Wednesday, 27 February 2008

In Defence of Tour Operators

Our busy fortnight has just finished here in Arinsal, and we are back to normal - the slopes are quieter and the bars are busier. The walk home has consequently become longer over the last couple of days (see the previous post on the hazards of apres ski).

The busy fortnight here is due of course to the timing of the school holidays in England and Ireland. Any families going skiing are forced to come in one fortnight in February (unless they go early at Christmas or wait until Easter). Since a lot of families go skiing, there is a huge demand those two weeks and most ski resorts in Europe will be absolutely packed. There is a similar influx of Spanish visitors here during the Spanish holiday periods.

Because of the demand over those two weeks, the prices increase massively. I have often heard people complain that the tour operators are being greedy and cashing in on families who have no other choice if they want to ski. I am not normally the biggest fan of big tour operators, and have often suggested to people that they find their own flights and accomodation on the Internet instead. However, I do think that in this instance the tour companies are not really to blame. The companies have to employ staff in resort for the entire season, and in order to keep prices competitive they have to block book a lot of accomodation for the length of the season. Hoteliers will not offer cheap prices for the busy weeks if they know they will be empty in other weeks. Everybody working, or running businesses in the resort has to make a living for the whole winter, and in such a competitive industry margins tend to be tight. This means that there are many weeks where the tour company makes little or no profit, and many cheap deals are sold at a loss, rather than have a paid for room left empty. For the company to drop the peak week price they would have to hike up the prices for other weeks in order to make any profit over the season. This would reduce the number of people coming in the quiet weeks, without any gain in numbers in the busy weeks (since the resort is already full). Reduced numbers in the quiet weeks would reduce the profits until the company can no longer maintain the resort as a destination for the winter. Unfortunately for people with children, the industry has to run on a supply and demand basis. Until the UK decides to stagger the holidays more, those weeks will always be expensive.

However, there are options. You may be able to take the children out of school for a week, particularly if they are younger and the school is understanding. I know there are areas where you get fined for this though. Personally I think a week in a foreign country, with exposure to other languages, lots of exercise and a dash of adventure thrown in can only be a good thing. It is a pity more schools do not encourage it. Alternatively, nearly all resorts will still be open when the Easter holidays come around - prices will be cheaper, people scarcer and the weather warmer. The snow will usually be consistent - icy first thing, then pleasant for a few hours, then slushy later on. In recent years the best snow has tended to come at the end of the season, and even if it doesn't the snow that fell earlier in the season will still be there.

Myself, I would like to see all the holidays swapped around, so that the six week break is in the winter. I can't see that happening though, somehow.

Sunday, 24 February 2008

Ski School Race - Tactics

As promised previously I am going to take a look at tactics for the ski school race. This is the race which many ski schools (including ours) hold at the end of a week's lessons. The course (here at least) consists of around ten gates (poles) set at around 12 metre intervals as a slalom course. The poles are spring loaded so they will bounce back when you hit them.

The advice here is aimed at beginner and intermediate skiers based on the commonest mistakes I have observed. Seasoned ski racers will have a much more technical approach than this.

The key to getting a good time is starting well to gain speed, then maintaining that speed until the bottom of the course.

To get a good start, be ready for the signal. In a World Cup ski race, the racer has a ten second window during which they can leave the start gate at any time. In a typical ski school race the timing is not that sophisticated, and relies on stopwatches. When you get the signal to start, push once with you poles, then skate (push off one ski and glide on the other) to get up to speed.

To maintain your speed, the most important factor is the line you take. Make smooth curves as a sudden change of direction will cost you speed. Beginning with the first gate, take a high line so you are above the gate and can turn down towards it. Your aim is to be half-way through the turn when you reach the gate. The pink line in the diagram shows a skier heading straight for the first gate and beginning their turn when they reach it. They then have to fight to get to the next gate and are late for each turn all the way down. The green line shows a good line where the skier turns early and carries their speed down the course.

The final point where people often lose time is the finish. As you approach the finish line you can stop turning and go straight for the line. Often, as you approach the last gate before the finish it will be possible to see a straight line for the finish. If this is the case, point your skis that way and go.

Obviously there can be only one winner, but if you follow the advice here you have that much more chance of going home with the coveted medal.

