In 2013/14 there were just over 900,000 British skiers. The Brits have been skiing en masse since the 1960s when tour operators began organizing packaged winter holidays firstly to the Alps and later across the whole of Europe, Canada and the USA. Skier enthusiasm has been fuelled since 1978 by Ski Sunday, the longest-running BBC Sports program, as well as annual Daily Mail Ski & Snowboard Shows in London and Manchester (now sponsored by The Telegraph). The Ski Club of Great Britain has also been instrumental in perpetuating the sport with its network of fervent volunteers specializing in off-piste ski guiding in 33 resorts.
Nowadays, one of the foremost tour operators is Crystal Ski Holidays which was founded in 1981 to take British skiers to European resorts in winter and to mountain lakes in summer. Crystal’s focus has always been on accessibility and affordability and by the 1990s it became the largest ski operator in the UK. Offering the widest choice of accommodation of any rival, it now transports over 200,000 Brits annually to ski resorts in Europe and North America.
Debbie Marshall worked for Crystal Holidays for 14 years. “I did a wide range of jobs from 1987 until 2001 - from overseas resort rep to MD and just about everything else in between,” she says. “Crystal was a very entrepreneurial business, where we were given a lot of responsibility from an early stage. It was dynamic and fast growing – as well as great fun.” Incidentally, she was my boss when I worked as a winter resort rep in Verbier, Switzerland and a second ski season in Méribel, France.
Things have changed considerably in the ski industry since Marshall first started at Crystal Holidays. “I saw the advent of snowboard - replacing mono-skiing - and the very early stages of the Internet as well as mobile phones,” she recalls. An efficient multi-tasker, her role included interaction with resort staff, chalet and hotel owners, lift pass companies, ski hire facilities, ski schools, supermarkets, suppliers, the home office in London and the media – all without the benefit of the Internet. “I am still not entirely sure how we coped with moving 50,000 clients around the Alps each winter with such limited communications,” she says. But the pressure of work was balanced by the joys of spending winters in the mountains and being part of an upbeat and fast-growing organization.
With charismatic ‘cuckoo clock’ chalets in short supply and great demand, one of Marshall’s jobs was to sustain lasting relationships with accommodation owners in resorts: “Inghams were always the main competitors as well as other chalet operators. We had to watch our backs to make sure that our best chalets were not going to get poached!”
Over the years ownership at Crystal has changed to Thomson Holidays in 1997 and a merge with First Choice Holidays in 2007 when it became one of the largest brands in the Specialist and Activity sector within TUI Group. As part of a new focus on luxury, Crystal Finest was launched in 2007 but still with an emphasis on affordability.
Espousing the Internet at the turn of the century, Crystal established an online pricing facility – ‘what-you-see-is-what-you-pay’ – along with Crystal iPack: up-to-date online resort information available to travelers four weeks before their departure. By winter 2010/11 overseas staff were using social media including Twitter to give real time updates to customers. And, by 2014, 700 overseas personnel were equipped with iPads loaded with custom-built software enabling pre-departure video calls as well as online info packs complete with in-depth advice and resort tips. This new technology also facilitates snow reports and advance ski and boot orders to eradicate queuing in rental outlets.
|Crystal Ski Explorer App|
The Crystal Ski Explorer App, designed to maximize online information, can also be used as a location device to find friends and family – as well as resort teams – around the mountains. Todd, managing director of Crystal Ski Holidays says this combination of the latest mobile technology and ski expertise of resort staff is giving Crystal’s customer service an edge over competitors: “ service direct from the slopes to your mobile means you can worry less and focus on enjoying and getting the most out of your ski holiday.”
This investment in technology also means Crystal is better prepared to deal with the unexpected which in the ski industry can often mean flight and resort transfer delays due to adverse weather. Using a variety of communication tools, from Twitter accounts to text messages and live-chats, Crystal can now keep customers updated. Sustainability side benefits include reduced carbon emissions by going paperless as well as a reduction in the amount of travel required by staff due to Google Hangout and FaceTime.
With a Facebook following of over 62,000 people, Crystal Ski also launched a novel online quiz on its Facebook page in 2014. Dubbed “What Type of Skier are you”, the quiz identifies 11 different skier types (from Animal to Fred) in order to pair potential customers with the most compatible ski resorts.
Although no longer working for Crystal, Marshall keeps a close eye on the ski industry as part of her research for Silver Travel Advisor, an award-winning forum for travel reviews and holiday advice for the Over 50s traveler. “I see the growth of the ‘silver’ skier and, with the ageing demographic, this will become an increasingly important market for resorts and tour operators,” she observes. “Some already seem to be waking up to this and offering senior concessions.” And although she has moved out of the tour operator business, Marshall is gratified to see the original companies still flourishing: “Crystal recently won a ‘best ski operator’ award – and we first won that back in 1997.”