The Future For Skiing and Snowboarding
LISTENING FOR ALARM BELLSFive years ago our North American Editor Louise Hudson compiled an epic article about the Future of Skiing and Snowboarding for STYLE ALTITUDE. She couldn’t have predicted the pandemic and the devastation that it would wreak on many forms of travel and tourism, especially the snowsports industry.
And who knew that there was another manmade crisis looming just over the horizon in the form of fuel shortages in Europe PLUS global warming, an ever-threatening catastrophe in the making for ski resorts?
But just as a bluebird follows a snowstorm, so the sun came out for ski resorts post pandemic, creating a new après as in après Covid. with some of those pandemic precautions actually having some positive effects, not least the fact that it is now possible to WFM Work From Mountains.
But no ski resort can afford to relax, not with those alarm bells warning of rising costs for running lifts, water shortages for making artificial snow and global warming heralding more concerns in the not too distant future unless they adapt, diversify - and nail renewable energy sources.
WHAT IS NORMAL?
The bounce back from the Covid restrictions didn't take long. No sooner had the sky filled again with vapour trails from planes flying over the mountains, than ski resorts filled with skiers and snowboarders, proving how quickly life can turn back to normal.
Or is it normal? There are changes created by Covid lockdowns that will impact on skiing and snowboarding holidays with adaptability the only way forward for resorts, travel companies and the mountain hospitality industry for future decades to overcome the effects of pandemics, global warming, fuel costs and changing demographics.
No sooner had resorts breathed a sigh of relief (and without wearing a face mask) that the Covid crisis seems to have abated than Russia invaded Ukraine creating a new catastrophe for ski resorts in Europe. The cost of fuel (plus, of course, the lack of wealthy Russian skiers). Few resorts are green enough yet to run without using fossil fuel so what to do?
The dilemma is whether to reduce the use of lifts and artificial snow-making to save fuel costs or charge more for lift passes, either way representing a marketing disaster when it comes to attracting skiers and snowboarders to their resorts.
Potentially the costs of skiing will rise dramatically and, for a while at least, change the demographic profile of ski and snowboard holidays, outpricing families with the costs of travel and ski passes. In fact, there's the very real possibility of skiing reverting back to being the sport of kings and the wealthy heli-set. Hammered by the lockdown, furloughed, fired or fallen off the financial radar and now burdened with rising fuel costs, the family winter ski holiday will be one of the first middle class luxuries to go out the recently triple-glazed window.
So more fallout can be expected among ski resort businesses following on from Covid closures with those without the means to survive evident in the permanently closed signs on a few less fortunate, less adaptable bars and restaurants - and in the number of vacancies advertised for staff who upped sticks and left during the jobless lockdowns - and who cannot now afford accommodation in ski resorts thanks to the rise of home rentals such as Airbnb.
THE NEW APRÈS
The global ski destinations set to survive are those which have adapted to the new après as in après Covid to attract not only the clients back but also those who've never skied before. Significantly, they have had to go with easier cancellation policies such as Winter Park’s Carefree Cancellations, because the pandemic left many struggling for refunds. This has led to comprehensive insurance as the norm for visitors who don't want to be stung with the costs if their holiday is prevented for some reason, pandemic or otherwise.
But one of the most noticeable après Covid changes is in attitudes towards vacations. Instead of the traditional one or two week annual holiday there's been a surge in grab-it-while-you-can vacations, more short term trips taken during the year without long term planning - and a rush to make up for lost holiday time during the two-year pandemic.
Who wants to wait a year for a pre-booked holiday that may be cancelled because of a pandemic - or because of a post-pandemic strike by baggage handlers, air traffic controllers and train drivers?
Leave work early on Friday and head for the mountains
So, no, don't let's wait a year. Let's holiday while we can - and BTW take out that comprehensive insurance.
For short trips, though, even insurance is less of a big deal as you're not investing a month's salary in that one annual holiday. You can leave work early on Friday and head for the mountains, back Monday evening. Doing it last minute means you can abort if there are any travel issues - and, go when and where the snow is best.
This short trip trend is helped, of course, by fewer days spent in the office, if any, thanks to the WFH revolution, standing for Working From High in the case of skiers.
