As widely reported during last week in the Slovenian media*, Maribor Pohorje, the home each January to the legendary Golden Fox women’s slalom race whose illustrious roster of previous winners includes the homegrown Tina Maze, has filed for administration after repeated efforts to refinance the resorts portfolio failed to save it from, in effect, its assets being placed under two rubrics: healthy, and the not so.
Regular users of the Pohorje slopes will initially be cheered to learn that the ski-operation arm of the company seems set this forthcoming winter to put up the ‘business as normal’ signs. Here though lies the irony: it is the lack of snow that has largely contributed to what appears to be the SC Pohorje’s inevitable downfall into probable liquidation. The Bank Asset Management Company (BAMC), a stakeholder in SC Pohorje after acquiring the company’s bad debts from the banks, is now burdened with the dubious responsibility of assuming control of the hotels, whose future must now be in some doubt. Tourist accommodation inevitably thrives in a snow-sure resort where advance bookings will guarantee the proprietors with a steady and reliable stream of capital. Resorts though with a more haphazard snow record will undoubtedly get little, if any, advance bookings and rely more on impromptu day-trippers, who quite understandably will wait for a propitious, last minute weather forecast before deciding on hitting the slopes. The numbers of guests from abroad staying overnight, despite Maribor’s proximity to several other European countries, will therefore always be low, depending instead on a very limited, finite Slovenian market. Aside from the Golden Fox meeting in January when room-occupancy rates will soar thanks to competitors, television & media and the massed ranks from the FIS (International Ski Federation) the hotels have very little guaranteed custom to take for granted. This therefore suggests a problem that has built up over the years and not the result of one bad, virtually snow-less season.
Part of SC Pohorje’s attempts to stay afloat and avoid ‘operating’ under the aegis of an administration order centred around leasing out infrastructure, which I can only guess alludes to snow-grooming machinery, snow cannons and the like. If doing this succeeded in keeping the company afloat, how would it have operated as a feasible going-concern this winter without the aforementioned equipment to maintain, for example, the viability of its pistes? Very much, I am afraid, of a case of rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic and robbing Peter to pay Paul, a ‘solution’ that wouldn’t, ultimately have served any positive purpose. It is perhaps most telling that whilst the Maribor municipality readily acknowledged the potential damage to the city through loss of tourism revenue and the economic uncertainty of SC Pohorje’s 109 employees it has been reluctant to step in with a cash injection, perhaps mindful that this situation would in all likelihood rear its ugly head after every poor winter season, especially, perhaps, if the company remains in the hands of people who have ultimately failed to create a compelling case for their business-model.
Can though the management structure at SC Pohorje be blamed? Pohorje tops out at an extremely modest 4354 feet above sea-level, leaving it vulnerable to the vagaries of the winter weather in this era of Climate Change. I have known in the last few years for the snow at Bolfenk to be too heavy for anything but staring wistfully out of the window at it but also, like the winter of 2013/14, winter seasons almost devoid of the white gold the area so slavishly relies upon. I can only presume its artificial snow-making facilities are of an adequate standard for it to have remained, year in year out, on the Ski World Cup itinerary but aside from a week where all the stops must be pulled out for the benefit of the watching and participating ski fraternity, snow-making is too expensive a practice and an unrealistic one for a ski resort to rely upon for a whole season. I have known it to be cold, very cold in Maribor but despite the leaden skies, nothing would fall from them. That is just unfortunate but at least conducive to firing up the snow-cannons. With though its easterly aspect and low altitude, the relatively high temperatures it often experiences can bring lovely, sunny blue-sky winter days but ones more akin to early October, not the natural climate and optimal operating environment for even the most sophisticated of today’s artificial snow-making apparatus.
What then can the ongoing Bohinj 2864 project learn from Pohorje’s sad demise? It is true that the Julian Alps are relatively more snow-sure, with Vogel in particular enjoying in recent years snow-depths that the likes of Lech and St. Anton would be proud to receive. This though is not the norm; the area around Bohinj is just as likely to remain untroubled by snow in the winter as it is to wake up to a dump of substantial proportions. Bohinj 2864 will no doubt have the best snow-making equipment but this is always expensive and resource-intensive to maintain, lending an artificial experience to the visiting skier in more ways than one. For popular holiday periods around Christmas and the February furlough the ersatz nature of the snow will almost certainly pay for itself but just as with Pohorje, it is not a season-long solution. Being tied to the already in situ Bohinj Park Eco Hotel, the management of Bohinj 2864 will have to think carefully about separating their business entities. It would seem foolish to attach to a company containing a flourishing hotel complex to a new ski operation which, for all the fanfares and modernity trumpeted in the mass media, is vulnerable to the same vicissitudes that Pohorje is now facing up to. It is unclear to me whether the management of Bohinj 2864 expect its winter-sports patrons to stay at the Bohinj Eco Park but without an effort to effectuate a renaissance of the halcyon days that the nearby Zlatorog and Bellevue hotels not so long ago took for granted, there will be no tangible economic benefit to the Bohinj area if all the new ski development achieves is to attract more day-trippers. Overnight stays are what really make the tills ring, as well as exposure to skiers from the lucrative overseas market. Slovenia cannot sustain a portfolio of ski-resorts on good intentions and a minute local market. Close proximity to Austria can be a double-edged sword but if the amount of Slovenian skiers heading for the Tyrol and Carinthia can more than be balanced out with big spending Austrians and Italians looking for alternative pistes within a few hours drive, a viable future is possible for the likes of Vogel and 2864 if they can look beyond their own balance sheets for the greater good, instead encouraging the wider municipality to improve the standards of its existing accommodation (Hotel Ski, Zlatorog and Bellevue, etc), even if the aforementioned tripartite have to be brought into public ownership. I though fear for Maribor Pohorje, with its geographic and altitudinal limitations coupled with, if anything, an oversupply of hotel rooms.
Future events, both short and long-term will be keenly monitored. It does though go to prove that being an established player on the local and regional scene doesn’t guarantee immunity from failure, nor would I suggest does throwing inordinate amounts of euros at a new project purporting to be a solution to a problem that wasn’t there in the first place. My solution for the Bohinj area was always to improve what you have, pragmatically and sympathetically. How to though solve a problem like Pohorje is a very different issue, which in my opinion would be solved by being placed in public ownership of the municipality of Maribor, who I would hope can bring its expertise of overseeing Slovenia’s second city by prudently investing in a winter-sports industry that needs to ensure the Golden Fox race stays in Maribor, in perpetuity. For such an event, vital to the economic well-being of the city, to be in the hands of a private concern(and dependent on that concern’s financial health) and in effect out of the local government’s jurisdiction, places a unacceptable vulnerability onto its future existence. There would inevitably be some short-term economic pain but by assuming control of SC Pohorje’s assets, with the potential to slim down the level of workforce( but at the same time not decimate it) coupled with a sell-off of the unwieldy hotel stock, Pohorje as a resort could yet still have a future as a winter and summer destination, away from capitalist clutches.