Winter season on a ‘knife-edge’, says Hotelplan boss

The rest of the 2020-21 winter season is on a “knife-edge” but 2021-22 is already really well sold, according to the new boss of Inghams, Esprit Ski and Santa’s Lapland.

Speaking on a Travel Weekly webcast, Joe Ponte, the recently-appointed chief executive of parent company Hotelplan, said the Covid crisis had been “devastating” for the company but that he was still hopeful of sending some “hardcore” skiers away from February.

“The first decisions I had to make in my new role were to suspend Santa’s Lapland, which was 6,000 people going up to see Santa Claus. Second it was to suspend the December programme. And then last week, it was to suspend January – and we’ve suspended the chalet programme as well,” he said.

“It’s obviously devastating for us and the rest of the season – to be really honest – is probably on a bit of a knife-edge. We are focused and hopeful that we will get people away from February, but to make a call on what the situation one month from now is going to be is really hard. We will only send people away if it’s safe to do so.”

But Ponte said there were encouraging signs for next season.

“What has been really good and pleasing for us, and an indication that people will travel and they will come back, has been the rebooking of all those people. So for Santa’s Lapland, 60% of the people that we suspended have booked into next year. And what’s even more pleasing now is that Santa’s Lapland bookings are up 50% now than they were a year ago. So people are really seeming to be more comfortable booking a long way out,” he explained.

“For the parents that can fund that kind of trip, because Christmas is going to be so strange this year, we think they are saying ‘what can I do that’s really special to make up for it next year?’ Normally by this point in the year, we’d be maybe 15% sold, but we’re about 55% sold into next year, and we’re going to sell out.”

Ponte explained that Santa’s Lapland had added another 2,000 seats out of out of Manchester in response.

“Manchester specifically was selling really well and we wanted to boost it and make the most out of it. But we’re now almost at capacity of what we can do where we go in Lapland, but that’s really encouraging,” he added.

Ponte said the situation had been “similar” for ski bookings that had been suspended as a result of Covid-19, with more than 45% booked into next year.

“What I’ve learned is that skiers absolutely love to ski, so as soon as we can travel these people are going to want to do it,” he said.

But he accepted this year had been “really tough for us; for our suppliers and partners; and for our seasonal staff that we’re going to be flying out to work in Europe.”

Ponte explained Hotelplan’s restart this winter would be led by the Alpine resorts’ decisions to open.

“France and Italy have said they’re not going to open their resorts until January 17,” he said. “Our team is focused on understanding every single ski resort and the protocols that are in place at every single hotel, so that when someone calls either to confirm their booking or to make a last-minute booking that we’re hoping for, we can talk to them about what lifts are operating at full capacity, whether après ski is open. The benefit of booking with a Hotelplan brand is that we’re working hard to provide that level of expertise. If someone books with this, they know it’s going to be as safe as possible and we can give them an understanding what’s open and the experience that they’re going to get.”

And Ponte said if the company can restart in February, it will be to hotels not chalets.

“The majority of the chalets we suspended were related to our Ski Esprit family programme. We took that decision because we feel it’s harder to create a completely Covid-safe environment when you’re looking at childcare, and we also thought families are probably going to be the least likely to be booking late into that programme. We didn’t want to have any risk of creating an unsafe environment for families,” he said.

“But the majority of the rest of the programme is in hotels which are really targeted at those hardcore skiers who love to ski and will be more comfortable traveling this season, should we be able to get it away.”

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