Significantly, with this freestyle tourism, DIY booking sites such as Booking.com, Airbnb and Expedia that offer flexibility of stay, have seen a boom in traffic giving traditional tour operators locked into the Saturday to Saturday package holiday, a run for their money. Unless they adapt.
After years of being herded by tour ops to do formula holidays, freestyle travellers are enjoying the power of choice to go their own way with ever easier ways to DIY. Booking.com now has 28m listings worldwide, far outstripping Airbnb with 5.6m.
And, while Airbnb is host-focused, Booking.com is more customer-biased. Not only does Booking.com now have many of the same privately run properties as Airbnb as well as hotels, but there are the key advantages for the customer as in no extra charge for number of guests, no added cleaning fees, more time to cancel pre-paying and/or receive money back, none of the fear of being refused a booking without that feedback from former hosts rating how good you are as a guest.
"Destinations will have to provide top notch customer service"
The competition to attract guests has never been fiercer with travel sites, tour ops, hotels and hosts all vying for business, creating more challenges for the industry even as they bounce back after Covid lockdowns.
“First of all, the focus is on health and safety, but customers post-pandemic also have higher expectations than ever before, so destinations will have to provide top notch customer service,” says Dr. Simon Hudson, author of COVID-19 & Travel published in 2020 and COVIDAPTABILITY In Destinations Around The World (working title) due for publication in 2022.
“Businesses will also embrace technological advances, which have accelerated during this crisis allowing companies to offer lower-touch, customised experiences.”
The alternative upswing since Covid is the trend towards all-inclusive ski holidays. Ski operator, SNO has seen a 400 percent increase in bookings for all-inclusive ski holidays and here is why:
Some Covid cancellations were not refunded to travellers who booked flights and accommodation piecemeal, and then next came the cost of living crisis where skiers need to know exactly what they’re going to spend up-front. The result? This year has seen a huge rise in bookings of “all-inclusive” ski packages.
“When the airline cancels your flight, but the apartment is open, it’s not their problem that you can’t get there and so the apartment won’t refund you, and vice versa,” explains Richard Sinclair of SNO. “Customers want the ATOL protection that comes with booking a complete package, but they also want the financial certainty of knowing their budget is set, before they arrive in that expensive ski resort.”
MOVING TO MOUNTAINS
A seller's market. Image: Sun Peaks resort Altitude
The price of resort real estate in the US and Canada soared to record highs during the pandemic with mountain property not only providing a safe sanctuary away from Covid-plagued cities, but, also, proving a good investment opportunity for the future with the market set to remain stable - or even continue to rise.
"The limited supply of property for sale in many locations around the world continues, with the Alps included, meaning prices look set to continue to rise in 2022," says Julian Walker, managing director of skiingproperty.com, which offers an unbiased assessment on where and how to buy the best mountain property. "The appeal of the mountains and fresh air rank highly on buyer's wish lists."
An escalation in working from home led to more digital nomads, many of whom migrated to mountains. With crowds burgeoning at resorts near large city centres, particularly at weekends, the less crowded and more remote resorts, also, saw an increase in lifestyle relocations and second home ownership.
The new freestyle tourists are opting for their own bubbles for ski and snowboard holidays via private rentals, Airbnb, VRBO and home-exchanging as opposed to hotels both during and post pandemic. In Europe, the infectious fun of staying in large catered chalets has seen a decline since sharing infections with strangers became no fun at all.
For some, the future is double bubble holidays, not only staying in your own safe bubble accommodation but, also, driving to the mountains in an auto-bubble rather than flying to ski areas.
Campervan sales are currently going through the pop top roof
The ultimate skiing bubble, is your own chalet on wheels for transport and accommodation because there's snow place like a motorhome, an appealing option for future holidays, which is why motorhome and campervan sales are currently going through the pop top roof.
Snow place like a motorhome
Better crowd management has been at least one positive outcome of the pandemic with resorts updating lifts for faster people movement, using online pass purchase, better control of lift queues to create less physical contact. This is a blueprint for the future to avoid the elbow-jabbing, shin-kicking scenes at lifts as well as to prevent future infections spreading..
