We have Epic ski passes thanks to takeovers by corporates. Less epic snow thanks to climate change. With snow yoga, winter ziplines and gay ski weeks, there's already plenty of diversification. But what is the future for skiing and snowboarding? What's next? Are we ready for our skis or snowboard to tell us how well we're doing? Or for Jennifer the skiing robot shredding the pow?
We're facing a future full of job-nabbing, powder shredding robots, unfettered digitalization, compulsive action apps and cataclysmic climate change. Louise Hudson, co-author of Winter Sport Tourism and Style Altitude Contributor analyses current trends and shares her vision for the future including the expansion and diversification in resorts, the aim for zero environmental footprint plus the future for Seasonaires. Of course, you can't halt progress whether it's corporate takeovers or smarter apps affecting the ski and snowboard world no more than you can halt an avalanche with ski poles - although for avalanche-stopping ski pole technology watch this space. Is it progress though? With faster lifts, ziplines and Asian adventures there'll be more tourists using up their carbon footprints to travel to resorts. For those who appreciate the freedom of the mountains, it might be time to head for the backcountry hills...
1) A GAME OF MOUNTAIN MONOPOLY: MULTI-RESORTS, THE EPIC SKI PASS AND COUNTER CORPORATE CROWD-FUNDING
The Epic Season Pass
In August, this year, Deer Valley Resort was acquired by the up-and-coming, and currently unnamed, goliath KSL/Aspen investment joint venture. This consortium also encompasses Intrawest which owns Steamboat as well as the granddaddy of heli-skiing, CMH. Looks like Aspen is challenging Vail Resorts to a game of mountain monopoly. Vail Resorts, which now operates 14 ski areas, made its first move into Canada last season, going straight for the throat by acquiring Whistler Blackcomb for over $1billion. And last season it expanded the reach of its Epic Pass to Europe, including free ski days at 31 top resorts in France, Switzerland, Austria and Italy.
Today, the Epic Pass is the industry’s most popular pass and the ultimate guest loyalty programme
'When it was introduced in March 2008 for the 2008-2009 winter ski and snowboard season, the Epic Pass singlehandedly changed the landscape in the ski industry by providing unlimited and unrestricted access to multiple resorts and a price point far lower than many single-resort passes,' says Liz Biebl, Director of Brand Communications for Vail Resorts. 'Today, the Epic Pass is the industry’s most popular pass and the ultimate guest loyalty programme, purchased for the flexibility, choice and convenience it offers pass holders to ski or snowboard how, when and where they want.'
So it looks like collective consolidation is key to the future of resort operations
And, in Europe, similar cooperative manoeuvres have changed the snowscape over the past 30 years from small ski resorts towards mega ski areas such as Paradiski, SkiCircus, Les Trois Vallées and Portes du Soleil. A few years ago, Andermatt was linked to Oberalp and Sedrun, making it the largest ski area in central Switzerland. More recently, the legendary La Grave lift in the French Alps was taken over by SATA of Alpe d’Huez.
So it looks like collective consolidation is key to the future of resort operations carving the mountains into bigger areas, with ever faster highspeed lifts and view-popping panoramic restaurants all accessible via one monster mountain ski pass.
Fight the Man. Own the Mountain
Destinations keen to remain anti-corporate, though, are trying different tactics to remain relevant over the next few decades. Red Mountain in BC, Canada, for example, is in the midst of a daring crowd-funding campaign. CEO Howard Katkov, former San Diego real estate developer, is enticing members to invest, offering private clubhouse access and lift tickets as well as a chance to 'Fight the Man. Own the Mountain'. Everyone from millennial ski bums to families to business owners from all over North America, Australia, New Zealand, England and France have now pledged a total of over $12.2 million.
Red Mountain millennium motivation
'We went live under the platform called front funder and we now have $266,000 cash in escrow and another $450,000 in process,' says Katkov. 'We plan to launch in the US sometime in October.'
He calls the process ground-breaking and ascribes its success to the value and ski experience at Red: 'We are completing a 106 unit four-star hotel this winter, called The Josie, which will be ski in/ski out and we’re refurbishing the lodge at the top, our retail centre and parking as the business is growing really dramatically.'
