “We are growing the number of new third party hotels to replace chalets we have dropped, so in overall terms our programme may shrink only a little. That is prudent planning around what could happen over the coming months with a potential for a hard Brexit.”

There are some exceptions: Neilson is bucking the trend by doubling the number of catered chalets it offers to 28 in 2019, scooping up some properties relinquished by Ski Total and defunct operator Ski Val, which operated 24 properties in Val d’Isere and St Anton, and went into liquidation last March. Val d’Isere and Courchevel specialist operator Le Ski has increased its portfolio by one to 34 and VIP SKI is holding firm with the same number of chalets (66) as it operated last season.

Crystal is one of the operators reducing the number of chalets it offers

Whether chalet operators are reducing, increasing or offering the same number of chalets as previous years they are all facing the same challenge of increased staffing costs. It’s a result of the French and Austrian authorities enforcing labour laws more strictly, affecting the number of hours staff can work in a week and the minimum amount they must be paid. In France, for example, workers are only allowed to work 35 hours per week and receive the minimum wage of €9.88 (£8.63) per hour.

Switzerland enforced a minimum wage for foreign workers in 2014. This led to an exodus of British chalet operators including Crystal Ski, Ski Total and Esprit Ski. Those remaining have greatly reduced their stock of chalets and in Inghams’ case it has none at all.

Last season Inghams, Ski Total, Esprit Ski and Skiworld reacted most strongly by cutting the number of catered nights they offered from six to five. Many smaller operators followed suit such as Ski Magic, based in La Tania and Courchevel le Praz and now defunct Ski Val.

Other operators looked at different ways of cutting down the number of staff hours. Last season VIP SKI experimented with meals delivered from the UK in four chalets in France. Chalet hosts cooked breakfast and baked cakes for afternoon tea as usual, but in the evenings they heated and served meals prepared in the UK by frozen-food home delivery service COOK.

On the launch, VIP SKI said it was trying this out because it wanted to “improve the quality, consistency, variety and healthiness of our food while also concentrating on provenance, waste and animal welfare”, adding that this had proved very hard to do in the Alps. The idea is that chalet hosts have more time to chat to guests, and for extra touches that VIP has also introduced, such as making home-made chocolates and smoothies.

Although not billed as a cost cutting measure one could only assume that if it had been a success and the programme rolled out to all the chalets, economies of scale could have led to reduced costs.

Ultimately both experiments failed.

Andy Sturt, managing director of VIP SKI, said: "We have listened to our customers and the test has provided feedback from our customers that they love what we do traditionally at VIP SKI. They voted that they prefer our normal service with our home grown staff, home sourced, home cooked and love the kitchen banter with the staff. This means that for winter 2019/2020 VIP SKI will continue with the chalet staff in the chalets cooking six nights a week and in the hotels seven nights a week. Working with Cook was a great opportunity but our clients as always have let us know what they prefer."

VIP SKI experimented with frozen meals from COOK

Carter said: “Having listened to customer feedback, we’re delighted that six nights catering is back in our Esprit, Ski Total and Inghams chalets for next winter. This has been possible by adapting staff rotas and optimising shifts.”  

Rumour has it that Hotelplan’s u-turn has angered other chalet operators who believe the five-day catered model adopted by the company last season had softened up customers to the idea so they too could follow suit. As it is most ski tour operators for next season have decided to offer six days half-board but some have adapted the formula.

For one of the catered evenings Hotelplan’s ski companies will serve one simpler casserole  meal. Skiworld is adopting a similar approach; on one evening there will be a simple two-course dinner, billed as “an Alpine evening,” where fondue or tartiflette for example, will be served.

Other ski holiday operators are sticking to the number of hours employees are able to work in a number of ways. Simon Hoskyns, partner at specialist ski travel agency Alpine Answers, highlighted the following tour operators who have scaled back their service.

Mountain Heaven, with 14 catered chalets spread between the French resorts of La Rosiere, Morzine, La Plagne 1800 and Courchevel Le Praz is offering staffed breakfast on four mornings and a self-service continental breakfast on the remaining three. Ski Magic (7 catered chalets in La Tania and Courchevel Le Praz) is providing a staffed dinner on five nights and self served raclette on the sixth.  

French chalet specialist Le Ski is going against the grain and offering five nights of catered dinners, five cooked and two-self serve continental breakfasts. Le Ski’s managing director Nick Morgan says: “We have decided to enhance our service on the five nights catered with canapes every night with either champagne or locally sourced sparkling wine.”

Le Ski has decided to enhance its chalet service

Totally bucking the trend is Club Med who last season launched its own version of chalet holiday. The Club Med formula, where all meals and drinks, every day, are included in the price, will be the same as in its hotels. But as well as the option of eating in a hotel restaurant, guests staying in chalets also enjoy the services of a host called a Chalet Master, and can have food served in the privacy of their accommodation, mimicking the traditional British chalet model.

The new accommodation, snappily called the Exclusive Collection Grand Massif Samoëns Morillon Chalets, will be made up of 13 chalet-style buildings each made up of  three or four two- or three-bedroom apartments, close to the Club Med hotel opened in 2017. The aim is to bring the concept of all inclusive upmarket by combining it with more privacy and service.

Overall though there will be significantly less chalets available next season. Kinloch says: “I know this sounds like the same old sales pitch but we are advising our customers who normally book in September to book earlier if they want to secure their choice of chalet.”