Top tourism destinations across the globe are vying for the business of China’s booming number of affluent outbound travelers, but one type of luxury world-class destination is still hoping to catch up: the ski resort. Since the sport requires extensive training and is new to the average Chinese traveler, destinations from Switzerland to Canada are working to take a shortcut to visitor growth numbers by selling the luxury ski lifestyle along with their world-class slopes.
Over the weekend, an inaugural event in Beijing called Ski&Style spotlighted that lifestyle by bringing together top resort representatives from Switzerland, Iceland, France, Canada, and Japan to present their destinations to Chinese VIPs as they sipped Champagne, attended exclusive parties, and viewed a ski style runway show. The aim of the event was to demonstrate that a ski vacation abroad could be worthwhile even for those at the beginner level, which is the case for many of China’s skiers.
“In China, ski has been promoted through the angle of the sport. What we wanted to show is that ski before all was a destination, and is a destination,” says Delphine Lignières, the CEO of event organizer China Rendez-Vous. “It means that somebody who is not skiing should enjoy the winter lifestyle over there. What we wanted to show as well is that actually, après-ski is the best moment of the day. It’s a moment where you mingle with friends; you are enjoying life.”
The event made fashion a big part of that equation by featuring a runway show by German ski wear label Bogner, which provides the uniforms for the German Olympic ski team, and, thanks to a recent deal with the China Ski Association, the Chinese Olympic team as well—the only other national team it outfits outside its home country. In addition to a collection of trendy outerwear, the show concluded with two members of the Chinese Olympic team walking the runway in the newly designed uniforms. “Chinese consumers are very well educated; they are very trendy and fashion-driven, and this combination of fashion and sports gives us a unique position in the market,” says Oliver Pabst, a board of management member at Bogner. The brand has expanded to Hong Kong, and is talking to a number of Chinese ski resort developers about opening shops in mainland China.
The future potential for Bogner as well as resorts vying for the China market is dependent on just how popular skiing can become among China’s affluent. According to the China Ski Association’s most recent estimates, China had about 5 million skiers in 2010 and was expected to have 20 million by this year. Many of these are at the beginner level, however, making it challenging for international destinations to convince them to head abroad when they can’t go far past the bunny hill.
Most resort representatives at the show noted that they’ve seen growth in the number of Chinese visitors, but were mainly attending thanks to the future potential of the market.
“The whole winter tourism thing just started in China,” says Fredi Michel, the director of marketing and sales for Davos Klosters Resort in the Swiss Alps. “They are really becoming more and more interested in doing winter sports.”
“It’s huge in Hong Kong, so we think in five years it will be just like it is in Hong Kong out of mainland China,” says Ben Thomas, the owner of VIP Mountain Holidays, a luxury travel agency that plans ski trips to the world-famous resort town Whistler in Canada.
For countries such as Switzerland that see skiing as a significant source of overall tourism revenue, attracting Chinese tourists is vital. “Skiing is still at its start in China,” says Batiste Pilet, the promotion manager for Switzerland’s official tourism office in Beijing. “We are targeting more of a niche market, but we see the interest. We are heading our third winter campaign now and we really see how the interest is growing.” According to him, the growth in the number of Chinese overnights in Switzerland’s winter resorts is currently higher than the overall growth in Chinese overnights for the country.
Thanks to the fact that skiing is such a young industry in China, beginner classes for Chinese visitors are important services offered by international resorts. “If they’re coming from Hong Kong or from northern China, they can usually already ski,” says Michel, but he notes that many Chinese visitors are at an earlier skill level. Most of the resorts presenting at Ski&Style already have Mandarin-speaking ski instructors, and Davos Klosters has created a special beginner’s ski package with its Chinese ski instructor specifically for Chinese visitors. Their ski instructor also doubles as their social media representative on Weibo and WeChat in order to get the word out about the program.
Since high peaks and thrilling black diamonds may not be a main draw for the majority of Chinese tourists for quite some time, top resorts find that their Chinese guests are interested other amenities such as spas and restaurants, as well as additional winter activities for an all-inclusive vacation. “Most Chinese guests love what we call soft winter activities” such as sledding, skating, snowshoe hiking, and horse carriage riding, says Michel. The luxury resort Val d’Isere in France promotes its high-end amenities and activities, as well as its mountain-top pedestrian pass with a restaurant that allows beginners to enjoy the lofty view even if they can’t ski to the bottom.
The Chinese market potential is especially high for Asian ski zones that may be overlooked by North American and European skiers staying closer to home. For example, Niseko Ski Resort in Japan mainly attracts visitors from Asian locations such as Singapore and Hong Kong, and has benefited from growth in visitors from mainland China thanks to the short flight time to Japan. According to the resort’s marketing and sales manager Daisuke Tsuchiya, “In the last two or three years, we’ve been seeing customers coming from mainland China, especially Shanghai, and recently Beijing.” He expects that Chinese visitors will be among the resort’s top three groups within five years.
The main factor that will benefit all of these global locations is the growing popularity of Chinese ski resorts, which have been rapidly expanding across China in hopes that more of China’s affluent and growing middle class will pick up the hobby. In addition to the international locations on display at Ski&Style, Park Hyatt was promoting its resort at Changbaishan, a mountain range near the China-North Korea border that has seen a wave of new luxury resort development in recent years. Rather than viewing them as possible future competition, most resorts abroad see the development of Chinese locations as integral to getting the sport off the ground in the country.
According to Michel, the Chinese ski resorts serve as partners to international destinations. “We love that they really have ski resorts around Beijing or around other big cities, so in the earlier years, the Chinese can learn skiing and become professional or experts,” he says. “For us, it’s a kind of marketing, and helps us to bring Chinese to Europe.” As a result, top global resorts are forging special partnerships with Chinese resorts in order to promote themselves and share knowledge: for example, Val d’Isere sent a French ski instructor to China’s premier ski resort area of Yabuli in Heilongjiang.
Overall, growth in the domestic ski industry is “coming from the younger generation,” says Lignières. “They are 20 to 30 years old, and they go among friends to enjoy skiing in Chongli or Changbaishan. Tomorrow, they will go overseas.”