It’s always unsettling for consumers when a ski holiday company goes into liquidation, as happened to Ski-Val last week. It operated 24 chalets in Val d’Isère and St Anton – two of the most popular ski resorts with British skiers and snowboarders.
Last week the following statement appeared on the operator’s website: “It is with great sadness and after 43 years operating in the ski business we are extremely sorry to inform you that Val-Ski Ltd has ceased trading as of today, 13 March 2019.”
Thankfully the company is Atol-protected, meaning anyone who has booked a package holiday with Ski-Val will not lose their money. The company worked directly with the Civil Aviation Authority’s (CAA) crises management team so Ski-Val clients were able to fly home at the weekend on originally booked flights.
From the day of the announcement, advice has been made available on the CAA’s Atol website and is being updated with the latest information for customers. The Telegraph has further advice on what to do if your tour operator collapes.
Craig Burton, MD of specialist ski agent Ski Solutions, said: “The speed in which the Atol scheme kicked in was very impressive – they responded literally within 24 hours to reassure holidaymakers.”
Flights for future bookings may still be valid but accommodation has to be rearranged. Most of those booking through specialist ski agents like Ski Solutions and Skiline have already been re-booked with other chalet operators.
Alternative accommodation has been readily found as bookings for the end of the season have been “soft”, according to Burton. He says that there is lots of availability in late March and April because of concerns over Brexit, Easter holidays being later this year and snow conditions not being as good as last year – a hard act to follow when they were being talked about as a once-in-a-generation experience.
We haven’t been able to contact Ski-Val to say why it went into liquidation but Angus Kinloch, managing director of Skiline, believes the company’s margins may have been squeezed and that it’s increasingly tough for chalet operators to run at a profit. “I think the rents tour operators are paying chalet owners are going to have to come down,” he said.
There is a raft of other challenges chalet operators are also facing. The pound’s decline in value since the UK voted to leave the EU in June 2016 and France and Austria enforcing their employment laws more rigorously for foreign workers have taken their toll.
British chalet operators have responded to the challenges in various ways. Inghams, Ski Total and Esprit Ski, owned by parent company Hotel Plan, along with Skiworld, have taken the most dramatic step – offering five instead of six nights of catered evening meals.
Other operators have taken a different tack. A spokesperson for Crystal Ski Holidays, with 45 chalets on its books, says the company has concentrated its efforts on offering higher-quality chalets and continues to offer six days of catering. Inevitably higher quality means higher prices, which should help the company absorb increasing costs.
A company spokesperson said: “Despite the increasing costs, chalet holidays remain a key product in the ski market for UK customers. A chalet is no longer an entry-level price ski holiday and so it is important that the quality of the product reflects this.”
Neilson, with 22 chalets, is another British company offering the same six-nights catered accommodation as last season but, according to the company’s brand manager Sonia Turner, it has looked to raise additional revenue from the bars it runs and the spa treatments it offers.
Unlike these companies, it looks as if Ski-Val may not have adapted quickly enough to rapidly changing circumstances.
So what is the risk of other chalet operators going out of business? Kinloch says Skiline looks very closely at the chalet operators it deals with and doesn’t think others will fail.
What seems certain is that for operators to survive and thrive, ski holidays are going to continue becoming pricier. Burton says there has been an increase of five per cent across the board in the price of ski holidays this year. Simon Hoskyns, partner of another specialist agent, Alpine Answers, believes there will be a further increase next year of anything between three and seven per cent.
Most chalet operators have already factored in the increased costs and are operating slightly differently from last season, working within the guidelines set by local authorities.
Managing director of chalet operator Le Ski, Nick Morgan, says, “We’ve been dealing with change in the chalet business for 36 years and 2019 is no exception. We and our guests just get on with it. Prices are all set for next season and there have been increases of course. Our guests understand that our costs in all areas from aviation to staffing to food and wine have risen sharply and they accept the need to pay more for continuity and quality.”
A similar bullish approach is expressed by MD of Ski Weekends Dan Fox, who says, “We are fully prepared for all Brexit outcomes.”
Despite price increases, demand for chalet holidays remains as strong as ever according to Burton. “Our numbers are up 20 per cent year on year for next year’s departure bookings.” It’s a similar story for specialist operators Le Ski, VIP Ski and Ski Weekends.
This initial research suggests a more likely issue for holidaymakers next season will be not enough catered chalets to meet demand, rather than the risk of another major chalet operator going into liquidation. If the worst-case scenario happens, then as long as the company is ATOL protected, your money is safe, as Ski-Val’s demise has proved.
Top tips for ensuring your holiday is protected
Before booking, check brochures and websites for the ATOL logo and a licence number. You can check the names of travel firms and ATOL numbers online.
Be aware though that ATOL does not protect you if you book direct with an airline, or book just accommodation.
Other ways to protect yourself include paying for your holiday by credit or Visa debit card. If you pay for components by credit card and they costs more than £100 you will have some cover, but this will only apply to the service lost, not other services booked separately (for example covering flights if your airline goes bust, not your accommodation). Paying by Visa debit card may provide similar cover.
Taking out travel insurance may give some protection but check the small print, as many policies do not include cover for insolvency, while those that do will usually cover just the service lost, not the other services booked separately.