Over the Swiss January school holidays we planned a one day ski trip. Snow conditions were poor so we planned our day around lunch. The plan was to start in Zermatt on the Swiss side of the Alps, then head over to Italy for lunch at a particular restaurant.
We arrived in Zermatt at around 10am, bought the more expensive international passes that offer access to Italy. From the ticket office we made our way directly towards Italy. At around 10:45am, we arrived at the final lift up to the international pass. There, we were told we could not go over to the Italian side due to poor weather. The news was disappointing. At the some time Alpine weather is unpredictable and this can happen.
The snow was marginal, with countless exposed rocks outside the groomed paths, so after suffering fairly serious ski damage, we called it a day and headed home.
Mainly out of curiosity, we passed by the Zermatt ticket office to mention that we had paid for international passes that we were unable to use, to ask what happens in such cases. The response was sharp and to the point: the customer bears weather risk. The pass over to Italy might have been closed at 10:45 am but it was open at 10:00 am when we bought our passes. There was no discussing it further.
This way of dealing with things is perfectly above board. When you buy a ski pass you are agreeing to a set of terms and conditions. However, from a customer and marketing perspective it seems quite self defeating. Zermatt is selling an experience and weather is part of it. Sure they can push the weather risk onto customers, but this simply makes what they’re selling less attractive. Refunding the international portion would have lessened our disappointment and encouraged us to take the risk another time.
While Zermatt might be standing firmly behind its rigid weather policy, other Swiss resorts are experimenting with a more flexible approach. According to Tribune de Genève, Pizol, in Saint Gallen, and Belalp, in Valais, are offering reduced price passes when the forecast weather is poor.
For example, if the sky is forecast to be cloudy with intermittent snow, the price falls by 38%, with discounts as high as 50% for worse weather. To qualify, the passes must be bought online up to seven day in advance. Prices are based on a constantly updating forecast. The system, a world first, which will be trialled for two seasons, was developed by FHS St. Gallen University.
Resorts in French-speaking Switzerland are not convinced by the idea. “People want snow and sun” says Jean-Marc Udriot, president of region’s tourist body. President of the Valais lift operators collective shares this view: “We go skiing because it’s sunny”.
However a study conducted by FHS St. Gallen University disagrees. Those questioned said that discounts make sense when the weather is bad and were prepared to pay more when conditions are optimal.
Time and weather will tell.