Vail Resorts, which owns and operates 41 resorts worldwide, recently announced their plan to move lift passes to mobiles eliminating the need to queue up at the lift pass office. So you will be able to buy your pass online, activate it on your phone,and get scanned at the lift, hands free using Bluetooth. This will also eliminate the use of plastic for ski passes.
“As a company focused on investing in the future of skiing and riding, we believe that digital innovation, more than ever, will be key for delivering a great guest experience on-mountain,” said Tim April, chief information officer of Vail Resorts.
The new feature will be tested during the 2022/23 North American winter season, with roll-out to guests expected for the 2023/24 season.
It's a chicken and egg situation when it comes to interseason in resorts. Restaurants, bars and even convenience stores traditionally shut up shop between seasons because there are so few tourists but the reason visitors don't come in the quiet times is because everywhere is closed.
The increasing influx of freestyle tourists with more frequent and often weekend trips is finally seeing a breakthrough in this impasse - resorts are seeing the light and the potential for business, creating incentives to attract visitors and, therefore, seeing more facilities including bars and restaurants opening interseason. Even four days, Friday to Monday is a start.
Mount Washington in British Colombia totally get it. They opened up post-Covid for the Father's Day weekend in mid-June. What better way to attract out-of-season visitors than with the best present ever for dads, the opportunity to click into bindings in June and, even better, ski for free.
Zipline commuter. Image: Val Thorens
The pandemic period speeded up this need for alternative incentives to visit ski resorts via different activities to increase visitor numbers in the quieter times, with biking, hiking and camping as summer attractions as well as more adrenaline activities such as zip-wiring.
Summer vacations in the mountains are now perceived as intrinsically healthy. Yoga centres, spas, and retreats are popping up like porcini in an Alpine forest, attracting a new hill tribe coming to enjoy the fresh air and peace of the mountains.
Bear watching and wildlife safaris
Other summer activities on the menu include: paddleboarding on lakes at Sun Peaks; ziplines and obstacle courses at Stowe Mountain; gondola-aided trekking at Sun Valley; fishing and canoeing at Bend, Oregon; horse riding and whitewater rafting at Jackson Hole; bear watching and wildlife safaris at Lake Louise; scaling a Via Ferrata near Banff; Pueblo Indian culture at Taos, New Mexico; camping at Whistler Blackcomb plus floatplane sightseeing, helicopter excursions, and mountain biking.
Serre Chevalier, in the Southern French Alps, offers a wide range of summer outdoor activities including a natural spa plus it has the major attraction of the highest city in France, Briançon, with a history that dates back to the Romans and the fortifications of Vauban, now UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Hosting major summer sporting events including the Tour de France, l'Etape du Tour and the Climbing World Cup, attracting global attention and visitors, has also helped Serre Chevalier successfully transition into both a summer and winter resort. In fact, this traditional ski resort has boosted year round tourism to the extent that 40 percent of their annual visitors now come in the summer.
Not everyone wants the traditional carbo-loaded mountain foods
The winds of change blowing through the couloirs are, also, bringing more diverse gastro trends, matching the appeal of healthy holidays with healthy eating.
Not everyone wants the traditional carbo-loaded mountain foods, a dairy-laden tartiflette or meaty boeuf bourguignon, especially in the summer. Healthy organic and vegan food is now trending everywhere, infiltrating food stores and eateries.
Ski hill-hopping seasonaires have had a tough time. Spring 2019 saw hundreds sent home early from European and North American resorts. The following season was disrupted by closures and new Brexit policies in Europe. Winter 2021-2022 was equally confusing due to more Covid travel restrictions and essential work visas for Brits.
Seasonaire Help Wanted: Signs of the times in Aspen
Another factor creating staff shortages in Europe and around North America, is the fact that seasonaires have been ousted from accommodation by higher-paying guests, those freestyle tourists opting for DIY bookings rather than hotels and lodges. So resorts are dealing with staff shortages by finally offering higher wages and enhanced living conditions. Aspen Snowmass, Colorado, for example, hiked hospitality pay to $17 per hour starting wage for non-tipped or commissioned positions with increases for most second, third and fourth year employees too.
