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Alta States

Action from Mondial du Ski 2005

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By Michel Beaudry

The village isn’t all that pretty. A schizophrenic mélange of the last half-century of ski town architecture — from traditional Oisans farmhouse to flat-roofed cubist atrocity; from modest ’60s A-frame design to gaudy post-modern romanticism — the resort of Les 2 Alpes lurches across its narrow valley floor like a lazy drunk on a Saturday night. But on this Saturday night, this mile-high French resort seems to be the place where everybody wants to party.

Welcome to the Mondial du Ski. Fall Bacchanal. Consumer trade show.   Industry forum. Media schmooze fest. It’s an early winter gathering of the various French ski tribes. A celebration of the new ski season and all its new toys. What’s hot. What’s not. And what’s probably going to be in your quiver in a few years’ time…

But it’s more too. It’s skiing at 3,600 metres surrounded by some of the steepest, most beautiful peaks in the Alps. Getting in some early-season turns; testing all the new gear and feeling that familiar rush of adrenaline when you first point your skis downhill. It’s seeing the imposing slopes of Mont Blanc to the east; the jagged spires around La Meije directly to the south. Big alpine faces that drop precipitously to forest-clad valleys. Serious terrain for serious mountaineers. And it makes the first week in November seem like the middle of the ski season...

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

It’s 3:30 in the morning, and I’m desperately trying to get home to my hotel. But the Avalanche Disco is so full that just getting to the door is a near-sisyphean exercise in futility. I swim through a seething mass of sweating, swaying, dancing, lurching bodies. Do they have fire marshals here, I wonder idly as I wiggle through a fast-narrowing gap only to get dead-ended by a group of drink-sodden ski stars clad only in string underwear and cowboy boots. One of the stars is handcuffed to a young woman who does not seem to understand what’s going on. It appears they don’t know each other. Only in France? You said it…

I finally fight my way to the exit only to be gob smacked again. Outside the door is a crowd easily as big as the one inside. The lineup for the club stretches all the way down the block and around the corner. And everyone standing in it expects to get in. And they probably will. After all, they’ll keep the party going till dawn around here. I can’t help but laugh. I wonder what Mike Varrin would do with a place like this…

Reminiscent of Whistler’s World Ski and Snowboard Festival (only at the front-end of the season), the Mondial du Ski has become something of a cult event in France. Whether pro or wannabe, manufacturer or retailer, the event brings together a true cross-section of the Gallic skiing community. The younger sibling of the 10-year-old Mondial du Surf — unlike our local sport ecumenism, Les 2 Alpes prefers to cater to boarders and skiers separately during concurrent three-day events — the skiing version is definitely the big star now. And it doesn’t seem like it’s about to crash anytime soon.

Born during the youth revolt of the late 1990s, imbued with the spirit of big-mountain freeriding and new school freestyling, the event was initially billed as an alternative to what was then considered a very stodgy French mainstream ski culture. Its stars were young, brash and definitely edgy. But so were its fans. And that’s exactly the market Les 2 Alpes wanted to connect with. “This is a real skier’s mountain,” says Gilles Vanheule, the director of l'Office du Tourisme des 2 Alpes. “And we’ve consciously chosen to brand ourselves to cater to a young, outgoing group of consumers. Sure — we could have gone with a ski-racing motif, like in the old days. But we think events like the Mondial are a lot more relevant to today’s market.”

And the French ski racing community is finally taking his words seriously.

Ironic, isn’t it? Where once the prestigious Federation Française de Ski would have turned up its nose at such a comment, the folks who now run the country’s ski racing franchise understand just how much things have changed in recent years. A number of national team members were actually in attendance at the Mondial this year — and for the first time, actively visible at various functions. “We can’t afford to position ourselves outside of youth culture anymore,” said Yves Dimier, the French Team’s new technical director. “We have to make ski racing relevant again to French kids.”

Speaking during a forum on the changing role of racing in France’s very important ski tourism business (just to give you an idea, the country boasts at least a dozen resorts the size of Whistler-Blackcomb), Dimier made it clear that his charges were now ready to participate fully in the new order. “We need to do a better job,” he said, “of integrating the ski racing family back into events like this one.”

Indeed. It’s comments like these that make the Mondial such an interesting spectacle. For some of the more fascinating aspects of the Mondial — particularly for a North American observer — were the various forums and presentations offered between the parties and celebrations and film premieres. From discussions on new youth initiatives (yes, skiing is considered too expensive for kids in France too) to environmental issues (snowmaking and global warming are particularly sensitive subjects in the Alps); from the latest trends in skiing (manufacturers have finally discovered that “females” make up half the population) to the increasing need for four-season amenities (note: Whistler is held up as a leading luminary in this regard) — a variety of very relevant issues were debated and discussed and argued and dissected during the three-day party…

More importantly, the Mondial has found a way to address what most of us in the mountain tourism business still struggle with: how to get more positive media coverage at the beginning of the season. “Mainstream media is interested in skiing for about two months of the year,” says Les 2 Alpes’ director of communication, Helena Hospital. “If we can help them out between Nov. 1 and Jan. 1 — if we can deliver on all the news and the personal stories and the leading edge trends of the sport in a timely matter — then we all win.” Which is why the Mondial gets such positive coverage. Everything is done to cater to the country’s TV, radio and newspaper outlets’ needs.

Which brings us back to Whistler and what we can learn from the Mondial du Ski. Like Whistler, Les 2 Alpes is celebrating its 40 th birthday. And like Whistler, this great Oisan resort is seen as one of the more progressive in the business. So why shouldn’t Whistler develop its own version of the Mondial?

Imagine a week-long event in early December where media, industry and consumers — insiders and outsiders — gather at Whistler to discover and debate all the latest ski and snowboard trends. Imagine a festival that combines a little of the WSSF chutzpah with a media-friendly set-up that features film premieres, person-to-person interviews, on-snow gear tests and product unveilings that really celebrate all that’s exciting and vibrant about snowports. And why not?

Given Whistler’s leadership role in the North American mountain tourism business, an early winter event here only makes sense. From ski stars to ski photographers, from on-mountain initiatives to new marketing trends — not to mention the coming of the 2010 Games — this place is home to some of the most interesting elements in today’s fast-changing snowsport landscape. Doesn’t it sound reasonable to highlight all these elements? Particularly at a time when the resort is relatively quiet? Sure it does. And make no mistake: if we don’t do it, somebody else surely will…

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