“Beer!” shouts the man in the plaid shirt to his coworkers at the tap. “Beer! Beer! Beer!”
The waiters at the Trofana Alm need refills. With his right hand, one of them holds up two-meter-long wooden slats, each holding 10 glasses, and with his left hand he balances a plastic crate containing even more beer, cordials and pear schnapps.
The song “Hey! Wir woll’n die Eisbär’n sehen!” (Hey! We Want to See the Polar Bears!) is blaring from the sound system. The waiters blow whistles to carve out a path through the crowd of people wearing ski suits, hopping around, dancing and screeching. Welcome to après-ski in Ischgl.
Hans von der Thannen is standing behind the bar, watching his employees. The taps are running nonstop, and the dishwashers and barkeepers are working as hard as they can. The boss nods with approval. His patrons have been known to consume 100 50-liter kegs on a single day. A hundred kegs translates into more than €50,000, or $57,000, in sales. Add wine, champagne and schnapps to the mix, and the bar can easily pull in more than €100,000 on a busy day.
Après-ski is a booming business, and Ischgl epitomizes its success. The village in the Paznaun Valley, with 1,500 residents and 12,000 beds, is the region’s party center. Organizers call it a lifestyle, while critics call it “rowdy tourism for the mountains.”
“Four hours of après-ski bring in three times as much revenue as the restaurant”
It’s indisputable that the town’s reputation as party central is paying off. Faced with declining guest figures, ski resorts are realizing how important it is to develop an unmistakable identity. According to the Austrian statistical office, the number of overnight guests was down by 5 percent in the 2015 portion of the current winter season, despite an excellent economy and low unemployment figures. Many Germans, who make up a third of all visitors, stayed home. The number of Russian tourists was down by 35 percent.
There’s a lot at stake for the Alpine winter tourism industry, which generates €7.2 billion in gross annual revenues and accounts for 83,000 jobs in Austria.
The ski industry’s annual investment of well over €500 million in new lifts, snowmaking machines and ski runs has failed to increase the number of visitors. One problem is the decline in the number of young skiers. According to a study by the German Sport University Cologne, two out of three ski tourists are from households with no children.
Twenty-five years ago, ski makers worldwide sold 8 million pairs of skis per season, compared to only 3 million in 2014-2015 ski season. And those who still do buy skis are very selective about where to go skiing.
Hans von der Thannen has recognized the shift. Twenty-eight years ago, the party ended at 8:30 p.m. at his Trofana Alm, when the raucous bar was transformed within minutes into a proper restaurant. Servers wearing traditional Tyrolean outfits served up to 600 dinners per evening. The number eventually declined to 300, and when the music stopped the crowd booed and moved on to the next locale. Beginning this season, the party at Mr. von der Thannen’s establishment continues throughout the evening.
“We believed that we could train people to exercise moderation while on vacation,” Mr. von der Thannen said. “But that doesn’t work. The trend has changed.”
He also operates the most expensive luxury hotel and gourmet restaurant in Ischgl, where he is the second-largest business owner, next to the cable car company. But he can only pay for his gourmet cuisine and his hotel’s luxury spa with a dry salt sauna if the mob at the “Alm” keeps ordering beer, schnapps and vodka by the meter.
“Four hours of après-ski bring in three times as much revenue as the restaurant,” Mr. von der Thannen said, noting that the gap in profits is even wider. Peter Zellmann, head of the Vienna Institute for Recreation and Tourism Research, agrees: “You simply make the most money with crowds that drink a lot.”
But the boozing also draws plenty of criticism, with the village divided over whether non-stop après-ski is a good idea. Innkeepers without party huts don’t do as well. The owner of a superior-quality hotel with a restaurant has called for a break after 7 p.m., “so that guests can come downstairs and perhaps go out for a leisurely meal.” Ischgl residents have been arguing over a mandatory closing time for years. The town has 30 hotels with at least four stars.
“For many vacationers, the nonstop party is becoming objectionable,” warned Mr. Zellmann. But Mr. von der Thannen, who began his career in the Paznaun Valley as a cook, is more pragmatic: “You can’t fight the trend,” he said.
About 30 kilometers (19 miles) from Ischgl, Lech am Arlberg and its small neighbor, Zürs, are taking a different approach, focusing on luxury instead of a raucous party atmosphere. The towns are home to the largest collection of five-star establishments in the Austrian Alps. In these town, the moneyed aristocracy rules, and it prefers to keep life quiet and dignified. The restaurants along the ski runs serve worldly cuisine, from Alpine organic beef burgers with hand-cut French fries to Piedmontese risotto with white truffles.
Lech, a village of 1,500 inhabitants, has instituted a strict building policy to prevent architectural disfigurement. No new ski slopes are being developed, and the town no longer approves plans for large, new hotels. It does make exceptions for special residents, however, such as real estate tycoon René Benko, whose company owns Karstadt, Germany’s largest chain of department stores. The native of the Tyrol region calls his luxury complex “Chalet N,” which features a thermal pool, an exquisite wine cellar and a media room with its own movie theater.
