Corrugated City

Saturday, 21 July 2007

Valle Nevado

As i mentioned a while back, we got the little sis a day skiing for her birthday. Part of the reason was because I wanted to go skiiing. It's school holidays here in Chile so we're got the little sis staying with us for a few days. Yesterday was the big day-her first trip to a ski resort and the first time actually touching snow.

Unfortunately, because of my back-knack, i was unable to ski. This was really, really annoying. Hopefully in a couple of weeks i'll be able to go but yesterday wasn't worth the risk...

We were going to go to Portillo but when we phoned to ask for information we were attended by 3 of the most obnoxious and downright rude people ever to work in tourism. We decided, instead, to go to Valle Nevado. The staff there were much nicer on the phone.

Valle Nevado is about an hour from central Santiago or about 3 hours from Reñaca. We set off at 6am, avoided rush hour in Santiago and arrived, after a long and twisty climb to over 3000m, bang on 9am.

If you've skied in Europe then Valle Nevado is probably the equivalent of a small and backwards resort in Bulgaria. But more expensive. And with crap, overpriced food. It costs 39,000 pesos for a day pass, ski hire and a 2 hour group lesson. In Chile, that's really a lot of money. Actually, a 10 days pass at Valle Nevado is exactly the same price as in the 3 Valleys in France. That is simply absurd. The 3 Valleys is one of the best ski areas in the world with over 600km of runs and some incredibly good restaurants and spectacular apres-ski. Valle Nevado has about 2km (ok, i made that up) and an extremely poor cafeteria serving such culinary delights as Spinal Baps, chicken nuggets and soggy chips. Just look at the difference between Valle Nevado



and the 3 Valleys



It might explain why at least half the people there were wealthy Brazilians. Still, the snow was decent and it's about as good as you get in Chile and South America.

The girlf and little sis hadn't skied before and had a beginner's lesson in a large group. The instructor was actually pretty good and taught the basics well. He was Brazilian but spoke Spanish with exactly the same voice and inflection as the father speaks English in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Funny. I hung around and helped the girls with things. We then went for (the overpriced) crap lunch and then the girls went off to the scary world of ski lifts and slopes that were not virtually flat, like where the lesson was. I went back to car, put the seat flat and went to sleep in my -45c sleeping bag, all toasty and warm. Not the day i originally had in mind but it was cool to see the girlf and the little sis have fun.

Here are a few photos:

The sisters waiting for class to begin



Learning to ski...not particularly downhill but you've got to start somewhere



The pistes



11 comments:

Kellye said...

Hi Matt,
Probably should not have read this before my trip! I have skied in Courcheval a number of times. Not really a fair fight between Les Trois Vallees and almost anywhere else, except maybe Aspen and Vail. And the food alone is reason enough to ski in France. Anyway, any off piste skiing that you know of?

Matt said...

Hmmm, i know-it's a bit unfair to compare Courcheval and friends to anywhere else really, especially with some of the restaurants there, but the thing is that skiing in chile is as expensive as skiing in france which is something i find a little ridiculous.

off-piste skiing-i know there's heli skiing here in Chile but i don't know where's best for it...i think valle nevado has some but i can't be sure.

Olivier Travers said...

Yeah, but les Trois Vallées is also much busier. Even in big resorts you may end up waiting a long time so you don't necessarily make the best of a higher number of pistes, unless you stay from a week or more at a time. If you go to Chilean stations during the week, you have virtually no downtime.

It's not all about the pistes. Have you taken into account that heliski is forbidden in France? Are you aware that the dry snow in Chile is nicer than the icy crap you often end up with in France?

Considering the main capital expenses necessary to build up a ski resort are not manufactured locally but have to be imported from countries such as France, I don't see why it's surprising to end up paying similar prices. Qualified staff also often comes from abroad, taking their salary expectations along with them. We're not talking about selling local jugo de frambuesa.

(For the record, I'm French and I've been both to Meribel and El Colorado.)

Matt said...

It's true that there's probably less hanging around but even 3 Valleys out of school holidays is pretty quiet.

The thing is, Valle Nevado isn't worth such high prices. The infrastructure there is very poor when compared to European or good US and Canadian resorts. It's one thing importing the lifts etc from France but a ski resort isn't just about skiing, it's about the whole experience. The cafeteria is horribly foul. What does it take to put a half decent restaurant there? Valle Nevado doesn't offer value for money in the skiing nor the 'experience'.

And let's not forget that due to the ridiculously high prices, skiing is way out of reach to the average Chilean. The price should be in line with the local cost of living, not the cost of living in France.

Chilean friends with the same standard of living of friends in England never go skiing due to the high cost. The friends in England go every year. Sometimes twice.

Justin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Olivier Travers said...

>The price should be in line with the local cost of living

I think you missed half of my post. The cost structure is hardly dictated by local cost of living (again, foreign infrastructure and workforce), so if they don't want to go bankrupt that's not what they're going to use to calculate their pricing. If you build an oil rig off the shore of Chile, it's not going to cost a tenth of one in Norway waters, just because of some magic "hey it's the developing world" property.

Should the food be nicer? Sure, food at El Colorado was lousy too. I've also had dismal food in Les Deux Alpes in France, so ymmv everywhere.

