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Early snowfall lifts hopes for ski industry revival

10:30am June 02 2022

Ski industry workers at Victoria's Mt. Buller rejoice at this week's heavy snow falls, a good sign for the season ahead after two years of COVID losses. (Rhylla Morgan)

Of the 42 ski seasons John Perks has seen at Mt. Buller, the past two lockdown-affected years have been the worst.

“In 2020 I took 5 per cent of my annual turnover and in 2021 I took 20 per cent,” says Perks, who has owned the Arlberg Hotel at the Victorian resort since 1988. 

Even in previous tough years, when a lack of snow curtailed the season, he still managed to earn around 40 per cent of his usual annual turnover. 

Yet there is a cautious sense of optimism as the 2022 season gets underway, with strong early snowfalls this week exciting skiers keen to hit the slopes after the long wait.  

“Finally we are feeling like we can let ourselves off the leash and run around like Labradors on lino,” says Rhylla Morgan, Mt. Buller spokesperson and writer for Chillfactor magazine. 

“We’ve been scared to do that for the last couple of years because it’s been stop, start and stop again, and all that has really taken a toll on people.”

Sarah Watt, director of marketing and communication at Falls Creek, also has high hopes for a bumper season. 

“From our operators we’ve had anecdotal feedback that July and August are pretty much booked out.”

Despite this season’s anticipated recovery, there’s still a tough road ahead for the $2.2 billion industry and the 20,000 people who work in it. 

“It’s like an airplane that flies with empty seats,” says Colin Hackworth, CEO of the Australian Ski Areas Association, who says the sector lost around 90 per cent of business in 2020 and 2021. 

“You can never make your money back on those seats and it’s the same in tourism,” he says.

Snowfall at Mt. Buller, Victoria, earlier this week. (Rhylla Morgan

A big concern for some operators, as in many other sectors around the country, is staff shortages. 

“Everyone seems to be looking for chefs at the moment and we’re no different,” says Mt. Buller’s Morgan. 

It has meant that while people are flocking back to the mountains some business has to be turned away, as Perks has found at the Arlberg Hotel. 

“We have fantastic bookings but we’re worried because we can’t get enough staff,” he says. The hotel normally serves up to 500 lunches a day on busy weekends during the season, but this year they may not do any.

“We can’t get chefs and we are paying over the odds if we can get them,” he says.

John Perks outside the Arlberg Hotel. (Rhylla Morgan)

On the positive side, Morgan says the re-opening of international borders has meant Mt. Buller will welcome back seasonal team members in 2022.

“A lot of our international team are coming back to join us at our ski and snowboard school and around the resort and it’s going to be really great to see those faces again.”

The return of overseas visitors will be a slow build, although there are promising signs. “Pre-pandemic, the tourism industry was one of the fastest growing sectors of the Australian economy,” says Tourism Australia Managing Director Phillipa Harrison, delivering $152 billion in annual revenue. 

“We know the recovery won’t be easy and it will take time, but we are now heading in the right direction and are aiming to get international travel back to pre-pandemic levels as quickly as possible.”

Reggae Elliss, who runs Rip Curl stores in Thredbo village and the nearby alpine town of Jindabyne, predicts a strong recovery. The stores were closed for five weeks from August 2020 but spending picked up quickly once they re-opened. 

“People here are on holidays and their discretionary spending is not as disciplined as it might be elsewhere,” he says. “Most of the goods we sell people need on the mountain like outer wear, hats, goggles, gloves.”

“The Australian snow industry is much more positive, as it should be, as it’s shaping up as a good winter,” he says. 

Peter Wilmoth is a Melbourne-based journalist who for many years wrote features for The Age/The Sunday Age, Good Weekend magazine, and many other publications. A collection of his profiles ‘Up Close: 28 Lives of Extraordinary Australians’ was published by Pan Macmillan in 2005. He is a judge in the Quill Awards for excellence in journalism, in the Features category. For five years he was a media commentator on ABC TV’s News Breakfast. He has co-written autobiographies with actor Bud Tingwell, footballer James Hird, business identity Harold Mitchell and the memoirs of several business identities on private commission.

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