What’s hot: 5 cool moves to protect our pow

Winter is here. Thank the heavens, or the snow gods, or the powder pixies – whatever is your personal preference, it’s certainly looking good in the Alps so far. So here’s a little shout out for 5 cool moves to help keep it that way.

1. Greener grooming

Pistenbully 600E+

Hybrid pistebasher (credit: Pistenbully)

Two French resorts – the 3 Valleys and Serre Chevalier – have each acquired a brand new, more eco-efficient pistebasher for greener grooming this winter. The Pistenbully 600E+ is a diesel-electric hybrid that harnesses the energy on the downrides, enabling a 20% reduction in both NOx and CO2 emissions and a 20% drop in fuel consumption, according to its makers.

2. Clean lines
free navette poster

Free navette to Serre Chevalier

The Serre Chevalier valley is organising a free navette service from the TGV station in Modane to make it easier to take the train to the slopes. It’s only in peak season for now but show your support and maybe they’ll extend it. Reservation required.

3. Powering up

renewable electricity certificate

Les Gets signs up to use 100% renewable electricity

Les Gets is now getting all the electricity to run its lifts from renewable sources under a new contract with EDF.

4. Sharing the stoke

eco guide

Mountain Riders Eco Guide

Mountain Riders, the France-based organisation promoting sustainable development in the mountains, has published its newly updated Eco-Guide to mountain resorts. Useful information, no moralising.

5) Make it last

These past couple of weeks I’ve been in the US where I got a glimpse of the shopping frenzy that is Black Friday. It was scary. So this last one is a tip of my old ’70s wooly ski hat to Patagonia for their Worn Wear campaign, complete with Worn Wear parties in-store and repair your old gear clinics. Brilliant.

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Top 30 French ski resorts on Twitter (on 1 September ’13)

Over on Twitter, average follower growth for the top 30 French ski resorts remains healthy at 4.1% in August, down slightly from 4.7% in July.

Two resorts in the top 30 managed double-digit growth this past month: Tignes (+11.7%) and Chamonix (+10.4%).

At this rate, Chamonix could overtake Val Thorens as the French ski resort with the most followers on Twitter sometime in September. This month, the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc was in town and on the social media airwaves but I doubt whether trail is really going to dethrone alpinism in this mountaineering mecca:

Images of lofty peaks and climbing routes are a staple of Chamonix’s twitter timeline and this one got more retweets than most:

Meanwhile Tignes continues to position itself as a buzzing place to be in the summer with all sorts of weird and wacky activities centred around the lake (blobjump or flyboard, anyone?) and a dizzying highdiving competition:

Others in the top 30 growing their followers 6% or more in August were: Piau (+9%), Les Contamines (+8%), Montgenèvre (+6.7%) and Les Gets (+6.2%),

Here’s the full ranking by total followers:

Top 3 French ski domains on Twitter:

  1. Portes du Soleil – 1,379 followers
  2. Nouvelles Pyrénées – 1,297
  3. Les 3 Vallées – 1,046

Top 30 French ski resorts on Twitter:

  1. Val Thorens – 2,454 followers
  2. Chamonix – 2,330
  3. Les Arcs (fr) – 1,915
  4. Val d’Isère – 1,727
  5. Morzine (en) – 1,637
  6. Serre Chevalier (en) – 1,589
  7. Les Menuires – 1,501
  8. La Plagne – 1,366
  9. Ax3Domaines – 1,263
  10. Le Grand Bornand – 1,199
  11. Morzine (fr) – 1,156
  12. Megève – 1,146
  13. La Clusaz  – 1,075
  14. Aussois – 953
  15. La Tania – 943
  16. Serre Chevalier (fr) – 940
  17. Les Gets – 932
  18. Avoriaz – 819
  19. Vars – 715
  20. Orcières 1850 – 707
  21. La Chapelle d’Abondance – 694
  22. Les Contamines – 663
  23. Alpe d’Huez – 640
  24. Le Dévoluy – 571
  25. Montgenèvre – 542
  26. Peyragudes – 530
  27. Les Sept Laux – 499
  28. Lac Blanc – 478
  29. Piau – 474
  30. Tignes – 474

Please note: these numbers were polled on the 1st of September. Sorry if I’ve missed anyone and please do let me know so this list can be improved for next month… Official resort accounts only and linked resorts/domains are ranked separately.

‘Tis the season for season passes… or is it?

It’s that time of year again. Trailers to the new crop of ski movies are coming out, Eurostar ski train tickets have just gone on sale and the other morning we woke up to a fresh dusting of snow on the peaks.

Am I the only one starting to think about winter already? Clearly not. Right on cue, last week the post lady delivered our Evasion Mont Blanc season pass renewal forms.