Currently, the largest ski resort in North America is Powder Mountain, Utah. Because some of it is accessed by bus or by ski cat rather than the lift system, there is some dissension about its ranking as the biggest, despite having 8,464 skiable acres. It is unique in other future-forward ways, too. After a crowdsourcing campaign, Pow Mow was purchased in 2013 by Summit Powder Mountain - the youngest ownership group in the ski industry. Since the resort is not owned by a large corporation or private equity firm, it has the ability to reject the usual corporate resort formula of mega-homes, luxury outlets, overdevelopment and subsequent crowding.
Everything from transcendental meditation, software development and athletic performance
Plans include building a next-generation Alpine town modelled after Wengen with pop-up stores, micro-apartments, farm-to-table restaurants, yoga boot-camps, public art, media labs and educational outlets offering training in everything from transcendental meditation, software development and athletic performance. It will embody a next-generation urbanism that nourishes social entrepreneurship, connection and collaboration, and responsible living.
Last season, work was underway to construct the first ‘tiny chalets’ – scaled down versions of the mountain mansions you see at typical Utah resorts. Communications Manager, J-P Goulet says that preserving the pristine Pow Mow experience is being made possible by limiting lift ticket sales, capping day passes at 1500 daily and season passes at 3000 per winter. 'That averages three skiers per acre,' he explains.
Pow Mow. Image: Powder Mountain, Utah
2) GLOBAL WARMING: SHORTER SEASONS, SHRINKING GLACIERS AND PROTECT OUR WINTERS
A recent study published in the European Geoscience Union Journal, the Cryosphere, suggests that not only will there be less snow but also the Alpine winter season will start up to a month later - with resorts already experiencing reduced snowfall in December during the past two winters. Only the higher ski resorts above 2500m will have enough snow to open throughout the traditional ski season from December to April. Those below 1200m, around a quarter of the ski resorts in the Alps, will have almost no continuous snow cover by 2100.
The Fall is getting warmer and extending into November
A decade ago, a PhD study by geographer, David Reynolds at the University of Calgary revealed a similar forecast for North America: 'By 2050 we can estimate the base snowline in Canadian Cordillera is going to be about 1600m above sea level. What the Alps are facing today is what we are going to be facing in 25 years or so. Any resorts with base level at 1200-1500m will be struggling to keep snow on their lower slopes by 2025 even. Snowmaking on these slopes will depend on the temperatures and also water supply. The Fall is getting warmer and extending into November so it’s almost impossible to make snow even overnight in Fall.'
Glaciers are shrinking already, shortening the seasons for glacier-dependent resorts. In the Alps, the surface area of glaciers has shrunk by 40 percent in the last 150 years (see La Mer de Glace, Chamonix, below, with the glacier level shown in 1990) and in the Pyrenees it’s 80 percent.
The ever-shrinking La Mer de Glace, Chamonix
The forward-looking answer for Tignes is to build a 400m indoor ski slope to counteract the decline of out-of-season glacier skiing on the Grand Motte. The Skiline indoor slope will ensure year-round skiing and snowboarding.
We need to find ways to wield the power of the outdoor community to drive change at scale
While resorts are making efforts towards neutralizing their carbon footprint - for example, Vail Resorts is aiming for a zero footprint in less than 15 years - it is at the national level that climate change action needs to be spearheaded, according to Aspen Skiing Company’s Auden Shendler, VP of Sustainability Aspen Skiing Company.
'What ski resorts do on the ground around cutting their carbon footprint, or buying clean power, is admirable but inadequate,' he says. 'With a planet headed towards four degrees C warming and a certain sunset to the sport by 2100, we need to find ways to wield the power of the outdoor community to drive change at scale. That will happen in the halls of state and federal congress, not in our boiler rooms.'
In response to the current US government’s denial of climate change, Shendler says: 'I don’t think it matters who is in power, we’re headed towards the same warming at this point. We should be working to lessen the level of warming to the extent possible.' He envisages shorter seasons, hugely challenged coastal resorts, rain events in winter, warming nights and a more challenging snowmaking environment, with low elevation resorts going out of business by midcentury and beyond.