It took forty years for French resorts to get where they are today, and they're now drawing from a huge customer base across all Europe. Ski wasn't nearly as accessible 20 years ago. It's going to take time for Chile and South America to catch up in terms of standards of living... Don't expect the critical mass that allows (relatively) low prices to happen overnight. If some schools take kids to ski trips then prices may go down eventually.

Here's a much bigger purchasing power problem in Chile: the price of gas. That for sure must be hurting "the average Chilean."

Matt said...

Olivier/Justin

You're completely correct when you say that skiing was pretty much inaccessible to the masses 20 odd years ago. And yes, a lot of the infrastructure needed to build a resort is imported at international prices but the fact remains that skiing is so far beyond the means of the average Chilean that the resorts will never attract the masses needed for the sport to become something normal people can do. They'll never be school ski trips by your average school because it's simply too expensive. It's beyond the means of most of the Chilean middle class. The resorts won't cover their initial investmet fast enough because they won't be able to attract enough people. Well over 50% of the skiers at Valle Nevado were Brazilian-what happens if there's a recession in Brazil and they stop coming? Where are the skiers going to come from then?

The cost of the hotels in Valle Nevado is absurd. And the food (yes, the food again) is ridiculous. No matter how much you insist the start-up costs justify a price that is out of reach of almost the entire population of a continent, 5000 pesos for a spinal bap, soggy chips and a can of coke in unacceptable. It's price gouging for the sake of price gouging.

Olivier Travers said...

Agreed that some of their pricing/quality decisions are silly. I'm not going to defend bad food (though the cafeteria is probably run by a separate company). This is something the market can sort out easily though. Personally I often have my camelbak for drinks and snacks purchased beforehand -- I'm not going to let a shoddy cafeteria stand between great snow and me!

I would expect though that, given the high capital outlay, the resort's business plan is based on long term assumptions, not amortization over five years. It takes a generation to build up the customer base to really make a ski resort work. Look at how long it took to "normalize" snowboard for instance. You just don't go from niche to mass market overnight with that kind of activity (people need to learn, buy gear, get their friends to come with them, etc.)

Given that there's not a high number of Chileans who know how to ski or have the desire to learn yet ("spending money to fall in cold snow, what kind of nonsense is that?"), it's sensible to start with high prices to maximize revenue off "early adopters" less sensitive to pricing. What you want to look at is whether prices will consistently go downwards (relative to purchasing power) over the years. If that doesn't happen (eg. no price breaks for schools), then you're right, they might be penny savvy but pound foolish by failing to grow their market. Seems to me the jury is still out.

When Apple launches its Iphone, they're "gouging" the first wave of customers who are simply willing to pay whatever silly price. It doesn' t mean they won't expand their market over time. It's how many "luxury goods" (as defined by economists) are introduced in the marketplace then turned into commodities with broader appeal.

(BTW the Justin thing was because I was logged with a different email account we use for work purposes. I'm really Olivier!)

Matt said...

Yeah, the early adopter thing is one way of looking at it but i honestly think they're going too far with the high prices. I think they might just put off many chileans for life. As i mentioned, if you take the Brazilians out of the equation, Valle Nevado would have been almost empty and i went on a Friday during school holidays-this means that they've priced too many locals out of the market. I just think the owners have taken too short a look at the investment and might pay for it in the longer term. After all, their main market is South Americans- and most South Americans don't have and will never have enough disposable income to spend on frivolous (albeit it mighty fun) activities like skiing.

Kellye said...

Now that I have been to Valle Nevado, I decided to come back and check the blog. Quite a debate going on! I don't really want to get involved but I will say this...Valle Nevado is sweet. There is something lovely and old fashioned about it. It is the most uncrowded place I have EVER skied. On the weekdays, it was quite common for us not to be able to see anyone else on the mountain. The snow was much better than I expected but you are right about the food....dreadful! I have had the dreadful food experience many times in US ski areas and I think it is only fairly recently that the ski areas in the US realized that they had to improve the quality of food. As far as the cost goes, it is probably about the same as a small local US resort (and the food may in fact be better!) But the UK must be very different from the States because skiing in the US has never been, and certainly is not now, a sport available to the middle class in any widespread way. One more interesting thing...when we rode the lift with the director of the area and discussed long range plans, among other things, he said that they expected that the majority of purchasers for all of the condos they intend to build would be chilean. Is there not a burgeoning upper middle class in chile?

Matt said...

I would expect that Valle Nevado will indeed sell most of the condos to local chileans but i'd hazard a guess and say they'll go to the already rich, who will then rent them to the burgeoning middle class at extortionate rates! Or they'll all be rented to Brazilian skiers. Poor Brazil-it's got everything a country needs to just be 100% self-sufficient in terms of holidays...except ski resorts...

it's interesting to hear that skiing isn't a widespread middle-class sport in the US. In Britain it certainly is these days. That's something that's come about mainly over the last 10-15 years. It's become like this most probably due to school skiing holidays-big groups=big group discounts, parents often included. Competition to attract the groups is strong so prices are reasonable. Then, once the family is hooked, off they go every year!

Anyway, i'm glad you enjoyed your time in VN and hope to see you back down this way again soon!