Finally, working in a ski resort is now a 'proper' job
In addition at this top US resort, salaried paid minimum wage was increased to $50,000 annually. Totalling $3m, this investment in pay and benefits was just one step. “We will continue to focus on our people, implementing initiatives around pay, housing, transportation, childcare and overall cost of living in our communities,” says Mike Kaplan, President and CEO of Aspen Skiing Company.
So, finally, working in a ski resort is now a 'proper' job, bringing a more professional workforce to the service industry in the future. But it looks like it's adios, ski bum
BEAM THEM UP
More and more warp speed lifts are whisking skiers up the mountains and reducing queues.
In Loon Mountain Resort, a new eight-person, high-speed bubble lift, called Kanc 8, is the first of its kind in the East and the second in North America. The ultra-smooth, whisper-quiet lift transports 3,500 skiers per hour, moves at a speed of 18 feet per second, and delivers skiers to the unloading platform in under 4 1/2 minutes, according to the resort. The extra-wide, ergonomically heated seats inside weather-blocking tinted bubbles, complete with auto-locking restraining bars, are a far cry from the calf-hitting, snail-paced, butt-freezing chairlifts that will soon be relegated to 'the old days' along with T-bars and wooden skis.
Also new, a daily forecast of lift line wait times via the EpicMix app at 12 of Vail Resorts most popular centres and investment in new lifts at five resorts. Beaver Creek saw a terrain expansion and 19 new lift projects were announced in the Epic Lift Upgrade initiative.
NO LIFTS, NO PROBLEM
No lifts, no crowds, no ski pass
Covid has led to a backcountry boom, especially in Europe where ski lifts were closed to visitors. Many skiers and snowboarders took to touring as the only way up the mountain. Ski touring? Surely, in the future, we need to call it eco-skiing or bio-skiing?
But, in the future, for those uphill skiing in resort there is going to be a price to pay. Aspen Snowmass is among several ski areas to start charging for resort access to cover usage of parking, bathrooms, groomed slope, avalanche control and ski patrol.
There's one resort in the Colorado that has seen the future and it's totally ski touring. Bluebird Backcountry only opened in 2020, but didn't have to worry about closing lifts in the pandemic because they don't have any. They also don't have any concerns about rising fuel costs.
This no-lift ski resort has ski-patrolled terrain, backcountry rentals and lessons, lodge and warming hut but zero lifts. Instead, skiers and snowboarders make their way uphill under their own power following pre-set skin tracks. Instructors and guides are on hand for backcountry and avalanche education.
But how long before the uphill climb becomes auto-assisted? We've already got e-cars and e-bikes, can e-skis be far behind?.
SWITCH ON YOUR SKI GEAR
In his best-selling book Homo Deus, historian Yuval Harari predicted that world events would soon spark an exponential launch into a techie future and it seems that the pandemic partially lit that match.
The tentacles of technology have touched many areas of the mountain servicescape – for example, menus are out and QR codes are in with table top scanning for menus and ordering via apps.
Meanwhile, high tech just gets higher every winter with increasingly sophisticated gadgets for route-planning, communication, filming, keeping warm and safety at the press of a button (or voice control).
Many a techie will have GPS and mapping on their smart watch
Significantly, gadgets are not just for tech-heads, becoming more and more user-friendly. The Aleck, for example, is designed for connectivity via glove-friendly, one-touch walkie-talkie. Paired with a powerful in-app equaliser, the two 40mm titanium drivers provide high fidelity audio quality for communicating with a group, making calls, activating Siri® and Google Assistant® or dialling up the mountain music. Paired with the Aleck GO! mobile app, there’s also intuitive GPS location mapping at the mountain or lodge.
Many a techie will have GPS and mapping on their smart watch along with monitoring for heartrate, sleep patterns and Strava connectivity. But Gaia GPS have created a super tech all-new winter topo map for 2021 with a stronger emphasis on terrain, tree cover, and contours. Easy to navigate, the special 'winter' colour palette pairs perfectly with other commonly used winter maps, such as the Avalanche Forecast and Slope Angle.
Heat up most of your body let alone your fingers and toes
Skiing Wearables will soon become mainstream, just like autonomous cars so we'll be wired up to Augmented Reality (AR) apps and accessories in the near future not only enhancing the ski experience but also protecting us from danger and extreme elements.
