Winter sports: fire extinguishers instead of snow: world market leader Technoalpin is looking for alternative business models
Munich It was nothing but a few thin white stripes running through a brown and black rock massif: the pictures taken by a skier of the descent in Yanqing, China, became a symbol of the Beijing Winter Olympics. Athletes and the public alike were alienated by the fact that the games were being held in the area: Yanqing is cold in winter, but has extremely little precipitation. In order to make snow on the narrow descent, water had to be pumped up hundreds of meters from a specially created reservoir.
The snow was produced by the South Tyrolean company Technoalpin, with a recent turnover of around 190 million euros and branches in 13 countries, the world market leader for artificial snow. Even in the current Easter season, the machines from the Bolzano company ensure that the slopes are still passable in many ski areas.
For Managing Director Erich Gummerer, the Olympic order is also the result of a consistent strategy. The trained businessman founded Technoalpin in 1990 together with two partners. Even then, the goal was: “Everywhere where it is technically possible to make snow, that’s where we want to go.” You could also say: That’s where they have to go. Because the income in Central Europe’s ski tourism has been stagnating for years.
And experts are also pessimistic about the future. “In 20 years there will be practically no more snow in the lower elevations,” predicts alpine researcher Werner Bätzing. While it is getting warmer above 2000 meters, but also wetter, the snow at lower altitudes is increasingly turning into rain.
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With global warming, the time windows in which snow can be technically produced are also becoming smaller. Because although fan guns and snow lances have become significantly more powerful in the past 20 years, the following still applies: in order to make good snow, you need minus degrees. Where there are none, lift companies will have to give up – snow cannons or not.
Technoalpin is also keeping a close eye on developments. “The small ski areas can’t survive at all,” says Gummerer. They are no longer competitive. For the 63-year-old, however, this has less to do with climatic changes than with the aging population.
In order to compensate for the decline in Europe, Gummerer is looking around for alternative business models: Instead of classic snow cannons, Technoalpin now also produces extinguishing cannons for the fire brigade. The company currently generates almost ten percent of its sales with such products. Gummerer plans to further increase this share in the coming years.
China is becoming a promising market for Technoalpin
Great hopes are also pinned on the Chinese market. Gummerer, who co-owns the company together with co-founder Walter Rieder, enthuses about the “extreme popularity” that skiing is experiencing there as a result of the Winter Games. He has had his own branch in the country since 2013. In many places, new ski areas have emerged in recent years that can be supplied, and new orders are already on the table. Business in China already accounts for almost 15 percent of sales.
The company advertises to lift operators worldwide with the promise of being able to turn the hope of snow into safety. Failures are not planned in ski tourism. “A normal tow lift used to cost about 200,000 euros,” calculates Gummerer. You can’t get modern high-performance railways for less than seven million euros. “If they don’t run 100 days a year, you’re basically already broke.”
Without subsidies, many smaller lift companies could no longer afford to operate them. Example Bavaria: The state government has supported ski areas with 141 million euros since 2009. Around 7.8 million euros of this was used to purchase new snow cannons or replace old ones. Where there are no grants, lifts have to close.
In the years 2012 to 2017 alone, between 60 and 80 ski areas in the Alps are likely to have closed, estimates Alpine researcher Bätzing. “In the long term, only the largest and the highest will survive.”
The purchase and operation of snow cannons also contribute to the fact that tourists increasingly have to pay more for their winter holidays. According to Technoalpin, the prices for a fan gun vary greatly: Depending on the version and the number of units purchased, 7,000 to 50,000 euros are due. For the largest alpine ski areas, a four-digit number of machines quickly accumulates. A declining supply of ski resorts and rising costs are likely to further increase ski pass prices.
However, the massive use of snow cannons is controversial. Large amounts of water are required, which will mean even larger reservoirs, more powerful pumps and more efficient cannons in the future. Gummerer therefore expects orders for his more than 600 employees to replace existing machines with more powerful models. However, he denies that snow cannons are a burden on the water balance: the water later ends up 100 percent in nature due to snowmelt and evaporation.
Water consumption under criticism
Mountain researcher Bätzing contradicts: “In the spring when the snow melts, there is enough water there. But in winter, tankers with water sometimes drive into the Alps so that the animals have enough to drink.” The scarcity is “significantly increased”.
The hydrologist Carmen de Jong from the University of Strasbourg also criticizes how much water the industry needs: “The meltwater contains more bacteria, more minerals, more salt, more diesel residue and more pathogens.” There have been health problems several times in the past, because melted artificial snow got into the drinking water. Technoalpin rejects such allegations, citing clear guidelines that exist for water extraction and filtering the meltwater.
However, the Alpine regions and the German ski areas will have little choice in the future but to rely on Gummerer’s promise of snow. Although the conditions for optimal snow-making are increasingly being pushed back, the two weeks around Christmas in which the slopes have to be snow-white remain – during this time lift companies make around 20 percent of their annual turnover.
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