The end of the winter 20/21, what will the next one look like?

Last weekend, we took our final ski of the 2020/21 winter. It brought to a close a unique, salvaged, salvaging season, one that nearly never happened. Grateful it ever happened and still a little confused by how it felt, there are a few pointers as to what we can expect from next winter in the Alps?

Lifts in Austria are still running on the Tirolean glaciers as well as the Kitzsteinhorn Glacier south of Salzburg, but we stored our skis this last weekend, bringing a close to a very unusual winter season. Politicians from the mountainous provinces of Austria drew their 1 red line – skiing was a birthright – and so, unlike France and Italy, ski continued through the pandemic, broadly unchanged. It was a winter with sustained cold temperatures from mid-December to February, with many, top drawer powder days. Masks were worn on gondolas, valid tests were required and the mountains were only available to locals. But as vaccines change the landscape, what can we expect in the coming winter – cash-strapped lift companies maybe, pent-up tourist demand probably, a reworking of après ski possibly?

Lift growth to pause?

There have been some interesting lift projects developed over recent years, 2 of the biggest involve linking popular ski areas. The Kaprun – Kitzsteinhorn Glacier lift connection got through the planning and build process before covid arrived, but what of the controversial link between the Pitztal Glacier and the Rettenbach Glacier, above Sölden? The Pitztal – Ötztal Project was set to link the two valleys and glaciers via a EUR 130m development that would see ski lifts and pistes crossing the glaciated, glacial gap between the 2. Controversy and opposition preceded the virus admittedly, but the financial implications of 2020 saw the project dealt what could be a terminal blow late last year. It would take something monumental to win over a sceptical regional population, whilst those financing this project would surely be more wary following the wrecking ball that has swung through international tourism recently. Strangely though, it is financial plight that seems to be ensuring that the linking of the Muttereralm and Axamer Lizum ski areas in Innsbruck is finally realised. In debt, the Muttereralm was sold to international investors with the contractual proviso that planning permission must be granted for the lift link, otherwise a chunk of the sale remittance will be withheld. Generally, though, we expect that the lift companies will be looking to stabilise their business models and finances before splurging on new infrastructure – projected visitor volumes are uncertain, whilst finances have been hit.

A stampede to the slopes?

Pent-up demand seems pretty assured. To add to the anecdotal evidence in the events industry of a coming rebound, we have seen above average enquiries and bookings for the coming winter. Zoom is a sticking plaster for a world in pandemic and whether it is Tuscan sun or the Alpine snow, the consensus seems to be that you can't match the real thing. Issues with availability are already present, with postponed events competing with 2021/22 bookings which are in the pipeline. In terms of crowds, you kind of get the feeling that when we have measures in place to protect against transmission and infection, then many people will be joyous at the idea of bustling bar spaces and chats in queues. Any surge in visitor volumes will be dependent on the lifting of travel restrictions and caps on numbers per venue, but if we do return to a degree of normality, indications are that people are desperate to return to the snow, as soon as is possible.

Anything is possible?

Just as the restrictions have made us all reflect on the social glues that bind our world together, tourism suppliers have had a torrid time over the last year, with plenty of scope to mull over their ways of life. Some have gone under and many of those that have survived have dealt with huge uncertainty and upheaval. Hotel ownership often stays within families and many hotel managers and owners will have been intensively involved in running these enterprises for many, many years. A year off would have been unthinkable in the past, but there is a chance that these owners are now desperate to return to their passion of welcoming guests. It’s not too far-fetched to expect universal smiles and flexibility from hotel, restaurant, ski school and lift company staff, as the guests flood back.

Après ski consigned to history?

The big unknown is après ski and if it might have to reinvent itself for a post-covid world. The world has changed and the conditions in which après ski flourished are currently firmly off-limits. Restrictions will ease but how might perceptions of après ski have altered during the pandemic? On the one hand, après ski was hugely popular and a significant driver of many regional economies, on the other, some resorts were at the epicentre of covid outbreaks and will be tainted by this unhealthy pursuit, especially amongst the purity and soulfulness of the high Alpine. Whether ski boots end up on in the boot room or a dancing on a table at 18:00 next winter remains to be seen.

Presentation on projector screen.
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