The peak of luxury

Middle Eastern families tend to go on holiday in the summer, but business travellers, FIT groups and the MICE market in particular can find luxury beckoning from ski resorts and winter getaways in Europe and beyond

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By  Joseph Mortimer Published  September 12, 2006

|~|Shiny--large.gif|~|Luxury skiing holidays are not for everyone, but winter getaways and summer holidays in destinations considered by Europeans to be skiing resorts are popular with Arab families and GCC MICE groups in particular. |~|Skiing is a relatively new phenomenon for the Middle East as it is an activity that that is not immediately familiar for those of us who live in the desert. Until recently, Lebanon was the only feasible and reliable short-haul destination where GCC or Middle East residents could experience skiing in an outdoor environment, but the damage incurred by Lebanon’s international airport by recent Israeli attacks, means that it is off the cards for the time being. The growing international demand for skiing holidays has led to a situation where nearly all resorts are fully booked months, if not years, in advance, and the demand is so high that few are targeting new markets. The disruption in Lebanon has meant that companies like Emirates Holidays have been forced to remove the once thriving destination from this year’s brochure. According to Marco Heinrich, destination development manager, Emirates Holidays, Lebanon was the third most popular skiing destination last year. “[There are some other regional ski destinations] but the thing is that you need to be equipped for it; you need to have the ski lifts, the slopes, the hotel capacity, and that does not exist in any other place,” he explains. He says that Austria was the most popular destination last year, followed by Switzerland, with Italy and France coming after Lebanon. Switzerland is a more upmarket destination, with resorts like St. Moritz, which cater to the high end of the scale, “where people like to be seen,” says Heinrich. “Italy is [another] price driven destination in terms of skiing. You have the high profile properties and the luxury hotels in Italy. “Ski holidays can be expensive; you have the ski passes, lessons, not forgetting that the ladies all like to dress up nicely; you have lots of fashion; you have to have the latest outfit, the latest sunglasses. It is the same in Switzerland and Austria. It’s a big fashion industry.” Indeed, wherever you are in the world, it seems that the ski slopes and resorts are the home of luxury and winter chic, from designer snow gear, to exclusive chalets with open fires and outdoor hot tubs.||**||Swiss rolls|~|Swiss-ski-large.gif|~|Visitors to Switzerland from the Middle East jumped 38% in January and February this year, compared to the same period in 2005, according to STB figures.|~|In contrast with widely acknowledged Middle East travel trends, Tawfik Melli, marketing manager GCC, Swiss Tourism Board, says that the UAE market uses the internet to book skiing holidays, buying their flights, accommodation and car rental separately. Many hotels in European destinations have reached saturation, and do not need to work with the trade to raise awareness. As such, he explains, agents are not familiar with the product, and therefore customers are forced to do their own research. Visitors to Switzerland from the Middle East jumped 38% in the January/February period this year, compared to the same period in 2005, Melli explains, adding that 70% of all GCC visitors came from Saudi Arabia last year. He says that around 80% of traffic from the GCC travels in the summer, when Arab families like to enjoy the mountains and spend several weeks in summer homes or a hotel. Of the 20% of visitors who go to Switzerland in the winter, a lot is made up of business travellers and school groups, he adds, emphasising that it is not only for skiing either. “The winter traffic we do get comes from the cream of the market as it were; royal families and very wealthy Arabs,” he says. In Switzerland’s five-star resorts like St Moritz and Verbiere, luxury is never far away. “For VIP guests who want to go skiing, five-star hotels are the best option, because you have everything you need at hand, from 24-hour room service to access to the best slopes and so on,” says Melli. Although many guests like to fly to Geneva and then hire either a rental car or a chauffeur driver, it can be even more luxurious to travel to the onward destination by train he explains. Private jets are another viable option. Jets can land at any domestic airport, or transfer guests from the airport in Geneva to wherever they are going (provided it has an airport). According to Fritz Grunder, area director sales & marketing Switzerland, Starwood Hotels & Resorts, the number of Middle East visitors staying at the group’s two skiing hotels in Switzerland is negligible, but most of the business that does come their way comes from Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The Arabella Sheraton Hotel Seehof and the Arabella Sheraton Hotel Waldhuus, both luxurious five-star properties, recorded less than 400 visitors from the Middle East in 2005. Grunder says that the Seehof is ideal for business and MICE groups, while the Waldhuus is better suited to couples, families, golfers, and small business meetings. “In Switzerland it is the cities of Geneva and Zurich that are of specific interest to Arabs mainly coming from the UAE, and partly Egypt,” says Ulrike Birner, director corporate communications, representing Starwood Hotels & Resorts in Germany and Switzerland. “If they travel to Switzerland for winter holidays it is preferably to ski destinations such as St. Moritz and Gstaad, which both offer a good selection of five-star properties.”