Wearing their logo art on their sleeve. Image: Aspen Skiing Company
Protect Our Winters - incidentally supported by Style Altitude (see interview here) - has been gradually gaining global momentum since 2007, now sporting offices in UK, France, Switzerland, Austria, Finland, Norway and Sweden as well as the USA where it originated thanks to the pioneering snowboarder Jeremy Jones. The organisation has been inspiring support from the wintersports community and giving them a voice on climate issues at national and international levels.
Let’s hope this concerted global effort will help make a downhill difference.
3) DIVERSIFICATION: SNOW YOGA, WINTER ZIPLINES AND FLYING SIMULATORS
In view of climate concerns and the need to increase year round appeal, ski resorts are constantly expanding their activity offerings. If you’re a non-skiing hanger-on, or have energy after a day on the slopes, you can now try everything including:
Every season, resorts up the ante to compete for the most innovative winter offering. Topping the charts is surfing in Tignes. In the pipeline, excuse the pun, for the €62 million Skiline project is a swimming pool with three metre waves for surfing. Tignesurf Wave Championships coming soon?
Prof. Simon Hudson who recently wrote an article on diversification for HotelExecutive.com, says that the priority for the future sustainability of ski areas is for ski hotels, as well as resorts, to expand their menu of activities in order to satisfy non-skiers, expand après ski, create all-season interest, and counteract the negative impacts of climate change. As a skier himself, he was particularly impressed with iFly, a signature bodyflight simulator experience using a wind tunnel in the ski town of Ogden, Utah.
Ifly into the future?
4) GOING GREEN: SOLAR PANELS, REDUCING CARBON FOOTPRINT AND SNOW FROM RECYCLED SEWAGE
Green has been the new white in ski resorts for many years now. But is it enough to change the light bulbs to LED, recycle all the rubbish, reduce energy costs and emblazon POW badges on staff uniforms?
Vail, Aspen and Whistler Blackcomb might be making great strides in seeking a negative footprint, but it is humble Mt Abram, a five-lift resort in New England, which is going the whole hog by building its own system of 803 solar electric panels. Check out the real time solar output calculator. This $940,000 project complements its electric vehicle charging station and the carbon-neutral wood pellet boiler for heating the lodge and accommodation buildings.
Mission to go 100 percent renewable with solar panels at Mt Abram. Image: Ski The East
In Australia The Mt Buller and Mt Stirling ski area has pioneered snowmaking from treated effluent – literally recycled sewage water. No worries about head plants, though. It is purified, both for health and environmental reasons, to Class A standards - those required for human food crops and irrigation of parklands and golf courses.
5) THE BACKCOUNTRY BACKLASH: NAIL IN THE COFFIN FOR RESORTS? OR REASON TO ADAPT?
Do ski tourers need ski resorts? With better, lighter ski touring kit and the attraction of peaceful mountains without lift queues AND the ever-rising cost of ski passes, ski touring is becoming more and more popular. Hardcore skiers and snowboarders are shunning resorts and venturing to mountains with NO resorts like the Lyngen Alps and Antarctica.
No lifts, no crowds, no ski pass
Sounds like another nail in the coffin for traditional ski resorts. But savvy ski resort marketers are embracing it as an opportunity. New mega-lifts like the Skyway in Entrèves on the Italian side of Mont Blanc tunnel have been specifically built to take skiers way out of resort to access the backcountry paradise - see Skyway To Heaven.
Ski touring is complementing the Powder Highway’s high concentration of lift, heli and cat skiing
And elsewhere, resorts are working on ways to launch ski touring from the resort base in order to capitalize, both from lift tickets and après ski, on the millennial market. For example, Fernie, BC is offering Backcountry Basics, a two-day ski touring course. Part of the Resorts of the Canadian Rockies group which also includes Kicking Horse and Kimberley, the focus on ski touring is complementing the Powder Highway’s high concentration of lift, heli and cat skiing.
'We provide people the experience of freedom and as people, both millennial and boomers, seek to stay fit, this is a great addition to what people can experience in Golden, Fernie and Kimberley all offering the incredible mix of resort skiing, backcountry skiing and lodge experience,' says RCR marketing manager, Powder Matt Mosteller.