So I spent a few hours recently not just watching ski movie trailers but also researching what other French resorts are doing about marketing next seasons’s passes, timing-wise.

What I found was a huge variation.

Early birds do catch the skiers

In the US, marketing next year’s seasons passes starts even before the last season has finished. Some early bird incentives have deadlines as early as April. And they seem to work, as a piece of analysis by Ryan Solutions shows.

In France, some but by no means all resorts have early bird offers, and the amount of incentive to commit early varies considerably.

First off, Les 7 Laux had a early bird offer for season passes valid up until 15 August allowing you to spread the payments over three instalments but that’s now over and, at the time of writing, there was no other special offer up on the site. Its rates for 2013-2014 are listed here.

Screen Shot 2013-08-15 at 8.30.45 AM

Banner ad on Les 7 Laux’s home page earlier this summer

Montgenèvre has been offering a discount since mid-June if you buy before 15 September with – among other things – the added benefit that you get free access to the lifts this summer, which seems like a very decent incentive to buy early.

Serre Chevalier, conversely, has its season pass rates up and, if you order before October 31st, you get next summer’s lift pass included.

(Unfortunately, for both Montgenèvre and Serre Chevalier, the English version of the relevant website pages was not fully updated when I just checked; no doubt that will be corrected soon.)

Orcières 1850 also has an offer running, in place since the 1st of August, and with a deadline of 30 September. The pass includes 6 days skiing at other LaBelleMontagne resorts.

Screen Shot 2013-08-15 at 8.35.33 AM

Orcières’ early bird offer

Alpe d’Huez meanwhile has two different discount offers: buy before 15 September and you get €250 off the full adult price of €790; buy after that and before 15 November and you get €125 off.

The season pass includes several days free skiing also at other Grande Galaxie resorts (Les 2 Alpes, Serre Chevalier, Puy St Vincent, Montgenèvre and the Italian Milky Way), with an interesting twist in that, if you buy at the cheaper rate before 15 September, you get 5 free days in Les 2 Alpes and, if you choose to buy after that, you get 10 free days there.

For the rest, it is a very mixed bag. The Evasion Mont Blanc early bird discount is valid until 15 November so, although it is good to know the rates, I don’t really see any reason to buy much before then. La Clusaz, similarly, has its new rates up and a decent discount if you buy before 1 December.

What is the best timing?

To what extent French resorts’ early bird season pass offers are successful in lifting overall sales is something I hope to research and report on later in the year.

It certainly seems like a good idea to engage with a resort’s summer holiday clientele before the end of their holiday while they are still in the mountains and starting to look forward to when they might next come back… or not.

It would also seem to make sense for the resorts with a big international clientele to allow them to plan ahead in a timely way. In the UK, the annual frenzy to snag ski train tickets to the Alps got underway recently and Easyjet flights have been on sale for a while. Yet, at the time of writing this, Val d’Isère was still showing last year’s rates on its website and it was by no means the only one.

Others, including La Plagne, have their rates up but also a message saying online purchase will be possible from this autumn.

Competition is increasingly global

Meanwhile, in the US, you have been able to buy the Epic Pass for 2013-14 since spring, which has 5 days in Verbier included and announced in May that 5 free consecutive days in the Austrian Arlberg (St Anton, St Christoph, Stuben, Zürs, and Lech) are now also included.

The Epic pass

Recent banner for the Epic Pass

That’s globalisation for you, and it will be interesting to see how the marketing of season passes by ski areas in France and, indeed, across Europe, reacts.

Top 30 French ski resorts on Twitter (on 1 March ’13)

Top news this past month is that Méribel launched its official Twitter account on 7 February and has shot up to 130-odd followers already and over 250 tweets, including much useful tweeting on the women’s FIS World Cup alpine events there on the last weekend of February.

Overall for the top 30, the average follower growth rate slowed slightly in February to just over 7%.

A handful of resorts in the top 30 grew their followers more than 10%: Chamonix, Megève, Montgenèvre, Peyragudes and Piau . The top two French domains on Twitter – Nouvelles Pyrénées and Portes du Soleil – both did too, and have now passed the 1,000 followers milestone.

