Wednesday, December 24, 2014

White Christmas

Me on Mineshaft at Lake Louise
Where’s the best place to spend Christmas? In the mountains, of course, and for me that means skiing at Lake Louise, Sunshine and Mt Norquay - all of which have great snow this season already. These are the Big 3 Rocky resorts, a stone’s throw from Canmore and Banff - both picture-postcard mountain towns. In fact, you don’t need Christmas cards here – you are living them!

This is where I have spent the past 15 Christmases with my family and a gang of ski mad friends. Even now, with my sons scattered across North America, we congregate in Canmore in early December for a month of mountain mingling, mayhem and magical memories.

Fergus Hudson aged 2
Before 1999 when I first discovered the Big 3, I spent all my adult Christmases skiing, stuffing the car with skis, babies, gifts and gear and schlepping to Switzerland for a cuckoo-clock Christmas and vibrant Verbier New Year.

So what started this outdoor obsession? Turn back the calendar to a signature ski trip in Seefeld, Austria in 
1972 when I was so overwhelmed by the beauty of mountains and downhill delights that I vowed never to miss a winter season. Miraculously, so far I’ve been able to stick to that and I am currently on my 43rd consecutive ski season! I wish all New Year’s Resolutions were so easy to keep. 
Rupert Hudson aged 4 in Verbier
The other thing that really resonated with me way back in 1973 was the lucky, leisurely, luxurious lifestyle of the British seasonal workers running the travel companies in Seefeld. I can still remember what our rep and our ski instructor looked like and how they exuded such zest for life! So, sure enough, after my journalism apprenticeship in GB, I boarded an overnight train to Switzerland, turned up at Crans-Montana at 8 am in the morning in early December 1983 and started job hunting. By the end of that day I had my first ski resort job, studio apartment, and most importantly, season ski pass.  And it was a plum job – working for an upmarket ski camp for international kids. I worked 8am-12 and then 4pm-8 giving me four hours off every day to ski and evenings free too! And I had a day and a half off per week for even more fabulous skiing.

Those of you who know me personally know I hardly ever go anywhere without my schoolday sweetheart, Simon and he was with me back then, as well as Tim Nightingale, a university friend. Tim couldn’t find a job so, after a while gravitated to Italy instead but Simon nabbed an assistant chef job after a couple of weeks. We were set for a great season (and a lifetime of Simon being our chief cook)!

That winter led to another in France where I worked in a posh boutique from 3-7pm each day so had even more ski time and evenings free, too. And Simon worked as a rep for a chalet company. That season in La Plagne was when Simon and I really got into powder skiing, following our fearless friend Richard down the Face de Charvet when we visited him in Val d’Isere.

Simon in Ski Club of Great Britain
gear with Rupert aged 4
For the next six years, running a clothing design business in England, we still skied six whole weeks every winter with Simon trouble-shooting for chalet companies and later repping for the Ski Club of Great Britain in various resorts around Europe. In the 80s I managed to fit in two whole seasons working as a rep for Crystal Holidays firstly in Verbier and later in Meribel. Having discovered the heavenly and hospitable Hotel de Verbier we gravitated back there once we had kids and it became our regular holiday haunt at Christmas and Easter from the early 90s until we moved to Canada in 1999.

We were meant to stay in Canada for just three years, but that evolved into ten as we came to love our Canmore condo and the surrounding mountains like home. With so many ski resorts in Alberta and neighbouring British Columbia, we are able to ski safari around Nakiska, Fernie, Kimberley and Kicking Horse, our nearest Resorts of the Canadian Rockies and tack on side trips to PanoramaCastle MountainMarmot Basin. When we feel like a mega road trip, we head to Revelstoke, Sun Peaks, Silver Star, Big White and, once, to Whistler

Fergus Hudson racing in Verbier aged 3
Since around 2005 I have been a freelance journalist, specializing in ski writing for a whole host of Canadian publications. Despite moving down to South Carolina five years ago (because of Simon’s university career), I have continued to be both a prolific ski writer - and probably the most prolific skier in SC - notching up 40-plus days per season. Golf just doesn’t do it for me!

The side benefit of living 'Down South' has been the proximity to Colorado and Utah where I’ve had lots of great trips and this year I’ll also be going to Jackson Hole, a bucket-list bonanza. And living in the USA prompted me to branch out to work for US publications such as the Dallas Morning News, Houston Chronicle and LA Times.

At the top of one of our favourite black runs, the North American
at Mt Norquay, by the recently re-opened tea house
But my heart remains in Canada so here we are again for another wonderful wintry Christmas in Canmore with masses of early season snow, a great group of fervent friends who forgive us for moving away, and lots of story ideas to research for all my articles – and, of course, the Working in a Winter Wonderland book that Simon and I are writing together.

