Goodbye and Good Riddance Winter 2021 see you in ’22

Winter 2021 ends today and it’s goodbye and good riddance.

Few in the snow industry will miss it. After such a promising start, for the already hard hit Aussie snow industry it has been even worse than last year.

COVID wreaked havoc once again on an industry always subject to a very concentrated season to survive, never mind thrive.

With the best snow falls to the end of July since the 2000 season in NSW it was set up to be a bumper season snow wise. August kicked on with lots of blue bird days and more snow to the end of official winter.

Spring should be huge, but as of now it’s back or slack country for locals only.

View of the Main Range from Guthega with lots of snow early August, 2021
Heaps of snow, no people pretty much sums up 2021 winter © Carmen Price / snowaction.com.au

“The 2021 season has proved to be profoundly disappointing for everyone involved with our snow community. We all had incredibly high hopes earlier this year that the 2021 season was going to be a bumper one” says Colin Hackworth, CEO of the Australian Ski Areas Association.

“So many people involved in the business side were looking forward to earning some much needed income, with many earning almost nothing over the prior 18 months or so. Particularly in Victoria skiers, snowboarders and every other alpine enthusiast were so looking forward to returning to the mountains they love after the disastrous 2020 season.  

“With promising signs as the season approached (including good snow) we all laid careful plans on how we were going to reconnect with our friends and our customers. Business operators invested in a full seasons worth of staff and materials.

“Alas, COVID-19 lockdowns and border closures across vast areas of Australia wreaked their terrible toll on our industry once again. Sadly, there was nothing any of us could do about it but obey the rules and put the health and safety of the community first – as we all should. We’ve all learnt to be resilient. Just when we thought we couldn’t bear any more, we all knuckled down and sucked it up. Current pain notwithstanding, COVID-19 has brought out the best in us.

“The one shining beacon through all this is that vaccination rates will get us through this” Hackworth concludes, “2022? On my lord, what a season that is going to be!” 

It’s just sad the slow vaccine roll out left the industry so exposed ahead of the season, as we pointed out back in May.

Snow Stuff Park’s empty seats sum up the season for Hotham © Steve Belli

Victoria did it worst in 2020. There was a lot of optimism early on that would not be repeated.

“Season 2021 started with restrictions in regards to Melbourne Metro, and thoughts were that we were going to have a less than average opening weekend. This turned out to be wrong with an influx of last minute regional bookings greatly bolstering visitation, which gave a lot of operators a great start to the season” says Hotham Chamber of Commerce President and owner of Snow Stuff Park Steve Belli.

“Then we had a return of our Melbourne metro customers with proof of a negative covid test as a condition. This threw us all into a spin and the Resort Management Board and Alpine Shire got procedures into place quickly to deal with it. There was initial shock by industry and also the public, but over time people got used to it.”

“Then we had another lockdown which threw us back into the unknown and closed us for a week or so. Surprisingly the Govt let regional out early, so we were back to similar conditions as at the start of the season.”

“Now we find ourselves back in a full lockdown with the end of the season looming. Operators are tired, frustrated and left in limbo, this effects staff and operators mental health whilst we hurry up and wait to see what the next instalment is for winter season 2021. We expect to hear imminently as to what we have in store for us for the remainder of the season.”

“What started as hope has so far ended up between 30-96 percent down for our operators.”

That is based on from 2019, the last normal season. Belli reports 2020 was an average 90% down on 2019, which makes the cumulative disaster huge. For some, recovering from this will be well nigh impossible.

Has the government assistance been much help we asked.

“The money is starting to flow. It has helped with day to day expenses and RMB service charges for small to medium size operators. It has not made up for revenue lost unfortunately, not forgetting that a fair amount have debt from 2020, especially with resort management service charges which have not been adjusted for a 4 day season then.”

5 attemps, this Melbourne couple finally managed their on-snow wedding at Hotham between lockdowns © Steve Belli

At Buller things are really bad for local businesses.

We caught up with Rob Aivotoglou from Georges Ski Hire as he was skinning back up out of Chute 1 at Fannys Finish today.

“It’s even worse than last year. We got the holidays this year, but there was only one lift open. At least the lift company were running it till 8:30pm which allowed more people to have a go. Then the lockdowns started.”

His parents moved to Buller in 1962, and took over the business in 1970. Rob grew up there. In 51 years they have never faced worse conditions, and they are far from alone.

“It’s a disaster for a lot of alpine businesses. Effectively it’s 2 years of lost revenue for many of us.”

They are still hoping the mountain will re-open to regional Victoria, and some staff have stayed in the hope they can, surviving on Centrelink Disaster Relief payments, like hundreds of thousands of others.

“A lot of mountain staff have had to leave, many businesses have said they can’t reopen. The losses are huge. It’s even worse for the food and beverage operators who have restocked then had to close at very short notice.”

Government relief has helped to a degree, but can’t replace 2 years of lost revenue.