Here’s the full ranking:

Top 3 French ski domains on Twitter:

  1. Nouvelles Pyrénées – 1,078 followers
  2. Portes du Soleil – 1,022
  3. Massif du Sancy – 741

Top 30 French ski resorts on Twitter:

  1. Val Thorens – 2,161 followers
  2. Les Arcs (fr) – 1,772
  3. Val d’Isère – 1,385
  4. Serre Chevalier (en) – 1,371
  5. Les Menuires – 1,327
  6. Morzine (en) – 1,244
  7. La Plagne – 1,154
  8. Chamonix – 1,150
  9. Le Grand Bornand – 963
  10. Megève – 879
  11. Morzine (fr) – 872
  12. La Clusaz  – 843
  13. Aussois – 835
  14. La Tania – 828
  15. Serre Chevalier (fr) – 673
  16. La Chapelle d’Abondance – 671
  17. Les Gets – 667
  18. Avoriaz – 618
  19. Orcières 1850 – 535
  20. Vars – 518
  21. Le Dévoluy – 475
  22. Les Sept Laux – 467
  23. Vallée Louron – 463
  24. Les Contamines – 441
  25. Les Arcs (en) – 431
  26. Montgenèvre – 425
  27. Peyragudes – 398
  28. Lac Blanc – 397
  29. Piau – 350
  30. Peisey Vallandry – 343

Please note: these numbers were polled on the 1st of March. Sorry if I’ve missed anyone and please do let me know so this list can be improved for next month… Linked resorts/domains are ranked separately.

Sitting comfortably? A look at chair lift safety

early chairlift
I am not a ski lift spotter. Like most skiers I suppose, I tend to see lifts as a means to an end and don’t pay much attention to their finer points. But a spate of nasty chair lift accidents recently got me wondering about what is being done about enhancing uplift safety.

Quite a bit it turns out. Chair lift safety is not a new issue (check out this French article about it almost two years ago to the day) and the major ski lift manufacturers have been working on it for a lot longer than that.

So here’s what I found out about some of the innovations to be aware of and look out for:

Automatic safety barriers

Plan du Moulin Express chair at St Sorlin d'Arvescredit: http://www.remontees-mecaniques.net/bdd/reportage-4013.html

Plan du Moulin Express chair at St Sorlin d’Arves, made by Leitner
credit: http://www.remontees-mecaniques.net/bdd/reportage-4013.html 

I’ve come across a few new chairlifts where the safety bar comes down automatically, stays locked for the journey and opens by itself just before you disembark. The first time I rode one, it was a bit disconcerting because you get to the top and you think it’s not going to open in time to let you off. That was the Plan du Moulin Express chair in Saint Sorlin d’Arves, part of the Les Sybelles ski area. The chairs also have kid stopper fittings (see below).

I hear La Toussuire, also in Les Sybelles, is putting in a new detachable chair with automatic safety barriers next year as well, to replace its Ravières chair which is often used by ski school classes.

Kid stopper fittings

These are the plastic flap type things attached to the bar that close the gap between the bar and your legs, so they won’t let a little kid slip down.

Individual foot rests

Individual foot restscredit: Garaventa Doppelmayr

Individual foot rests
credit: Garaventa Doppelmayr

Individual foot rests mean each person on the chair sits with their legs on either side of a vertical foot rest bar so, again, you can’t slip down. It didn’t occur to me that that was the reason why when I first rode the new Grand Conche chair in Les Crosets in the Portes du Soleil that has them (and automatic barriers as well), but it seems like a simple solution… as long as you sit in the right place on the chair.

Telemix lifts

Telemix Etale La Clusaz credit: Poma

Telemix Etale La Clusaz
credit: Poma

Telemix or combi lifts can be seen in a handful of French ski resorts now and are gaining in popularity because of the flexibility they offer. Basically you can have both chairs and cabins on the same lift so families and ski school kids, pedestrians and beginners can easily take the cabins and more experienced skiers and boarders can choose to save time and take the chairs. Here’s what Doppelmayr, one of the big three manufacturers (the others are Poma and Leitner), says about them:

“Thanks to its high flexibility, this system is the ideal choice for tourism areas with winter and summer operation. Depending on the season, weather conditions or the customer requirements, the ‘mixing ratio’ of the carriers can be flexibly modified. In the summer, cabins can be used to transport wheelchairs, pushchairs and bicycles. In the winter, families highly appreciate the comfort of the cabins, while swift winter sports enthusiasts prefer to use the chairs where they do not have to take off their skis and snowboards.”

Les 7 Laux has one of the first combi lifts – Le Grand Cerf – which has been in operation since 2004, winter and summer.

Montgenèvre and Orcières both have two telemix lifts each and La Clusaz has one and is obviously happy with it as they are planning to put in another one next year.

Stick ’em on

All this new technology is great stuff, but there’s no way every resort can whip out all their older chair lifts and replace them with brand spanking new ones overnight – not at double figure millions of euros a pop. So another option is to retrofit existing chairs with magnetic fittings.

Magnet fastener systemcredit: photo Fabien Lamborot on magnestick.net

Magnet fastener system
credit: photo Fabien Lamborot on magnestick.net

Every single chair lift in the 3 Valleys reportedly now has a magnetic closure that keeps the safety bar locked closed for the duration of the trip, only releasing just before you disembark. You still have to lower the bar yourself when you get on but there is a safety shutdown mechanism if you don’t lower it, and the lift stops.