I’ll be going back to posting excerpts from the book next week - great interviews with key people in the ski industry - but I thought for my Dec 25 blog I would tell you a little more about me and my idea of the perfect Christmas.

Wishing you all a wonderful White Christmas and Happy New Year with lots of skiing on your resolution list!

Happy Christmas from Santa and his Elves at Lake Louise

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Quintessential Ski Couple

Al Raine and Nancy Greene Raine at Sun Peaks
(Photo by Nathan Froese/Courtesy Sun Peaks Resort)
Al Raine, a former ski racer, coach and resort hotel entrepreneur, has been Mayor of Sun Peaks Resort, near Kamloops, British Columbia since 2010. And yet back in his gung-ho ski racing youth his parents were anxious that he might never find a ‘real job’.

His introduction to skiing was in his preteen years at Mt Seymour in North Vancouver and he went on to ski at Mt Baker where his childhood mentors were Al Menzies and Franz Gabl. During the 1960s, Al lived and ski raced in Badgastein, Austria where he learned German. A trilingual coach, Al rose rapidly through the ranks from club level, to division and, ultimately, to the national team. He was Head Coach and Program Director for the Canadian ski team from 1968-73.

(Photo by Royce Sihlis/Courtesy of Sun Peaks Resort)
In 1974 he turned to the ski industry, working first as BC’s Provincial Ski Coordinator where he authored BC’s successful Commercial Ski Alpine Policy and served as the provincially appointed councilor on Whistler’s Municipal Council between 1975-80. He went on to become the Executive Director for the Whistler Resort Association from 1980-82. Winter wanderlust sent him on sabbatical to Switzerland with his family from 1983-85. And, on his return to Canada, he brought progressive European inspirations to hotel projects he developed and managed, first in Whistler and then in Sun Peaks between 1985 and 2010. In 1988 Raine was inducted into the Canadian Ski Hall of Fame.

Sun Peaks Resort at night by Adam Stein
(Courtesy of Sun Peaks Resort)
During his phenomenal fifty-year career he has noticed major changes in the focus and infrastructure of the ski industry. “From 1950 to the 1960s skiing was a small family of people, smaller ski areas and everyone knew everybody who skied,” Raine recounts. By the 1970s Canadian skiing had become “chic”, he says, with more expensive, bigger and more commodious resorts: “By the 80s and 90s, resorts were full service and skiers were no longer hard core ‘mountain people’ except for the minority.” This is when resorts started to focus on a wider range of facilities and amenities to make skiing a comfortable winter vacation for everyone. Raine says resorts began to improve access, lifts, grooming, and ski equipment to reflect this softer trend.

The roads were made wide enough for
sleigh rides right through town
(Photo by Adam Stein/Courtesy of Sun Peaks Resort)
Nowadays, as Mayor of Sun Peaks, Raine is committed to providing a positive experience for everyone in town. “As their council, we do what is necessary to improve the resort for those who live, work, and visit Sun Peaks,” he explains.

Ironically, the resort he moved from is Sun Peaks’ main rival in attracting destination skiers. “The major competition for Sun Peaks is Whistler in the long haul markets and Okanagan ski areas in the regional market. But we focus mainly on improving our product and service and not on what the other resorts are doing,” says Raine.

His format for a great ski vacation follows the 6, 8 and 10 rule: “Winter sports today cater to the masses and it is much more than just the sport, we are in the entertainment business and there are only six hours of skiing, eight hours of sleeping and rest and 10 hours - or the biggest part of the day - is spent eating, socializing, relaxing, enjoying friends etc. These 10 hours of fun with friends and family are a very important part of our business today.”

Ski School treats
(Photo by Adam Stein/Courtesy of Sun Peaks Resort)
And Sun Peaks has certainly cornered the market on après ski entertainments. As well as having lovely, alpine architecture and décor throughout the easily walkable resort, it has a full menu of activities including bungee trampoline, cat trax groomer rides, dog sled tours, horse drawn sleigh rides, fondue dinner with torchlight descent, snow limo, snowmobile tours, snowshoeing, tube park, pro-photographer shoots, first tracks breakfast, resort transit, a wide array of accommodation and eateries and spas, as well as the more traditional ice skating and ice hockey. “In the old days, skiing and ice skating were about the only activities happening in winter,” says Raine. “Today there is a ton of competition for the entertainment activities, indoor tennis, fitness halls, basketball, volleyball, professional sports watching, badminton, squash etc., mostly easy and relatively inexpensive to access.”

