Snow-ward bound

Snow-ward bound

The type of claims resulting from winter sports holidays have changed over the years, but have things got better for travel insurers? David Craik analyses last year’s claims figures for British skiers and asks what might be in store this season  

First published in ITIJ 97, February 2009

The type of claims resulting from winter sports holidays have changed over the years, but have things got better for travel insurers? David Craik analyses last year’s claims figures for British skiers and asks what might be in store this season

In the many countries of Europe that boast mountains covered in fluffy white snow all winter long, skiing and snowboarding are almost second nature for many residents. British skiers, on the other hand, despite the fairly stable skiing industry of Scotland, are generally ‘have a go’ skiers who may take to the pistes of Europe once a year for a winter sports holiday. However, where telling tales of skiing the great slopes of the world by day and enjoying the après-ski by night used to be the domain of the privileged or moneyed few, in recent years the joys of skiing have been experienced by a wider group of people boosted by cheaper flights to winter sport destinations. This has meant increased sales for travel insurers; but has it also coincided with an increase in claims? Here, we look at the UK claims resulting from last year’s ski season, ask what might be in store for travel insurers as a result of this year’s season, and look at the development of new ski destinations around the world.

Have a go Harry

It has been estimated that over three million British adults headed for the slopes last season (December to March). Given this growing number it would be logical to believe that there has been a corresponding increase in the number of skiing injuries over the years, but according to the International Society for Skiing Safety (ISSS) this has not been the case. It states that the overall skiing injury rate, which in the early 1970s was at over five injuries per a thousand skier days, has dropped to below 2.5 per a thousand.

But it isn't all peace and calm on the slopes. Injuries still happen, yet the types of injury being seen have changed. As a result of new equipment such as ski-binding boots, the ISSS has noted a decrease in the number of sprains and fractures below the knee, whilst at the same time seeing an increase in the number of severe knee ligament sprains. This finding has been backed up by a recent study by the British Orthopaedic Sports Trauma Association.

I think this season will be dominated by the effects the global recession will have on skiing

As well as blaming the modern, rigid, high boots for an increase in serious ligament injuries, Steve Bollen, president of the Association, also notes the poor fitness of beginner skiers and those who take to the slopes just once a year. He describes this as ‘half-term syndrome’, with inexperienced skiers attracted to the slopes but being under-prepared for the fitness requirements of the activity. Bollen's study of over 200 patients with ligament damage revealed that the numbers injured through skiing had risen from nine per cent in 1994 to 28 per cent in 2004. The majority of those being injured were women with an average age of 40.

Other skiing industry voices blame cheaper skiing trips for attracting more loutish behaviour to the slopes, with concerns of an increase in drunkenness amongst skiers leading to more injuries to themselves and to others. There are also worries about skiers going too fast. Indeed there are even plans to introduce speed cameras on skiing slopes in Switzerland to try to reduce the speed of skiers, and accident rates. The speedsters will be caught by hand-held radar devices carried by hidden ski-slope staff.

So what does the travel insurance industry make of these trends in skiing numbers and injuries? Is the industry seeing more claims and if so how are they planning to tackle this?

A range of experience

Travel insurer InsureandGo has been vocal about new patterns in skiing and the effect this might have on accident rates. It recently produced research that showed that 35 per cent of adults deliberately pushed themselves beyond their capabilities on the slopes because they have been jealous of others' ability. The company coined this behaviour 'piste envy'. It was concerned that this 'macho' behaviour would cause unnecessary accidents.

Further research from the firm revealed that 1.26 million British winter sporting adults (about one third) did not receive any training the first time they tried their activity, with many relying on friends and family to teach them the basics. The company also stated that 1.38 million people admitted to skiing or snowboarding whilst drunk, with 154,000 admitting to being 'very drunk'. Of these, 19 per cent said they had had an accident whilst being drunk, with four per cent saying they had caused a serious injury to themselves or someone else.

Speaking to ITIJ in May last year, Perry Wilson, then managing director, said the company had already seen an increase in the number of claims from injury in the year to date: "In 2007, we had 1,139 claims for fractures and dislocations in Europe. So far this year we have had 2,100. That is quite a rise." One of the worst areas for claims has been in France, with 601 claims in 2007 and 1,436 in 2008. "Italy has been the same as in 2007 and we have seen our first claims emerge from new skiing markets such as Poland, Serbia and Slovakia," adds Wilson. In Canada, the number of claims also rose by 25 per cent, but in the United States they were down 20 per cent.

However, figures are never straightforward. The number of InsureandGo’s winter sports policyholders requiring in-patient treatment at hospital, i.e. the most serious injuries, fell to 254 for the 2007-2008 season – from 547 the previous year; whilst claims for outpatient treatment have risen. "This tells us that we are treating more people but less are going into hospital and staying there," says Wilson. "There are more accidents but they are less serious, such as dislocated or broken fingers." He puts this down to the problem of less snow in Europe last season compared to other years. "When there is more snow, people tend to go faster and you get bigger smashes. Less snow means that skiers do not do the big runs. They go to the lower slopes where the quality of the snow is worse. If there is not as much of it then you get more accidents because of ice and rocks and trees emerging from the covering of snow. People go slower but you get smaller accidents," he explained.

But he also blames a change in skiing behaviour: "Skiing has definitely become more accessible in recent years with cheap flights to France, for example. This could be a reason for the rise in injuries, because of the number of inexperienced skiers taking to the slopes." However, despite his company's recent survey, he plays down the drink factor in the number of injuries reported. "There is responsibility for drinking out there amongst skiers and indeed they wouldn't sell alcohol on the slopes if there was a serious problem," he argued. "People get a big brush and paint the majority with what the minority do. There is not a problem with people being drunk at lunchtime and taking to the slopes."