It’s also part of the resorts’ commitment to safety. In Colorado, Aspen knows that ski touring is here to stay and has partnered with Dynafit this year to rent out high performance equipment and runs uphill clinics via its Ski and Snowboard Schools.
6) SEASONAIRES: LAST HURRAH FOR THE SKI BUM WITH AIRBNB, BREXIT AND ROBOTS?
The tradition of gap year Seasonaires is undergoing change right now. In Switzerland; new wage laws have proved an obstacle to overseas tour operators who typically paid low wages to enthusiastic ski bums overlooking income in favour of job perks. Accommodation options for low-paid seasonal workers are being threatened elsewhere by the advent of Airbnb which, with its slick, user-friendly interface, is luring landlords away from low cost seasonal renting to higher yield, more flexible holiday lets via sites like Airbnb, VRBO, HomeAway and Owners Direct.
Seasonaires showing up and scouting jobs in situ could become extinct
Walk along Main Street in any North American ski town and you will see Help Wanted signs in countless shop, restaurant and café windows.The ski hills and big hotels have staff accommodation, so those jobs are secure. But the smaller boutique businesses are suffering due to housing shortages. Seasonaires showing up and scouting jobs in situ could become extinct.
Seasonaire Help Wanted: Signs of the times in Aspen
In Canmore, Alberta – historically the dormitory town for Banff - this situation has led many business owners to insist on proof that a job applicant already has accommodation before even granting an interview. Some resorts – including Jackson Hole - are already tackling this issue by incentivizing landlords with free ski tickets or discounted season passes via the Tenants for Turns programme.
The skiing robot has already been invented
In Europe BREXIT is making the future for Seasonaires somewhat insecure. Who knows how that will manifest itself but it may lead to the need for expensive and hard-won work permits and also to restrictive wage laws similar to Switzerland. If so, direct employment by the UK tour ops for British Seasonaires may no longer be an option for resort work and they will have to compete with the domestic workforce for jobs as well as accommodation. Although the upside would be better pay, the downside would be fewer perks such as free Seasonaire lodging.
And, how about robots and automation? Could they take over repetitive jobs such as ski lift operation, ski patrolling, après ski food preparation and service, and all the driving, snow-clearing, and maintenance work around resorts - and even be used in high risk situations for search and rescue? The skiing robot has already been invented by Manitoba University Autonomous Agent Laboratory – Jennifer can ski short runs and cross country but flounders in powder just like any newbie!
Greg Creed, the CEO of Yum Brands, which owns companies like KFC and Pizza Hut, predicts automation and artificial intelligence to take the place of most human workers in the food services industry by the mid 2020s. This has already started in dense urban areas, particularly in China, Japan and Singapore. And it is starting to spread to tourist areas - the first Tipsy Robot bar just opened at Planet Hollywood’s Miracle Mile Shops in Las Vegas and The Bionic Bar is causing much attention on Royal Caribbean cruiseships.
Sushi bars, pasta bars and burger bars could easily be taken over by robots in the future. A customizable vending machine robot made by Chowbotics (and, incidentally, called Sally) allows diners to customize 50 different salads in a very small space.
Good news: automation and robotics could also solve the housing shortage in ski areas.
7) FAR ASIAN HORIZONS. HIGH HOPES FOR TIBET - AND NORTH KOREA THE LAST RESORT?
The biggest boost to the ski industry in the future could be from Asia. Skiing has been trending in the larger Japanese destinations for the past decade and other Asian countries including China and South Korea (with Pyeong Chang the host of the 2018 Winter Olympics), are expanding their wintersports offerings.
South Korea: Going up in the skiing world. Image: Ski Safari
In Japan, a decline in population has led to the closure of many smaller ski resorts. However, Niseko United’s economy is booming with new investment in luxury hotels and infrastructure over the four interconnected resorts. With an emphasis on global marketing and foreign tourism, its population grew by 2.9 percent in 2015 while the national figures declined by 0.7. And the forward-thinking ski area has also paired with the Mountain Collective to offer reciprocal ski ticket deals with 16 resorts in the US, Canada and New Zealand.