These kinds of facilities also facilitate four-seasons’ functionality which Raine considers vital for the future success of Sun Peaks, and ski resorts in general. “Resorts must diversify during the winter months and for the off season,” says Raine. “The best resorts in the future will be those that have strong winter and summer seasons, better value for money and better staff and services. The economics of resort operations change when you have year round revenues and stable committed year round staff.”

Nancy Greene Raine
(Photo by Adam Stein/Courtesy of Sun Peaks Resort)
His love of skiing is reflected by his career path but, when asked what the perks of his job are, he says “I met my partner for life.” This is Nancy Greene Raine who as Nancy Greene is known to millions of ski fans for her illustrious career in ski racing. She was top racer for Canada throughout the 1960s, winning Olympic gold and silver in 1968 and notching up 13 World Cup victories (still a Canadian record), and 17 Canadian Championship titles. She then went on to become the mother of team ski racing for children all over Canada when the Nancy Greene Ski League spread across the country on the tailcoats of her 1968 successes. Interestingly, Al Raine, then the Southern Ontario Coach, proposed the League and asked Nancy to endorse it the year prior to her Olympic medals. Greene is still Honourary Chairman of the League and in 1999 she was named Canada’s female athlete of the century.

Nowadays, her roles include Director of Skiing at Sun Peaks, Chancellor Emerita of Thompson Rivers University and also, since Jan 2009, Senator for British Columbia in the Government of Canada. And she still finds time to guide people around the mountain, working for the Sun Peaks Resort Corporation as well as Tourism Sun Peaks. "My situation is pretty unique, and I am very much part of a team,” she says. "I've never considered what I do as a 'job' - certainly I don't have a job description. I just use my initiative to promote Sun Peaks as best I can, and to be out on the slopes connecting with our guests every chance I get.”

An amazing skier, Nancy Greene Raine
still guides and hosts on the slopes
of Sun Peaks
(Photo by Paul Morrison/
Courtesy of Sun Peaks Resort)
As well as her value in celebrity endorsement, her interaction with tourists helps garner valuable feedback to resort management. And being able to ski with Nancy Greene is an added “wow factor” for visiting media and travel industry personnel as well as resort guests, as Nancy skis with them daily when she is at home.

For many years she partnered with Raine in the building and running of Nancy Greene’s Cahilty Lodge at Sun Peaks. “We have sold the hotel management company to former staff, but still assist with hosting,” she says. “Everything I have been able to do in ski tourism has been alongside Al." The two were married a year after Greene retired from ski racing at the age of 24.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Year Round Dream Skiing

Gerry Winchester on Snowbird's groomers 

Word of mouth, a website presence and a high return rate have been the driving forces behind a North/South American tour operator’s success. Gerry Winchester, originally from Alberta, Canada, relocated DreamSki Adventures, his boutique ski guiding business to Chile in 2010.

Established in Banff in 2004, the head office is now in Santiago with tours taking place in the USA, Japan and South America. The company offers all-inclusive guided resort-based tour packages which follow the best snow conditions. “The customers set up their own flights and we look after all the rest from the time we pick them up at the airport until we return them to the airport,” says Winchester. “The DreamSki concept is to take small groups on traveling ski tours that go where there is more snow and less people because that’s what I like and what they are looking for, too.”

Groups of around 10 skiers – average age 40-60 - spend each day with two guides, visiting three to five resorts, based on weather and snow conditions, during their trip. “We’re unique as far as the South American market is concerned. My guys are guides as well as high level trained instructors and offer ski improvement throughout the tour,” he explains. The idea is to blend tuition with practice, while exploring different segments of each resort, until the new movement or feeling becomes an intrinsic part of the skiers’ muscle memory. “This method can really change your skiing and you have fun doing it,” Winchester adds. “It’s instruction with lots of guided mileage because for adults it takes lot of repetition for new messages to stick as opposed to the younger mind.”

Gerry Winchester ploughing the pow at Snowbird, Utah
During northern hemisphere winter, DreamSki runs tours to Utah, Southwest Colorado, Montana and Wyoming and to Chile and Argentina in southern winter/northern summer. Since 2010 Japan has been added to the January schedule in the eternal quest for more powder, less people. “Japan has only just started to come into North American consciousness,” Winchester says. But he started researching the Japanese ski areas back in 2008 just as the economic crisis hit the West. He found that Australian skiers had been exploring Japan since around 2000, particularly Hokkaido due to a substantial snow record.

Winchester started out as a professional engineer in oil rich Alberta. During that time he indulged his passion for skiing by teaching part time during evenings. “I finally pulled the plug on my engineering and went to the mountains for a season in Banff to teach for Club Ski, a three-day instructing and guiding program for tourists,” he says. The fledgling company initially operated in Chile during the Canadian summer and then added tours in Canada during the winter due to the popular DreamSki format in Chile. “I was going back and forth for around six or seven years, swapping hemispheres,” says Winchester.

