Scottish skiing

New Baddoch Chair Lift, Glenshee

Each winter, the first dusting of snow is met with nervous anticipation by Scotland’s ski centres – will the winter bring good conditions, and enough business to keep them going, or will they have to limp along for another year? Ida Maspero investigates how our Mountain ski centres plan to survive

Photography: Steven McKenna/Ski Scotland, Charne Hawkes/Nevis Range

A bright February day in 2009, with reports of fine snow and weather conditions on the hills, sees us piling into the car at the crack of dawn to make the two-hour drive from Edinburgh to Glenshee. Once there, and having run the gauntlet of crowded car park and ski hire, we hit the picture-perfect slopes with clear blue skies above and breath-taking views over the seemingly endless white hills all around. It’s a pleasantly unexpected day’s skiing for someone who’s six months pregnant (so hardly likely to jet off to the continent for a week) … and in complete contrast to a first visit to Glenshee years before, also in February, memorable only for driving sleet, high winds and thin, patchy snow.

Most snowsports fans in Scotland have similar tales of days at opposite ends of the spectrum. And of many winter weeks spent waiting for the conditions to be right, poised to make a hastily-arranged dash to the slopes when the gods of snow and weather smile upon the Scottish hills. Keeping an eye on snow reports and ski centre webcams is a favourite winter ritual of those with a passion for the white stuff.

And then, once arrived, we might tut at having to mount 30-year-old drag lifts instead of the kind of state-of-the-art chair lifts founds in the Alps or Rockies; we might bemoan the patchy snow on lower runs or icy upper pistes; and grimace at the micro-waved pie and beans in the café.

A tricky trade

While the average Scottish skier’s perception of snowsports at home is inevitably coloured by comparisons with large resorts abroad, a glimpse behind the scenes of Scotland’s ski industry reveals a more complex picture. Talk to any one of Scotland’s five mountain ski centres – all private businesses – and they’ll tell you it’s a singularly tricky and challenging business to be in; a constant juggling act of unpredictable weather conditions and visitor numbers, yo-yoing cash flow, ageing infrastructure and changing trends.

Without the predictable months of consistently favourable conditions enjoyed elsewhere, Scotland’s snowsports industry has long been rather fragile, and its five ski centres in a permanently precarious

position. Well, nearly always. When you talk to those who have been skiing or been in the business long enough to remember, you’ll hear of a golden age in the 1980s and 1990s when a prolonged run of good snow seasons saw strong visitor numbers and a buoyant trade. On the back of those boom years, most developed and expanded their infrastructure, adding lift capacity, snow-fenced runs and better visitor facilities.

These days, however, visitor numbers are much lower – as borne out in the most recent Scottish Snowsports Strategic Review, commissioned by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) and Scottish Enterprise. So, what lies behind the fall in numbers? “A mix of reasons,” says Chris Taylor, Head of Tourism at HIE. “Partly snow cover – not that there’s less snow, but it’s more variable. It comes and goes more quickly than it did in the past. This creates a level of uncertainty and last-minute planning.”

View to Fort William from the Goose T-bar lift at Nevis Range

Interestingly, Marian Austin, Managing Director at Nevis Range near Fort William, also attributes the drop to a shift in people’s perceptions of when winter is – quite possibly driven by the premature change-over of seasonal products in shops and the earlier arrival of spring in cities. “People stop thinking about snowsports after mid-March,” she comments. “In that golden period in the mid-90s, we used to be as busy, if not busiest, in April. We now find that, in terms of skier numbers, the season ends after the first week in March, even if the snow is still fantastic.”

And of course there’s the matter of overseas competition, with more and more snowsports enthusiasts jetting off for a week in Europe or North America. “But the impact of overseas travel is a general theme in Scottish tourism and not limited to snowsports,” Chris Taylor reminds us. “It’s tough out there, so we need to be delivering an overall good quality experience to get a slice of the spend.”

No doubt about it, Scotland’s ski centres are in a tough position. With something as uncontrollable as the weather being the prime factor in determining snowsports income in a given year, obtaining finance from banks is near impossible. As such, centres have to hold out for several profitable years before they are able to implement any plans for major upgrades, such as lifts. Even then, that investment can only come after annual maintenance to ensure the safety of existing equipment has been paid for.

“The ski business is very different from other industries in the sense that we can only invest once we’ve had a good winter or two, with strong visitor numbers. And that’s not something we can predict,” remarks Stewart Davidson, one of the seven directors of Glenshee Ski Centre, which underwent a management buy-out in 2004.

