12. Business Group Discussion Notes
The Cairngorms Business Partnership helped to arrange a group discussion with some of its members. Members located in and around three mountain centres were invited to attend (Cairngorms Mountain Resort, The Lecht, Glenshee Ski Centre). The video conference session took place on 8 July 2022 and involved 10 participants.
A mix of businesses affected by winter sports
Those involved in the group discussion ranged from accommodation providers to hospitality, and from retail to outdoor activity providers. The discussion with local businesses confirmed that the snowsports sector in Scotland had a direct and indirect affect on a wide range of businesses.
Knowledge, expertise, and passion
Those businesses that participated in the group discussion had considerable knowledge and expertise of snowsports. It was clear that all had a passion for the area in which they lived and worked, for winter sports, and for Scotland's mountain centres.
Some wore different "hats". In addition to providing valuable feedback from a business perspective, many if not all were existing "customers" of the mountain centres – they learned to ski or do ski in Scotland. Many were actively involved in their local community, including members of community development trusts and "ambassadorial" roles with Ski Scotland.
Businesses are dependent to varying degrees on the mountain centres
The reliance or dependency of the businesses that took part on the mountain centres varied. While for some this reliance was felt to be easy to measure (e.g. ski schools, retail), for others it was considered much more difficult to quantify.
The weather was the main factor said to influence the level of dependency businesses had on the mountain centres. Participation in snowsports was said by businesses to be massively dependent on weather conditions and was also snow dependent. They reported that more extreme weather conditions had resulted in mountain centres "not getting the level of snow they used to" and often remained closed due to wind/storm conditions.
The general trend reported was that that the level of dependency had been reducing.
Many businesses have already diversified
It would be safe to say that all businesses had adapted their business model to be sustainable and to be more resilient to fluctuations in visitor numbers for skiing and snowsports.
Some businesses (e.g. ski schools, adventure tourism) talked about the importance of having "back-up plans" – "Plans A, B and C" for customers when weather conditions or a lack of sustainable snow prevents access to mountain centres.
The main feedback from businesses was that customers would be "more forgiving" is you had alternatives planned.
Snowsports is one activity customers may wish to do
For businesses located in areas with "good" visitor infrastructure that helped to attract people to the area (e.g. Cairngorms Mountain Resort, Nevis Range), it was reported that people have different reasons for visiting the area:
- Many want to take part in snowsports activities.
- Some want to do other things (e.g. walking, mountain-biking, ice-skating, etc).
Having a mix of different "things for people to do" was considered important given the extent to which the mountain centres in Scotland were subject to "vagaries of the weather".
High ighHi quality visitor infrastructure was seen as essential by businesses, as was continuing to invest in improving visitor infrastructure in areas surrounding the mountain centres.
The mountain centres were considered by businesses to be important natural assets and "world-class" – however, the infrastructure at the centres was also felt to be in need of significant investment (e.g. lifts).
Businesses reported that additional investment would help to meet changing customer expectations, improve the visitor experience, and encourage return visits.
Mountain centres in Scotland have a USP
The consensus among business participants was that Scotland's mountain centres help to differentiate Scotland as an outdoor destination/adventure sport destination from other areas across the UK, whether there is snow or not.
They provide the area with a USP.
Having a USP was felt to be beneficial as people have much more choice nowadays regarding how to spend their leisure time. There was reported to be increasing competition for leisure time.
In terms of USP, Aviemore was felt to be "the only true ski centre/area in the UK":
- Glencoe, Glenshee and The Lecht are remote and attract day visitors. Businesses reported that they do not have a wider visitor economy ecosystem.
- Snowsports was felt to be a small part of the Nevis Range business model.
- Cairngorms Mountain Resort (like the Nevis Range) was said to attract overnight visitors.
The rest of the mountain centres in Scotland were, however, felt to benefit from the unique profile and brand associated with Aviemore and the Cairngorms Mountain Resort.
As noted above, elements of the product were considered by business participants to be world-class, however, it was felt more could be done to "package the wider offer up" and to promote it more.
Winter destination / adventure tourism destination
Mountain centres, such as Cairngorms Mountain Resort, were viewed by businesses as critical to the vision of firmly establishing the area as a winter destination and tourism destination in its own right.
The mountain centre gave "credibility" to the winter/tourism destination vision, and other businesses were also considered an important part of the mix. Mountain centres were said to be part of the "social fabric" of the area and central to the whole piece – "Aviemore is the starting point", the Cairngorms Mountain Resort is "an important and integral part of the jigsaw".
