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Resort Planner Spencer Stanek discusses three projects thatdemostrate why an off-the-shelf approach to ski area design is an off-the-wall idea.

Pinning principal planner Spencer Stanek down for an interview is  as challenging as a mogul-infested last run of the day down Argentieres Pierre Ric. The first time we connect, hes boarding a flight to Japan. A week later heback in Colorado. And when we finally schedule some time to talk, he has ahour to spare before flying across the Atlantic to Norway with colleague, Mike Larson who as well as being founding principal of International Alpine Design, Inc (IAD) was once the internal resort planner for Vail Resorts.

Its been an especially busy few months for the two mountain resort experts, and things dont appear to be slowing down. As Stanek reels off a list of past projects  a veritable bucket-list of ski destinations in North America and Europe, with examples of work in China, Argentina, South Korea and even India he is keen to discuss three ongoing, contrasting projects (in Japan, Sweden and Denmark) that showcase his firms skillsets. These cover masterplanning and design, ski area and mountain planning, base area and village planning, community and residential planning and an increasingly important area for IAD and the industry in general four-season recreation planning. Its little wonder these guys are hard to pin down.

Driving forces

“Finding ways to improve and grow the sport we love is what drives us to find innovative, sustainable solutions for ski areas and mountain resorts around the world, begins Stanek, IAD’s managing director. “Things such as advances in lift technology, trail design, ability distribution, snowmaking, grooming and guest services, to name a fewhave broadened the accessibility to the mountains and have drastically improved resorts,” he suggests. Often, though, such design elements are careful and subtle not usually recognisable to the average eye  but intended to enhance the overall experience. “Lifts being aligned to stay out of the wind, beginner access routesconnecting all parts of the mountain,  unique trail and terrain offerings, safety enhancements the list goes on, says Stanek, offering some specific examples.

Big in Japan

Certainly the Master Development Plan (MDP) that IAD is working on for Kiroro Mountain Resort in Hokkaido, Japan, exemplifies IAD’s approach to its artform.

During the 2012/2013 season, Kiroro operated nine chairlifts: one six-person gondola; four four-person detachable chairlifts; four two-person fixed-grip chairlifts; and two surface ‘magic carpet’ lifts. With its 21-trail network covering roughly 115ha and an impressive 610m (2,001ft) of vertical descent, thats about enough to support around 6,000 skiers a day. “Our MDP shows them ways to improve and upgrade existing facilities – lifts, trails, guest services, amenities and brand and accommodation to meet modern visitor expectations and demands,” he says. “But its also about identifying achievable methods to expand the ski area facilities to grow the resort at a reasonable level and increase visitation in the future. Developing new ski-in/ski-out overnight accommodation was a must to balance the new growth and ultimately establish Kiroro as Japans premiere resort destination.”

The resorts existing lift system would see little change. Were recommending they lower (shorten) the upper terminal  of the existing Kiroro Gondola by around 900m to improve the reliability of the operation during bad weather or windy conditions and to enable improved beginner access off the top of the mountain,” reveals Stanek. Some of the infrastructure that is removed could even be used in the construction of the new connection between Kiroro Town and the Piano Hotel area and resort base. “These are the type of cost-saving opportunities were constantly looking for, he says.

Kiroro could set a new benchmark for off-piste and powder skiing

IAD has also advised Kiroros owners, Thai property developer Property Perfect, that there are opportunities to add four  or five major new ski lifts and several beginner training lifts. The Piano- Mountain Hotel Connection Gondola would have the most impact on the resort as it would immediately enable effective ski-in/ski-out access from the remote Piano Hotel and Kiroro Town area to the ski area base. “The resort capacity under this combined (existing and new) lift system would increase to around 11,200 skiers a day, Stanek enthuses.

As far as trail tweaks go, few alterations would be needed for Kiroro to continue operating at current levels. “Our plan balances new lift and terrain development with real-estate expansion,” he says. “At buildout, weve identified opportunities for roughly 4,000 new ski-in/ski-out beds in various product types and offerings at the resort.” Additionally, around the existing ski area, a variety of new trail segments  are factored in to improve circulation and utilisation in certain lift zones. Weve also pinpointed several areas for improvement to enhance the powder skiing experience,” Stanek continues. These and  other areas that might be identified in the future should, he feels, be established as a new paradigm in the currently challenging Japanese off-piste regulations. “Through a careful management plan and resort- run powder guide/instructor  program me, Kiroro could set a new benchmark for off-piste and powder skiing that is especially coveted in the Hokkaido region.” The biggest expansion areas will be in beginner and intermediate terrains – a classification that ideally supports the Japanese resorts vision to be a first choice for families and new skiers.

