Jon Hutchins, Hotham CEO: on the challenges of operating a ski resort in the 21st Century

Hotham Alpine Resort, nestled in the Victorian highlands, is clearly an Australian favourite. Boosting average annual snow falls of 3 m, and some of the most challenging and picturesque terrain on offer anywhere, Hotham is an iconic destination for skiiers and boarders alike.

In this article, the latest in our 15 minute series, we caught up with Hotham CEO, Jon Hutchins, to get the low down on what’s happening at the resort, the challenges it faces, and most importantly, whether he and his staff are allowed to ski/board on powder days….. 

As CEO of one of Australia’s largest ski resorts, what are the biggest challenges faced by Hotham now and over the next few decades?

Our greatest challenges are overseas competition and obviously climate change.  For example, we know for a fact that  around 50% of Australia’s regular skiers or boarders travel overseas for their snow holidays. With competition – this is a fact of life; however, we expect that the recent fall in the Aussie dollar, combined with some of our new pricing strategies, should help to arrest this trend – making it an affordable holiday option.

If I was to compare the challenges however, climate change is more concerning.  One of the key issues in this regard is the volatility of the weather, which can bring rain one day, but significant snow falls the next.  To mitigate this, Hotham has recently invested in improved and expanded snowmaking systems and will continue to do so through the summer of 2016-17.

swindlers_widescreen

Image: the Swindlers snow gauge

Hotham recently spent $4.4 million expanding its snow making capacity from 25 to 33 ha. Is this the beginning of a staged process, and are there plans to further expand?

As I said earlier, the Mt Hotham Ski Company will complete the final stages of its snowmaking infrastructure in the summer of 2016-17. The latest expansion will improve accessibility to Hotham’s iconic intermediate and beginner areas, especially the ‘Summit’ area, which is one of the few offering beginners ski/snowboard experience at the Mountain’s highest lifted point.  We are also examining options for further snowmaking expansion for climate change and (interestingly)  bush-fire mitigation, for which the risks also appear to be increasing.

There’s been a lot of talk about the rising cost of skiing in Australia.  Overheads are obviously high in Australia and our season is really short, but what is Hotham doing to ensure the average Australian family is not priced out of the market.

Hotham is working hard to ensure skiing and snowboarding remains affordable for the average Australian.  For example, the resort entry pricing in 2016 is the same as 2015 and our Annual Service Charges rate increase was only 2% for 2016, representing one of the lowest across not only alpine resorts, but local Victorian councils.  It’s also a fact that the cost of skiing/boarding in Australia is not rising during off peak periods, including mid-week and in the shoulder months.  The September school holidays, for example, offer fantastic value.

2016_ 24 June basin turns

Image: some of the epic powder conditions experienced at Hotham early this year. Pic: Hotham

The Mount Hotham Resort Master Plan published this year includes options to significantly expand the ski-able terrain, with plans to install two new lifts: one from the bottom of ‘imagine’ to the top of the ‘summit’ and another from the top of the existing ‘village chair’ to the top of Mt Higginbotham, providing access to the ‘Big D’. These plans have appeared in a few reports now.  How serious are these plans and what is the development timeline?

The Mt Hotham Resort Master plan is a document that covers a 20-year horizon and some of the plans continue to be exciting, but the immediate inclusion of additional lifting infrastructure is not a priority item within the plan.  The reason for this is that Hotham already enjoys one of the lowest rider per hectare statistics and some of the shortest lift queues in Australia, mainly due to its vast terrain.  The priority for Hotham in the immediate future is to improve the reliability of the existing snow cover, via expansion of our snowmaking infrastructure, and to develop existing snow and green (summer) season activities.

f4d6c-hotham20102b046

Image: Likely path to be taken by the concept Higginbotham Chair. The chair would extend roughly south, from the top of the Village chair and rise up behind ‘1750 Hotham’ (the accommodation visible in the image) before finishing at the to the top of Higginbotham (the hill visible at the top of the image). See our summary of expansion plans here.

The Gotcha, Orchard and Keough’s areas are very popular among skiers and boarders, and for good reason.  However, they are nearly always the last to open and the first to close for the season.  What is it that makes these areas more marginal than others?

Yes, it is a favourite of ours too.  The area has some of Australia’s best advanced terrain, but with that comes steeper angles, and unique logistical challenges.  We take the safety of our guests very seriously, and unfortunately most seasons, the waiting is due to the creek bed having sufficient snow to allow safe access (editors notes: the home trails from these areas require skiiers and boarders to cross several snow bridges). With the cold conditions this season, the snow has been very light and dry – meaning much of it has blow off the mountain ridges into the gullies.   The upside is that the Davenport and Blue Ribbon areas have been open sooner and will likely remain open for longer.

Feathertop skiing

Image: the views of Mt Feathertop from Hotham are epic

And finally, as the Hotham boss, do you make your staff work on powder days?

Ha ha – our staff certainly have access to the slopes and ski and/or snowboard pretty regularly. Unfortunately, ‘powder days’ are typically associated with colossal amounts of fresh snow – which we love of course.  The downside is that days like these typically have our staff clearing the roads into, around and out of Hotham. It’s an important job and unfortunately one of the very few cons of living in a ski resort. We do however get to experience some pretty epic conditions – one of the things that keeps us coming back.

Hotham

Image: Eating pow amongst the trees. Pic: Hotham

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s