Thursday, February 19, 2015

The world’s top ski resort designer

Paul Mathews at Niseko United, Japan in March 2014 with Yotei San Volcano in the background
Since 1975 Paul Mathews has been designing ski resorts all over the world, numbering in the 400s by 2015. In the course of his work he has met many world leaders including the Prime Minister of the Russian Federation, President of Montenegro and the King of Spain, Juan Carlos, who offered to trade jobs with him for a winter season. “I declined saying that being a King was really too hard work; shaking hands and smiling at people you did not know and did not particularly care for,” says Mathews. “To which he laughed and said my job was definitely better than his.”

Mt Washington Ski Resort
Having grown up skiing in Colorado, early in his career he designed a brand new resort on Vancouver Island, Mount Washington Ski Resort, which opened in 1978. With his academic background in forest ecology and landscape architecture, he was able to satisfy environmental prerequisites at Mount Washington, preserving soil, water and forests while creating a viable resort. “It was critically acclaimed and it quickly became the second most visited ski resort in British Columbia,” says Mathews. “Word of mouth led to jobs down in Washington, Idaho, Montana and Oregon.”

Whistler Blackcomb by Paul Morrison
In 1975 he became Chairman of the initial Resort Municipality Of Whistler Planning Commission with some oversight of the design of the new Whistler Village. He also commenced planning for Whistler Mountain ski area with responsibility for the extensive system of lifts and slopes. From his Whistler-based company, Ecosign, Mathews has gone on to design over 400 resorts in 38 countries, always with an eye to creating an Alpine flavor, looking at the resort as a holistic picture, and centralizing services. This is not an easy task but Ecosign has researched how far the average skier will willingly walk around a resort and how much uphill walking they will tolerate. Moreover, Mathews does not allow stairs in an Ecosign resort, favoring ramps instead. Slope capacity is also taken into account as well as the difficulty level of runs and the carrying capacity of lifts. Ecosign is now able to use a software program detecting the best snow on the mountain and the warmest spots to construct restaurant patios. 

Paul Mathews
With annual revenues around $3million, Ecosign remains a relatively small company with 20 employees. Their modus operandi is to identify terrain for the ski area and base village, bearing in mind climate – especially snowfall, sun and wind. Next they map out the best slopes and send in foresters and surveyors to fine-tune the layout to match the natural topography. Lifts, ski runs, and base areas are then penciled in. “A greenfield project could take four years,” says Mathews. “An addition or renovation to an existing project could perhaps take just one year.” The team travels extensively, dealing with different cultures, languages and international media and attends trade shows in America, Canada, Europe and China on an annual basis.

Skiing right through the centre of Sun Peaks, designed by Paul Mathews with a Tyrolean motif - photo credit: Royce Sihlis
The name Ecosign is actually a contraction of “ecological design”, Mathews explains: “Ecosign has become a world-wide reputable brand for mountain resort design.” However, his innovative ideas where honed by negative experiences at badly executed ski areas during his youth skiing in Washington State: “That led to interest later in life to undertake university studies in forest ecology and landscape architecture at the University of Washington in Seattle as the educational foundation needed to design good mountain resorts.”

Nakiska Mountain Resort - photo credit: Devon Gamble
Ecosign was responsible for identifying possible sites in readiness for the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics. “We ended up identifying seventeen different potential areas, narrowed that down to approximately three and finally, the Government of Alberta chose development of Nakiska at Mount Allan to host the Olympic Alpine Skiing events, the legacy training site and a commercially viable recreational ski area,” Mathews explains. “Nakiska at Mount Allan filled all of those goals and was built for $23 million and continues to host about 200,000 skier visits annually.” This work lead the Austrian lift company, Doppelmayr to recommend to Nippon Cable, Japan that they hire “Olympic Planners” which lead to Ecosign’s first job in Mount Zao, Japan in 1984. “We have since made plans for 34 areas in Japan including 13 new greenfield projects,” Mathews adds.

Next followed work preparing master plans for Swiss resorts in Laax, Arosa and Savognin which in turn led to assignments in Austria, Spain and France. “The company’s reputation and breadth of projects just grew organically, averaging about ten new projects per year plus of course taking care of a lot of existing customers,” says Mathews.

Skiing beneath the heated Orange Bubble Express at Canyons
Courtesy Canyons Resort
A career coup was getting the contract in 2010 to re-figure the ski lift system at Courchevel, one of France’s ritziest resorts. The same year he redesigned Canyons Resort in Park City, Utah. He was also responsible for choosing the location and designing the resort of Rosa Khutor as well as mapping out the competitive courses for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. And Ecosign was chosen to plan PyeongChang, Korea for the Freestyle Skiing and Snowboarding venues for the 2018 Winter Olympics. The company also won an international competition to design the Snow Cluster competition venues for the Beijing bid to host the Olympic Winter Games in 2022.

Me skiing Canyons, Utah - photo credit: Simon Hudson
During Mathews’ long career he has noticed three important technological improvements which have assisted ski area planning. “Detachable grip chairlifts, snowmaking systems and winch cats for grooming ski slopes have very substantially changed how we design ski resort,” he explains. “In fact, I was considered the first ‘early adaptor’ in seeing the tremendous potential benefits of detachable grip chairlifts and gondolas. Given rope speeds two to three times faster than conventional fixed grip lifts allows us to go two or three times longer distances for equivalent travel times and due to the carrier spacing allows us to go much higher verticals up to 800 or even 1,000 meters with existing wire rope construction methods. Winch cats allow grooming of steep slopes and snowmaking has improved tenfold from when I started in the business in efficiency and quality and quantity of snow.”

And the future for Ecosign when Mathews retires? There’s a transition plan in place whereby several senior VPs will team up with Mathews’ son and daughter to continue the lasting legacy.  

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