Thursday, January 12, 2017

Winter Sports: Pivotal part of the ‘China Dream’

Changbaishan (CBS) ski resort 8
Over the past 20 years, the Chinese have become increasing fascinated by skiing which is quickly ousting golf as the favored sport of top earners. During - and after - its successful bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics, Beijing hoped to establish China among the world’s top winter sport countries.

As part of the bidding procedure, the International Olympic Committee carried out a five-day inspection of Beijing which was slated for the skating sports. They also checked out the Nordic skiing potential in the county of Chongli – located in the mountains near the Great Wall - as well as Genting Resort, China’s largest ski resort, which would host the snowboarding and freestyle events. Also on the itinerary was the ski resort at Yanqing where bobsled, skeleton, luge and other Alpine events were planned. Just before the IOC arrived, billboards were erected along the route, depicting skiers and snowboarders “Sharing the China Dream”.

Wanlong Ski Resort, China
With such a huge population spread over a massive variety of terrain, relatively few Chinese had ever been to the ski resorts let alone put on skis or a snowboard. The 2012 China Ski Study, Desk Research Report produced by the Canadian Tourism Commission (CTC) - now re-named Destination Canada - claimed that there were 70 ski resorts in China by 2012, a leap from just three in 1980. “Older resorts are upgrading their facilities while new resorts appear on the scene every year,” the report stated. “In China, skiing is a luxury trend driven by beginners with money to spend.” Because of the predominant number of newbies to winter sports, equipment rental statistics that year were high, estimated at around 90 per cent of visitors, it said. And, along with shopping, dining and sightseeing, skiing was gaining popularity as a family activity. 

Changbaishan ski resort, China
Already business conferences are being located at ski resorts in China. The China Entrepreneurs' Conference, for example, is held at Yabuli in northeastern Heilongjiang province, bringing together over 700 businessmen in 2012. Ski & Style – dubbed China’s Ultimate Winter Lifestyle Show - is an industry trade show, run by China Rendez Vous and sponsored by the Beijing Park Hyatt. It has been held annually since 2014 in Beijing in November and also at the Park Hyatt in Changbaishan ski area in January. Booths are run by companies such as the luxury skiwear brand, Bogner as well as national tourism authorities from Switzerland, Iceland and around the world. The Changbaishan event includes skiing, dogsledding, moto skis, sledging, horse-carriage rides, themed nights and an ice sculpture exhibition.

Winter 2014-2015 was the best season on record for Chinese ski resorts. “Attendance at Wanda Changbaishan Resort in northern Jilin province jumped to 240,000 this year from 150,000 last year for the season. During the peak Lunar New Year holiday week, demand was so high that ski rentals were limited to only half a day so others could have a chance to rent the gear,” said journalist, Wei Gu in an article for the Wall Street Journal.

Chinese Ski Tourism
Ski School at Whistler Blackcomb: Photo by Toshi Kawano 
Niseko in Hokkaido region, Japan 
Around the world, countries such as Japan, the USA and Canada, in particular, are benefitting from the new Chinese obsession with winter sports. Both Hokkaido in Japan and Whistler Blackcomb in Canada have seen an increase in Chinese visitors enjoying their beginner trails, private lessons and rental and retail outlets. “We are noticing many beginner Chinese skiers coming to Whistler Blackcomb and are looking at new lessons and programs to better address this market,” said Ian Jenkins, General Manager of Sales for Whistler Blackcomb. “We do currently have several Chinese-speaking instructors but are actively recruiting more. We are also building ski packages with select tour companies in China and in conjunction with Canadian Tourism Commission (now Destination Canada), Destination BC and Tourism Whistler.” The resort sent instructors over to Chinese resorts during the 2013/14 and 2014/15 seasons with the intention of promoting Whistler Blackcomb as well as improving their instruction techniques. “This has been well received and we will continue to do so,” said Jenkins. “This year we had four instructors and visited nine resorts throughout the Northeast of China.”

Whistler Blackcomb by Blake Jorgenson -
Although all surveys are agreed that Chinese ski participation is on the rise, there is considerable confusion as to the exact numbers involved. According to statistics from the China Ski Association around 10 million Chinese, one per cent of the population, skied by 2015. The luxury-retail website Jing Daily claimed 20 million. Rapid growth in the Chinese ski industry was documented in the 2012 CTC Study, which reported an increase from 10,000 skiers in 1996 to “around a reported five million” in 2010. Whichever figure is correct, what is certain is that numbers are increasing. And officials hoped that the media spotlight from the Winter Olympics bid could encourage many more to get out on to the slopes.

Snowmaking at Wanlong Ski Resort, China
The CTC report also points out that “China is the third largest outbound tourist market in the world, and it is still growing.” The CTC thinks that Canada is well-positioned to take advantage of the growth in Chinese ski tourism due to high awareness created by the Vancouver Olympics as well as targeted marketing efforts emanating from Canadian resorts. “It is also essential for those marketing Canada’s ski destinations to recognize that Chinese tourists see skiing/snowboarding as a potential vacation activity, but are unlikely to plan an entire vacation around skiing/snowboarding. At this point in time the best way to bring these travellers to Canadian slopes is to include skiing/snowboarding outings in vacation packages with other activities,” it recommends.
Changbaishan (CBS)
Aspen Snowmass Ski Simulator
The growing trend in sport tourism from China has been noted in Aspen Snowmass, too, where Chinese skier numbers have doubled. The Aspen Skiing Company went to Hong Kong recently, bringing a skiing simulator which mimics downhill delights in an attempt to encourage participation. 

Aspen Skiing Company in China
 Sonia Bekhaazi, Sales & Marketing Manager for Aspen Skiing Company, has been engaged in relationship building both in China and during home resort FAM trips with ski-focused tour operators. "All of the business that takes place in China is a result of relationship building," says Bekhaazi. "Our core relationships are what fuel opportunities, contacts etc. Relationships also lend you credibility as a brand. We have established partnerships with very select businesses that help us to access a specific target market of skiers who travel internationally." 

Aspen Snowmass's strategies focus on high touch events including VIP on hill and dry slope clinics with top instructors. And brand awareness is at the forefront of all these activities. "We actively seek promotional opportunities in traditional and social media channels," she explains. "Our current following on Weibo boasts 56,000 and is growing at a rapid pace. At the same time, we also have a heavy focus on building booking channels and connections in country that enable guests to make reservations." 
Promo billboards during Aspen Snowmass China sales mission
One of Aspen Skiing Company's aims is to engage more Chinese speaking instructors. "Currently we are looking at a small number but aim to grow this in the next few years," says Bekhaazi. "A natural product of our sales missions in country help to establish relationships between our hiring staff and Chinese nationals.  In short, our sales missions to China encourage the opportunity to work with talented bilingual instructors."

FAM trip to Aspen Snowmass in December
Bekhaazi, who is in the process of learning Chinese herself, says the resort is planning a Chinese language resort guide. Several restaurants and hotels already offer authentic Chinese menu items, and some provide a Chinese welcome letter for guests upon check-in, as well as kettles and tea packages. "Of course, I would always encourage more community participation which I anticipate will evolve over time," she adds.

For more on the origins of skiing in China and an overview of China's contemporary ski-sphere, check out Jordan Manley's evocative film:

And to read about the Canadian perspective on this subject, please check out my article in the Calgary Herald: 


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