With more people spending longer outdoors, heated gear has become mainstream. Even big box retailer, Costco featured Karbon’s heated gloves and socks in 2021. Heat up most of your body let alone your fingers and toes with the most advanced heated accessories from companies such as Volt Heat and HeatPerformance.
Only problem with having all these tech toys and accessories? Remembering to charge your gadgets, the night before you're heading up the hill.
MORE CUTTING EDGE
Continuing a legacy of spearheading innovation for the past 56 years and into the future, Smith launched the first 3D printed, custom crafted MAG Imprint 3D goggle in 2021. Eliminating the one-size fits all approach to gear, these address the vast range of different face shapes and features.
Starting with a personalised facial scan through Smith’s custom app, an individualised frame is automatically generated with a face flange tailored to the exact features and contours of the user’s face. The customised frame is 3D printed - using HP’s industrial Multi Jet Fusion platform - then hand assembled into the best-selling Smith I/O MAG goggle in Smith’s USA-based production facility.
3D created goggles from Smith
There are, also, 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 connected to your phone by app.
Thanks to the pandemic there's been a boom in outdoor gear. In fact, it's trending as a style influence known as Gorpcore, with wearing cold weather brands such as Patagonia, Mammut and The North Face, now a hot look in fashion circles.
Such authentic performance brands have also effortlessly weathered the Covid storm. "As soon as the lockdowns began and resorts closed in March 2020, winter outdoor consumers started purchasing items they could use to recreate safely outside, such as snowshoes, backcountry ski gear, snowboard gear and Nordic equipment,” says Nick Sargent, President of Snowsports Industries America.
Mountain brands have swung their focus to uphill backcountry gear
A recent SIA Participation Study showed growth of new participants in some areas as well as a core of regulars doing more days. “This is key to growing our industry,” Sargent adds. “We must keep engaging with new and current participants as well as welcome anyone interested in the winter outdoor community.”
With the increase in ski touring, quite a few mountain brands have swung their focus to uphill backcountry gear, launching new ski tour and backcountry lines.
The new backcountry ski gear range, Khroma from Rab
However, often it's no more than a new label for downhill ski gear. For instance, if a brand is going to introduce pants for ski touring then, at least, put vents in the sides because as any ski tourer worth their skins will tell you, it can get mighty warm in unventilated ski pants going uphill.
Just like resorts, ski clothing and gear brands are going green. Waterproofing of fabrics is becoming increasingly PFC-free, using DWR (durable water repellent) treatment to reduce moisture ingress.
Companies, large and small, are carrying this torch. MagsRags produces Sun Peaks-branded neck Buffs made from recycled plastic. “They reused 12.5 million plastic bottles to make the fabric for their products through a process called Repreve technology,” says designer Marj Knive. " Their process embeds properties like wicking, adaptive warming and cooling, water repellency, and more at the fibre level, for reliable, durable quality. Compared to making what's called virgin fibre, creating Repreve offsets using new petroleum, emitting fewer greenhouse gases and conserving water and energy in the process. That makes a big difference for our future.”
UNIFI, turning plastic bottles into performance fibre.
Repreve, created via vertically integrated processes by UNIFI, the sustainable manufacturing company that transforms plastic bottles into recycled performance fibre, is gaining traction in the ski and snowboard wear industry, promoted by forward and eco-thinking brands including O’Neill, Under Armour, Volcom, The North Face and Patagonia.
Turning fishing nets into gear
Patagonia has been spearheading sustainability globally for some time and now has impressive figures to support their reduced footprint. In 2020. They repaired 101,706 garments, 149 tons of plastic waste were kept out of oceans by turning fishing nets into gear, 87 percent of their line used recycled materials, all electricity needs were met by renewable energy, and they worked on regenerative organic practices to increase soil health and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Also paving the eco-way, founder of Patagonia gave his company away in 2022 to combat climate change. Yvon Chouinard, the rock climber who founded Patagonia transferred ownership, valued at about $3 billion, to a trust and a non-profit organisation. Accoding to the New York Times, the reason is 'to preserve the company’s independence and ensure that all of its profits — some $100 million a year — are used to combat climate change and protect undeveloped land around the globe'.
