I had the pleasure of visiting Glenshee Ski Area this week, not to ski but for a work meeting that also involved a talk by the management team of the Glenshee Chairlift Company. It was fascinating. Imagine running a business that accepts the vast majority of customers over just three months, that’s entirely weather-dependent and where your staff are out in all weathers at altitudes of over 2000 feet.
Not only do skiers need to be opportunists but the companies that run Scotland’s five ski areas also need to find every opportunity to invest and diversify in order to survive. As a commercial enterprise it’s relatively young: both Glencoe and Cairngorm ski companies were only formed in 1956 and have grown incrementally since then. Skiing in Scotland grew gradually during the ’60s and ’70s then boomed in the ’80s as more people discovered the sport and we experienced a series of good winters. I remember learning to ski at Glenshee back in the mid-80s and have memories of the university ski club bus struggling to negotiate a narrow lane lined with snow drifts that must easily have been ten feet high.
“Skiing in Scotland is an opportunists’ sport. It’s not as if you can plan on going skiing a week on Thursday.”
But a number of factors now threaten the very existence of the sport in Scotland. First, our temperate climate (where temperatures can fluctuate markedly from week to week as weather patterns shift) and greater climate unpredictability mean that the stability businesses rely on for future investment is highly elusive. At Glenshee, for example, there were around 120,000 skier days in the long winter of 2009/10 yet only 8,500 skier days in 2006/07. It just takes two or three bad years on the trot to seriously undermine business viability. Second, the popularity of Scottish skiing has declined over the last 20 years. Partly, this is linked to unpredictable snow but it’s also due to fewer young people taking up skiing (with fewer schools able to afford to offer ski lessons ?) and particularly, competition from cheap ski holidays abroad.
At its best, skiing in Scotland rivals the best experience you can have anywhere (well … almost !). And it does need to stay competitive when you can have a week’s skiing in Bulgaria or Andorra for not a great deal more money.
It has a strong following of enthusiasts, 60% of whom go to Cairngorm and Glenshee, but the unpredictable conditions are its greatest weakness. How many times have you decided to head to the slopes only to find that half of Scotland has had exactly the same idea that sunny Saturday ? Last time I went to Glenshee for instance there was a five mile tailback just to get into the car park and by the time we got into the ski hire queue they’d already rented out the most popular sizes of boots. (The day wasn’t wasted though: we had an enjoyable morning sledging and then managed to hire equipment for an afternoon on the slopes).
The five ski centres came together a few years ago to look for ways they could survive into the long-term. A key study highlighted ten actions – all of which are now being delivered – which include investing in new chairlifts to expand the ski areas to higher altitudes, diversifying the centres into year-round attractions and reducing the VAT paid by the chairlift companies to encourage increased investment. Collectively, this action plan is putting the ski centres on to a much firmer footing, supporting not only skiing but also walking, biking and other kinds of adventure sports.
This week we took the new chairlift up to 3000 feet, just below the summit of Cairnwell, a munro. We experienced glorious conditions – t-shirt weather – with stupendous views of the Eastern Cairngorms and surrounding hills. Glenshee was still skiable (a firm base but with soft, sometimes patchy snow in places) and a great day was to be had. The only thing was, there were hardly any skiers at all. It seems that the ‘season’ quickly tails off from early March – even if there is still ample snow – with the common perception that the winter is already past. The hills around Edinburgh and Glasgow may be devoid of snow but at 2500 – 3000 feet great skiing is still often available. The lesson ? Using social media to promote skiable days is vital.
Glenshee has some ambitious plans for redevelopment including upgraded facilities and a second new chairlift to replace ageing infrastructure. It and the other ski centres deserve our support for without them, we’d all have much less opportunity to learn and enjoy winter sports.
Here’s hoping they thrive and grow.
Here’s a great infographic of Scottish skiing