China plans to open 250 new ski centers in Heilongjiang province alone
With the Beijing Winter Olympics coming up in 2022, China plans to open 250 new ski centres in Heilongjiang province alone in the next decade. There has been a parallel rise in Chinese ski travellers to Europe and North American ski areas and resorts have been actively courting this huge new market. For example, Marmot Basin in Jasper National Park has forged an alliance with China’s biggest ski resort, Sun Mountain at Yabuli trading instructors to improve awareness and linguistic skills, and tailoring winter adventure packages.
The Changbaishan ski resort of the future in China. Image: GRAFT
As yet, China and Japan are not challenging America in terms of skier visits. But the figure of 10,000 Chinese skiers in the mid 90s has already escalated to 12.5m in 2015. No wonder ski instructors in Whistler Blackcomb are learning Mandarin and Cantonese.
Ski researcher, Laurent Vanat thinks that other Asian countries, however, could start to trend. 'In the long term, countries such as India and Pakistan may join them and contribute to increasing the weight of Asia in the international spread of skier visits.'
Topping them all is Tibet, planned destination for the world's highest ski resort among the lofty Himalayas that have an average altitude of 4,500m.
Of course, global politics can play a large part in determining which markets actually materialize. In 2014, the $35million Masikryong Ski Resort in North Korea opened up as part of Kim Jong Un’s goal of boosting numbers of foreign tourists from 200,000 a year to 1 million by 2016. Good luck with that.
8) TRENDS AND DEMOGRAPHICS: MORE WEEKEND TRIPS, WOMEN BOOKING AND GAY PRIDE SKI WEEKS
Worldwide there are around 80 countries offering skiing and snowboarding although 10 of these have only indoor ski areas. There are around 2000 ski resorts with approximately six million beds, according to the 2014 International Report on Snow & Mountain Tourism by Vanat. Over the past decade there has been an overall draw of about 400 million skier visits per year globally. Over 80 percent of the major resorts are in the Alps, capturing around 45 percent of these visits. Second is America at 21 percent.
Snowsports numbers vary considerably every season depending on where the snow is apportioned. And, if an area benefits by precipitation one season, you can be sure that numbers will be up the following winter although those visitors may not be quite so lucky. Utah doused in record-breaking dumps, saw a three percent rise in wintersports last season, clocking up 4.58 million visitors and will be hoping to top that this winter with the knock-on effect.
Just over a third are under 26 and seven percent over 55
In the US, there are over 10 million active skiers and snowboarders, with the average participant only spending five days on the slopes per season, due to a trend towards weekend and public holiday skiing. Just over a third are under 26 and seven percent over 55, a declining baby boomer generation, according to Ski Area Management Magazine stats. In Canada there are over two million skiers (58 percent male) and 1.2 million snowboarders (61 percent male). There are also approximately 1.2 million cross-country skiers.
Participants tend to be older than they were 20 years ago
While numbers have been relatively static for the past 20 years, Tourism Professor, Dr Simon Hudson says it is the composition of the slopes that has changed. In his book Winter Sport Tourism the recreation researcher says that over the last two decades: 'The amount of downhill skiers on the slopes has dropped, while the number of snowboarders has more than doubled. More females are participating in both activities, and participants tend to be older than they were 20 years ago. Perhaps of concern is a substantial drop in the number of lessons being taken today compared to 20 years ago, implying there might be fewer beginners taking to the slopes.'
Cover to cover: Winter Sport Tourism
Until, that is, you look at relatively new ski cultures such as China where more are in the learning stages of snowsports and starting to flock to the beginner slopes in resorts in or closer to Asia.
But key to future increases in participation, Hudson believes, is persuading people who have already adopted skiing/snowboarding to do it more and focusing on lapsed skiers/boarders rather than merely trying to attract new participants to wintersports. Minorities also present an opportunity for expansion to ski marketers – for example the National Brotherhood of Skiers which holds massive ski summits across North America - as do disabled skiers/riders.
Women are taking over the booking of ski holidays, according to a Phocus Wright 2013 market research study, and a new group of skiing/snowboarding ‘swingers’ has also emerged. The report identified 16 percent of snow sports’ participants who indulge in both sports. And, with wintersports an integral part of their lifestyle, they are more likely to hold a season’s pass and spend more on travel, shopping and dining during trips.
