2013/2014 Top 100, French ski areas are resisting the pressure

Monday 6 October 2014

Resisting means not giving in, it means holding on. Resisting means not succumbing to the effects of actions to which we are subjected. In the mountains, the definition of the verb "to resist" can and does take on another aspect, another meaning: resisting means creating, demonstrating imagination and innovation.

Top 100 stations de ski 2013 2014

Pierre Lestas - Président des Domaines Skiables de FranceThe number containing the results of the TOP 100 of our Montagne Leaders friends is always popular:it gives us a chance to review the previous season and, more importantly, to take a detached look at the trends at work in our ski areas, which are the principal drivers of the attractiveness of our resorts.
The 2013/2014 season can be seen as a half-empty glass or a half-full one. The total number of visitors was 4.5 % lower than in the previous season, which will not satisfy the most demanding; however others will be consoled by the fact that the figures are close to the average for the last four years. The weather was dull until March, which reduced visitor numbers and affected everyone. Contrary to general trends over recent years, this season it was the larger centres which pulled off a more successful year than the small and medium resorts. In the Vosges and a few other places (e.g. Isère), a certain number of resorts suffered a shortage of snow. Nivalliance, our mutual assurance against the risk of chance events affecting operations, provided useful support for these resorts. 700,000 Euros were paid out to indemnify affected operators.For my part, I am one of the "demanding" group, whose pursuit is excellence. France is a great nation in the tourism industry, and she must provide high quality skiing in ski areas offering great variety. She must also perform well at the Winter Olympics. I am thinking of our champions, on the pistes at Sochi, and I am thinking of French professionals, both suppliers and operators, whose know-how was displayed during the Games for the whole world to see. And finally, France must recover its first place in the world-wide winter sports business, of which it has been deprived by the school calendar.There are people who will say that we are never satisfied. So what? The figures are there for all to see: 3 % of skier-days and of the season's earnings have evaporated since the date of the spring holidays was put back one week in 2010. The facts are incontestable. And I have urged my demand with our trade association, whose job it is to alert decision-makers to the realities of our economy. Our businesses operate in a highly constricted environment: ever-increasing standards and regulations, a scissor effect between costs and earnings, the threat to some of our foreign customers, competition from other tourist destinations, the need to develop new customers, the need to invest, etc. In this context, who would resign himself to the loss of 3 % of his earnings, 30 % of the margin of our companies? Who could accept, after investing in snow-makers to protect the jobs of the whole resort, that we must now shorten seasonal contracts because business has disappeared at the end of the season? I do not accept it, and I never will accept it.

When I see the difficulties we have in making ourselves understood, in this matter and others, I wonder what priority our leaders really place on tourism. Tourism is an opportunity for France and the French. Every year we welcome foreign visitors who have chosen to come and spend their money in our country. Does that not place a burden of responsibility on us?The responsibility to create jobs, to keep territories alive. The responsibility to mobilise, to act jointly, to keep our existing customers and attract new ones. The responsibility and the duty to correct the mistakes which we see around us. And the right to be heard and listened to.

Pierre Lestas
President of Domaines Skiables de France

 

Resisting is a strong concept, but is it the right one for this situation?
Focus on key figures for lifts and ski areasThere is every reason to believe that it is. While it is true that the economic crisis is slowly fading from the world's economic landscape, the slow growth rates in Europe – and in France – mean that prudence continues to be the order of the day, as we see from the reduction in the number of skier-days. As we noted last year, on the publication of the twentieth Top 100 annual survey, the mountain tourism industry continues to wash its face year after year. Apart from niche or innovative sectors, do you know of any other industries which continue to produce growth in their turnover almost every year? There are few or none. So if winter sports tourism is largely unaffected by the crisis, why stick a spoke in its wheel? Why throw sand in the well-oiled machinery which is the jewel in the crown of French industry? Winter sports tourism, an industry which has secondary benefits for the economy, giving life and employment to whole valleys and attracting large numbers of foreign customers, is being forced to adapt to a school calendar which appears to have forgotten an entire segment of the French economy.

Why do I talk about the problem of the French school calendar in these opening words? Quite simply because it helps to explain this year's figures, most of which have fallen. While it is true that the total turnover of the Top 100 has grown by 1.14 %, the number of skier-days of the Top 100 has fallen by 3.2 %. In the country as a whole, French ski areas have recorded a fall of 4.5 %, according to Domaines Skiables de France, meaning that France has fallen from first to second place among world ski destinations, behind the USA. The school calendar, which has been blamed since 2012, appears to have cost France her first place this year. According to Domaines Skiables de France, our partner in the Top 100 survey, "slipping the spring holidays by one week has reduced the number of visitors to ski areas over this period by 70 %, so that it now represents only 2 to 3 % of the season, as against 8 % before 2010".
But the most worrying aspect is that the public institutions, the ministries concerned and the country's highest authorities have been informed of the economic difficulties of the winter sports industry, and yet – although the calendar introduced by Luc Chatel was discussed and firmly contested – his successor, Vincent Peillon, has continued the same tendency. And there seem to be no prospects of an improvement. The end of the Easter holidays has been set for 11 May in 2015 and 9 May in 2016 and 2017. It is a long way from the calendars of 1990 and 2000, when the holidays finished at the end of April or the very beginning of May. What is our Tourism minister waiting for? Why do our deputies not act? Domaines Skiables de France, France Montagnes, SNMSF and other organisations are protesting on all sides to obtain real debate on this issue in parliament.