||**||Austria awaits|~||~||~|Elsewhere in Europe, Austrian ski resorts tend to have activities for all the family: ice skating, snow shoeing and horse-drawn sleigh rides are just some examples. Like Switzerland, the majority of people visiting from the Middle East do not come for the skiing in the winter, but for summer breaks and visits to their second homes, explains Michael Duscher, director overseas markets, Austrian National Tourist Office (ANTO), although in 2005, the overall number of visitors from the Middle East rose by 57%. Duscher says that visitors from the Middle East expect a high standard of service, especially concerning restaurants and food, and enjoy shopping, especially for luxury goods. He says that the favourite winter holiday destinations for Arab visitors include Zell am See, Seefeld, Kitzbühel, Lech / Zürs, Saalbach Hinterglemm, and Sankt Anton am Arlberg. ANTO will open an office in Dubai in October, and increase its efforts to attract Middle Eastern visitors throughout the year. ||**||Off piste|~|Beaver-Creek.gif|~|Beaver Creek Resort and Spa in Colorado, USA|~|While the major European destinations are clearly the most popular, Etihad Holidays is looking at other potential luxury winter getaways to take advantage of Etihad’s network. “Further a field, we are now looking at resorts near to our North American destinations,” says Nick Wood, general manager, Etihad Holidays. Although Etihad Holidays is not yet able to reveal the contents of its new brochure, Wood says that the resorts and packages featured will be based on the carrier’s existing routes. For a complete change of scenery and a long distance skiing holiday at the high end of the luxury scale, the Park Hyatt Beaver Creek Resort and Spa in Colorado, USA makes an idyllic alternative to the busy slopes of Europe. “[The Middle East market is] still a small percentage of business, but when we have had guests from the Middle East they have tended to be very high profile,” says J. Scott Gubrud, the director of sales and marketing at the hotel. The 190-room luxury hotel is nestled on the slopes of the Rocky Mountains, 40km away from the nearest airport, which accepts private jets, and there is a helicopter pad at the entrance to the creek. VIPs can transfer from Denver International Airport, 110 miles away, in the height of luxury, and enjoy the breathtaking mountain scenery from the air.||**||Closer to home|~||~||~|While Lebanon is out of commission, the only obvious regional alternative to a long–haul trip to Europe has been removed. Other regional skiing destinations, such as Cyprus, Turkey and Iran, benefit from being a shorter distance away, but the varying climates and fewer ski resorts, make them less flexible than the established resorts in Europe. “Skiing in Cyprus is not as popular as in Lebanon, simply because the mountains aren’t as high and there is snow mainly during February and March,” explains Vassilis Theocharides, director, Cyprus Tourism Organisation, Middle East & Arabian Gulf. “The mountains are popular amongst MENA travellers; however most skiers would tend to be locals and tourists from Europe.” One of the forces fuelling the rise of the skiing holiday in the GCC is the UAE’s new indoor ski centre; Ski Dubai. Although the ski dome is not a luxury destination in itself, the adjoining Kempinski Mall of the Emirates is currently putting the finishing touches to its ski chalets; the first rooms in the world where guests will be able to see an alpine ski scene out of one window, and the desert out of the other. “The concept of the chalets was to play on the existing contrast between skiing and the desert,” said Michael Henssler, general manager of the property, adding that incentives groups, the GCC and the Far East will be the main target markets. “We have partners who can provide whatever you want for luxury guests, from a Lamborghini to a speedboat. One other feature that makes the destination is the golf. “[Because we are a licensed premises], shoppers have to opportunity to go for a pint or a glass of champagne. When Madame successfully buys her five-carat diamond, she can go and celebrate with a nice bottle of Dom Perignon, and a Coeur de Fillet, or a bit of caviar,” says Henssler.||**||Take control|~||~||~|Looking at the broader picture, customers who want to indulge themselves with a luxurious winter holiday might have to organise it themselves, because of the lack of awareness of what is available at the top end of the market among agents. Resort towns like Val D’Isere and Meribel in France, and Turin in Italy’s northern Alpine region (home to the 2006 Winter Olympics) have exclusive chalets and lodges that are ideal for VIP luxury guests, but most deal directly with the customer via dedicated agencies or websites. There is huge potential for business savvy agencies to focus on winter getaways, promoting traditional winter destinations as potential summer holidays to guarantee year-round business. At this, a challenging and competitive time where wise agencies are focusing on niche markets, skiing is a new avenue that is definitely worth exploring. ||**||THE SALES PITCH|~||~||~|GETTING THERE: Air France: first class return fares from Dubai to CDG in Paris for the second week in December cost AED 27,000 (US $7350) excluding taxes. Connections are available to all other destination in France from CDG and other airports in Paris. From Jeddah, a business class return fare for the same period costs AED11,600 ($3158), excluding taxes. Etihad Airways: to Frankfurt (Diamond Class), AED17,500 ($4765); to Geneva (Diamond Class), AED14,940 ($4067); to Munich (Pearl Class), AED10,810 ($2943). Qatar Airways: (all flights are first class return and include taxes) to Zurich, QAR16,250 ($4464); to Munich, QAR17,130 ($1705); to Frankfurt, QAR17,160 ($4714); to Vienna (business class only), QAR10,270 ($2821). SAMPLE RATES: Emirates Holidays: a seven-night package at the five-star Romantikhotel Tennerhof, in Kitzbühel, Austria, including return business class tickets, bed and breakfast accommodation, and airport transfers costs AED 19,276 (US $5248) per person in a double room. A seven-night package at the three-star Zell am See, Hotel Feinschmeck, in Austria, including return economy airfare, bed and breakfast accommodation and airport transfers costs AED 6150 ($1674) per person in a double room. Beaver Creek: top of the range suites range from US $2000 to $5000 per night. USEFUL LINKS: www.emirates-holidays.com, www.etihadholidays.com, www.myswitzerland.com, www.austria.info, www.franceguide.com, beavercreek.hyatt.com, www.qatarairways.com, www.kempinski-dubai.com.||**||

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