Change Afoot at Cairngorm Mountain

Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) have today announced their choice for a new operator to manage the Cairngorm ski centre. Holiday firm Natural Retreats will take over running the resort from HIE in June this year, on a 25-year lease. The new operators are promising to bring major investment and a bit of a shakeup including extra activities, new building (subject to planning permission) and more offerings outside the winter season. It's not yet clear how this might impact walkers and climbers, to say nothing of the environment, but the potential changes certainly sound big enough to merit us reporting.

© Graham T

HIE will continue to own Cairngorm Estate, including the funicular and associated infrastructure on the mountain, but the new arrangement will see the ownership of current operator Cairngorm Mountain Ltd transfer from HIE to Natural Retreats.

"The built facilities at Cairngorm Mountain including the dysfunctional funicular railway demonstrate how public investment and ill-thought through ideas combine to create a financial white elephant" David Gibson, MCofS

Alex Paterson, HIE Chief Executive, said:

'Natural Retreats has the vision, ambition and experience to enable the resort to fulfil its potential as a world-class visitor destination. Their plans include the further development of snowsports and diversification of the business into a high quality, year-round attraction. Natural Retreats’ ambition to attract new visitors to Cairngorm will produce spin-off opportunities for other local businesses in the tourism sector, especially in Strathspey.'

Natural Retreats, the holiday firm behind the recent regeneration of John O' Groats, are promising a £6.2m five-year investment plan which, they say, will secure the future of the resort for the next 25 years. HIE is supporting them with a £4m loan to develop a new Day Lodge.

And here's some corporate waffle from Natural Retreats' founder and CEO Matt Spence: 

'We truly believe Natural Retreats will elevate Cairngorm Mountain as one of the leading leisure and adventure resorts in Europe. My dream is to see both the prestigious international summer and winter X Games held here. Cairngorm Mountain is after all one of Scotland’s best assets with Natural Retreats aiming to provide the ultimate training ground for the next generations of Jenny Jones’ and Callum Smiths with the goal of gold at the next Winter Olympics. This is a four season resort with endless opportunities – we are determined to break seasonality here.'

'Our aim is to re-launch the Cairngorm Mountain brand to encapsulate the unique visitor experience Natural Retreats hopes to bring and to help create a sense of pride and place with the existing expertise on-site. Our mission will be to engage, inspire and mobilise the public. We believe Scotland has the best tourism opportunity in Europe now and for years to come. Visit Scotland’s Homecoming Scotland 2014 coupled with the Ryder Cup and Commonwealth Games will position Scotland on the international stage as a dynamic and creative nation and we’re honoured to be in the running to help welcome visitors from all over the world.'

It is hard to take anything concrete from that, or even enough to indulge in a bit of speculation, so here's more of the press release verbatim:

To elevate Cairngorm Mountain as one of the leading leisure and adventure resorts in Europe, offering high quality services across all aspects of the site. To invest and deliver a stepped change at Cairngorm Mountain, creating a visitor attraction that is diverse, commercially self-sustaining and maximising economic impact.
Key objectives include providing more activities at the Resort, creating a full day of activities outside of winter sports, creating a higher quality product offering, increasing new and repeat visitors, increasing food & beverage outlets, range and quality of offerings, expanding retail offering and improving quality and profitability of retail lines, offering a diverse snow sports destination, and creating a new Activity Centre and Education Centre.
Natural Retreats have a £6.2m five-year investment plan which is being delivered across three phases. Phase 1 involves refurbishing the day lodge and retail space, refurbishing Ptarmigan restaurant and exhibition space, enhancing signage and way-finding across the Resort, improving current operational efficiencies, creating an exceptional retail and F&B experience, starting planning application for new facilities and integrating the Natural Retreats brand. Phase 2 consists of, subject to planning, building a new Day Lodge with dedicated space for Retail, Catering, a new Activity Centre and Equipment Hire. This new building is planned for £4m and HIE have approved a loan to Natural Retreats for this. This phase also includes plans to launch a new nursery slope with new beginners’ lift and Perma-Snow slope. Phase 3 involves reconfiguring the Ptarmigan with a new Education Centre and a new restaurant.

The skiing infrastructure on Cairn Gorm has always been controversial, and this latest development looks to be no exception.

Here's what David Gibson, chief officer of the MCofS, has to say:

'The built facilities at Cairngorm Mountain including the dysfunctional funicular railway demonstrate how public investment and ill-thought through ideas combine to create a financial white elephant' he told us this afternoon.

'The new owners, subsidised by a loan from HIE, claim that “Cairngorm Mountain is one of Scotland’s best assets”. Scotland’s mountains are its finest asset but not Cairn Gorm. The built facilities on the mountain are an eyesore and loss maker that will continue to eat up taxpayer’s money until the Minister with the purse strings sees sense.'

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