Sunday, July 1, 1990

Euro Skiing

A third snowless winter has forced many Europeans to rethink their views about an industry, that until recently, had never faced such a drop in business. The facts that America wasn't able to pick up all of the slack, and that Japan's growth may be slowing down, are introducing concerns which are more than snow deep, and will undoubtably lead to some radical changes.

Europeans are not taking the recent warming trend too seriously and believe records snow falls may be right around the corner, yet ski areas are now gearing up for more snow making facilities and grooming every run with a fine-tooth comb so they can open under the most marginal conditions. Will that suffice? Probably not.

There is a growing feeling in the Alps that hard-core skiers are leaving the sports in large numbers. The attraction from sun and sea resorts seems to be the main reason for this alarming attrition. North African and Caribbean resorts along with cheaper group air fares have suddenly come of age and have become the number one competitors to skiing.

The benefits - especially during this past drought seasons - are obvious. Conditions in the tropics are more predictable than Europe's capricious weather, and the logistics - shorts and swimsuit - simply don't compare. Europeans who used to be enthusiastic skiers and are now approaching their 50's, feel their bones are getting weaker and no longer want to "kill" the mountain.

To make matters worse, they've failed to pass their passion for skiing to their children who are less avid as they are confronted with a host of recreational options. Winter sports may be fun, but they're no longer the only game in town... Monoski and snowboard have played a role in retaining more youth into the winter sport scene but they've failed to add new participants... Undeniably, there now is a "blase" attitude towards winter sports in Europe.

Until recently, the continent drop-out rate has been masked by the growth which came from Scandinavia, Germany, and Holland in the 70's, and one decade later by the explosion of skiing in the U.K. Once these trends stabilize, the drop could accelerate. Obviously, the evolution of the east block countries is watched with high hopes; however, some lag is to be expected between the moment these countries turn their economies around and the time they begin consuming western style...

On the retail front, a record numbers of failures are expected this year. Unlike here, European ski retailers are not as specialized and are all dealing in counter-seasonal sports. Even though that diversification shelters them against poor winters, their small volume is placing them in an awkward position against a mounting network of chains.

While ski areas shops used to do a significant retail business, they are gradually losing to city businesses and their sole strength remaining at rental. One significant fact concerns disappointing retail sales of snowboards compared to the rental volume they generate. If the trend goes on, rental may severely curtail retail sales of equipment.

Over-capacity is therefore a problem shared by all ski areas. This will force more and more European destination resorts to actively prospect in Japan and America. Without a question accommodations and general levels of service will have to fit the specific needs of non-Europeans, Alpine ski resorts know it and are gearing to go ahead with these adjustments. It is only a matter of time until that transatlantic competition will be felt at home.

Logistics are another negative often associated with skiing. The reason behind the successful development of alpine skiing in Scandinavia has been its integration into packaged tours, where everything is taken care of... To survive, the whole European skiing industry may have to accelerate that trend for all-inclusive pricing and pampered service. Upcoming airline deregulation, as well as an increasing network of high-speed trains over the continent will make travel easier and take some headaches out of skiing.

Is there something to be learn from these European woes? Most certainly. In this global day and age, trends are becoming more universal, and watching Europe's response to some trying times might provide us with some ideas we could just use at home.