However the school calendar is not the sole explanation. Weather conditions have been extremely variable in different mountain ranges, valleys and resorts. Nor should we forget the problem of ski-school classes and capturing the next generation, which sometimes seems to take second place. This year Domaines Skiables de France and France Montagnes have again taken up this question and have introduced the French Skiss programme, an offer aimed at complete beginners aged between 16 and 25.

And this initiative is not alone; every resort is trying to find a solution. The increases in the rate of VAT, which went up from 5.5% to 7%, and then 10 % on 1 January 2014, may have influenced customer behaviour and consumption. The problem of empty beds is also blamed by many operators. Because an empty bed has a direct influence on earnings and on the number of skier-days in a resort. Many people are getting to grips with this problem, however. Firstly, the CDA is trying to solve it through the real estate market. Les 2 Alpes and others have set up a range of initiatives to sell beds, or at least offer them on the rental market. Operators are working harder to make up for the fall in skier-days: chalets and hotels, restructuring and optimisation of lifts, piste improvements, snow-making, new commercial offers, use of the latest technologies, smart-phone applications all help to improve customer satisfaction.

As we said, in the mountains more than anywhere else, resisting is creating, with imagination and innovation. Of course, President François Hollande is right: "It isn't easy". But what is easy? Building ski resorts in all our mountain ranges when the number of skiers in the post-war years was derisory?
Launching Plan Neige (Snow Plan)? Encouraging the development of winter sports? None of it was easy. But the people living in the mountains did it! In the mountains, more than elsewhere, nothing is easy. Mountain territories were often abandoned while priority was given to the cities, because the climate and living conditions were judged – rightly or wrongly – to be too tough and too restrictive, offering few jobs and little wealth. But look where we are today: magnificent ski areas which are the envy of the world. Nothing is easy, but you achieved it, you resisted external factors to put the basics in place, and much more. And we are all sure that you will continue to do so in future. The proof of this is that, despite the conjunction of external factors, the overall turnover of the Top 100 has risen, and is close to setting a new record.

 

What should we make of the 2014 Top 100?

Turnover distribution by status and by tranche in the Top 100Historic. Yes, the turnover of the Top 100 for the year 2013-2014 is historic. From historic to euphoric is just a step –but it is a step which we will not take. Why? France has just lost its first place in the world industry, which is a good reason for humility. Another is that of the 30 top stations in terms of turnover, fourteen suffered a reduction in comparison with 2012-2013, three grew by less than 1 % and five by less than 3 %. What is left? Eight resorts, just eight ski areas. Is that a reason to rejoice? No.
On the other hand, let us not fall into contagious scepticism. Let us rejoice in the positive results while recognising that some ranges and some resorts have had a very hard winter, both in terms of weather conditions and operationally. Of course the idea is not to hand out good or bad marks. No. The idea is to understand why the general trend is rising while large numbers of resorts are seeing a fall in their turnover. Among the different ranges, only Haute-Savoie, Savoie, the Pyrenees and the Massif Central are reporting growth. In Isère, Alpes du Sud, Jura and the Vosges on the other hand, turnover has fallen. And big disparities exist within each range. For example, only seven of the nineteen resorts in Haute-Savoie report an increase in turnover. We find exactly the same in Isère, where two resorts out of nine have increased their turnover. In Savoie, more than half the resorts – sixteen out of thirty – have increased turnover. In the Massif Central, almost two thirds grew, while in the Pyrenees almost all resorts did. With an increase in overall turnover of 6.75%, the Pyrenees have the best results.Top 30 journées skieurs
In terms of skier-days, only the Pyrenees record an increase, of 1.98%, although some individual resorts are outstanding such as: Bellevaux-Hirmentaz: +6.08%, Thollon-les-Mémises: +10.49%, Autrans: +12.2%, Val Thorens: +4.74%, Mont Dore: +4.09% or - most notably - Espace Cauterets: + 16.92% and Espace Cambre d’Aze:+ 11.32 %.
Yes, France has lost its number one place in the world, but, as the Delegate General of Domaines Skiables de France, Laurent Reynaud, says, the average number of skier-days, while it has fallen, is close to the average for the last four seasons.

 

What must we remember from the 2014 Top 100?

Largest growth in turnoverWe at Montagne Leaders will remember only the positive side of this vintage. Once again a large number of resorts answered the survey, and we are grateful for your cooperation. Without the ski area operators and their teams this survey could never see the light of day! We send you all our sincerest thanks.

What else is new from the number-crunching for 2014? Savoie continues to be the range and the department with the highest turnover and the largest number of skier-days, followed by Haute Savoie, Isère and Alpes du Sud. The Pyrenees had a good season. And the Vosges? Is this the first sign of the climate change that we have heard so much about?
Not necessarily. A poor winter? More likely. This range suffered badly from marginal temperatures and could not provide basic cover with artificial snow. Far from being defeated, operators in the Vosges are expecting a snowy winter to climb back into public notice and show what they are capable of.
The other point is the poor increase in turnover, to put it mildly. The first place in this category of biggest increase went this year to Espace Cambre d’Aze with + 24.35 %. (Last year, the first place in this category reported growth of + 91.77 %). This year's winner would have come only twelfth last year. Why? You all know the reasons, but they do not detract from the achievement of this year's winner, which showed its ability to keep old customers and attract new ones.
To help explain some of the economic data, we have included a category of "The Top 100 divided by range", comparing the number of days open.

 

 

The information in this dossier is extracted from the exclusive "Top 100" survey. The whole survey is available in No. 245 of Montagne Leaders magazine.

> Dossier prepared by the editorial team.
> Photos Copyright: DR / Dovemed, Olivier Petitti.

 

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