More snow sure than ever – for now

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Kitzbuhel on Sunday was a telling visit. Approaching from the west, the area from Wörgl onwards was little different than you would expect in mid-winter and this was the 1st December.

As we approached the resort we discussed the incredible conditions and how it really felt like early February (but for the lack of traffic on the roads or people). We soon moved on to discuss the perils of placing clients in resorts at the very start of the season. Our business is based on developing customer relationships and they would go pretty sour, very quickly if our clients were arriving in destinations that were more green than white. Equally our clients are always looking for something new, sometimes earlier and in the present financial climate certainly something that offers great value. Early season is the obvious choice – here in Austria the lifts on all the glaciers start rolling from as early as September and conditions through the autumn months can be exceptional. So how do perceptions of snow security so often misalign with the conditions on the ground?

6 factors impacting snow security perceptions:

Climate change

Possibly the biggest global issue right now is climate change. With overwhelming scientific consensus on the issue moving ever closer it is an issue that has and will continue to dominate the winter sports industry. There are few leisure sectors that are so prone to the effect (both real and perceived) as climate change – this issue been the dominant factor in making snow security such a topic over recent years and has driven both debate and marketing policy amongst the stakeholders.

Squeezing the €’s out of the season

The desire of resorts, accommodation and lift companies to extend seasons is obvious. Infrastructure costs are significant in-resort and on the mountain, whilst despite extensive marketing and product enhancements, the majority of winter sports destinations are still massively reliant on the winter season for revenue. With capacity limits on the mountain and in the resort, the obvious way to increase income is to extend the season to weeks that in the past would not have been considered viable.

Cost and impact

A winter sports break is generally an expensive outlay, furthermore these areas are often remote and aren’t somewhere a client easily can drop into last minute. Flights, hotel reservations, insurance etc are all required and aren’t easy to cancel. For a destination visitor, the sight of bare slopes would surely rank as one of the most negative impacts during a visit. A highly perceived probability of a highly negative outcome from an expensive investment suggests a high risk experience for clients and visitors.

Cold hard facts

Facts are hard to argue with and if 1 resort is higher than another then this is on the face of it a highly compelling factor in the snow security debate. Glaciers on the west coast of Canada some 1000m below the level or their equivalents in the Alps suggest there is a great deal of inaccuracy in making these direct comparisons but we are all guilty of susceptibility to these headline figures.

Competitive marketing from high altitude resorts

In the past high altitude resorts were often characterised by distant and at times less charming and less convenient resorts. Now these resorts are able to connect with the mainstream winter sports markets by focusing on their height (and by extension their snow security) and in many cases their greater proximity to the assured snow locations. The implications for other resorts with less impressive top heights are stark – without moving a metre in any direction these areas are now by comparison considered low, no matter what their previous reputation was for delivering snow. It has reached the extent that resorts and lift companies are re-naming their lifts to convey a higher altitude – the Zweitausender (2000’er) doesn’t in fact reach 2000m, nor does any other lift in the ski area but it sends a signal of height. Resorts will often round up the height of ski lift top stations in order to project an image of height and snow security.

Artificial snow capabilities

And yet perceptions in 2013 may well be more misguided than we imagined. It may well be that artificial snow capabilities are ahead of their time. Climate change is happening and will continue to impact our mountains – in what ways is still not fully understood – there still remains the chance that the European Alps may see a relative cooling effect from ocean current disruption. Yet these trends so far look like being gradual, so whilst an unchanged policy toward the environment offers a very bleak future for our children and future generations, the here and now in many ways offers more snow security that there has ever been. Ski areas now boast anything up to 100% snow making capabilities. Glacier skiing areas are also investing greatly to boost the natural cycle which sees annual accumulations of ice pack before the summer snow ablation sets in. the chances are that going early season to a ski resort in 2013 carries far less risk that would have been the case 20 years ago.

And what of our hypothetical clients who arrived in Kitzbuhel last weekend – they got empty slopes, cold sunny skies and skiing right back to the resort hotels. What they gave us were weeks of anxious weather chart analysis – in many ways we have are as affected as everyone else by the perceptions of snow security.

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