Boasting 250 members by 2021, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) is the textile, apparel and footwear industry alliance responsible for the Higg Index, a scorecard for environmental impact. Salomon was an early advocate joining in 2015. As a member of the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), Salomon has also been instrumental in research into more environmentally-friendly fabrics. Repair centres for apparel have recently emerged, including those established by the Outdoor Sports Valley (OSV), of which Salomon is a founding member.
"Innovation isn't found chasing the big problems"
Since 2017 Salomon’s HQ in Annecy has been ISO14001 and ISO50001 certified and in 2018 Salomon signed the United Nations Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action. It has committed to reduce its carbon emissions by 30 percent by the year 2030.
Rab and Lowe Alpine (owned by Equip Outdoor Technologies Ltd) have seen sales significantly increase over the past year, making 2021 their most successful year. Increased production to meet demand means higher greenhouse gas emissions. Despite this, since 2019 they have reduced their emissions per product by 17.4 percent.
"Innovation isn't found chasing the big problems," says Tim Fish, Equip Product Director, "It's in all the simple changes that add up to make a big difference. Swapping to more recycled fabrics. Rolling products so they pack smaller. Focusing on the subtlest details to cut a millimetre of wastage. Reducing our impact is not something we do on the side, it's ingrained into our design process. As is our obsession on performance."
Perhaps the ultimate in sustainability and blueprint for future outdoor products are the Voylok boots, above, made with wool and hot water - that's it. No seams or stitches, no dyes, no chemicals, no waste. One pair of boots works for deep snow or desert sands and, if you slip off the natural rubber overshoe, for slothing at home. Because they are so easily separated, it makes end of life solutions simple: the wool boot goes in your garden or compost, and the rubber overshoe goes in the recycling.
All 22 kgCO2e of carbon used in production is offset via certified rewilding projects, a native tree planted on the customers' behalf - such as alder, birch, rowan or willow - in deforested areas of the UK.
Meanwhile, the Vital 100 ski by WNDR Alpine (above) is a glimpse of the ski industry of the future. The backcountry ski is light and stable, with very good edge grip but the biggest innovation lies in the production. The Vital 100 consists largely of organic material obtained from algae. All parts of the ski are also recyclable So the Vital 100 by WNDR Alpine is not only Winner in the Snowsports Hardgoods segment in the category, Skis but was also given an award for Sustainability Achievement.
RECYCLE, REPAIR, RESELL - OR RENT
What you binned your old ski jacket when you could have had it repaired (if it's Patagonia they have a repair service) or resold it on eBay? Can't be bothered? Then Snow + Rock have a recycling service, partnering with SOEX, the largest clothing re-wear and recycle company in the world, who offer clothing and textile collection, sorting, reuse, recycling and a redistribution network
Re-using is trending, along with Facebook swap and used sales sites. Says Nick Sargent SIA President: “Currently product sales are growing, but we are keeping an eye on what is going on with supply chain issues and inflation. This could ultimately drive people to the second-hand market as well.”
See that old Patagonia stuffed at the back of your ski kit shelf? Well, that's not 'old' that's vintage, worth more than the price you bought it for on Etsy
And then there's renting and the potential not only to reduce waste but also encourage more into the great outdoors. So there's rent a tent from Rab (image above) hiring out what can be expensive equipment such as trekking packs, expedition quality tents and sleeping bags.
From Decathlon, there's now a skiwear range that can be hired just for the holidays, featuring ski jackets and trousers for women, ranging from sizes: 6 to 16, starting from as little as £15 to rent for a 4-day period.
AI TO THE RESCUE
And, how about robots and automation taking 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 in high risk situations for search and rescue?
The skiing robot has already been invented. Six years ago Manitoba University Autonomous Agent Laboratory created Jennifer who could ski short runs and crosscountry but floundered in powder so search and rescue was still a long way off.
More like metal Jerry(cans) of the Day
Then in 2018, South Korea launched the Ski Robot Challenge with prize money for the eight competing teams, an 80 metre alpine skiing course at Welli Hilli Ski Resort, an hour away from the Olympic games in Pyeongchang. Sadly record low temperatures affected some of the robots' functionality and performance so they became less like professional skiers with any potential to patrol the mountains let alone ski a slalom course and more like metal Jerry(cans) of the Day.
