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Hot topic: will tough economic times bring an end to the traditional catered ski chalet?

Do currency fluctuations, Brexit fallout and increased staffing costs mean the end is nigh for the traditional catered ski holiday?

By Nicky Holford
Published 19 Nov 2019, 06:00 GMT
A ski chalet in Valais, Switzerland
A ski chalet in Valais, Switzerland
Photograph by AWL

Adapting to adversity makes ski specialists resourceful. Too much snow, too little snow and currency fluctuations have played a part in the history of the chalet holiday. But ever since the result of the 2016 Referendum to leave the EU, escalating costs for operators and a drop in the value of the pound have been cited as the final nail in the coffin for the catered ski chalet. “We calculated that bed drop among the top four UK catered chalet operators since 2016 to be around 38%,” says Diane Palumbo, sales and marketing director at Skiworld, which has reduced its own chalet capacity by 20% in this period. “That’s a big reduction in choice for the consumer and loss of job opportunities for young people.” Already, a number of ski companies, including Ski Val, have gone into administration, but budget chalets operating on small profit margins look set to suffer the most.

Traditionally, the British catered chalet system sees workers paid a salary packet that includes payment ‘in kind’ — free bed, board, insurance, ski passes and transport to and from the Alps. There are an estimated 25,000 UK nationals working in the EU supporting the seasonal holiday industry. In France and Austria, the most popular destinations for British skiers, a tightening up of employment laws has resulted in a change to how many hours staff can work and how much they can be paid. Switzerland enforced a minimum wage for foreign workers in 2014, which was followed by mass-market British tour operators virtually dropping their catered Swiss chalet programmes.

But adjusting to new goal posts is nothing new for the traditional catered chalet, and if they’re to survive, a price hike seems certain. “It’s inevitable there will be fewer operators around in the future, and those companies offering the cheaper ski holiday are unsurprisingly the most exposed as margins are squeezed,” says Andy Sturt, the managing director of VIP Ski. But he has no doubt that the chalet holiday will survive. “The catered chalet holiday in its current form is an institution of 50 years’ standing, still sought by a huge number of British skiers who understand and appreciate the value of a private home on the slopes and a dinner party every night, but without the hassle of cooking or cleaning,” says Sturt.

Last winter, faced with extra costs they didn’t want to pass on to guests, several operators reduced the number of catered meals from six nights to five. But customer feedback has seen some operators bringing back six-night catering.

Nick Morgan, the managing director of Le Ski, says: “What we are seeing isn’t the demise of the chalet holiday, rather its return to the domain of the specialist. Chalet operators need more expertise than ever before to provide high-quality catered chalet holidays while following the new regulations. When I founded Le Ski in 1982 chalet holidays were a niche market — 37 years later it looks like we’ve come full circle.”

Need to know

Will British chalet workers still be allowed to work in the EU next season?
Uncertain. British staff are currently employed on seasonal permits and pay tax in the UK. Depending on potential Brexit fallout, EU businesses may
not be able to hire British workers.

Is my ski chalet holiday this season at risk?
Most ski holidays booked for the coming 2019/20 season are safeguarded.

What are ski companies doing?
Over 200 outbound British travel services companies have formed SBIT (Seasonal Businesses in Travel), aiming to protect British jobs and holiday choice by lobbying governments in the UK and EU.

Published in the Winter Sports guide, distributed with the November 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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