Good luck

Saturday, 23 February 2008

Carnival (looking silly)

I'll try and take the promised look at ski school race tactics tomorrow, but for now here is a photo courtesy of Fotoski Arinsal from the Carnival day. This is me skiing in a borrowed dinner jacket for the day, and regretting the lack of thermals underneath. It's a pity the hat ruins the effect, and can you tell how many years it has been since I tied a bow tie?

We will put a few pictures of other instructors dressed up on the Arinsal-Andorra website over the next couple of days.

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Ski School Race - Setting

Each week on a Friday, here in Arinsal, we organise a race for all the ski school groups as a finale for the week. There are two courses, one for beginner groups, and one for intermediate groups. Flopi, who coaches racing in Argentina during our summer, generally sets the intermediate course, but having a group who finished on the Thursday this week I had to set the course myself if we wanted a race. Not having a racing background I have never set the ski school race course before, and the result was not quite the usual shape. However, I was quite happy for a first attempt, and the groups seemed pleased enough with it.

It was quite interesting trying to set the course and pull it afterwards during the course of a two and a half hour lesson, but with the help of Helen looking after my group and Kevin from the Quo, who was out videoing groups and helped out carrying the poles, I managed to fit it in without too much disruption to the lesson.

Setting the course is a matter of drilling holes into the snow and slotting slalom poles into them. We have a couple of large drills in the ski school for the purpose (see above), and I think some of the guys in the group were a bit jealous of the size of my drill bit when I turned up to the Thursday morning lesson.

In the next post I plan to go over some tactics and common mistakes in the ski school races, as many ski schools will hold a similar event.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

A different way to do ski school

As I mentioned in the last post, I have had quite an unusal group this week. They booked me and another instructor for the whole week (fifteen hours over five days), rather than taking the usual ski school route. The usual option by the way, is to either join a fifteen hour group lesson with others of the same level, or to take one or more hours of private lessons either individually or in a small group.

This group consisted of seven adults and six children who were all friends and families from the north of England. They had contacted me by email several weeks ago to enquire about the possiblility of booking me as their instructor for the week. After a lot of negotiation with the ski school bosses and secretaries we managed to make a plan. The price offered by the ski school was a little more per person than the same time spent in group lessons. However they had one instructor for the children and one for the adults, compared to twelve or thirteen people in a group lesson here.

One big advantage was the flexibility they had. We finished a number of the lessons at mountain restaurants rather than back at the ski school, so that the group could go straight for lunch. On the day we took the telepherique over to the neighbouring resort of Pal we left the two groups there to continue exploring for the rest of the day. Normally a trip to Pal with a group is a bit of a rush as we have to ensure we leave enough time to get the whole group back to Arinsal in time for the next lesson. The more people in the group the longer it usually takes.

As an instructor it was great to be able to meet the group before lessons started, and then begin teaching and skiing right from the start. Normally we have to spend time at the start of the week organising people into groups of similar abilities before we can get started. It also takes time on a usual week for the group to gel and get to know each other, and a big part of our job is to try and create a rapport. This week was like having a big headstart over all the other groups.

The last day of the lesson was Valentine's day, so the gentlemen in the group had arranged with me to leave three bottles of Champagne at the Igloo mountain restaurant in advance. The ladies took a little persuasion to stop for a break, as they wanted to keep skiing. However they seemed suitably impressed when the Champagne was produced, along with classy cardboard beakers. The photo above shows them sipping Champagne on the Igloo terrace in the sunshine. A very civilised way to end a week in Ski School, I think.

Friday, 15 February 2008

The Hazards of Apres Ski

Firstly I'd like to apologise to regular readers for the two week hiatus since my last post. I would in part like to blame the group of people I have been teaching in the mornings this week (since I know they will be reading this when they get home).

One of the nice parts of being a ski instructor is going for an apres ski drink with your groups. In my opinion the first beer after a hard day's skiing is the best beer you will ever taste. The second is pretty good too. After that though you are on a slippery slope (as I'm sure many of you know) where the "just the one" becomes a session. My walk home from the ski lift should take about ten minutes. This week it has taken up to five hours, mainly due to the fact that I have stopped on the way for a (i.e. one) drink with the aforementioned morning group. You know who you are.

Actually this group have been unusual, in that they have taken out an "instructor hire" option, rather than joining group lessons. It was slightly more expensive for them, but meant they had a lot more instructor input, could stay together, and had more control over what we did. I will expand on this more in a future post, as I think it is a really good option for a large group holidaying together. I have also had a great group of beginners, so all in all I've had a very good week. Mind you, in this job most weeks are very good ;-)