With staffing shortages, Snowbird in Utah looked to AI to fill the gap. “In need of assistance, they reached out to Satisfi, the leading conversational AI platform for destinations and experiences,” says Don White, CEO of Satisfi Labs. “Together, Satisfi and Snowbird built ‘Gus the Rescue Dog’. Gus, an AI-powered assistant, was added to Snowbird’s website and mobile app to provide answers to questions in real-time.”
Since Gus’s implementation, he has helped answer over 38,000 in-bound messages from more than 19,000 individual site visitors.
Along with saving time, Gus and other Satisfi assistants help staff learn from common questions being asked, which helps to inform future communication strategies and operational decisions.
AT MELTING POINT
A seller's market. Image: Global melt down
A melting gondola car at the top of Aspen Mountain is a palpable reminder of the impact of climate change on skiing. While pandemic priorities have eclipsed much of the climate change focus in resorts, many are soldiering on with eco policies, to protect the great outdoors that is their reason for existence.
Reducing their impact on climate with the target of zero fossil fuel use, is now the aim of any ski resort that wants to sustain its future - and that of the planet. Solar and wind power combined with reduced wasted energy such as running fewer lifts in low season are the main ways forward. With EVs – electric vehicles – trending now and into the future, recharging stations are popping up in ski resorts, a hopeful sign of a less fossil-fuelled future.
The melting gondola art installation is a symbol of a warming planet
Aspen is leading the way with a new climate action campaign launched December 2021 in partnership with the non-profit Protect Our Winters (POW). The melting gondola art installation (image above) is a symbol of a warming planet, intended to help mobilise outdoorsy people in the fight against climate change. Since Aspen Snowmass first opened in the winter of 1946-47, the region’s average temperature has warmed by three degrees Fahrenheit. In total, Aspen Snowmass has lost 30 days of winter since 1980 alone – and this is representative of ski areas everywhere.
The hashtag #PowertoPOW
As part of Aspen’s 75th anniversary this season, the Melted Gondola has been installed as a push for people to consider the next 75 years, and draw attention to the urgent need to address climate change aggressively. Aspen Snowmass encourages guests to visit the display throughout the season and to post pictures of the installation using the hashtag #PowertoPOW.
BUT WILL THE CLIMATE CHANGE?
With 120 global leaders meeting at the UN Climate Summit in Glasgow in 2021 to agree ways forward to tackle the climate crisis, there's still the thought that is it too little too late - and too unlikely to be fully implemented in time by all countries to claw back the damage already done? In fact, is it all a load of hot C02 air?
The Alpine winter season will start up to a month later
While many in the UK might welcome warmer weather on the beaches, in the mountains of Europe such global warming could be a disaster. The European Geoscience Union Journal, the Cryosphere, has predicted 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 ever-shrinking La Mer de Glace, Chamonix
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 image above, with the glacier level shown in 1990) and in the Pyrenees it’s 80 percent.
VIRTUAL IS REALITY
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.
A North Oxfordshire company called Playko has developed a world first skiing game, the Ski Fit 365 in VR, launched December 2021, that tracks your leg movements so it's the only game that realistically mimics skiing, claiming to be the next best thing to being on the slopes.
Then there's Carv, the personal instructor, that lets you know how well you're skiing and how to improve your technique, thanks to sensors in each boot and a smart phone app.
ORDERING ON LINE
The pandemic has created a booming home delivery industry of anything from groceries to gourmet dinners to cook yourself. Pandemic protocols have also made gear rental delivery the future. Rather than waiting in line, skiers are increasingly turning to door-to-door delivery with concierge companies like Ski Butlers, which now services 50 ski areas in the US, Canada, France and Italy.
Black Tie Ski Rentals are now working in 46 resorts in North America. Black Tie developed a number of operational protocols to book safe rentals making them a click away for safe, minimal-touch delivery. Co-founder & President, Ian Prichard states: “The pandemic has put personalised, customisable, efficient, and tech-led or highly-digital services in the spotlight."
