It’s Thursday evening at Geneva airport and about 60 British holidaymakers are waiting for a bus to take them to the French ski resorts of Chamonix and Morzine. All but a handful are over 50.
What was once a young person’s sport is now owned by the baby boomer generation, something with potentially disastrous consequences for the ski industry as older skiers depart the slopes and young people fall out of love with the mountains.
Laurent Vanat, a respected industry expert who produces the International Report on Snow & Tourism, saw the threat to the industry emerging as far back as 2009. “I think we are at a crucial period. We need to look at the next five years or so to see if it’s really the inflexion point. It is said that the baby boomers are skiing a bit longer because their health is improving, the skiing is made easier by groomed slopes and better equipment and so on, but it is something that will happen one day or another.”
A walk around Morzine, one of the French Alps’ prettier resorts, doesn’t suggest there is urgent cause for alarm. Cranes are everywhere and billboards projecting artists’ impressions of plush new ski apartments can be found in the town centre and its outskirts.
Alex Robson, an estate agent in the town, says business is brisk. About 85% of his clients are British and in a typical year he sells 14 to 16 properties worth a combined €8.5m (£7.25m). “Things really took off around 2004. Brexit has been a factor but people are still buying,” he said.
Delve a little deeper, though, and the picture is more complicated. JP Bellini, owner of The Woods, a popular snowboard shop in Morzine, has noticed a change in clientele: “Fifteen years ago there wasn’t the fortysomething market. Now there are tons of awesome fortysomething snowboarders across the Alps.”
But he acknowledged a decline in younger customers: “It’s definitely something we’ve noticed over the last couple of years. They are still there, but not as many.”
It’s a view shared by Michael Eddie Edwards, better known as Eddie the Eagle. “There are a lot more 50-plus skiers and boarders now but fewer kids because of the school holiday restrictions,” he said.
Many in the industry cite this factor when discussing its troubling demographics. “The initial decay was when the local education authorities stopped schools going in term time in the mid-90s,” said Dan Fox, managing director of SkiWeekends. “That suddenly stopped all of the school groups going any other time than half-term, Easter holidays and Christmas, which obviously are more expensive.”
Michel Gravier, who opened his ski shop in Morzine in the mid-80s, said that fewer French children were learning via their schools, too. “For teachers, taking pupils on trips is now too risky,” he said. Vanat agrees. “The teachers are reluctant to go on ski weeks with their students because if there is any problem they know they will be sued.”
The view that skiing or snowboarding is now too dangerous or too physically taxing is prevalent. The 2019 Ski Club of Great Britain consumer report found that more than a quarter of people said they preferred more relaxing breaks while almost one in five said skiing was too demanding. Of those who took a ski holiday, only 5% were aged 16 to 24. Almost two thirds were over 45.
Robson questioned whether the explosion of extreme sports video clips on YouTube was a factor. “There’s this perception of risk. All these videos are of people spinning upside down four times. It’s done at such an extreme level that people think ‘that’s not for me’,” he said.
The bars and restaurants of Morzine confirm the older generation don’t share this belief. At night, herds of well-padded fiftysomething businessmen sink pints while discussing work and that day’s antics on the slopes.
The 21-40 travel market isn't content with skiing all day and eating fondue every nightRob Tominey
For Vanat, the problems facing the industry are largely cultural. He points out that many European cities have large immigrant populations who come from countries with no ski culture. “Most people learn from their parents. If parents don’t ski then neither will their children.”
Fox, who is 53, also detects a cultural shift: “When I was young, skiing was aspirational. Ski Sunday was on right through the winter. There was ski racing on TV. It had a certain glamour about it. The ski shows were amazing events and the weather forecast was sponsored by First Choice Ski. It just kept smacking you in the face. Now it’s not such an obvious thing to do.”
The average British skier spent £1,335 on their holiday last year, a considerable amount, especially for cash-strapped younger people. Research by Mintel suggests millennials booking a ski holiday are most likely to be attracted by a low price, followed by guaranteed snow. Significantly, Action Outdoors, the UK arm of the French youth hostel agency, UCPA, which offers all-inclusive ski breaks for 18- to 25-year-olds for as little as £500, said it had seen a 15 to 20% year-on-year growth over the past 10 years.
But Vanat said he did not believe price was the reason younger people were turning away from skiing: “I don’t think the price of skiing has really increased in a substantial way that could explain the change. I think young people have the same level of disposable income but they make choices; they prefer to purchase a new iPhone than a season pass.”
Fox said his clients also now wanted to do more with their leisure time: “We are seeing growth in shorter breaks because twentysomethings don’t want to give up a week of their annual leave because they also want to go to Barcelona and see a concert in Milan and go to the Edinburgh fringe.”
Now holiday firms and resorts are scrambling to meet the changing tastes of a generation that curates its life via social media. The Ski Club of Great Britain has started offering trips to Mount Etna, an active volcano. “It’s aimed at younger people who want experiences that they can show on Instagram,” explained Ian Holt, its CEO.
This month, Les Gets hosts a comedy festival headlined by British stars including Marcus Brigstocke and Rachel Parris. “It’s a new way of reaching younger people,” a spokeswoman for the resort’s tourist office explained.
And in March, the high altitude resort of Avoriaz is hosting its seventh Snowboxx festival with major name DJs including Annie Mac. “We started it because we were really bored by the standard package holiday options and wanted to create an exciting week for people who wanted to have a good time both on and off the piste,” said Rob Tominey, CEO of Mainstage, the company behind the festival. “The 21-40 travel market is looking for a more all-round experience – they aren’t content with skiing all day and eating fondue every night.”
Other resorts use music to attract a younger crowd. Verbier’s Polaris festival is a four-day dance music festival; Mayrhofen draws 7,000 for Snowbombing, its electronic dance music extravaganza; no major French resort is now complete without a Folie Douce, the high altitude cabaret-cum-DJ set phenomenon that started in Tignes in 1980.
Such events may help resorts diversify, especially as concerns about the paucity of snow become a prevailing theme. But not everyone is convinced they can save the ski industry.
Vanat said: “It may attract young people but the question is, when they come, do they really ski?”