Traditionally, this unpredictable cash situation has led to underinvestment and a lack of renewal. Andy Meldrum, who bought Glencoe ski centre with the help of shareholders in 2009, puts it bluntly: “Anywhere else in Europe, most of Scotland’s ageing infrastructure would have been confined to the scrapheap – with the exception of the Nevis Range gondola and CairnGorm funicular. On the continent, lifts are routinely replaced after 20 years. The ageing infrastructure is every Scottish centre’s biggest challenge. Because it’s old, it takes more time and money to operate and maintain, placing an even greater burden on the business.”

Diversify or die?

With investment in new infrastructure and equipment dependent on cash flow from year to year, all five centres have made it a top priority to claw in more of a year-round income. Attracting summer visitors, and encouraging them to spend, is very much part of the wider strategy. Down the years, this has meant diversifying their offer of activities to broaden income streams. Such diversification is also a key recommendation in HIE’s Scottish Snowsports Strategic Review.

The obvious starting point and most valuable asset for each centre is their mountain location – without exception, spectacularly scenic and a natural draw for sightseers, walkers and mountain bikers. To a lesser or greater extent, all five centres make use of their uplift facilities to take summer visitors up the mountain for a healthy dose of fresh air and mountain views, and sometimes more. With luck, they linger for a coffee or meal in the café … though, as Chris Taylor of HIE warns, upping the game in the kitchen is also essential, as sightseeing visitors are less likely to settle for that micro-waved pie and beans than would a hungry snowboarder.

In summer, CairnGorm and Nevis Range have a particular advantage in that their funicular and gondola, respectively, are not only their main modes of uplift but visitor attractions in themselves. CairnGorm even changes the way its funicular (or mountain railway) runs in summer, slowing it down from the swift ascent required by snowsports enthusiasts to a gentle amble so that summer passengers can better savour the views.

This infrastructural advantage, plus the fact that summer visitors outnumber snowsports visitors across the sector, is highlighted by the figures. Chris Taylor points out: “We have about 200,000 snowsports visits a year, but 300,000 non-snowsports visits to the ski centres in summer. Of those, 280,000 go to CairnGorm and Nevis Range. The huge fact in that is the funicular and gondola providing access for sightseeing and general leisure pursuits, and in the case of Nevis Range, mountain biking. In that sense, these major capital investments [both made possible by substantial public funding via HIE], have been critically important for the two centres and the areas of Lochaber and Strathspey.”

On the back of its gondola, Nevis Range has carved a niche for itself as the UK home of international downhill mountain biking – since 2002 it’s been the only UK host of the Mountain Bike World Cup Series. This high-profile event has placed the centre firmly on the mountain biking map and has drawn huge crowds of spectators – something Marian Austin and her team are exploiting to further enhance the centre’s reputation as a mountain biking destination for riders of all abilities.

Nevis Range has carved a niche for itself as the UK home of international downhill mountain biking – since 2002 it’s been the only UK host of the Mountain Bike World Cup Series

Earlier this year, Nevis Range took over the management of the bike trails in Leanachan Forest (which surrounds it) from Forestry Commission Scotland with a view to integrating them better with its own existing trails. “Our idea is also to expand the network of maintained, signposted trails and to develop new routes, especially family-friendly ones,” explains Austin.

Adding further to the centre’s vision for a varied, resort-style experience, Nevis Range also opened a high-wire adventure course three years ago. “It’s designed to complement our other summer activities like the gondola rides and biking, encouraging people to stay longer and make a day of it. Though it was definitely a worthwhile investment, it will take longer to pay off than we’d hoped.”

However, as Austin emphasises, sightseeing gondola trips remain the mainstay of Nevis Range: “That, not mountain biking, is our biggest alternative market and has been since the beginning. Summer visitors going up for the views or a wee walk outnumber all the others ten to one. Every year, the number of just-gondola-only visits are between 100 and 150,000, whereas skiing is 10-30,000 and mountain biking is less than 10,000.”

At CairnGorm Mountain, summer sightseeing trips on the mountain railway are the mainstay, too. Due to the sensitivity of the mountain environment, those disembarking at the top are restricted to the Ptarmigan visitor centre and viewing terrace. However, ranger-guided ‘Walks at the Top’ and ‘Train Up, Guided Walk Down’ experiences provide walking opportunities for passengers and additional income for CairnGorm.

This summer, the centre introduced ‘Bike CairnGorm’, a guided downhill mountain biking experience taking riders from the top all the way down to Rothiemurchus Forest below. “The rides have been going well, with good feedback from those who have been on it and word spreading rapidly about what a great experience it is,” comments Marketing Manager, Colin Kirkwood.

