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Major UK Operator Says Skiing ‘Highly Unlikely’ This Season

But Hotelplan UK, which owns Inghams, Ski Total, Esprit and Flexiski, is looking to offer more holidays in 2021-22 with bookings already 100% up on the same time last year.  In an interview with PlanetSKI the MD has accepted it is ‘extremely unlikely’ there’ll be any ski trips this season.

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Hotelplan has already cancelled all its ski holidays until at least 2nd April but it’s not yet pulled the plug on the season.

Instead it’s making its decisions on a rolling basis, one month at a time and notifying customers who’ve booked before payment is due.

In theory, it means there’s still the chance of an Easter ski trip.

Really?

“It’s possible,” the Managing Director of Hotelplan UK, Joe Ponte tells us, with heavy emphasis on the ‘possible’ in his interview with PlanetSKI.

Joe Ponte, Hotelplan UK

Joe Ponte, Hotelplan UK

“If we can get people away skiing we will, and me and part of my team will be the first people on the planes.  But if I was a betting man I’d say it’s looking extremely unlikely at this point.”

It is the first time a major ski operator has hinted in public what most of us know to be true already – this season is a write-off.

Though some independent skiers/snowboarders may be able to find their way through if travel restrictions are lifted to enable late-season skiing.

“Schools don’t open until – hopefully – March 8th, then it’ll be retail, then pubs.  I don’t think international flights are going to be top of the agenda,” says Joe Ponte.

“But we’re in an incredibly rapidly changing situation so that’s why we didn’t want to cancel the whole season.

“We know our customers want to get out on the slopes if they can.”

Even if a miracle happens and international travel is permitted, Joe Ponte says they’ll only be able to get two departures away before their season ends and with limited numbers since some airlines have already cancelled their flights in April.

So now, his attention is turning to next season and he’s seeing positive signs – so positive that the aim is to increase capacity to meet the demand.

“Our rebooking into next season is currently running at about 60% with people wanting to lock something in to look forward to, rather than take a refund or returned deposit.

“We’re also getting really good numbers of new bookings coming in.  The research I’ve read says skiers are planning to take longer holidays or to take more holidays to make up for – for some people – two lost seasons.

“We’re seeing that reflected in our booking numbers.  We’re 100% up on where we ordinarily would be.  We’re nearly half sold for next year and some key dates are looking pretty tight already.

“If you combine all our winter holidays – ski and Santa – we’re taking thousands of bookings a week at the moment, which is incredibly encouraging.”

Inghams, part of the Hotelplan stable

While Inghams and the other ski brands are apparently selling well, the number of holidays available are significantly down on previous years, so the booking stats may not be quite as impressive as they seem.

Like many other ski tour operators, they’d already reduced their offering to take into account the Brexit effect.

“Yes, we had cut back so it’ll be less than we would have been used to in say 2018-19 but it’s still a strong number,” Ponte says.

“And now we’ve seen the demand we’re looking at ways to increase the capacity that we had planned for…. starting with flights where we can get seats and then looking at the destinations and the resorts that have proved the most popular so far, particularly on those key dates, just to make sure that we’ve got as much of an opportunity to fulfil the demand that we’re starting to see come through.”

Ponte believes that demand will continue to rise as we move closer to the traditional booking periods in the autumn.

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Flexiski, part of the Hotelplan stable. Image c/o Hotelplan.

Covid will, in all likelihood, still be with us next season but Ponte says companies and resorts will have had plenty of time to prepare.

“I am optimistic that we will get a ski season of significance next year.  I will never commit how significant that’s going to be but we are planning for a season that is a volume-based season where we get thousands and thousands of people away every single week,” he says.

“I’m optimistic for a number of reasons.  The rollout of the vaccine will be well progressed here and in Europe by then.  Rapid testing will be much more available and may become part of the airport experience.

“And we’ll just be better at dealing with this thing.  We’re better now than we were when it happened a year ago and in a year from now we’re going to be much better.

“So it’s not that everything’s going to be back to normal and I’m optimistic Covid is going to be a thing of of the past by the time we hit November.  But I am confident that we’ll be able to deal with it, provide a safe experience and have a decent season.

“Our customers are busting to get out there and, if that means a slightly longer wait for a gondola or a bit of social distancing around a resort or wearing a mask on a gondola, I think everyone will be ready for it.”

Joe Ponte only took over at the helm of Hotelplan in November.

We wondered what it was like running a travel company in these unprecedented times.

“I’m new to the role and I’ve come into this business when we don’t have any customers so it’s a unique experience.  But obviously I came in with my eyes wide open about the challenges we were facing and have seen the longer term opportunities.”

Ponte says the job is ‘not without its stresses’ but his mission is to spend this unusual period working out how to be better.

“When you’ve got 100,000 people going away over the season, you’re so in the moment, so we’re trying to use this opportunity to make sure that we can come out of this even stronger and able to deliver an even better experience when the recovery starts to come.”

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