Ailing Austrian ski industry dreaming of a white Christmas


Vienna : Green slopes and deserted ski lifts in December is a horror scenario for Austria’s ailing ski industry, which is struggling to find its own feet again after last year’s mild winter.

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Austrian-based companies, among them well-known brands like Atomic, Fischer, Head or Blizzard, produced three million of the 4.5 million pairs of skis in the 2005-06 season, Alexander Schmied of Austria’s trade chamber said.

The industry, with an export ratio of 85 percent very sensitive to global trends, bemoans fewer orders by retailers and fears that customers may be overly cautious when investing in new ski equipment.

Despite early snowfalls, orders by retailers are up to 30 percent below last year’s, Gregor Dietachmayer from Fischer said. Retailers are keen to first sell off last year’s models that are still cluttering the warehouses, often at substantial discounts.

Christian Mann of Intersport, the country’s largest chain of sport equipment shops, said their initial orders were 15 percent below last year’s levels. This could however be made up by later orders in early December, should the weather prove more encouraging.

“There is interest, especially in freestyle products and versatile products for skiing outside marked slopes,” Mann said

Cross-country skiing still proves to be a headache. “We cannot speak of any real sales there yet,” he said. “We have to wait for snow on lower levels.”

On the bright side, consumers may be able to snap up last year’s models at greatly discounted prices, as retailers are eager to clear their stocks.

The industry is preparing for the worst. Fischer expects sales drop by 26 percent for the upcoming season, Head a decrease by 20 percent on sales of ski and equipment.

Market leader Atomic – who reported a 41-percent sales drop to 17.3 million euros for the first six months of 2007 – reduced the number of its employees from 950 to 750.

Fischer also laid off staff and even considered moving its whole production to Ukraine. The company now attempts to secure its position by diversifying, offering parts for the aviation and automotive industries.

The crisis was triggered by last year’s unusually warm winter. “What made this especially bad is that it was warm everywhere, not just in Europe,” Fischer spokeswoman Martina Spieler said. Slopes were green all around the globe and big ski races were cancelled.

Austrian-made ski equipment may be further endangered by a slowly ebbing international interest in ski racing. Consumers are growing tired of months of ski races, causing TV stations to drop live coverage from their programmes. The dominance of Austrian skiers over the last years may have involuntarily hastened the decline of interest.

For the start of the skiing season in early November, all eyes are on the weather forecasts. Both the tourism industry and ski producers have their hopes pinned on more snow to follow the unseasonably early snowfalls in late October.

A winter with ample or even moderate snowfalls would be sufficient for Austria’s ski producers to pull through and take necessary consolidation measures. Should the eagerly awaited white Christmas fail to materialize however, the industry will be in dire straits.