Will we get a ski season?

The traditional NZ skiing season from June to October is under threat as resorts large and small grapple with prospects of a dramatic fall in numbers and surviving on locals alone with a pared down choice of trails and lifts. Jenny Ainge talks to three South Island managers who are hoping for Level 1.

It s going to be Back to Basics if you want to ski this season according to Paul Anderson CEO NZSki who operate three resorts across the lower South Island – Coronet Peak, and The Remarkables in Queenstown and Mt Hutt at Methven.

His mates over the Crown Range at Cardrona Resorts agree and they are putting a brave face on it. “I am pretty confident we will get on snow” says the General Manager of Cardrona Resorts, Bridget Legnavsky.

She was skiing with her family in Switzerland in February and saw the change coming. As news of Covid-19 spread through the European resorts they reacted quickly and started to shut down. She flew home to Wanaka feeling she was “chased by Covid” and started planning for what was to be a season unlike any she has seen before. Her customer base started asking: “Are we going to get a winter?”

The penny dropped (see video interview below) : “I knew from early days it was dangerous. I could see we would have a different few months.” She closed the summer season one week early and pulled her people “off the hill”.

Anderson’s company, NZSki, is part of Trojan Holdings, a much bigger tourism company that owns The Hermitage at Mount Cook, and Ultimate Hikes encompassing the Milford and Routeburn Walks. He saw the drop-off in numbers in these businesses around Chinese New Year.

“We thought: 'Okay we are going to lose a portion of our guests'... our Chinese market is not huge for us but we thought  'it is going to take our revenue back a little'. But back then we never expected borders would be closed.“

By March it looked different again. The company cut costs and started to hold back on projects. Anderson: “What we underestimated was the impact on wider international tourism."

Come the end of March NZSki knew it was going to have to “weather the storm”. Going into lockdown four weeks ago it halted all projects. Anderson’s former job was with the Christchurch Council coping with the aftermath of the earthquakes. Queenstown under lockdown today reminds him of his Christchurch days - empty streets and the eerie quiet of people staying indoors. Now he walks to his office in the spare bedroom and crunches the numbers.

The financial viability for ski resorts relies heavily on the sale of the early bird passes - a mechanism that kicks in as much as eight months before the start of the season. Prices for adult tickets with early bird discounts at NZSki cost $799, children $319. The offer was due to end on March 31 but all ski resorts have extended their early bird offers to the start of the season on Queen's Birthday Weekend in early June. 

The early bird component may be the only significant cash injection the companies get all year. Forward planning is a bit of tightrope walk between dollars in the door and operating costs out the door.

Cardrona Resort. Photo: Supplied

Cardrona Resorts Legnavsky says people who love to ski and snow board come to live in Wanaka and Queenstown for this very reason. They are a significant and loyal percentage of the skiers: “We are talking about 25 percent of our market, so its enough.”

If support from locals is the key to staying afloat, there is one local resort that could demonstrate to others what is possible. The small cross country ski resort of Snow Farm NZ lies midway between Wanaka and Queenstown’s big resorts. It is more like the small clubs and fields that operated across the South Island late last century.

Snow Farm started life as a family business – turning farming land into a tourism enterprise. It set up New Zealand's first cross-country ski resort and also offers snowshoeing and back country huts - all activities suitable for the towns of Wanaka and Queenstown, with high retired populations. Snow Farm patronage is 90 percent local – people who are only an hour’s travelling distance from the resort.

It is an agile model in these unprecedented times and run as a charitable trust. According to General Manager Sam Lee (third generation of the Lee family to make a living out of the Cardrona Valley), they have already sold 90 percent of early bird passes to the local community. With large acreage and small numbers – he would expect there are days when only 100 people may be on the slopes - there is no problem of social distancing.

Snow Farm NZ. Photo: Supplied

Legnavsky, by contrast, has to limit her groups to no more than 500. As her Treble Cone resort is more than 500 hectares, she is not too worried about about social distancing either. Although all  three executives know the local market is the key to opening, whether they can then stay open all winter depends on the country moving to Level 1. Only then can the domestic market open up and the important North Island skiers come back to the towns.

Late this week all operators were upbeat about starting preparation work under Level 3. Both Cardrona and NZSki plan to be up and running in weekends in June and Snow Farm on June 19. What will the skiers – particularly of the big operators - find when they drive up the hill? It may well be the ‘diet/light version ‘of skiing with the resorts looking more like skiing in the 1990s. This may not be such a shock in these uncertain times but the bottom line is still the issue of whether you can count on the locals to spend their money coming up the mountain?

North Island

Ruapehu Alpine Lifts (RAL) operates the Whakapapa and Turoa skifields. A traditional weekend and mid winter escape for Aucklanders may now be seriously looking at whether it can open at all. On April 9, the RAL board released an update for customers on its website: "

The worst-case scenario of not being able to open for winter would mean a loss, and an increase in debt for RAL that is unacceptably high for both us and our bank. The current uncertainty around lockdown levels means that we are currently working on whether it is possible to commit to the pre-winter costs of contracting labour and preparing the mountain, to at least keep the option open of skiing when we can. This is a month by month judgment that we will make in tandem with our bank."

RAL is yet to respond to Newsroom requests for an interview about the prospects for a 2020 season.

* Made with the support of NZ on Air *

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