According to research from the SIA (Snowsports Industries of America), the proportion of snowsports’ participants aged 35-54 remained largely the same between 2019-20 and the following winter.
“Participants under 35, and especially those under 18, were more likely to participate in 2020-21, perhaps due to remote schooling,” says President, Nick Sargent. “Participants over 55, and especially those over 65, made up a smaller proportion of overall participants in 2020-21.”
Parents are encouraging kids into snowsports
The SIA looks at clothing and gear sales and noted an uptick in uphill, which could also account for the growth of the younger sector. With indoor pursuits considered less healthy in winter, parents are encouraging kids into snowsports and leading the way by skiing and snowboarding as a family. Certainly, more season pass sales to locals in most US and Canadian resorts would bear this out.
How to attract the Millennials? Image: Aimee Fuller
But concern about the next generations' enthusiasm for ski holidays is growing like a cornice in a snow storm with ominous connotations for the ski industry. What happens when the usually prolifically active Baby Boomers can no longer ski or snowboard (even with their new artificial knees)?
Will the ski slopes be empty as the next generations, led by the Millennials migrate to warmer - and cheaper - holiday destinations with Insta-gain experiences?
Working from home is now future-proof for many
For resorts going forward, the focus is on attracting new generations of skiers and snowboarders from Millennials down to the Alphas. As travel returns to more of a norm, the key is persuading them to come to the mountains instead of globe-trotting around more exotic destinations.
Their careers may have been hit by Covid, along with their bank accounts but the fact that working from home is now future-proof for many is good news for ski resorts where internet access is going to be far more reliable than on a beach in Madagascar.
Putting in warp speed lifts and linking small satellite villages with super ski stations to create ever larger and more impressive ski resorts has been the way forward. Until now.
A grassroots movement is growing to halt the development juggernauts ploughing up the mountains. In Austria there are plans to link the sleepy Pitztal resort with Solden but it means demolishing part of the mountain ridge and destroying the landscape. According to National Geographic "By anyone’s account, it’s a mega-project. Linking the two ski stations and adding three new lines of cable cars, a massive water reservoir, a ski tunnel, and bars and restaurants for 1,600 skiers would create the largest ski resort in Europe. For locals, the project holds the promise of luring more affluent tourists to Pitztal.
There is a growing swell of local resistance
"But the price would be a chunk of nature’s skyline. To lower a ridge by 120 feet, about 10,000 truckloads of rock need to be blown off the mountain. A glacial landscape the size of 90 soccer pitches would need to be planed flat."
So there is a growing swell of local resistance with 160,000 people signing a petition opposing the development.
Meanwhile, don't be surprised to find city horizons including skiscrapers in the future. Winner of the Building of the Year award, December 2021 is an incineration plant in Copenhagen, which has a rooftop artificial ski slope along with a hiking trail, bar and the tallest climbing wall in the world.
FAR EAST HORIZONS
The Changbaishan ski resort of the future in China. Image: GRAFT
Thanks to the much-anticipated Olympic leg-up from the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, China is set to be one of the biggest new ski markets post pandemic, sporting over 700 resorts.
As yet, China and Japan are not yet challenging America in terms of international skier visits. But the figure of 10,000 Chinese skiers in the mid 90s had already escalated to 12.5m by 2015. Five years later and the number rose to 20m. No wonder ski instructors in Whistler Blackcomb are learning Mandarin and Cantonese.
Topping them all is Tibet
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. But it's five years since the fanfare announcement and no signs so far of it being built.
It's 'nyet' for now for the formerly well-heeled Russians
Of course, global politics as well as pandemics can play a large part in determining which major ski markets actually materialise in the future. In 2014, the $35million Masikryong Ski Resort in North Korea built by the Korean People's Army opened as part of Kim Jong Un’s goal of boosting numbers of foreign tourists from 200,000 a year to 1m by 2016 In response to the threats posed by Covid, North Korea closed its borders to foreign tourists on 22nd January 2020 and tourism has not been allowed to resume resulting in economic losses of around $175 million.
For Russia it's going to be ditto, with no ski tourism in the new future and it's 'nyet' for now for the formerly well-heeled Russians who skied internationally.
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