For 27 percent of British skiers, their first snow sports trip is also their last
In Europe, snow sports holidays remain a relatively exclusive market with a high financial barrier to entry. A recent Mintel report on British skiers found that university graduates, higher earners and people who describe their finances as healthy are the most likely to have taken, or have any future interest in taking, a snow sports holiday. Less-affluent people have struggled to gain entry, and the penetration of snow sports holidays is lowest among people who describe their financial situation as tight or struggling.
For 27 percent of British skiers, their first snow sports trip is also their last. A quarter of the sample booked their vacation as a package and 20 per cent travelled with their school or university.
9) MOUNTAIN MEDIA TRENDS: TURNING SKIERS INTO CELEBRITIES AND (SOME) CELEBRITIES INTO SKIERS
TV shows are bringing skiing and snowboarding to the masses. And, the dominance of TV and social media in our lives is making celebrities out of skiers – for example, the glamorous Lindsey Vonn and Slovenia’s Tina Maze, a top athlete, fashion model, and YouTube popstar.
Characters from reality ‘SkiV’ shows - like Joey Gibbons in Bravo TV’s Après Ski set in Whistler and Davina McCall and Graham Bell from The Jump - are bringing the slopes to the sofa with more popular appeal than Ski Sunday. This trend will present opportunities to marketers to make skiing more mainstream, if only for the clothing – North Face and Canada Goose have already done a good job of expanding their ski clothing to urban areas.
The Jump in Kuhtai, Austria
10) GEAR AND CLOTHING: AUGMENTED REALITY, ACTION APPS AND SMART ACCESSORIES
Skiing Wearables. It might take a while for them to become mainstream, but, just like autonomous cars which we’ll have to give in to eventually, we could all be wired up to Augmented Reality (AR) apps and accessories in the near future.
AR has already made inroads into the ski gear market with companies like Oakley and Smith Optics producing AR goggles with direct-to-eye Recon HD displays to enhance the skier experience. Heated goggles (by ABOM, for example) are eliminating fog forever, and multi-setting heated clothing (by Seirus, Volt, Gerbing and Ansai) is counteracting the cold, enabling skiers to stay outdoors longer at higher, colder altitudes.
Ski Track., Go Pro, Garmin ski watches, ABS airbags, Crash Pads body armour and smart helmets are not only enhancing the ski experience but also protecting us from danger and extreme elements, wrapping us in high tech cotton wool just like our smart ski and snowboard clothing will keep us at optimum temperature in sub-zero conditions.
Hopefully in the not too distant future our ski and snowboard clothing will all be made from recycled polyester - or bottle tops. And we'll no longer be harming the mountain environment we love by wearing toxic jackets proofed with polluting PFC chemicals and more mountain brands will be following in the green footsteps of Páramo, Patagonia and Picture Organic Clothing.
Meanwhile we can reduce our carbon footprint by NOT travelling to the mountains. Ski instruction and race training are already being enabled year round by Virtual Reality simulators (made by SkyTechSport) which replicate the experience of skiing down a run, complete with VR backdrops from different resorts.
SkyTechSport ski simulator
Floatation backpacks are increasing the chances of surviving an avalanche for backcountry, cat and heli skiers with mapping apps already providing the best routes for those ski tourers heading for the hills to avoid unavoidable mountain resort technology such as flatscreen monitors embedded into the safety bar as you ride up the chairlift giving you advertising, resort information and weather reports on your way up. Coming very soon to Colorado.
There are adaptable skis on the drawing board, skis manufactured to your own design by app, and skis hooked up to phones and apps to record your performance. Rossignol now has PIQ movement tracking sensors which give a detailed dashboard of performance and progress with technique and jump analysis hooked up to your phone by app.
So are you looking forward to the future for skiing and snowboarding? To the season shifted by at least a month; from grassy base areas indoor ski runs linking to mid-mountain where the snowline will be supplemented by recycled sewage water; everything powered by solar panels and wind turbines? To being gadget-packed, kitted out with VR technology lost in your own world of GPS, challenges, performance analysis, health monitoring, GoPro recording and virtual communication? To a creative, customized menu of après ski and non-skier activities for year-round mountain moments; and the slick servicescape served by machines and robots?
Or put your hand up if you want to come ski touring...