While the number of claims made for winter sports injuries has decreased over the past year the cost of claims has increased

All in all, an increase in claims will not mean a consequent rise in premiums. "Some firms might do that as a bit of scaremongering but we won't," says Wilson. "There will be no increase in premiums. We are seeing more outpatients than inpatients and that means smaller medical bills so we save money."

Halifax Travel Insurance also experienced a difficult winter last season: a spokesperson said the company had experienced a ‘dramatic increase in the average cost of winter sports claims’. The average claim cost over £1,500 at the end of the 2007-2008 season, up from £640 the previous year. The reasons for this increase could vary, he said, “from a rise in operational costs for flights, pistes that are closed due to no snow or high winds for longer periods of time, or people taking more expensive ski equipment that gets lost or damaged. An increase in medical costs abroad would also account for the rise.”

Three Halifax Travel Insurance customers experienced bad injuries and submitted very high claims, which may also have pushed up the average, according to the company. "In terms of the causes behind such claims we can't give a definitive answer as our data does not drill down to such thorough detail," added the spokesperson. "Accidents that occurred due to alcohol consumption would not be present in our claims data. It is also impossible for us to attribute an increase in accidents to an increase in inexperienced skiers. We simply don't have the relevant information to make such an assumption."

Direct Line saw more of a mixed picture in terms of claims last season. Chris Price, head of travel insurance, said: "While the number of claims made for winter sports injuries has decreased over the past year the cost of claims has increased. This may reflect broader healthcare inflation as new technologies and treatments are adopted by the medical industry." The company has also been appealing to novice skiers to invest in lessons and avoid skiing off-piste to limit the number of injuries. "They should make sure they have the right equipment, don't ski runs that are beyond their ability and keep family and friends informed of where they are going," added Price. "It is important that travellers don't ski when exhausted as many accidents happen at the bottom of slopes at the end of the day when skiers are less alert or the light is failing. Skiing after drinking alcohol should be avoided not least because it could impact on the ability to make a claim."

There was, however, a different picture at Swiftcover, which had seen just 85 claims on its winter sports policies towards the end of the last ski season, down from 132 the previous year. BUPA Travel insurance also experienced a ‘slight decrease’ in claims last season compared to previously, but disagrees with InsureandGo's Wilson on last year's quality of snow. "In the 2006-2007 season, the pistes were not well covered and there were injuries as a result of rocks showing through the snow. It was one of our worst years. If snow changes its consistency then sometimes when you are skiing your left leg goes faster than your right with the obvious consequences," said head of BUPA Travel Nick Potter. "That year, such conditions resulted in more twists and strains. Skiers want to ski when they go on holiday, and on days when they should not have been on the piste they went out. But in the 2007-2008 season, the quality of the snow was a lot better and pistes were well covered."

Furthermore, he does not see a correlation between cheaper flights and an increase in skiing accidents. "I'd like to know where you can go skiing where it is cheap. I would say that the cost of skiing is going up. We have not been impacted by this," says Potter. However, he does stress that skiers should pay closer attention to their behaviour on the slopes. "Skiing is a sport and you have to maintain a level of fitness for it. It is hard work and people should relax, take plenty of breaks and not overdo it. Apres-ski is part of the experience but you should not drink if you are skiing. If it is not you that you are going to injure it will be the ski school party ahead of you."

2008 and beyond

So, what of the current season? ITIJ caught up with Russell Dadson, winter sports cover specialist, to see what he thinks the coming months might hold for those issuing snow sports policies, and to ask his views on emerging ski markets. “I think this season will be dominated by the effects the global recession will have on skiing, said Dadson, “We actually had a very good summer season with our specialist activity policies and we saw particularly good growth towards the end of the summer, perhaps because our clients were so fed up with being told how gloomy the world is, they felt compelled to go on holiday to get away from the bad news!”

However, Dadson thinks ski holidays, particularly at the lower end of the market (ie, once a year skiers, those new to skiing and those on lower incomes) will suffer from the effects of the credit crunch. Tour operators, he said, will probably have to limit capacity to cover their own exposure in a depressed market, which will keep ski holiday costs up. This in turn will have an upward pressure on claims costs for cancellation claims, which are already being falsified as people struggle to afford to pay for their holidays.

In terms of emerging markets, at present Dadson’s company Snowcard sees a very small number of policy sales for people travelling to South America and the Himalayas to ski. Likewise, Japan is not somewhere the UK market heads to unless they are already in Japan and want to have a day or two skiing. It is too crowded and limited compared to what they are used to in the Alps. And New Zealand is too far for a ski-only trip. Skiing in NZ would normally form part of a longer travel itinerary for most British skiers, although it is getting more popular with ‘seasonaires’ looking for a change.

Aside from the US, longer haul destinations will always suffer from being too expensive for the majority of skiers and … too extreme, cold or remote for the average intermediate UK skier

At the same time, there is some very good skiing to be had in Chile but again distance and cost put it beyond most UK skiers who are spoilt for choice in Europe, which is hard to beat for quality and the extent of skiing opportunity at an affordable cost. To ski in South America, you need to, again, either be there already or have a deep pocket and a desire to ski the world; it will never be mainstream, says Dadson.

The Himalayas are slightly different in that the opportunities there are yet to be fully explored. It is closer – not much difference to flying to the US – but the facilities there are not yet established. There are also political problems in the country that will put off many recreational skiers. To want to ski in India or Kyrgyzstan you have to be extremely adventurous and desperate for something more than Europe will offer. Aside from the US, longer haul destinations will always suffer from being too expensive for the majority of skiers and aside from the very small ski touring and mountaineering fraternity, too extreme, cold or remote for the average intermediate UK skier.