“We’re grateful for whatever we get” Aivotoglou says, “but I think the alpine areas have generally been forgotten. People in the city who can work from home and get a salary don’t understand how dependent the whole community – and that includes the surrounding towns and villages – depend on the snow season. Effectively losing two in a row is going to be too much for a lot of people. Tourism and food and beverage businesses have been decimated.”

Rob skinning back up the Buller access road in 2020; 2021 has been as empty © Rob Aivotoglou

In NSW things generally started well.

Overall, while terrible for many, it has not been too bad for some.

“It has been an interesting winter indeed. We were going pretty well even after they shut down their holidays in Sydney because the regional crew stepped up for the good conditions” says Ian Foster, from Thredbo’s Lantern Apartments.

“When Canberra went into lockdown then it started to look pretty challenging, so it was only really a matter of time. It’s a shame that it is a reasonably good snow year. But we’ve been very fortunate so far so can’t really complain.”

No lift lines at Thredbo with great snow in mid-July © snowaction.com.au

One local retailer defying the general gloom actually increased their business this winter.

“We are up over 10% compared to last year for the shop” says Bruce Easton from Wilderness Sports.

As back country specialists they are well placed to benefit from the current back or slack country or nothing situation in NSW. But surprisingly that’s not where the growth has come from.

“It we were allowed to run our guiding and tours we would be doing a lot better and that side of the business has take a big hit” Easton adds. “But for the shop we have stayed open as best we can. I kept 5 staff on and we have stayed pretty busy servicing local clients who really appreciate we are here and open for them while complying with current covid restrictions to provide the best service possible.”

Spring is normally a super busy time for Wilderness as back country interest ramps up, but so far despite the lack of lifts a lot of people are getting their allowed excercise doing easier, closer stuff like building kickers and sessioning them.

44 years and counting: Wilderness Sports bucked the trend and increased their business © snowaction.com.au

Harro’s Snowsports at Lake Crackenback has a unique niche location that puts them almost on snow at Perisher (via Skitube) or in village (just up the road) at Thredbo. On top of all the covid dramas, owner David Harrison (the Harro in Harro’s) suffered a serious car accident and only just got out after 34 days in hospital. He’s slowly on the mend now fortunately.

Son Mitch and the team have been doing a great job in his absence. The season started very well.

“For a little while there we were actually 40% up on a normal season” says Mitch, “the school holidays were earlier this year and business was great leading into them. Even with the first Sydney shutdown there was still some pick up with regional travellers replacing them.”

“But since then it’s been a disaster. With Sydney out and the resorts shut things have gone from bad to worse. We would likely be 80% down on a normal season now. The only customers are a few locals still getting some gear or renting back country.”

“We had stocked up with Inter Schools gear too (normally a big part of the business for them) so we lost out totally on that.”

We asked if the government assistance packages had been any help.

“They based the comparison period on June to July 17 so we were actually up for that period. Since then it’s been a disaster but we haven’t been able to get any assistance at all so far.”

Demand for Harro’s high quality demo fleet has helped things tick over © snowaction.com.au

The annual Snow Industry Trade Show in Canberra in October has again had to be cancelled. Normally it’s when our snow stores meet the majority of gear suppliers and place the bulk of their orders for the following year. Travel restrictions make it impossible to plan, either for the exhibitors or their customers.

The knock on effects with unsold stock and unpaid bills will put more pressure on industry suppliers and importers. Inevitably, some won’t survive.

Aussie gear success story XTM Performance are replacing their normal SIA stand and gear showings with a webinar event for customers next week. CEO Peter Forras is upbeat about a resurgence next year.

XTM head honcho Peter Forras at the last SIA Trade Show in 2019 © snowaction.com.au

Will things improve any in Spring?

Some regional restrictions may still lift in time to allow some of us to enjoy some spring snow, thought the prospects of that happening with lifts spinning are receding. NSW keeps hitting new record case loads, the sewage alerts are getting closer to the mountains (Cooma and Merimbula), and the ACT remains in lockdown too.

Victoria is at best keeping the lid on things there, but with the Shepparton covid situation getting worse close to the snowfields it doesn’t bode well for regional relaxations there either.

Not much most of us can do except wait it out. Plus if you are buying anything, buy local: online or clic and collect. Jeff Bezos does not need any more money!

Have a binding malfunction out skiing? Need a replacement anything or adjustment? Call Amazon? Don’t think so.

Local businesses mentioned here, like Georges at Buller, Wilderness at Jindy, Harros at Lake Crackenback etc all show the benefits of buying local from a business that is there for real after sales service and advice.

Losing a few days skiing or riding is no big deal in the scheme of things. But the cumulative effects of all those lost days on our alpine businesses are a very big deal. They need our support, and government support and recognition to help them survive.

Roll on winter 2022..

The sun will rise on our snow industry again.. Hotham, earlier in August © Hotham Alpine Resort