His experiences working for Club Ski at Ski Big 3 resorts - Lake Louise, Sunshine and MtNorquay - were the basis for DreamSki Adventures. “Club Ski’s a very popular program, with around 99 percent Brits,” he says. “And so, using that data base, I started my own business and from there it spread by word of mouth.” He also promoted DreamSki at ski shows in London, Birmingham, Calgary and Toronto in 2006 and 2007 to give the business a kick start. “Since then we have a high rate of return clients, and success with word of mouth and our web presence,” he adds.

Gerry Winchester cat-skiing at Grand Targhee, Wyoming
DreamSki customers are generally empty nesters, child-free couples or single travelers.  “They tend to be working professionals who aren’t encumbered by growing families and, as they are signing up for a group program, everybody tends to be very likeminded and sociable,” says Winchester. This social element of the skiing makes the program easier to implement and more enjoyable for the clients and for the guides. But it is primarily adventure and new frontiers that both customers and guides are seeking. “It’s something different that we are all after. Our destinations are unique,” Winchester explains. “Japan has other guided tours but our ski improvement and combination with powder skiing and travel and the experience element make us different.”

The tours are not just about the skiing, however. There is also an emphasis on the unique nature of each location. “Chile’s great: wine is a big part of the culture,” says Winchester. “We travel to the central valley to visit vineyards and have wine tastings. We show some of the culture while getting in lots of ski days.”

Gerry Winchester
DreamSki mainly attracts experienced skiers varying in ability level from intermediate to advanced and expert. The intermediates, mostly British and Australian, can join tours rated for them in the hope of improving sufficiently to enjoy the powder on that tour and subsequent trips. “We have one lady who is about to set the record at nine tours with us,” says Winchester. “Her feedback from her first one - the Chile tour - reinvigorated her interest in skiing as she improved her technique to the point where she was enjoying the sport in an entirely new way.” Occasionally a snowboarder will book a trip but the majority of clients are dedicated skiers. DreamSki’s edge, says Winchester, is having guides who really enjoy working with people. “Other companies often employ guides who are former patrollers, lone wolf types, who don’t offer the same social aspect or that extra support on the hill. We’re student-centered rather than teacher-centered like European models.”

In terms of marketing, social media is a new priority for DreamSki Adventures. Blogging has been a useful tool, with new content, rather than interaction, being the main thrust. “It’s hard to track results from the blog but basically it’s for Google. We’re still working on a wider social media presence but haven’t put a lot of effort into that yet because we concentrate so much on word of mouth publicizing.”

Winchester also employs agents, one web-based in Australia and others in the UK where his original customer pool was situated. “That’s where 90 percent of my market was and it was a fun market to work with,” he reflects. “Those guys are great in groups but, of course, after the 08/09 banking crisis, things backed off on the UK market a little bit and it’s been up and down since then to the point that it’s now the smaller portion of our clientele.” Nowadays the bulk of his clientele comes from Australia and Canada where the economies are more stable.

DreamSki group at Chapelco Ski Resort in Argentina's Patagonia region
Working with hotels in a variety of countries can be a challenge due to the small group sizes of 10 per tour. DreamSki endeavors to operate as a wholesaler with hotels but relationships differ from country to country and resort to resort. Chilean ski resorts are amenable to smaller groups but other destinations require a larger commitment for accommodation and lift passes. “In some places we actually buy tickets at the window, and other places we have wholesale contracts,” Winchester explains. The USA is the most accommodating in this respect.

Competition for DreamSki is limited due to the niche nature of the business. There are just two other rival companies in Chile whose focus is more backcountry skiing than resort-based guiding. Winchester does not trawl websites to keep his pricing and marketing competitive as he finds his product sells itself: “It’s been all kind of serendipitous. Because we’re so small and boutique, I just do my own thing and people seem to find me. That’s the benefit of the Internet.”

In terms of the future, Winchester doesn’t anticipate much growth in the North American ski industry, mainly due to prohibitive costs. “It’s becoming too elitist,” he maintains. “I grew up in Alberta where families just went skiing as a recreational thing. Now it’s much more expensive and the average family can’t introduce it to their kids as easily.” He’s also dismayed by the trend for corporate culture to take over from individual and independent management in ski areas throughout North America and, more recently, in South America. With Japan now fully discovered by Australian skiers and Chile and Argentina engulfed by the Brazilian market, Winchester sees the future for growth in skiing in places like Russia and Kashmir.

Valle Nevado Ski Resort, Chile