Russ Gerson, managing director of a New York City consulting firm, skis as much as his busy schedule allows. When he can, he heads out West for a four-day weekend in Jackson Hole, Wyo., or a two-day trip to Snowbird, Utah. And he usually plans these trips with a single phone call to Lance Cygielman, managing director of Ski Vacation Planners, a ski tour operator. "I've probably used him more than 20 times in the past 15 years," Gerson says. And not merely to book a room and a flight, either. Cygielman, who lives in Jackson Hole, has learned Gerson's tastes and preferences over time. He tells him about the newest après scene to check out, and points him toward the resorts' best restaurants, "like Rendezvous Bistro in Jackson Hole," Gerson says. And Cygielman urges Gerson to sample different types of hotels that he probably wouldn't have booked on his own. "Last time I was in Jackson I was at Spring Creek Ranch, which I really enjoyed."
For Chips Lindenmeyr, president of New York-based Lindenmeyr Travel, the job goes beyond cocktail hot spots and dinner recommendations. "I had a client who wanted to ski for four or five days in France over Christmas," she recalls. That may not sound like a particularly difficult request-except for one thing. "Ski hotels in France have a two-week minimum stay over Christmas. It was virtually impossible," she says. But Lindenmeyr, a 17-year industry veteran and an expert on European ski travel, personally called the hoteliers she works with. Eventually she landed accommodations for her client, skirting the normally inflexible European rules.
In an era where do-it-yourself Internet travel has revolutionized the industry, it may seem counterintuitive to seek the help of a third party to plan your ski vacation. After all, aren't travel agents extinct? But whether you don't have time to spend surfing the Web, like Gerson, or your trip has special requirements, like Lindenmeyr's client, a good ski tour operator can do things for you that you can't do for yourself.
First, let's banish a few misconceptions: Though the terms are often used interchangeably, there's a difference between ski tour operators and traditional travel agents. A travel agent books various types of vacations, usually for a fee of $50 to $100, and works on a commission basis with hotels, airlines and tour operators. A ski tour operator, on the other hand, is essentially a wholesaler-someone who sells airfare, hotel or condo space at bulk prices-but who also arranges airport transfers and lift tickets. If you call a travel agent, even a well-informed one, for a ski vacation, chances are they'll simply contact a ski tour operator to make the arrangements. Why not cut out the middleman?
Another misconception is that ski tour operators sell group package tours. What they're actually selling are customized vacations. They bundle together the essentials of a ski trip in whatever form you want. Yes, you can do this yourself, but a ski tour operator brings more to the table-namely inside info and personal knowledge of a destination, from the lodging and dining scene to the children's programs and babysitting services.
"Unless you've visited a resort, you've got to rely on people to guide you," says Cygielman, whose company arranges trips to most Western U.S. resorts plus Canada and South America. His travel consultants have personally visited each destination on offer. You can't get the benefit of that experience on the Web.
Not that you can't score some great travel deals online, especially in light of the growth of multisite search engines such as sidestep.com and farechaser.com, which browse more than 100 sites for the lowest airfare. And yes, you might save money self-planning, but you'll have little recourse if something goes wrong. And considering the various components of a ski vacation, there's a lot that can go wrong-the hotel that's not where you thought it would be, the misplaced car-rental reserrvation, the cramped condo. Indeed, organizing a ski trip is hardly a click-and-carve proposition, and what you might save in greenbacks, you'll spend in time-and peace of mind. In fact, Bruce Rosard, president of Moguls Mountain Travel in Boulder, Colo., estimates that only 15 percent of his clients book on his site. Everyone else calls, even if they've browsed the online offerings. After all, the advice and service are free.
Maybe you feel that trip-planning is part of the experience. Or maybe it's merely a means to an end. Regardless, consider these ski tour-operator perks when planning your next vacation:
>Wholesale airfare. Operators have contracts with major airlines for discounted airfares, which are almost always lower than the published fares you can get from the airline itself. And these airfares are not subject to time restrictions: A wholesale plane ticket costs the same three days in advance as it does six months out. So you don't pay a penalty for booking last minute because you're chasing a storm in Utah.
>Lodging. Apart from price breaks and knowledge of the better hotel rooms or condo units, ski tour operators often have access to properties you'd be hard-pressed to find on your own. If there are cancellations or lodgings offered at a deep discount, they'll know. "We work with lots of accommodations, including condos managed by property management firms," Cygielman says. "These are privately owned condos that are put into rental pools and don't get offered on the Internet. But we have access to them, and they can be some of the most desirable units on the slopes."
>Europe. For first-timers heading across the pond, the question of where to go can be mind-boggling. Operators such as Ski Europe organize hundreds of vacations to Europe to resorts large and small. They have price-driven packages that defy the current weak dollar and make a ski trip to Europe as attractively priced as one to the Rockies. But more importantly, says Daniela Gugliotta, Ski Europe's marketing manager, "Most of our staff is European, or they've spent a lot of time at the resorts. And when people call, they want personal recommendations. We can give that to them."
But personal recommendations come in many forms. When Russ Gerson is pressed for time, he knows he can count on Cygielman to go the extra mile, ponying up the type of advice that's priceless to any skier: "He always tells me where the snow is good and where it isn't." You won't find that on an airline website.