Trade voices sadness over loss of Esprit Ski

The trade has voiced sadness over news long-established family chalet ski brand Esprit Ski will close at the end of this winter.

The announcement came days after it was revealed parent Hotelplan has been put up for sale by Swiss parent Migros, in what was described as an unrelated move.

Esprit Ski, which has been trading for 41 years, cited increasing “operational challenges” and said the company’s focus would switch to sister brand Inghams.

MoreHotelplan UK withdraws family ski brand Esprit after 41 years

Some job losses are expected in overseas seasonal roles and permanent positions in resort.

Agents said the brand would be missed and it would reduce the number of ski chalet specialists for families with children under 12.

The trade also speculated the brand’s fate was sealed by the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on its core market of mid-market families, and compounded by schools clamping down on term-time travel and competition in its specialist area, in addition to the impact of Brexit on staffing costs in ski resorts.

Angus Kinloch, managing director of Ski Line, the first agent appointed to sell Esprit Ski in the mid 1990s and one of its most successful agents, said its bookings with the operator had declined in recent years.

It had under 300 clients booked this winter due to a “commission-led” decision to work  more closely with other operators offering family ski breaks, including Club Med.

But he said: “I was particularly surprised to hear they were shutting it down just after the news Hotelplan was up for sale. There will be understandable commercial reasons for this but I’d have thought there would be a buyer.”

He said he expected the best of Esprit Ski’s properties to be “sucked” into Inghams’ portfolio, and predicted Ski Famille, which he described as “one of the last remaining ski chalet specialists aimed at families”, to secure some of the operator’s properties.

He also felt a personal connection to the brand, adding:  “My two sons both learnt to ski on an Esprit holiday in La Rosiere. The staff were fantastic and dedicated.”

Agents hailed Esprit Ski for catering exclusively for families, with chalets close to the slopes, childcare for children from 17 weeks old, English speaking nannies and ski lessons for five to 12 year olds.

Full Circle Travel managing director Niall Douglas said the move would undoubtedly leave a “big hole” for young families in the mid-market.

He said: “If you have kids under three, it’s difficult to find a ski company unless you have the money to hire a third party nanny and a chalet. It’s a shame to see them go. It is a good product and has its place in the market.”

The Advantage Travel Partnership chief commercial officer Kelly Cookes agreed: “It’s always disappointing when a long-standing brand like Esprit withdraws from the market.

“We have worked closely with Esprit along with the rest of the Hotelplan Group for a long time, and as such the brand will be missed by the members. Our thoughts are with all the staff impacted there.”

She added members may look to rebook existing sales for later this season due to a “loss of confidence” in the brand while longer term agents anticipated rival specialists such as Ski Famille and Club Med would benefit.

Richard Sinclair, group chief executive of ski specialist agent Sno, said Esprit Ski’s product range had been reducing “for a while” and believed it has been hard to maintain margins with the increased costs of childcare staff.

He said: “It’s very sad to see Esprit close. The other childcare specialists will each benefit a little. We’ve increasingly seen family clients ask us for all-inclusive hotels like Club Med, or to make private childcare arrangements in specific catered chalets.”

He questioned how Inghams would incorporate family services into its portfolio, adding: “It will be interesting to see to what extent Inghams can successfully fold into their non-family product, the ancillaries like childcare from in-resort suppliers like Evolution 2 Ski School and ESF. Parents can often save a lot compared to a fully fledged ‘family ski holiday’ if they’re happy to drop the kids at full or half day ski school themselves.”

But the trade said it did not believe the retirement of Esprit Ski was likely to have a big impact on the ski market overall.

Ian McIlrath, managing director of travel agency and tour operator Ski Solutions, said: “We’re not expecting the closure of Esprit Ski to have any material impact on the ski market – we understand that, as part of the ongoing focus on Inghams, this family product will be brought under that brand.”

Derek Jones, non-executive director of Not Just Travel agency group, said there remained plenty of suppliers for agents to book ski breaks.

He said: “It’s always a sad day when an established and trusted brand pulls the shutters down for the last time, but demand for ski is as strong as ever and there are still some excellent snow sports tour operators working with agents.”

Cookes was also adamant Advantage agents would be able to meet clients’ needs through other ski suppliers.

“We have seen a strong bounce back in the ski market and winter 2023-2024 has seen good growth. Advantage members have access to a wide range of all products – ski included – so we are confident that we will be able to meet the needs of all customer types moving forwards,” she said.

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