Mountain resorts are aiming for new heights of ultra-luxury
In 2100, people will still be going to winter sports, but they won't practice them as they do today. Is global warming to blame? Not only. The resorts that are in danger must diversify and for the others, help might come, once again, through luxury.
By Aymeric Mantoux16 février 2023
The famous Olympic motto "Faster, higher, stronger" coined by Pierre de Coubertin can now be applied to the marketing plan of winter sports resorts. Despite global warming, and the catastrophes announced, ski resorts have never attracted so many people. The occupancy rates this winter in France are up by 7% compared to 2022, which is more than inflation. The price per square meter of a mountain apartment has risen 30% since Covid in some of the most exclusive resorts in France (+13.8% on average in Switzerland), hotels are becoming increasingly luxurious, and investors are flocking to them. In Switzerland as well, the craze is tangible: in Crans-Montana, a Six Senses Resort, designed by AW2 studio is due to open soon and the takeover of the 5-star Le Crans hotel by Saudis has caused a stir. In France, the opening of the new Club Med in Tignes, designed by architect Jean-Philippe Nuel last December, has given the resort a boost. "It's a new destination that perfectly combines our two objectives, luxury and eco-responsibility," said Henri Giscard d'Estaing, president of the all-inclusive vacation pioneer.
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Everywhere in the mountains, ultra-luxury is gaining ground
The very exclusive interior designer Christophe Tollemer is overflowing with projects, notably in Courchevel for wealthy French or foreign clients. The decorator Solène Eloy, with her agency L'Atelier du mur, is in the middle of work on a large Savoy chalet for a private client in Méribel. As for the resorts, they compete with 2- or 3-star Michelin restaurants and great chefs. And bookings are done at least a week in advance, just like in big capitals. Despite the weather warnings and the historically low snowfall, the craze continues. Several factors explain the increased demand for apartments or chalets in the resort. First, the pandemic has reinforced the desire for a second home, for fresh air and for hiking. The context has allowed many buyers to strengthen their investment projects, in a context of low interest rates which have encouraged investment in leisure or income property. The limitation of construction and strong demand had a significant impact on prices, which rose significantly. "Initiatives for the preservation of nature, as well as those aimed at limiting second homes, are reducing the development of supply”, analyze Jonas Wiesel and Joan Rodriguez, co-founders of Realadvisor.
Resorts have the choice between diversifying or moving upmarket
Timothée Gaget, CEO of the Artcher agency
Mountain real estate is also a real haven in a complex global context, and the Swiss, French and Italian Alps remain a haven of peace easily accessible from all over Europe. Nevertheless, 100 years after the invention of skiing and winter sports, the model we have known until now is changing considerably. Alpine skiing was born in the 1930s as a tourist activity. But it is after the war that mass tourism exploded. Jean-Claude Killy in the 60s imposes skiing as the number one sport, ahead of soccer. This brings the discipline to be democratized, including in the middle classes.
But today, the price of ski passes is exploding to nearly 1,500 euros per week for a family, and VIP passes Faste Lane have appeared in some resorts like Les Arcs or Crans-Montana. "In 2100 we'll still be able to ski in Val d'Isère, but not under the same conditions”, explains Christophe Lavaut, general manager of Val-d'Isère tourism. From now on, we no longer target the middle classes, given the very strong increase in technological investments, water retention basins, snow cannons. Compensating for historically low snowfall forces resorts to charge more. "Resorts have the choice between diversifying or moving upmarket," says Timothée Gaget of the Artcher agency. In the village resorts or those of the southern Alps, a strategy of greater variability of activities has already been in place for twenty years: deseasonalization with mountain biking or ultra-trails in the summer, such as Champéry, Chamonix or Les Arcs, promotion of cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, a film festival in Chamrousse, or ice sculpture in Valloire.
Diversification of activities and luxury experiences off the slopes
Just look at the success of the Folie Douce concept, a party place at the foot of the slopes, known for its wild afternoons. From a simple mountain restaurant in Val d'Isère, the concept has grown into a 700-employee leisure group with eight locations in the Alps and even a hotel in Chamonix. “We sensed that mountain vacations were no longer going to be just about skiing," explains Artur Reversade, son of the founder, now at the helm of La Folie Douce. “Clients were and still are looking for a rich experience that isn't just on the slopes." The offer and appeal of the mountain are thus developing outside of skiing and the winter season. As a result, all must innovate, to invent. Avoriaz, which has had almost two years without a ski season due to Covid and lack of snow, is focusing on art and recycling used ski equipment, which it has entrusted to the street artist Nasty for a rather ambitious upcycling project using road signs and damaged skis. Others diversify their audiences: in the most sought-after resorts like Courchevel, Meribel or Val d'Isère, there are now more foreigners than locals. "The market happened naturally, we did not try to target these audiences," says the Tourist Office of Val d'Isère, where the French now represent only 38%, the second largest population after the British. Resorts with ski areas at higher altitudes continue to enjoy international popularity (+25% demand in the top 5 Swiss resorts in 2021).
Clients were and still are looking for a rich experience that isn't just on the slopes
Artur Reversade, son of the founder and current Director of La Folie Douce
However, in France, Switzerland and Italy, many small and medium-sized mountain resorts, developed around mountain villages, are in danger due to the lack of snow, investments in snow cannons or the non-renewal of ski lifts. The rain-snow limit has risen from 1,200 to 1,500 meters above sea level in recent years, which is endangering ski areas whose slopes are located too low. In France, 35% of ski areas depend on artificial snow, and 66% in Austria as wel as 90% in Italy. Do resorts have to do everything to invest in the renewal of their infrastructure and lifts? To remain viable, the operation of a ski area must last at least 100 days on average. One thing is certain, scientific forecasts show that snow cover will always come later and always at higher altitudes. Low altitude mountain resorts are in danger of dying if they do not radically change their approach. Some are throwing in the towel, while others are looking for development models that are more ecological or less dependent on alpine skiing. Six years ago, the Rhône-Alpes region invested more than 30 million euros in artificial snowmaking and the creation of water retention basins. But environmentalists are watching, and these projects do not always convince local populations, even with the best economic reasons.
Therefore, some resorts have opted to move upmarket over recent years. Club Med has renovated its village of Tignes Val Claret, "the new nugget of the French Alps", according to Le Figaro, offering all the latest services set up by the inventor of the vacation village, such as an exceptional spa or top-of-the-range catering, starting at 3,000 euros a week for two. Val d'Isère, which saw its first 5-star resort open in 2010, has since doubled its offer of luxury rooms. And it has increased the number of festivals and conferences, such as the Napoleons, to attract high-income earners outside school vacations. This is the result of the offer catching up on the most profitable segments of the market, which also corresponds to the development of many variables not associated with skiing: restaurants, bars, clubs, stores, wellness offers… Just look at Megève which has become fashionable again, where the practice of alpine skiing is only a pretext, but whose luxurious establishments are always full! Those who visit this type of resort are rather looking for a second home, a social activity, a place to meet with family and practice cross-country skiing or hiking.
Moreover, in France, the turnover associated with cross-country skiing has doubled between 2020 and 2021, from 10 to nearly 20 million euros. If diversification, a model often preached by those who know nothing about the mountain economy, is put forward, it is above all the move upmarket that allows winter sports resorts to get by. Indeed, 95% of the turnover is generated during the ski period and the investments are therefore more easily amortized by ski passes and para-alpine activities than others. But not all resorts, especially in France (the largest ski area in Europe with 120,000 jobs and 10 million tourists), will be able to resist the end of a model imagined decades ago. Another era. Another world.
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