It’s a long way from Austria’s iconic Hahnenkamm downhill course to the gentler pistes of northeastern China, but Hugo Rohner is returning to tap into Beijing’s new-found fixation with skiing.
Rohner, 43, runs Austria’s Skidata, which has sold its management system — allowing skiers to buy tickets online and getting them onto lifts at a faster pace through automatic turnstiles — to ski resorts from Kitzbuehel, with its famous Streif run, to Verbier in Switzerland and Aspen in the U.S. He plans to go back to China next month, following a visit in January, to continue talks with a couple of “more established” ski resorts.
Skidata’s push to find new markets comes as Chinese President Xi Jinping tries to turn 300 million people to winter sports by the time Beijing hosts the 2022 Winter Olympics. Rohner doesn’t underestimate the scale of the challenge: he says the Chinese market of about 8 million skier days a year is only an eighth the size of the U.S. and one-sixteenth of Europe’s.
“I have no doubt it will go to 10-12 million; the question is, will it go up to 20 million?” said Rohner, a Swiss national who grew up skiing in the resort of Lenzerheide. “China has strong political plans to put people into skiing. In the end, they need to create the middle class that sees skiing or snowboarding as a lifestyle.”
Getting the Skidata’s brand name known early is key to winning business in China, he said. “One needs to be there from the start.”
Rohner declined to name the resorts he’s in discussions with. Among the biggest are in Yabuli, north of Harbin, and Huaibei near Beijing.
In the Chinese capital alone, city officials plan to boost revenue from winter sports and tourism to about $6 billion by 2022 and get a third of Beijing’s more than 20 million people’s onto skis, sleds, and skates.
Other companies have seen their stock soar after being awarded contracts in China. Montagne & Neige Developpement SACA, a French company that develops ski resorts and cable transport systems, more than doubled in value on Feb. 16 after winning an 110 million-euro ($120 million) contract to develop a new site called Snowland, which is vying to host Olympic events in 2022. MND has almost tripled in value this year, making it the third-best performer on the 508-member CAC AllShares Index.
Skidata generated sales of 319 million Swiss francs ($322 million) last year, equating to about 30 percent of the revenue at Swiss security software maker Kudelski SA, which bought the Salzburg-based company in 2001. Shares of Kudelski are little changed this year after gaining 22 percent in 2016.
While the contracts Skidata is negotiating in China are typically only $3 million to $5 million in value, Rohner is in for the long haul. He has been running Skidata since 2012, 25 years after it introduced the first hands-free ski ticket in 1987. The company also builds turnstile systems for stadia and parking lots.
“China will not become larger than the Alps, not in the next 20 years,” said Rohner. “If they put enough resources into it and give it 50 years, maybe. You cannot create a ski culture of 200 million ski days in just a few years. ”