Pulling power

Attracting new guests is as much a goal  for Kiroro as it is for any resort and Stanek doesnt see this being any different in the future. However, successfully achieving it is another matter entirely. “You have to make the introductory experience as  accessible, convenient and affordable as possible, he advises. In Scandinavia, for instance, IAD is working closely with the Skistar family of resorts Åre, Sälen, Hemsedal, Trysil and Vemdalen to develop what Stanek regards as some of the worlds best beginner training facilities.

“The combination of a superior beginner experience with free skiing for children is a proven model, he stresses. “Moreover, rentals, lessons, childcare and meals are often combined with special lodging promotions. Packaging these promotions, adjusting pricing during low seasons and offering what I’d say is more of a ‘turnkey’ experience attracts families and gets kids interested in the sport.”

Stanek also cites the rental segment of the operation as being critical. “Continued effort to provide high-quality, modern, on-trend rental equipment that you can choose daily based on the conditions at  the time is a must to reduce the perceived  cost of entry to the sport of owning the equipment, he says. “High-quality guest service and personal interaction is one area that should be retained and improved and not allowed to fall to technology. Likewise, ski schools should also retain this level of guest service and customer interaction.”

Unique appeal

A rather different set of needs are guiding IAD’s MDP for Örndalen (Swedish for Eagle Valley). If given the environmental go-ahead which at the time of press was still up in the air the brand-new ski area will be located around 10km southeast of the town of Vemdalen and approximately 4km south of the existing resort of Björnrike, in central Sweden.

“Örndalen will have a one-of-a-kind resort model that creates a niche product rather than trying to be all things to all people a trait characteristic of most alpine ski centres,” Stanek points out.

The owner’s vision is to focus on a market where guests will be 55 and older. “One market study showed that there is a large +55 age group in Scandinavia, similar to the baby-boomers in the USA, whose top-rated priorities are to experience nature, be healthy and be active, Stanek reveals. Of course they’re also expected to live longer than previous generations, are generally more affluent  and willing to pay for a high-quality experience they feel caters to their needs. “Its a unique opportunity to design a resort around a specific market and vision,” he says. “But we always ensure the design and fundamentals are correct so that the resort can be viable over the long-term.

“Örndalen will have a one-of-a-kind resort model that creates a niche product rather than being all things to all people”

The mountain plan for Örndalen consists of approximately 100ha of skiable terrain in four major skiing zones. Weve proposed that this will be serviced by two detachable chairlifts, one fixed-grip chairlift and three secondary surface lifts (platter, T-bar or magic carpet), adds Stanek. An additional surface lift and the proposed gondola transportation lift will maximise the ski-in/ski-out potential of the real-estate development. “The lift and trail system will be capable of supporting approximately 3,700 skiers a day (on a design day) and up to 4,600 skiers a day on peak days, Stanek confirms.

Higher-capacity detachable chairlifts will be used where necessary to increase the efficiency of delivering skiers to the trails and reducing the number of lifts required. “This system is a cost-effective option that balances with the terrain it services. The trails will also be carefully designed to create connected trail spaces a technique that reduces the landscape and visual impacts while creating a new skiing experience typically not found in Sweden.

What these proposals for Örndalen and Kiroro prove is that there cannot be a single formula when it comes to resort design and planning. “We recognize and value that each project is unique and requires equally unique design solutions that respect and balance the specific needs of the client, guest, community and environment,” Stanek emphasises. Thats certainly the case with the much-publicised Amager Bakke project in Denmark (see Power slide sidebar). “Its a one-off were essentially bringing the mountain to the otherwise flat city of Copenhagen,” Stanek explains. “But if in any way it helps to convince young Danes to take up the sport, I’d say we achieved something extra special.”

With the hour up, the IAD man says he must fly literally to Norway. Were excited to be getting out in the field again,” he says. You get the impression Stanek would always rather be on skis halfway across the world than in his office! “While lots of good detailed work can be donoff a map, its hard to get the true essence of a place without seeing and feeling it.

On this paticular expedition they’ll be making stops at Hemsedal and Trysil to study everything from a new 4km-long ski trail to a surface lift that improves ski-in/ ski-out access to a new hotel. “Generally, we dont qualify a project on how large or small it is, he concludes. “Its amazing how often small changes and refinements provide the most meaningful impacts.”

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