Andy Meldrum at Glencoe also has his sights set on downhill mountain biking: “To our very steep black track we have recently added a red track suitable for intermediate riders. Our biking numbers have more than trebled this year, and we hope to schedule an event on the new track.”

Another facet of Meldrum’s strategy is bringing unique competitive events to Glencoe to lure the crowds and court publicity. This year, the centre ran its first extreme freeski event and it has just obtained a qualifying event for the freeski world tour. For the past two years, it has also been the home of MacAvalanche, a mass start downhill mountain bike race that sees riders setting off from the summit in snow.

MaCavalanch MTB downhill

But, like Nevis Range, Meldrum has discovered that overall numbers of leisure mountain bikers remain small compared to snowsports: “On a good snow day, we see a thousand skiers on the hill while on a good bike day we see 20 or 30 riders, so the numbers are comparatively low. It’s making a small difference to our operation and again it’s dependent on the weather.”

But Glencoe’s most recent and biggest hope for a solid summer income, Meldrum believes, is its new accommodation, which cashes in on the centre’s proximity to the West Highland Way. In July this year, Glencoe opened six micro-lodges – compact and attractive timber camping huts that sleep four people each. “They’ve been a great success so far. When the weather closes in, walkers on the Way who were planning to camp duck in here for a bed. The worse the weather, the busier the café and the fuller the lodges … at last, a part of our business that thrives in bad weather!”

Again, precarious cash flow has tempered Meldrum’s ambition – ten units were planned, but only six built due to the last snow season being poor and alternative finance not forthcoming. “It’s a shame,” he says. “We would have filled ten this summer if we had them.” Meldrum speaks for all centre owners when he pragmatically remarks: “Unlike conventional businesses, we struggle to access finance from banks, so we have to react very proactively when we have the money, and then hunker down and survive in the lean years.”

Meldrum will continue to pump cash, whenever possible, into expansion and diversification to “create more of a hub for people to come to. We also have plans to build the steepest, longest zip line in the UK. But this is totally dependent on cash – if this coming season is good, we’ll have money in the bank. If it’s another poor one, the zipwire might not happen for a long time, if at all”.

Diversification might be the answer for some, but for others it’s more about consolidation. That’s certainly how Stewart Davidson views Glenshee’s future. Having built a mountain bike track three years ago, Davidson does not feel it has been a particular success. Energy now is being focused on consolidating Glenshee’s position as the UK’s largest-area snowsports centre.

“We have tried diversifying here, but it’s difficult due to our remote location,” comments Davidson. “At the end of the day, the bulk of our income will come from snowsports, and we’ve ploughed all the income from the two good seasons back into those facilities. Last year, we built a new two-seater chairlift giving better access to the Cairnwell side of the hill. It was a huge success in its first season. We’ve also invested in two new piste machines at vast cost, and new, better snow fencing.”

Cairngorm view looking down from Ptarmigan bowl Steve McKenna

Growing future markets

Despite their fragile financial positions, the five ski centres are generally confident about the future. “I believe people will always ski in Scotland because it’s on the doorstep,” asserts Davidson. “Skiing in Scotland is an opportunist thing. In fact, here at Glenshee we seem to be getting away from the pattern of busy weekends and quiet weeks – week days are getting busier when snow’s good, probably as more people work flexibly.”

In the long run, the future of Scotland’s ski centres will most likely not be determined just by quantifiable factors such as snow cover, investment or diversification. The more subtle forces of perception, awareness, access and education come into play as these will ultimately drive the centres’ visitor base now and into the future. As the five centres look to cultivate and encourage this visitor base, they are actively working together rather than viewing each other as competition.

Ski Scotland, the joint marketing body for Scotland’s snowsports industry, disseminates detailed snow reports and up-to-the-minute information via its website, and also markets an all-areas ski pass. According to its chair, Heather Negus, providing timely information is vital, so that skiers can confidently make a spontaneous decision to head for the slopes. Webcams at each ski centre have been a real breakthrough in this respect. And in an attempt to address the perception of when the snowsport season ends, Ski Scotland is currently lobbying the major television broadcasters to extend their snow bulletins beyond February.

Making sure that every Scottish school child has the opportunity to access the slopes here at home, often for their very first taste of snowsports, is another strand which Ski Scotland is encouraging, along with the centres. Whether it will be enough to sustain the future of Scotland’s five ski centres remains to be seen.

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