Positioning the area and its businesses to support this vision was considered a priority. Businesses felt there was a strong synergy between the mountain centres and wider business base, which provided opportunities to promote the visitor offer as a whole package.
Businesses reported that the years when there is good snow will be "the icing on the cake" (i.e. knock-on impacts for other businesses in the area), while the winter destination concept included snowsports as well as a much broader range of attractions and activities which would provide alternatives for local residents and visitors when weather/snow conditions were poor. There have been many "lean winters" and a year-round offer, including a diversified winter destination offer, could help to "bolster" the local economy to come out stronger the other side.
Further diversification and creating year round employment opportunities were said to be key to delivering on this ambition. It would also create thriving local communities – creating a "buzz" and good atmosphere about the place.
There was felt to be a need to improve marketing to promote the mountain centre areas as year-round destinations. This would help to drive more people to visit – for snowsports and for non-snowsports activities. There was considered to be further opportunities to tap into the large domestic market.
Businesses reported that videos and social media content were popular ways people liked to receive information. They provide opportunities to not only promote the mountain centres, but the range of other attractions, facilities and activities available (i.e. increased promotion of the local area as a whole).
There were also felt to be more opportunities to promote it as an "integrated tourism destination".
Attracting and retaining people can be a challenge
Employment patterns were said to be different in rural areas. There were considered to be higher levels of self-employment, part-time employment, seasonal employment, and portfolio working (i.e. multiple jobs in similar or unrelated areas) compared to urban Scotland.
Access to good quality employment was viewed by businesses as critical to:
- Reducing the prevalence of young people moving away from home to work or due to the (perceived) limited local employment opportunities.
- Attracting working age people to return or move to the local area.
While the businesses had some permanent employees, many also used freelance staff. A common feature was that freelance or part-time staff had multiple jobs. For example, being a ranger in the summer and a ski instructor in the winter. Providing more year round employment opportunities was considered vital to talent attraction and retention.
There were considered to be a range of factors that impact on rural areas' ability to attract and retain people. Among other things, businesses reported that this included a lack of:
- Good quality employment opportunities.
- Appropriate and affordable housing.
- Social, leisure and recreational opportunities – "things to do".
While these are not skills issues, if they are not addressed, it was felt that mountain centres and local businesses would be less likely to be successful.
Community engagement and involvement
Regular and meaningful community engagement and involvement at a grassroots level was seen as essential by businesses. In relation to Cairngorms Mountain Resort this was considered to have been lacking. Although, a member of the Aviemore and Glenmore Community Trust mentioned this was beginning to move in the right direction.
The closure of the funicular railway was said to have had a significant impact on the number of visitors to the area, a knock-on effect to local businesses, and had damaged the Aviemore/Cairngorms brand. The businesses who participated felt that the Cairngorms Mountain Resort had been poorly managed, operated and marketed.
It was reported that a lack of community consultation had not helped. There was a strong feeling among businesses that it should be transferred into community ownership.
It was considered vital that the mountain centre operator and public sector agencies (e.g. Highlands and Islands Enterprise) aimed to rebuild strong relationships with the local community, with local businesses, and with customers of the Cairngorms Mountain Resort.
Thinking can not be "insular" – there was felt to be too much "focus on the hill". It was suggested that the Cairngorms Mountain Resort could not be looked at in isolation from the wider offer in the surrounding area.
Stakeholders need put more focus on "investing in the future".
There was said to be a role for all key stakeholders to play in helping ensure a sustainable Cairngorms Mountain Resort, and thereby a thriving local economy and community – "it is important that we get it right".
Businesses felt that there was scope for stakeholders to collaborate and work together to deliver on the vision of creating an integrated and complementary winter/summer destination and visitor economy.
Suggestions to improve and/or diversify the offer
Feedback in relation to Cairngorms Mountain Resort, centred on the following:
- There is a need to reconnect and rebuild relationships with the local community and businesses, and with customers.
- It is important to develop a shared vision for the future that has strong community involvement and buy-in. Previous masterplans have lacked this input. There is an opportunity for "blue-sky thinking" to help get all ideas on the table.
- Further diversification of the offer e.g. mountain-biking.
- The snow factory could be re-sited further up the mountain.
- The capacity of the funicular is limited and can be prone to fail during heavy snow. Existing uplift needs to be improved and increased in scale and would be capable of getting more people up the mountain more quickly.
- Uplift options could be improved by laying artificial surface for uplifts so not reliant on snow.
- Explore wider options to increase funding and income generation (e.g. crowdfunding, establish a hydro power plan to support snow-making and improve environmental credentials).
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