The double villa rents for €275,000 – a week. Demand is “very good, thank God,” said a Benko confidant. “People enjoy the privacy behind bulletproof glass” – which only exists in Lech.
Not surprisingly, other ski resorts are envious. At Kitzbühel, for example, guests stay an average of only four days. In the 2014-2015 seaon, the bed occupancy rate was only 32 percent, which is significantly lower than the average for the Tyrol region.
Kitzbühel has another problem: it’s altitude of only 762 meters (2,500 feet) above sea level. Climate change affects everyone in the Alps, but less snow stays on the ground in Kitzbühel than in Lech, with its altitude of 1,444 meters.
“My big goal is to make Kitzbühel a destination 365 days of the year,” said Signe Reisch, sitting on a heavy sofa in her spacious lobby, pondering the future. The 61-year-old Austrian owns Hotel Rasmushof, located directly adjacent to the legendary Streif downhill slope. She is also president of the local tourism association and a respected matriarch of Kitzbühel, who still wedels down the Streif every day.
The town just hosted the most famous ski race in the Alps. “Despite outdated structures, Kitzbühel is still healthy,” Ms. Reisch said. She sounds as if she were trying to put a positive spin on things. The Hahnenkamm race indeed enables hotels to charge prices of €1,500 a room, for the likes of Hollywood stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Formula One big wheel Bernie Ecclestone has booked the same suite at the Rasmushof for years. But can mega events like the Hahnenkamm save the Alpine tourism industry?
Undettered, Ms. Reisch argues that the summer business is growing nicely. “It just so happens that Kitzbühel is a blessed patch of the earth,” she said, adding that she now keeps her hotel and golf course, directly bordering the Streif, open all year long. The calendar is dotted with polo, tennis and golf tournaments, which, like vintage car races, attract well-heeled customers. The corporate business is also lucrative, especially in the spring and fall. While Ms. Reisch shared her her 365-day vision, the Boston Consulting Group was holding a conference in her hotel.
Still, not everyone in Kitzbühel believes the attempt to reinvent the luxury resort town can succeed. Most locals are left out in the cold when it comes to event tourism. Town council member Thomas Nothegger is worried about the town turning into a “parallel society.” “We cannot allow Kitzbühel to mutate into a society of servants,” he said.
But what’s left when there isn’t as much snow anymore?
Franz Hörl, the conservative head of the umbrella organization of Austria’s cable car companies, doesn’t care that governments from all over the world have reached a climate agreement. “We don’t rely on shaky prognoses and grim prophecies,” Mr. Hörl said.
“Snow isn't everything, but without snow, it's all nothing.”
The Alpine tourism industry spokesman, with meteorologists Günther Aigner and Christian Zenkl in tow, recently invited the media to a luxury hotel in Vienna. “Winters in Austria’s mountains have become colder in the last 30 years,” said Mr. Aigner, who analyzed data from 10 Austrian summit stations. “The fact is that winter in the mountains of the eastern Alps has become about a degree colder in the observed period, despite global warming,” added Mr. Zenkl.
There appears to be some denial over climate developments. Mr. Hörl’s message is clear: Climate change? What climate change? “Last winter’s climate makes us optimistic about the future,” he said.
But the changes on the slopes are obvious. In Lech, the ski lift companies produce about 1 million cubic meters of machine-made snow every season, to preserve the resort’s reputation as a destination with guaranteed snow. In the current winter season, Austria’s cable car operators are spending a total of €154 million on snowmaking operations.
While the leaders of the Alpine tourism industry prefer to deny or ignore the problems, Kitzbühel has a completely different strategy. The town protects its snow like a treasure, under a giant tarp at the Resterkogel ski area. At the end of the season Josef Burger, head of the local cable car company, has 24,000 cubic meters of snow placed into storage at an altitude of about 1,800 meters. UV-resistant foil, insulating panels and fleece liner protect the snow’s consistency, even in midsummer.
In the fall, the “old snow” is distributed onto the ski runs again, and machine-made snow is placed on top. The procedure enables the resort to begin its ski season earlier than usual. Last year, the Kitzbühel cable car company opened the slopes on October 24. Five other Austrian towns have also adopted the idea of storing snow.
Of course, this doesn’t miraculously transform the region into a winter wonderland. In early winter, the white strips of snow on brownish-green slopes look like an avant-garde work of art from a distance. But Mr. Burger takes a businesslike approach: “Snow,” he said, “isn’t everything, but without snow, it’s all nothing.”
Andreas Dörnfelder is a Handelsblatt reporter. Franz Hubik covers renewable energies and Hans-Peter Siebenhaar is Handelsblatt’s correspondent in Vienna. To contact the authors: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com