Quite a few resorts now also have one or two seats per chair with a magnet in the back rest and all little kids in ski school classes wear magnetic vests (that double as a back protector) that stick them to the back rest so they are held in place for the journey and cannot come loose. The mechanism automatically releases them at the top.

Damien Laymond of Sommital, the company that sells this Magnestick® system (and is a subsidiary of 3 Valleys lift company S3V), told me you can retrofit a chairlift with the magnetic bar locking device for 1800 euros a chair – still not exactly cheap, when you consider an average chairlift has 70 chairs, but a heck of a lot less than installing a new chair.

Be aware

Besides upgrading where possible, my view is probably the most important thing resorts and ski lift companies can do – and are doing – is train their staff and raise awareness among lift users. Domaines Skiables de France, which represents French ski resort operators, issued a statement last week reiterating the safety regulations for children on chairlifts and good practice guidelines for all chairlift users. The basics are no kids 1.25m or smaller on chair lifts, a kid should always ride right next to an adult and, of course, lower the safety bar and keep it lowered till just before you arrive.

Several times I have had a small kid from a ski class shoved in next to me on the chairlift, and it can definitely be a worry. You yank them as far back into the seat as you can, but their little legs don’t reach to the foot rest and they look like they could easily slip under the bar, so you watch them like a hawk all the way up and hang on to them as much as possible.

We live in a society that increasingly seems to try to regulate and soothe us into thinking we’re safe, and some people end up abdicating responsibility. But, as these accidents have so tragically reminded us, there is no such thing as zero risk.

Early bird ski resorts catch the skiers

La Clusaz 30Nov12
(photo from La Clusaz’s facebook page this morning)

 

When I heard mid-week that nearby La Clusaz was going to open this weekend, I was impressed: it can’t be easy to get things ready that fast, so it must really be worth it to them. How worth it? I was curious…

First of all, there’s the sheer logistics of it. “You need to be able to react very quickly,” says Pierre Lestas, head of the ski lift company at La Clusaz, who somehow very kindly found a few minutes to talk with me. On Tuesday evening, there still wasn’t enough snow yet. Wednesday afternoon it would be too late to get everything ready on time: the only window to make the decision was Wednesday morning.  Come that morning, a bit more snow, a forecast of continuing cold, and part of the domain assessed open-able, and the decision was made to go for it.

So that means less than three days to get the pistes bashed and marked, the lift on and off ramps all set up, staff in place, mountain restaurants stocked and opening, special lift pass rates decided and promoted, and the media tipped off. Phew, and there I am feeling good that we managed to get the snow tyres on the car in time (never mind getting my skis waxed, finding my missing ski glove, getting new batteries for my transceiver…)

As for the benefits, they would seem to fall broadly into three categories:

Tap into the early season buzz

Imagine, says Mr Lestas, that we didn’t do it… La Clusaz’s regular clientele would be so disappointed come the weekend. “Our clients are looking forward to the start of the season at this time of year and it’s our responsibility not to disappoint them and to open as soon as the conditions allow.”

The buzz on social media certainly ticked up around these openings for the resorts concerned and, though a few may complain that the special lift pass tariffs are too high, most are extremely enthusiastic.

Besides which, of course, it is business: the weekend is fully expected to be profitable. Montgenèvre, near Briançon, reported good pre-season business the two weekends in November that it opened early.  Les 7 Laux, which managed to open on the 31st of October for the Toussaint holiday, is having a second pre-opening this weekend.

Signal it’s going to be a good season (and get talked about)

Moreover, “an early opening like this attracts the attention of the our clients and reassures them about the snow conditions,” says Mr Lestas in La Clusaz. Images on facebook of snow are one thing; actually opening for people to ski on that snow is quite another. And even if early snow is no guarantee of a good season, as one local knowingly told me recently, it’s an influential time of year. Bookings for the rest of the season typically go up when you have a pre-season opening. Special season ticket promotions are usually still running and are often extended to pick up the extra sales. Then there’s the press coverage. Montgenèvre and Les 7 Laux both got TV coverage in France of their early openings.

Build an early bird reputation

Finally, for some resorts, being early to open is quite simply a key part of their brand reputation. Montgenèvre is one; Val Thorens is most definitely another, and the other French glacier resorts – Tignes and Les 2 Alpes – also.

Val Thorens regularly opens late November with an event, the Ski Force Winter Tour, which includes promotional ski pass and stay rates and a chance to test the this season’s new equipment.Grégory Guzzo, director of the Office du Tourisme de Val Thorens, describes his resort’s opening as marking “the real launch of the ski season in France“. So it’s a good sign then, not only for them but for everyone, perhaps, that this year’s opening weekend turnout was a record.

Many thanks to La Clusaz, Montgenèvre and Val Thorens for their assistance and une très bonne saison to everyone!